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Toward a Christian Response to the Crisis in Libya

Peace requires justice. Justice requires law. Law requires government. Not only within nations, but also between nations. – William Penn, 1693 (As paraphrased by Paulette Meier in Timeless Quaker Wisdom)

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. … But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. – Romans 13:1, 4

Along with millions of others around the world, I have watched with great sadness and outrage as peaceful demonstrations in Libya have been brutally suppressed by the autocratic regime of Muammar Gaddafi. Out of the brutality of Gaddafi’s security forces has emerged what is probably best described as a civil war, with Muammar GaddafiGaddafi’s strongholds in the west of Libya squaring off with rebels, primarily in the eastern half of the country.

As the atrocious behavior of the reigning government in Libya has escalated, many around the world have called for military action to halt the violence and assist the rebels in removing Gaddafi from power. On the twelfth of March, the Arab League approved a resolution calling for a no-fly zone over Libya. According to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, this caused a “sea change” in international opinion. Yesterday evening, the United Nations Security Council joined the Arab league, voting to impose a no-fly zone over Libya.

As crushing violence continues across Libya, many have written in favor of a no-fly zone, while many others have opposed it for a variety of reasons. Both sides have rational bases for their positions, but I have not yet been exposed to a conversation about this crisis from a Christian perspective – particularly not from a perspective that holds war-making to be contrary to the Spirit and teachings of Christ.

I have sought such a perspective, because I am deeply concerned about the situation in Libya, and as a citizen of the United States I am – in at least a very small degree – a shareholder in the most Gaddafi's forcespowerful military apparatus the world has ever known. As a citizen of this democratic state, I also theoretically have a small amount of authority in determining how this military force is – or is not – employed. In short, as a citizen, I feel a responsibility to to give broad guidance to my elected representatives in the hope that they will direct our military forces to act with wisdom and justice.

As a disciple of the Crucified Savior, I am skeptical of the very idea of military intervention. If I had my way, I would like to see the military budget entirely eliminated. I believe that Christ would be more glorified by a nation dedicated to peace-making and humanitarian efforts rather than the accumulation of military might and imperial ambitions. The very fact that we have a military force ready to project US power in North Africa does not reflect my highest ideals as a Christian citizen of the United States.

Nevertheless, those forces are there. They are equipped and prepared for most USS Theodore Roosevelteventualities, and they stand ready for orders from the president. A president who, at least in theory, is in some small measure answerable to me. As a Christian who believes that it is important to participate fully in our democratic society, this presents a great dilemma. I am opposed to the very existence of our military structures and hardware, yet I am responsible in some degree for their use (or non-use).

In my search for a Christian response to this crisis, I went where I often go when I need to become better informed on an issue: Friends Committee on National Legislation. FCNL is the Quaker lobby on Capitol Hill, and by and large they represent my values.Friends Committee on National Legislation I can normally expect them to provide me with a well-informed, spiritually grounded and compassionate analysis of a given issue. In this particular case, however, I was disappointed. The statement that FCNL issued on their official blog amounted to little more than shrilly repeating their slogan, “war is not the answer.” The author of the post seemed to reason that the use of force is universally wrong and that the United States has no authority to use its military might to impose order in other countries. To impose a no-fly zone would be to “attack Libya,” pure and simple.

I do not think it is that simple. Most Christians I know – many of whom are Quakers – reject violence on general principle. Nevertheless, almost all of them still recognize the legitimacy of an armed police force in our cities and towns. While this might not be the method we would prefer to maintain an ordered society, most of us see armed law enforcement as a sad necessity. Even if we ourselves do not feel it is right to personally carry weapons and enforce order through the threat (or use) of violence, most of us would call the police if we felt threatened.

And yet, for many of us who are willing to lean on the violence of the police for our own protection, there is a reticence to take this logic to its international conclusion. Is international policing F16 Fighter Jetspossible? If so, it would look a lot like war – just like intra-national police forces often look a lot like military units when they fight against organized crime. Where is the line between the legitimate authority of law-enforcement and the illegitimate use of violence by the state? I do not feel like we have a clear sense of this as Christians in the pacifist tradition.

I know that there are some Christians who do not believe that it is our role to involve ourselves in the political process. I also recognize that there are some Christians who truly are ready to die – and watch their neighbors die – before calling on armed authorities to impose order by force. This essay is not directed at these brothers and sisters.

At present, I write primarily to the majority of us who do feel called to engage in the political process. We feel responsible for the decisions of our policy-makers, and we are willing to avail ourselves of the sword that the governing authorities wield, even if we do not feel clear to wield it ourselves. How are we to weigh these issues?

It is not enough to simply say that we are against war. First, I believe we must get clear on what we actually believe constitutes “war,” as opposed to a legitimate police function on the international level. I also believe that, if we are to oppose the use of force, we have a responsibility to propose – and demonstrate – alternative solutions to violent intervention. If we cannot offer such solutions, how can we reasonably deny the imperfect means of others who desire to halt the bloodbath in North Africa?

