The Moral Imagination

Note: I write from a North American perspective, specifically from the United States.

The questions we ask greatly determine the answers we find. Therefore, I believe Christian peacemakers need to be intentional about the questions we prioritize. Which of the following questions are productive, distracting, dangerous, or beyond our sphere of influence?

  • What should the Ukrainian government do to ensure the integrity of its borders?
  • What should the Iraqi government do to protect religious minorities?
  • What should Hamas and Israel do to enable peace and security in the region?
  • What should the US military do in Iraq and Syria to protect US interests?
  • What should the US government do around the world to protect minorities and stop genocides?
  • What should Christians do in situations of violence and injustice?
  • How can Christians live, work and serve in ways that promote true peace?

For me, the final two questions are the most critical; however, judging from the conversations I have within my Christian social circles as well as the content that appears on my Facebook wall-feed, they are the most ignored.

I occasionally hear this comment in the context of the first five questions: We have to do something. Unfortunately, it seems that for too many of us, the military option is the only something that comes to mind.

It can be difficult to voice reservations about this option. “Don’t you care?! You just want to be pious and righteous, ignoring the reality of evil injustice. You can’t just talk to these tyrants; they only understand the bullet and the bomb.”

While I genuinely believe that nonviolence is a productive strategy for people of any world view or religious conviction, I will direct my thoughts here to Christians, specifically Adventists.

First, I think we need to be careful about believing too firmly in the efficacy of violence. Blowback is real. Unintended consequences are numerous. For example, the US supported Saddam Hussein against Iran, but then for various reasons it was determined that his influence in the world needed to be curtailed, so the US took him out. That left a power vacuum, allowing ISIS/IS to expand, which is today’s problem. Arming one group today seems to require the arming of an opposing group tomorrow.

We also supported rebels/freedom fighters in Syria, with some calling for much more military support. “The government is killing their people; we must do something.” Now we know that IS was one of the groups in Syria that we supported; some even had a photo op with John McCain during his trip to Syria (Counter Current News). Of course McCain didn’t intend to support IS, but rushing to the military option can lead to new problems such as this.

Or consider the US involvement in Afghanistan. We supported the freedom fighters against Russia. But then the winners built a nation we didn’t like; so we had to go against the ones we had armed. The cycle of violence—the repeated reality that military intervention creates tomorrow’s conflicts—should make a person pause, regardless of whether or not they claim to follow the way of Jesus Christ. That is, setting Christian ethics and values aside, this historical pattern should seemingly diminish our confidence in the effectiveness of military intervention for creating the future we desire (For more on this see chapter one of Subverting Global Myths, Ramachandra, 2008; yes, a bit dated. There are many more examples both current and historical.).

Second, I think we need to take more seriously the injustice-violence cycle. I once came across a statement by Quakers that essentially said, “Don’t ask us to engage in a violent solution to the Nazi problem when you ignored our counsel all along that the Versailles Treaty was bound to foster such problems.” Similarly, throughout the “War on Terror,” some of us have argued that US actions—drone strikes, indefinite detention in Guantanamo, extraordinary rendition, the torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib, to name a few—act to make recruitment efforts by terrorist organizations all the more effective. Peace activists are not surprised by IS and other radicalized movements; we have been warning about the possibility all along. Naturally, it is not only the acts of the US military that incubate movements like IS; governments in the Middle East are quite capable of stoking it as well. Acts of injustice today—regardless of the actor—create conditions for violence tomorrow.

Third, I think far too many people have failed to develop what John Paul Lederach calls the moral imagination (see The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace, 2005). And here I now speak directly to those who desire to follow Jesus in the real world—this messy, violent, unjust world.

If we can’t imagine a response other than military action, then that is the only something we’ll advocate for in the public space or work for in our sphere of influence. So I ask: What else can Christians do to limit violence and promote a just peace? I believe that any action that supports justice today makes peace possible tomorrow. “If you want peace, work for justice.” There are countless ways to support justice in the world; let your imagination run wild!

Here are some questions to spark your imagination:

If I would go to the Middle East to fight violently for justice, would I go and work nonviolently with a development and relief agency? Consider MCC (positions, story).

If I would advocate for America’s youth to go fight in the Middle East, would I also advocate for Adventist youth to go on a delegation there with Christian Peacemaker Teams?

If I would advocate for American tax dollars to go for military operations, would I also advocate for church finances to support peace and justice ministries and projects?

Do I consider the promotion of peace and justice to be the business of government but not the business of the church? If so, what assumptions is this division based on?

What injustice is some entity in my circle of influence perpetrating or experiencing today? How can I work to promote justice in this area today in order to prevent violence tomorrow?

One significant struggle peacemakers face is the call for instant results. We need to stop the Syrian war now. We have to end the Ukrainian conflict now. We must stop Hamas and Israel from bombing each other now. Somebody has to stop IS now. Because military intervention is perceived as the only effective short-term approach, we too easily ignore the need for longer-term approaches that deal with the roots of the problems. As soon as Country X is “solved,” we must immediately stop the violence in Country Y with another “humanitarian intervention.” We follow the media, jumping from headline to headline, from conflict to conflict—solve each one now (and “my party would never have let it get this bad in the first place”). As Christians, maybe we can find a way to slow down and look at the longer game. Kevin Courtney, who founded Preemptive Love while living in Iraq, shares this conviction:

We need a long-term plan, not just a short-term fix. There are agencies helping Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen, Shabak and others, and those services are necessary. But this isn’t only about what Obama or Maliki must do now. The Christian church needs to reconsider its relationship with violence; that is part of what has landed us and others in this dire situation. We cannot carp about Christian persecution and not talk about violence and our use of violent solutions. We need a 40- to 50-year plan so that when the time comes to overthrow the next dictator, we are not as blind to our own complicity and stuck with short-term gains. (Huffington Post, 11 Aug 2014)

The questions we ask greatly determine the answers we find, so I encourage Adventist peacemakers to start with the question, What can I uniquely do as a disciple of Jesus? Jesus isn’t caught off guard by these violent developments. He said the love of most would grow cold and that there would be wars and rumors of wars. Peace organizations can’t stop all war, but wars don’t end war either. Only Jesus’ return will do that. But here in the midst of great suffering and evil, Jesus blessed the peacemakers and taught many lessons on peacemaking if we have ears to hear them. The world knows how to use its weapons; do we know how to use the tools of the Spirit? What questions am I prioritizing?

A few articles to nurture the moral imagination: