Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Whose Side Are You On?

In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn wrote, “In such a world of conflict, a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners.”

Given the either/or option, it would seem like it should be easy to choose, but it isn’t. According to the World Council of Churches (WCC) report on World Military Expenditures, A Compilation of Data and Facts Related to Military Spending, Education and Health in 2004 world military expenditures reached the astronomical level of $1 trillion dollars. That came out to an average of $162 per person. The U.S. accounted for 47 percent of the total, earning recognition as the world’s foremost contributor to global military expenditures. It’s something to think about as we listen to elected politicians debate national debt, deficits and the need to cut spending.

Another WCC resource is the report Overcoming Violence: The Ecumenical Decade 2001-2010, available here The Decade had a number of goals, one of which was “to move peace-building from the periphery to the center of life.” That, too, seems like something that should be easy to do, but it isn’t. Authors of the Overcoming Violence report wonder if people have come to believe that militarism is a given. Do we believe that militarism and war are enduring realities we have to learn to live with and accept as facts of life? Given the “great debt/deficit debate” in the U.S. and the comparatively small debate about the relative merits of the “war on terror,” it seems it has become a fact of life here. It’s hard to reconcile spending almost half a trillion dollars on militarism and war with the argument that it wasn't intended.

I think that many people of faith would choose not be on the side of the executioner, but there are at least two things that make this a difficult choice. One reason is that we are locked into an ethic of realism. President Obama’s favorite theologian is Reinhold Niebuhr, a founder of Christian realism. Niebuhr did a lot of great things and he has a lot to teach us, but I am increasingly convinced that his concept of justice as a balance of power is not one of them. There are biblical and philosophical traditions that define justice as harmony and right relationships. I think we will all be safer and happier if we can move away from realism and toward right relationships. A second reason that helps to explain why we are stuck with a bad choice is that we are ignorant (to be blunt). We are not sufficiently aware of and committed to other choices. In the following three paragraphs I want to draw your attention to several opportunities you and I have not be on the side of the executioner.

R2P is a project that was formed 28 January 2009 by representatives of eight non-government organizations. R2P stands for “Responsibility to Protect.” Accordingly, the government’s threefold responsibility is to protect, react and rebuild. The WCC report Overcoming Violence says that violence accounts for 1.3 million deaths a year. One-half of these deaths are due to suicide, one-third are due to homicide, ten percent are due to war and acts of collective violence. In addition to R2P, the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) was formed in 1998. The Ecumenical Network on Small Arms (no website available) was created in 2001. The focus of the former agency is on making the connection between gender, women’s rights, small arms and violence. The focus of the latter is on passing legislation to control, reduce and remove small arms.

The Treaty of Pelindaba offers another chance to choose not to be on the side of the executioner. The treaty was signed in 1996 and came into effect with the 28th ratification on 15 July 2009. The treaty establishes a nuclear free zone in Africa. It was the first international treaty to establish a nuclear free zone. According to the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, today there are five nuclear free zones in the world covering more than 110 states. Forty-nine of the fifty-three members of the Organization of African Union have signed the treaty (including Libya). The treaty protocols invite the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Russia and the People’s Republic of China to agree to not use or test any nuclear explosive devises against any nation that is party to the treaty.

Another opportunity to choose not to be on the side of the executioner is join the 73,946 people who have signed the “Charter for Compassion,” which was initiated by Karen Armstrong on 12 November 2009. You can sign the charter here.

David P. Hansen

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