  • Robin Vestal

    I appreciate your post. I’ve been struggling with this whole situation in Libya. I do believe that as Christians we are firmly called to a nonviolent response in our witness. If we were a Christian nation (which we are not) then our witness could be accepting and protecting refugees, helping with nonviolent resistance etc. In the world as it is and with world expectations of our country as a promoter of democracy and freedom should we intervene to prevent slaughter? I am torn….

  • I hope thee is willing to work toward articulating these responses, and I expect other Quakers will help thee. It could be the inspriation that the FCNL needs to make a stronger response. We will hold this in prayer. Let the Holy Spirit and our discernment as Christians work on this.

  • FCNL has traditionally taken the position that police actions are legitimate and has time after time supported military intervention in countries by international forces under UN or other appropriate international body control. It has sometimes actively lobbied for such intervention. This position has been one of its most controversial among Friends, many of whom take the pacifist position. FCNL has always responded to these concerns by stating that Quakers are not historically pacifist, but rather the testimony is against war per se.

    So it makes sense that the FCNL statement (which I think you unfairly denigrated) focuses on the practicalities. Basically (while not breaking it down clearly this way) FCNL is saying 1) the action goes beyond what “police actions” traditionally do and crosses the line into war, and 2) the action will lead to bad results. I think they are “on target” in both areas.

    There is some rhetoric in the statement implying that FCNL opposes violence per se, which has never been its position. So that may be misleading. But that is not the main thrust of the statement.

    What are the limits of a police action is a difficult question. I don’t see any sharp line between police action and war. It looks more like a continuum to me. I have always been more skeptical of military intervention as police action than FCNL has been.

    However, police actions (excluding here the Korean War, which is often stated to have been a UN police action) are generally stabilization measures, and the actual engagement of hostilities is usually limited to defense of the “police” forces. They have not traditionally involved active military engagement on one side of a conflict on behalf of another. While the UN resolution is not worded as doing that, there is no doubt that this is what is actually happening under its guise.

  • I wanted to comment about the fact that the US in fact opted to use a blitz attack on Libya. This is not a peace testimony, it is war and FCNL should recognize this fact. The US spent more on this attack then is needed to fund PBS, Planned Patenthood, & other federal programs. We would be farther ahead by offering nonviolent solutions then by using weapons.

  • @Robin I, too, am torn by this entire situation, and I think it is good for those of us who are wrestling to confess our lack of clarity. We know that God has a will for this, and every, situation. I pray that we might see how we can best live into the peaceable kingdom that Christ is revealing and bringing to fruition.

    @Magdalena I do feel like I want to be part of a wrestling towards articulating a modern Friends understanding of the nature of war, peace and the legitimacy of the state’s authority to use violence. At this point in time, Friends in many places seem to be locked into an ideological commitment to a strange sort of absolutist pacifism. I hope that we can break out of rigid intellectual positions and open ourselves to the way that the Spirit is calling us as Friends, and as a wider Church, today.

    @Bill That’s very interesting; I didn’t realize that FCNL had taken that position in the past.

    I hope I didn’t unfairly denigrate FCNL’s position. If I did, it was a fault in my understanding of their position. I respect FCNL greatly, and I want to work with them to articulate a Spirit-led response to violence and oppression – whether perpetrated by individuals, gangs or governments.

    I think that you’re right that military intervention in Libya (now underway) will have unintended negative consequences. I don’t know how to measure how this weighs against the negative consequences of non-intervention. I am the first to acknowledge that this is a complicated situation. The one thing I hope we do not do is to fall into unreflective ideological positions rather than truly wrestling with the ambiguity and difficulty of these realities.

    @Azure I think you’re a bit confused. FCNL has come out in opposition of intervention in Libya. So, they seem to agree with your position.

  • “Policing” is what empires often call their minor wars. I doubt the distinction you make is useful for several reasons:

    #1 – Inconsistency. We don’t police every place that meets the reasons we say Libya needs policing. Why not Bahrain or Yemen? Why not Rwanda in the 90’s? Why not the Sudan? These places are all in very similar situations to Libya in some cases much worse. I submit that the reason for going into Libya is not for Libya’s sake but to do with economic and security interests of the policing states.

    #2 – Methods. You cannot police with missiles. If police surrounded a bank with robbers inside they would not shoot the place up on day 1 or even day 20. They would negotiate. They would cut off exits and put pressure on the robbers. They would ascertain the situation of hostages and do everything they could to avoid collateral damage. Even if deciding to take direct action with a swat team they would try to apprehend rather than kill suspects. They would not use cruise missiles. Even on an international scale, if this is police work, we should see a legal framework in place that allows us to hold the police accountable. You can’t shoot the wrong person without consequences. You can’t shoot first and ask questions later. You have to show probable cause. You have to have a warrant to go in someone’s home. You have to make arrests following proper procedure and send them to the courts for a fair trial. None of these kinds of things are evident analogously in the Libya situation.

    This is long enough for now. Thanks for trying to think these things through.