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Conflict, violence, and non-violence

20 September 2012

One of the issues that Father Michael Lapsley’s new book, launched recently, raises is the question of violence, non-violence and reconciliation. Just a few days after I read the book we had a discussion about conflict resolution in our parish, and so I’ve been thinking about it quite a lot.

Redeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to HealerRedeeming the Past: My Journey from Freedom Fighter to Healer by Michael Lapsley

In his book Father Michael describes how he was a pacifist, and then after coming to South Africa from his native New Zealand, he experienced a crisis of faith, and eventually he abandoned his pacifism, and joined the ANC and supported its armed struggle, and only returned to a ministry of reconciliation after South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994.

In my initial review of the book I mentioned that there was too much in it to write about in a single review, and that one of the effects, and indeed one of the objects of the book is to start a conversation, or a whole lot of conversations, so this is one of them.

In the book Fr Michael describes his conversion to the idea of the “just war”, or perhaps it could be called the “just revolution”.

Like Fr Michael, I became a pacifist in my late teens. In 1959 there was a debate between  between two Anglican parish youth groups, of the parishes of Orange Grove and Yeoville in Johannesburg, on the topic “Euthanasia should be officially condoned”. Most thought that it should not, and after the debate the parish priest, Fr Cyril Britton, said that he was a pacifist and a communist. A couple of years later Brother Roger, of the Community of the Resurrection, spoke at a rally of the Anglican Young People’s Association (AYPA) at Krugersdorp, where there were representatives of about 20 different parishes. He gave a question for group discussion — would a Christian be justified in fighting in a war? Eight out of nine people in the group I was in said yes, they would, if the war was to the glory of God. I argued that no war was to the glory of God.  It was the arguments they used in favour of militarism that pushed me in the direction of pacifism. I began reading about the Quakers, and when I saw an advertisement for the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship in an overseas magazine, I immediately wrote to them to ask for more information. Among the information they sent me was the interesting fact that three Anglican bishops in Southern Africa were card-carrying pacifists — Bishop Alpheus Zulu of Transkei, Bishop John Maund of Lesotho, and I think the third was the Bishop of Kimberley. I joined right away.

Michael Lapsley, having gone to Australia, joined an Anglican monastic order, the Society of the Sacred Mission (SSM), and was ordained, and was then sent by his order to South Africa, where he discovered that he had ceased to be a human being and had become a white man. He discovered that his life, like that of all South Africans, was determined by race, or skin colour, or, more specifically, “population group”, which determined where you could live, whom you could marry, where you could go and what you could do when you got there. It determined what school or university you could go to, what subjects you could study, and what jobs you could do. It determined what buses or trains you could travel on, and what door you could enter the station through, and more, much more.

The SSM in Durban were Anglican chaplains to students at three university campuses in Durban – one black, one white, and one Indian. One of the issues faced by white students was military conscription. Actually for most it wasn’t an issue at all. They just accepted it. All white males had to register for miliary service in the year they turned 17, and were liable to conscription for miliary service in the year they turned 18. In most cases they had to register when they were still at school. I did. But at the time that I did there was a ballot, and whether one actually did military service was the luck of the draw.

A friend of mine from the same church, the same age as me, was drawn. After leaving school in December, he went off to a military training camp for three months, after which he went to university with me. After that he had to go to another camp at the beginning of every year. As a full-time student he could have applied for deferment, and done his military training after graduation, but he decided it was better to “get it over with”, and so spent the next few years going to military camps every January. I didn’t. It was the luck of the draw.

And perhaps it was just as well, because at the age of 17 I hadn’t made up my mind about the Christian ethics of war. I might have gone, and succumbed to the militarist and racist indoctrination that army trainees were subjected to. Many did succumb to it, and the National Party government, realising the political advantages of this, abolished the ballot a few years later, and made military conscription for white males universal, and reduced the voting age from 21 to 18.

But some resisted. One army conscript got his introduction from the sergeant who told the rookies, “Now we are going to teach you how to shoot kaffirs.” He walked out. So I was told by the same Brother Roger who had got the youth at Krugersdorp to discuss the provocative question. He never told me what happened to the trainee, and when I met him a few years later (his name was Dave Tucker) I forgot to ask.

