Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Just War or Passive Resistance?

I recently started reading a book called "The Essential Writings of Ghandi” at about the same time my family and I took a trip to Washington D.C. While we were there we visited the Holocaust Museum. I remember coming home that night and reading the next chapter in this book which was, coincidentally, about Gandhi’s view that Hitler could have been stopped through non-violent resistance. The horror of what I’d seen at the Holocaust Museum that morning was still fresh in my mind. I remember closing the book and shaking my head in disbelief. "How could Gandhi believe that non-violence could have stopped Hitler?" I wondered. It’s one thing to use non-violence to change the culture of a land, or to resist an unjust law, but Hitler’s regime seems so much more evil than any of that. If people weren’t moved to lay down their weapons when they saw thousands of Jewish women and children being starved to death, or shot in the head, or burned alive in massive ovens, then how could they possibly be moved by a show of solidarity and determination to resist evil to the point of death?

Over the last few months I believe I’ve come to some better understanding of what Gandhi meant, and also what a Christian non-violent response could have accomplished against Hitler’s schemes.

Obviously what I'm going to share is complete supposition. At best, I am only thinking out loud and inviting you to consider these thoughts along with me.

What I wonder is what an organized, non-violent response to Hitler might have accomplished. What if, from the beginning, the Jews and others in Germany had collectively refused to cooperate with the injustices imposed upon them and said, "You can kill us, but we will not wear the Gold Stars. We will not comply with your racist and oppressive rules and laws." What would have happened? Would it have made any difference?

As we consider this, let me remind you that non-violence and passive resistance don't emphasize passivity. On the contrary, it requires great courage and it involves laying one's life on the line to oppose injustice. In other words, many people would probably have still died in the battle. But, it would have been a battle where only one side was the aggressor and the other side was a unified force that refused to go along with even the tiniest injustice imposed against people – regardless of their own race or creed.

What was missing from this equation was someone like MLK, or Gandhi, or an inspired follower of Jesus who would lead the way. What was required was someone who had an influence on the people, someone with a voice who could inspire the people to agree together that they would not stand for the racist laws, and that they would not comply in even the smallest way with the unjust policies imposed upon them or others.

Not to place the blame on the victims, but history shows us that, without such an inspiring leader to point the way, the Jews did what everyone else would do in such a case – they mostly went along with what was asked of them by their Government. They were good citizens who believed that what was asked of them was something temporary, or inconvenient. None of them had any idea just how deadly and malevolent the process would eventually become.

Certainly some did resist the unjust laws and policies, but those individuals were quickly killed or arrested to set an example to any others who might attempt to resist. Those who watched these people being arrested or killed probably wondered if it was worth the price they had to pay in order to resist. However, it’s theoretically possible that, as in the case of MLK, or Gandhi, if everyone together collectively agreed to resist - even to the point of death - and regardless of how many of them were arrested or put to death, we might have seen a vastly different outcome.

Of course, we do not know this for sure. I understand that. I do.

Simply acquiescing to evil is not the same as passively resisting it. As Gandhi famously said, (and I’m paraphrasing) "I will lay down my life to oppose injustice and evil. But I will not kill anyone." So, our commitment has to be to die for what is right - to fight - but not to do violence or to kill anyone in the process.

As a follower of Christ, I'm skeptical about whether or not anyone other than a follower of Jesus can ever actually do this. It’s not that I believe Christians are more loving or self-sacrificing. It’s more that I’m skeptical of any human ability to lay down their life for strangers. I'm not sure I believe that anyone, apart from the indwelling love of Christ, is capable of loving their enemies enough to lay down their lives and die to themselves, and for one another, in such a way. For example, those who followed Martin Luther King, Jr. did so because they were followers of Christ, primarily. Those who marched were largely church members. Those who resisted to the point of shedding their own blood were Christians. And, of course, they were African-Americans. They were the oppressed.

