Faith / Justice / Politics

War, peace and protests

A former student of mine, Andrew Paine, has been blogging about his recent experiences protesting against the Australian military in North Queensland:

Andrew has become what might be labelled a radical disciple of Jesus. Describing his faith he notes “This is why despite everything I’m still proud to call myself a Christian. Because the incarnation of Jesus, and his message of a kingdom where power and wealth are rejected for love and service; where the weak and broken are lifted up; is still completely radical and counter-cultural. In a world so broken and so unjust; and I include in this the trouble I have in my own life trying to live out this kingdom; the message of Jesus gives me hope.” From what I can gather in following his Facebook profile he has taken to squatting in St Michael’s College at Sydney Uni – a vacant building and by the Catholic Church – in protest against a lack of affordable housing, the high rate of homelessness and unjust “capitalist” systems of property ownership (see news story here). He recalls his recent experience of activism against war, “It was a pretty busy couple of weeks, full of demonstrations, blockading roads (getting arrested), trespassing on US military property (getting arrested again), court cases (my own and my friends), peace concerts, vigils and marches, talking to locals about war, trying (and occasionally succeeding) to talk to soldiers about war, doing media duties, facing the wrath of people with opposing viewpoints both”.

Andrew (“Mudgee” as I used to know him) is a great guy and in many ways his lifestyle presents a challenge to the unthinking passive faith of too many of us Christians. But while I don’t want to be one of those spewing “wrath” against his heartfelt convictions, I do not think I can endorse his current approach. I will leave aside his analysis of capitalism for the present (an economics degree biases me in any event), and concern myself with his active pacifism. My difficulty is twofold.

First, he seems to presume that the military is simply about unfettered violence – “those guns are for killing people and nothing else.” This is extremely simplistic. There is such a thing as a just war – the wielding of the sword for Justice – and to deny this (those guns are just for killing) is to allow evil regimes their victories. It is Thomas Aquinas who first sets out the principles of just war, grounding them in principles of virtue ethics. At the least a just war requires legitimate authority, a just cause, a right intention, proportionality, a reasonable hope of success and it must be a last resort. These are complex principles that require explanation beyond what is possible in this brief blog. It is true, however, that a strong case can be made that some of the current wars Australia is engaged in do not meet these just war principles: is there legitimate authority in Iraq when the UN did not endorse the invasion (but is the UN, with all its foibles, a place of meaningful authority)? Is the ’cause’ and ‘intention’ for going to war the protection of Western oil interests (or is it justice for the Kurds who had experienced the genocide under Saddam Hussein or the liberation for those oppressed by the Taliban in Afghanistan)? Is a military response proportional when our weapons so greatly outweigh the opposition’s (or does this military superiority facilitate proportionality)? Was there a reasonable hope of success when war seems to be interminable (or did the military might of the West imply the likelihood of success)? Was there other ways of confronting injustice (or were oppressive regimes likely to resist calls to change other than those at the end of the sword)? And beyond all of these questions, having gone to war (since we cannot go back in time), it is not as simple as saying “take our troops home.” To leave now might well create a power vacuum that would be very unlikely to bring the peace that we all hope for. All of this to note that the ethics of war are complex, and it is a complexity that the sort of direct action undertaken by Andrew does not and cannot address.

Okay, so we disagree on the theory of war – pacifism versus the possibility of a just war. In fact, this disagreement might not be as massive as one might assume, since I would like to be a pacifist (if I could) and generally I am not an advocate of American military aggression, nor of Australian support therein. But my second and more serious difficulty with Andrew’s action is the discourtesy it displays to our service people and their families. To join the army and fight for one’s country involves a certain fortitude or courage, apparent when a soldier risks harm to themselves, even death, for the sake of the defence of their community and for what they believe to be a just cause. Fortitude is one of the four cardinal virtues (the principal virtues upon which other virtues depend). A courageous person does not seek danger for dangers sake but nor do they remain passive in the face of injustice and the threat of death. Instead, they stand firm, rising above fear, for the sake of others. So while Andrew has faced the wrath of those with opposing views (as well as a police force and a court case) the people he pickets face death. He was especially concerned about the family opening day for a three-week event of military training. He was shattered by “the spectacle of war being promoted as a fun family activity, with camouflage face paint and kids sitting in the driver’s seat of a tank”. What this misses is the fact that this event enables families to appreciate something of the experience of their loved one – yes, even to celebrate their achievements: the virtue of their courage in travelling away from their families and friends at the command of their parliament.

Whether any particular battle is “just” is beside the point. These people do not deserve protests and pickets, and so it is not surprising that Andrew and his “comrades” (his term) were subject to abuse. If there are concerns about the wars currently being waged, these are better directed at our parliamentarians. As I write this post Micah challenge is gathering in Canberra for the Voices for Justice 2011 gathering (see here). This involves “hundreds of passionate advocates in Canberra for four days of action, to call for MORE and BETTER aid – Using their voice to ensure environmental sustainability for the poor and to help save the lives of thousands of women and children in the world’s poorest communities.” It is a legal protest properly aimed, targeting our politicians who decide where and how to spend our government’s budget. And precisely because it is legal and properly organised and, most importantly of all, civilly conducted, it is more effective – or at least more likely to be effective then trouble making at military family days and training exercises.

Andrew, let me say again that I applaud your passion and conviction. I am challenged about my own passivity. But perhaps in reflecting on your own experiences you might also have something to learn from the more deliberate wisdom of groups like voices for Justice. In any event, as you might remember me saying to end my class, “go in peace.”

About Author

Shane is an ethicist and theologian, Honorary Associate for the Centre of Disability Research and Policy, the University of Sydney, and Assistant Director, Policy, at the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation against People with Disability. Shane is proudly disabled, and an occasional blogger on

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