Sunday, April 09, 2006

"How can you be a UU and kill people?"

a girl in my YRUU group asked. We were making brownies for a bake sale and the subject of the discussion was UUs in the military.

"Well," I said, bearing in mind that this girl goes to a quaker school, "A UU in the military could probably give you a more reasonable answer than I can, and I am trying to arrange it so one can come here and talk to the group. But as far as I know, most people are OK with the police having to kill people every now and again when those people are trying to kill them or trying to hurt somebody else. At this point, our soldiers in Iraq aren't fighting another army, they are trying to keep order and trying to keep Iraq from breaking out into a civil war. I really don't think they are killing anybody they don't strictly feel they have to. As far as I can tell, at this point they are more or less the cops. Like the cops, sometimes they don't behave as they should, but I don't doubt that any UUs over there are doing the best they can to be just and reasonable in a difficult situation."

My little soliloquy wasn't enough of an explanation, I know, but it seemed to satisfy her for the moment and the conversation moved on to other things, most notably the similarity between Quaker values and UU values. (Swoon! Why can't teaching RE ALWAYS be like that??)

I've been thinking a lot about the UUs and violence issue. There is a part of my brain that cries out for structure, and that part loves the idea of being able to say that violence is against my religion.

But in the end, I can't believe it.

TheCSO and I have had a lot of talks about the Christian Peacemaker Teams recently. He has strong objections to them, likening them to skiers who knowingly go onto a dangerous mountain then endanger rescuers when the inevitable avalanche occurs. Admittedly, the CPT was less than gracious upon being rescued, putting out a press release describing their members in glowing terms and not bothering to mention the soldiers who had rescued them. (Note that the press release says the prisoners were "released" Yeah, they were "released" when a bunch of British, American and Iraqi soldiers showed up on the doorstep of the place where they were being held. I think most of us would say they were "rescued" and I do agree with the CPT's critics that the CPT was quite uncharitable there.) After much, much negative media reaction, they did issue a statement thanking the soldiers.

What makes the issue even muddier is that these folks were only released when an insurgent who was being interrogated by the Americans gave up the address of the place where they were being held. And I think we all know what "interrogated by the Americans" means these days.

To have been saved by violence, or at least soldiers, puts these advocates of nonviolence in an almost impossible Public Relations position. Given that they had specifically requested not to be rescued, I'm not sure any statement could have remained true to their principles yet had the proper tone.

((FWIW, here's an interesting (and far more sympathetic) essay on the CPT folks from Canada. ))

I've been giving a lot of thought to the proposed study action issue.

I'm torn, and not the least by the fact that all that's being debated right now is whether we should study and discuss the thing. I'm usually a great fan of studying and discussing things, at least in the beginning. In junior high school, I played Stephen Hopkins in 1776 and greatly relished being able to say "Well, in all my years I ain't never heard, seen nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn't be talked about. Hell yeah! I'm for debating anything. Rhode Island says yea!" every night.

My observation is that the UUA only puts out two kinds of statements, vague and intolerable. The proposed study action issue is of the first sort, asking the reader to examine the issue of violence from many perspectives*. It includes mildly annoying political ideas about identifying the forms of intervention we will support that if accepted I am certian will result in many long-winded, statements about what President Whoever believes on behalf of all the member congregations, as well as hasty assurances that we will listen to all points of view and more philosophical questions like "What are the hallmarks of peaceful cultures?" and "What role do human physiology and psychology play in the perpetuation of violence?"

But I'm pretty certian the meat of the question is "Should we become a peace church?," or as the tentative study action issue puts it, "Should we, the Unitarian Universalist Association and member congregations, reject violence in any form?"

I really think we overstate our case when we talk about becoming a peace church. Quite arguably, this war was unjust. But just wars do happen, and I don't think we should shrink from fighting them. The study action issue states "Our principles are models for peacemaking yet we act as if violence is more effective than nonviolence in certain situations." I don't see the contradiction in that. Maslow's statement that when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail seems relevant here. If violence is our hammer, not every problem can be most effectively solved by violence, but some problems are nails. Sometimes, something is threatened that it is worth using violence to defend.

Besides, that "violence cannot solve problems" is a belief, and last I checked we weren't supposed to be in the business of telling our members what to believe. That's one reason why I so disliked the "tell the YRUUers how to come off as consciencious objectors" portion of the anti-recruitment YRUU class I attended. I love those guys and would be devestated if any of them died in a war, but "here's how to appear to be a consciencious objector so you can get out of getting drafted" is not the same lesson as asking them whether they have a fundamental objection to war in the first place.

I am especially suspicious of the statement that we will "Honor and support the challenges of military and law enforcement personnel and their families." I don't think I have to remind regular readers that we aren't doing so hot at that right now, and I assume things would only get worse as we got on a peace crusade. Conformity on this issue is leading to enough unpleasantness for military and veteran UUs already. As a peace church we would face many of the same problems the Christian Peacemakers are facing in trying to resolve these contradictions, except that our problems would be within our own churches as police officers and members of the armed forces found that their careers were now against their religion because a vote of GA said so.

