Our Peace President (the Nobel Prize, remember) has a war to sell. It’s an old war, of course, now in its ninth year, so it will have to be re-packaged and re-purposed. But with his considerable powers of persuasion, President Obama will try to convince the American people of the necessity of sending thousands more troops to Afghanistan.
He’ll have his work cut out for him since polls show that support for both conflicts — Afghanistan and Iraq — has dramatically declined. Americans are weary of war. Not appalled or aggrieved by it, necessarily; not dumbfounded or embarrassed or heartbroken. Just tired.
For almost a decade now, as men, women, and children — civilians and combatants alike — have lost their lives, their livelihoods, their limbs, their minds (seen the military suicide statistics lately?), the American public has lost its appetite for war and for the astounding costs it always exacts. But, really, we’ve never been particularly good at paying deep, sustained attention to things that matter. (Tiger Woods and his unfortunate incident with a car, a golf club, and an angry wife — yes, that will captivate us ad infinitum).
Because the command to “support the troops” has become a sacred charge no one is allowed to challenge, we have reneged on our responsibility to call into question the policies that continue to put young people in harm’s way. Most Americans are bereft of the skills to critically engage the deepest perplexities of war (and the criteria that might justify an armed conflict) or, if I’m being uncharitable, seem uninterested in using them.
The aim of war is not peace but victory. And any victory won by violence, as Wendell Berry has noted, “necessarily justifies the violence that won it and leads to further violence.” An increase in troops in Afghanistan probably won’t lead to victory and it surely won’t result in peace. “What leads to peace,” says Berry, “is not violence but peaceableness.” Yet peaceableness doesn’t seem to be on the table. It sounds like weakness, after all; like meekness, passivity, resignation.
In the season of Advent it’s easy for Christians to be seduced by similarly false notions of peace and peaceableness. In our rush to get to the nativity scene of our liking — the sweet baby in the manger, Mary meek and mild — we ignore the Advent texts that speak of “refining fire,” “mountains and hills made low,” “rough ways made smooth.”
The peace made possible by the advent of Christ is not meekness, passivity, resignation. It is not niceness, good manners, or going along to get along. It is, rather, fullness of life, wholeness and well-being for all, the shalom of God.
Yet this peace is not accomplished through coercion or force but through “the violence of love.” The refining fire, the fuller’s soap — these compelling images from one of the Advent texts — point to the transformation that such radical love brings.
The marks of violence that will wound and scar Jesus’ body are not visible on the baby in the feeding trough, but always in the shadow of the creche is the cross. And the cross is the refusal to meet violence with violence; it is the undoing of death and of all our death-dealing ways.
To those who say that to practice peaceableness in places like Afghanistan (to enact formal, financed policies of building friendships and schools, of supporting farmers and women) is laughable naivete, let the record be made plain of what a near-decade of bloody retaliation has wrought in the mountains, villages, and towns of the world’s poorest of the poor.
And let those who pray, “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” refuse complicity with such calculated misery.