The National Party government did not like Fr Michael Lapsley’s influence on students, which threatened to undo all the work done by their indoctrination, and so, after three years in South Africa, he was deported. He went to Lesotho. And, as he puts it:

Over the course of the three years that I lived there, my conviction about what it meant to be a Christian gradually eroded and finally collapsed in the face of the shooting of innocent children. I began to realise that my understanding of the gospel did not take account of the sheer magnitude of evil. It was perhaps adequate to another time and place, but it had little to offer unarmed protestors facing a lethal barrage of bullets. As a result, I began more and more to question my pacifism. My faith had been my comfort in the midst of oppression. Now, I could no longer even depend on it, and, spiritually speaking, I felt the ground shifting under me…

I had gone to South Africa as a committed pacifist. I had refused high school military training in the face of peer pressure and the unspoken disapproval of my parents, and I thought my father was wrong to fight against Nazism in World War II. I regarded violence as the very antithesis of the gospel message of peace and love… So for me, pacifism was both a tactic and a principle of the gospel and I believed that non-violent methods were the only morally defensible way to deal with conflict…

As I preached non-violence to students, black and white, however, I began to notice that the apartheid state was extremely happy for me to tell black people that they shouldn’t use weapons to achieve their rights. Suggesting to white students that they shouldn’t go to the army, however, was another matter altogether. The conversation itself was illegal. So the state believed in non-violence for the oppressed but never hesitated to use violence to assert its own interests.

Back then, in the 1970s, most South African church leaders were weak and vacillating, and tied themselves up in moral and ethical knots.

In 1968 many of them supported the Message to the People of South Africa, a document that examined the ideology of apartheid theologically, and ripped it to shreds. Apartheid, according to the Message was worse than heresy; it was a pseudogospel. In 1970, however, when the World Council of Churches’ Programme to Combat Racism gave grants to liberation movements, the church leaders denounced that as well, on the grounds that some of the liberation movements concerned espoused and practised violence. They continued, however, to provide chaplains to the South African Defence Force (SADF), and did not urge the members of their churches to resist service in the SADF on the grounds that it, and the government that it served, espoused and practised violence.

What many South African church leaders then said, in effect, was that violence for a good cause can never be justified, but violence for an evil cause can be justified. That such a position was morally and logically untenable did not seem to occur to them. In that, they adopted the position of the state: that violence used by the oppressed to overthrow their oppressors was illegitimate, while violence by the oppressor against the oppressed was legitimate.

After arriving in Lesotho and joining the ANC Michael Lapsley writes:

One of my first acts was to write an article entitled ‘Christianity and the just war’ in Sechaba, the ANC journal published in Dar-es-Salaam. In it I articulated some of the arguments from a faith perspective for supporting the armed struggle. While there is no doubt that non-violence is the morally superior way and is the preferred option wherever possible, there is nevertheless a long history within the Christian tradition of just war theory. St Thomas Aqunas developed the theory, not as an attempt to bless war, but as an attempt to say, ‘If there is to be war, there still needs to be a form of morality.’ Just war theory providees a sort of checklist that must be exhausted in order to conclude that a war is permissible. In the Sechaba article, i took apart the theory point by point and demonstrated how in my view the liberation struggle met its criteria. I emphasised that just war theory was not created to make it easy to justify killing, but to the contrary it was to provide as many moral safeguards as possible and to make sure that war is used only as a last resort.

At that point, I suppose, I differ from Michael Lapsley, in theory, if not in practice.

To explain why, I need to backtrack to the 1960s, when I became a convinced pacifist in 1961. I was on the mailing list of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship (APF), and received their literature. I made contact with other groups with pacifist tendencies, such as the Catholic Worker in the USA. In South Africa I made contact with a saintly pacifist priest, Arthur Blaxall, who was the bosser-up of the local branch of the interdenominational Fellowship of Reconciliation.

In 1966 I went to the UK to study, and met members of the APF. I also became involved with the Christian Committee of 100, and took part in a small and embarrassingly ineffectual demo against the Vietnam War outside the American Embassy in London. I suggested that we sing a hymn, two verses of which read:

Thy kingdom come, O God
Thy rule O Christ begin
Break with thine iron rod
the tyranny of sin.

