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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Cheap peace activism and costly pacifism

[I wrote this post before Christmas but didn't publish it, partly because I had ideas for extending it which didn't materialize, and partly because I felt uncomfortable about launching this attack on the CPT four while their lives were on the line and securing their release was the top priority. Now, with three released by British troops and one pitilessly murdered by their captors, comment can and should be free.]

We wait to learn the fate of the four Christian peace activists taken hostage in Iraq. The website of their organization, Christian Peacemaker Teams says ‘We pray that those who hold them will be merciful and that they will be released soon’. There will be few Christians who will not wish to add their voices to this prayer.

I stand in awe of these men’s dedication and courage. At the same time I am saddened to see that once again brave and principled individuals are caught up in a cause that is morally dishonest and cowardly.

Here is how the CPT site goes on:-

‘We are angry because what has happened to our teammates is the result of the actions of the U.S. and U.K. governments due to the illegal attack on Iraq and the continuing occupation and oppression of its people. Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) has worked for the rights of Iraqi prisoners who have been illegally detained and abused by the U.S. government. We were the first people to publicly denounce the torture of Iraqi people at the hands of U.S. forces, long before the western media admitted what was happening at Abu Ghraib. We are some of the few internationals left in Iraq who are telling the truth about what is happening to the Iraqi people We hope that we can continue to do this work and we pray for the speedy release of our beloved teammates.’

Fellow Christians, I am angry because even in this crisis you continue to deny the truth. What has happened to your teammates is the direct result of the actions of people who oppress the people of Iraq by inflicting mass murder on them on a practically daily basis. Make whatever criticisms you like of the US and UK governments. In not a few cases I will agree with you. But none of them remove the responsibility of those who are holding your friends and threatening to kill them.

It is a basic, inescapable truth of the war in Iraq that ordinary people are suffering at the hands of all sides. As Christians we cannot refuse to acknowledge this, whatever view we take of the rights and wrongs of the conflict. All the innocent victims of the war need our prayers for mercy, not just the ones whose victimhood fits neatly into your political worldview or mine. Your friends must take their place not just alongside the abused prisoners of Abu Ghraib but also those daily facing the risk of being blown up on a bus, or while doing their shopping at a market, or while saying their prayers at their mosque. If we pick and choose in our prayers for mercy, we have ceased to pray as Christians. All the victims challenge us to encounter Christ in them, to respond to the truth that they are made in the image of God and precious in his sight.

By the same token all those who take up the sword must be held accountable for what they freely choose to do. The call for mercy must be addressed to them all. But I find it hard to escape the conclusion that this is precisely not what CPT do. And because you do not do it, one thing that can be said about you is that you are not pacifists, whatever you may think yourselves to be.

Pacifism is a noble Christian calling. As exemplified by the Quaker tradition, it involves a readiness to ‘speak truth to power’, whatever the consequences. By ‘power’ must be understood all those who have the power to take life and use it. As countless martyrdoms testify, this is a way of the Cross. The pacifist lives by the forbearance of those who live by the sword, or dies by its absence. He or she bears witness against violence per se, not just against violence in a bad cause, in the belief that violence debases and corrupts even the best of causes. He knows that the greater the violence, the greater the cost of his witness.

In contrast it looks as if CPT activists went to Iraq hoping that the organization’s track record of criticizing the US and Israel whilst remaining silent over Islamist/Baathist violence would serve as a calling card that would protect them from the attentions of the insurgents. Certainly this has been the line of argument adopted by anti-war campaigners pleading for their release, as in the letter to the Guardian signed by Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein et al, or the statement from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. And it must be said that this position is morally contemptible. You say CPT’s mission is to ‘get in the way’ – but only in the way of one side, and in Iraq as in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, it is the side that is least likely to react by getting you out of the way with the assistance of bullets. US and UK troops, like their Israeli counterparts, have to answer to democratic societies with a free press and an independent judiciary. That is not true of Islamic Jihad and it is not true of ‘Swords of Truth’. The misfortune of the four hostages has been that, whereas Palestinian militant groups are media-savvy enough to welcome the presence of westerners acting in effect as unarmed auxiliaries for their own armed struggle, the Iraqi insurgency’s strategy rests on violence and violence alone.

Having experienced for themselves just how indiscriminate and unscrupulous the violence of the insurgency is, did the four plead for mercy on behalf of all its innocent victims? Or, deciding that discretion is the better part of valour, did they continue trying to convince their captors that they were on their side? That would be entirely understandable, but it would underline how totally false were the premises on which they chose to go to Iraq.


Anonymous said...

Very well written. Did you send it to them?

Cyrus said...

I must admit it didn't occur to me to send it to them, Ilana. Perhaps I should have done, but I can't see them taking a lot of notice.