Even Gandhi, I believe, had a basic faith in Christ that informed his own passion for justice and inspired a willingness to follow Jesus' example of overcoming evil with good, even to the point of death.

As an aside, Gandhi read the Sermon on the Mount every day and wrote as much about Jesus in his writings as any modern Christian author does. I wonder, what do you call someone who reads the words of Jesus every day and puts his teachings on love and forgiveness and service and self-sacrifice into practice? Regardless of whether or not Gandhi would have called himself a Christian (and he wouldn't have), I personally feel that he was a better follower of Jesus than I am at times, and perhaps a better follower of Jesus than most American Christians.

Maybe I’m wrong about this, however. Again, this is all supposition anyway. But, maybe with the right inspiration and an organized non-violent strategy the Jews could have successfully stopped Hitler in the earliest stages and the Holocaust could have been avoided. Or not.

Still, my mind goes back to the images of the death camps. I see again in my memory the heart breaking despair and unbelievable inhumanity expressed under the Nazi regime and I find it hard to accept that anyone or anything could have stopped this evil, short of assassination or war.

But, was this war - the only viable candidate for anything near to what could be referred to as a “Just War” – truly just? Was it truly the best possible solution to answer this atrocity?

Above all other wars in human history, World War Two alone stands as the primary (if only) example of what a Just War could look like. Laying aside for a moment whether or not you believe that a Just War is even possible, let's look at the fruit of this “Just War.” What did it produce, other than the eventual end of Nazi Germany?

*The development of nuclear weapons
*The death of 80k people in Hiroshima
*Another 60k dead due to radiation poisoning
*73k killed in Nagasaki
*Another 70k after that due to radiation
*50 plus years of Cold War escalation as nuclear weapons proliferated between the US and Soviet Russia
*A total of over 70 million fatalities

Let’s remember that America did not enter the war in order to stop Hitler. We knew all about what Hitler was doing to his people and to neighboring nations and we did nothing. In fact, if it were not for the fact that Japan dared to bomb Pearl Harbor we would never have considered entering the war at all. So, if we are honest, we only entered the war when it was about defending our own pride, not because the lives of others were at stake.

World War Two was the deadliest conflict in human history. It brought about millions of deaths. It created the atomic monster that continues to plague our world and threatens still to blow up the planet ten times over.

Is that what a "Just War" looks like? Is this - the best of all possible wars - really something we hope to emulate again?

Whether or not the war against Hitler was justified, the costs were enormous, and it should cause us to rethink the idea of war and to become desperate to find peaceful means to resolving future conflicts.

As followers of Jesus - the Prince of Peace - we need to become experts in peace. We must take seriously the promise of Jesus when he said, "Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall inherit the Earth."

Are we peacemakers? If not, are we really followers of Jesus?



Anonymous said...


A very thoughtful piece of writing. I appreciated it very much. I am deeply interested in the past especially events like WWII among others. During those events, some men and women stand out because of something they have done or didn't do.

You cannot help but wonder could something more have been done to stop Hitler, so many churches co-operated with his regime.

But not all, there were men like Bonhoffer who attempted to do something...

Thanks Keith.

Ross Rohde said...


I am struck by one of you last statements, "As followers of Jesus - the Prince of Peace - we need to become experts in peace." I find it sad that currently in the US it is often the Christians who are banging the drums of war the loudest and justifying what is becoming more and more clear wasn't all that justifiable. We need to become experts of peace, not the gullible ones who "repeat after me" when the politicians begin to use hate, fear and anger to manipulate us to be something that fundamentally we should not be.

Eli Chitaka said...

Its brave to ask questions like this, but its necessary because WWII is often used to shut down conversation.
Unfortunately the 'war on terror' has shown once again the lengths empire will goto to preserve its way of life and extend control. I think if we lived simply and more inclusively we would have less to hold onto and protect from threats real or imagined.
That said to lay down our lives truly takes christ as you said.