When comes the promised time
that war shall be no more
and lust, oppression, crime
shall flee thy face before.

I suggested it for the line about “war shall be no more”, which appealed to my pacifist sentiments, and, coming from South Africa, the reference to oppression put it in the category of oppressed and downtrodden people’s hymns, rather than boss-nation hymns.

But one of the other members objected to the first verse. “Break with Thine iron rod” suggested violence, and would therefore offend our principle of non-violence. It didn’t bother me, because I saw it as metaphorical — sin may be couching at the door, but it isn’t a human person with a right to life.

But it made me aware that many people saw pacifism in a kind of legalistic way, as a principle that one may not bend, or even an ideology. It was in fact part and parcel of the legalism of much Western theology, which is so concerned with “justification”. And that is just the other side of the coin from the notion of the “just war” and “justifiable homicide”.

I’ve already written about this at some length in another blog post on Pacifism, Orthodoxy and the “just war”, so I won’t say any more about it here.

There is one more thing I’d like to say here, though, and it is one that came up in our discussion on conflict resolution in our church last weekend — what is the place of compromise?

In some circumstances, perhaps, there is a place for compromise. At the moment there are miners on strike at Rustenburg over wage demands. The union leaders speak rather deprecatingly about wildcat strikes that shortcircuit the process of collective bargaining. But when the workers and the management get together (if they do, because they have been refusing to speak to each other) then the workers may demand a certain pay increase and the management maqy offer another one, and eventually they may compromise on something in between. Neither side gets exactly what they want, but they get something that they can live with. That is compromise, and it is an example of where compromise can be good.

But compromise is not always good.

To go back to South Africa of the 1970s, the World Council of Churches’ decision to give financial aid to liberation movements was a wake-up call to some South African Christians. They deprecated the WCC action, but realised that they had been coasting along and doing nothing.

The Anglican response was to set up a programme of “Human Relations and Reconciliation”, of which it was said:

We believe that this programme is a response to a crisis in faith. By this we mean that we recognise that the lives of individual Christians and the structures of the Church are so conformed to our apartheid society that we are unable to bear and effective witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. A radical reformation is urgently needed. This involves the recognition that if we take seriously the Programme of Human Relations and Reconciliation it will almost certainly mean, in the words of the Report of the Anglican Congress in Toronto in 1963, “the death of much that is familiar about our Churches now. It will mean radical change in our priorities. It means a willingness to forgo many desirable things in every church…”

Other denominations set up similar programmes, most of which were given names like “Justice and Reconciliation”.

This in itself is an example of compromise. Some wanted to emphasise Justice, others wanted to emphasise Reconciliation, and both sides gave good Christian reasons for doing so. So, as a compromise, such programmes often included both words.

But after such programmes were established, there were complaints. Each side complained that too much emphasis was given to the other. But the problem (which Michael Lapsley also mentioned in his book) was that people often did not discuss their hidden presuppositions.

A compromise in a wage dispute can bring about a reconciliation, of sorts, between workers and management. A compromise between people who have been fighting can bring about a reconciliation between them. But very often what the advocates of “reconciliation” wanted was a reconciliation between good and evil. But there can be no reconciliation without repentance. If a man beats his wife, then if they are to be reconciled, he must repent of beating his wife, confess that sin and forsake it.

If a government is oppressing its people, then it must repent of that and stop doing it. But many of the advocates of “reconciliation” in the 1970s and 1980s were saying, in effect, that the oppressed should be reconciled to their oppressors, who would go right on oppressing them.

There were two different political principles at stake: on the one hand a race oligarchy, and on the other non-racial democracy. They are by their very nature irreconcilable. Perhaps our present problems spring from the fact that we have compromised and tried to combine them, so what we have now is a non-racial oligarchy, or what may perhaps better be described as a plutocracy.

It is good for people at enmity to be reconciled to one another, and that is an important part of conflict resolution. But the conflict between good and evil cannot be resolved by compromise. It can only be resolved by repentance — turning away from evil and embracing what is good.

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