We aren't the Quakers, the Witnesses or the Mennonites. This isn't our tradition. It could be our new tradition, but I worry that it wouldn't reflect who we are, but what we're fearing right now.

Pacifists will say that if every church were a peace church "The baptized Catholic leader of Nazi Germany, Adolph Hitler, would have been raised within a progressive peace church by a strong pacifist Catholic mother who would have nurtured and loved and protected little Adolph from the cruelty of his father and the cruelty of his society." That particular pacifist goes on to say that if only the churches were pacifist, the (as far as I know non-religious) Columbine shooters would have been well-adjusted, too.

This is an extreme, but I don't think completely unrealistic example of the sort of thinking that worries me. One who assumes that if US troops left Iraq today, then tomorrow the Iraqis would govern themselves in peaceful anarchy and everything in the region would be much improved without the police-type protection the troops are providing is also among the sweetly delusional.

Katy-the-Wise once preached that sentimentality was one of the seven deadly sins, defining it as "overvaluing something for reasons not of fact but of desire." She provided the quite UU-palatable example of parental notification laws for abortions. These laws are written with the idea that every set of parents will be warm and wise and understanding with only the good of their children at heart. The reality that some pregnant girls fear getting beaten or thrown out of the house is ignored for not fitting into the view of reality that the conservatives who write these laws have chosen.

It seems apposite to me to categorize our desire to be a peace church, along with my desire to have violence be against my religion, as falling within the sin of sentimentality.


* Though if we do accept it, one of the first suggested actions is "Advocate for peacemaking initiatives at all levels of government." That's what UUism needs. More lobbying. Because what we're doing has been such a terribly effective use of our time.


PeaceBang said...

GREAT post. You've put so much thought into it. Would that all of us put that much thought into it. I'm afraid that the GA-nistas will do the typical far-left knee jerk thing and say, "OF COURSE we have to oppose violence in every form."
My kingdom for a nuanced discussion.

But as you say, these proclamations from us are remarkably effective and do a lot to change the world, and even our congregations. *sigh*

Anonymous said...

Given that, as a UU, you can invent your own theology, can't you just say, "Violence is against my religion" and mean the one you made up yourself?
While I agree with you that sometimes violence is the only workable solution to a problem, it is also true that there are often much better solutions than violence. We should seek to try the non-violent ones first. Ok, you said that. Are you saying a resolution saying that would be too vague?

fausto said...

At the age of your Quaker-school pupil I went to an Episcopal school (presumably, the one just down the street from the Quaker one, in fact). The Vietnam War was on. The Piskies don't have a "peace witness" like the Quakers', but the school minister and the Dean of the cathedral were willing to certify the application of any graduating high school student for conscientious objector status on religious grounds.

When I got to high school, my AP US History teacher was a Quaker. She was very scornful of the Quaker C.O.s who used the "peace witness" to avoid service in WWII. According to her, there are times when you have to be realistic and understand that in the face of aggressive militant evil, merely witnessing for peace is not an effective response. (If I remember correctly what she said, about half of all Quakers who were called up did serve in the military in WWII.) She was equally adamant, however, that Vietnam was an unjust war and that the peace witness was appropriate in that case.

What I learned from these two experiences is that no set of abstract moral principles can be rigidly and uniformly applied to all circumstances, especially when the very survival of an entire society or nation or people hangs in the balance as it often does in time of war.

Later, I learned that in Christian theology there is an extensive body of thought on the question of "just war". We may not be nearly as familiar with it today as our ancestors were, or as we are with more recent expressions of UU principles, but this body of thought is as much a part of our UU heritage as as Ralph Waldo Emerson or Susan B. Anthony or King John Sigismund are. Indeed, Robert Gould Shaw, played by Matthew Broderick in the film "Glory", enlisted and died a Civil War hero because of his devotion to Unitarian religious principles. Before we go off half-cocked on a warm fuzzy "all peace all the time" magical mystery tour, perhaps we should do some homework and bone up on the traditions we already have.

Anonymous said...

As a youth that if a draft happens (which it prolly won't), it might be sketchy for me to get C.O. status based solely on religious grounds. I'm all for something that would make it known that a majority of the UUA opposes violence.
And wait until GA to see what happens. I'm actually intrigued. They say (well, no they don't, but they should) "GA isn't over until the Youth Caucus presents (YAs too)".

Chalicechick said...


You can get C.O. status on religious grounds, but it will require more work from you. Now is probably the time to start writing letters to newspapers stating that the war is morally wrong. Write letters to friends and join peace action groups, etc. Lots of info on how to do this is available on the internet.

If you do have a religious objection to war, I have no objection to you seeking C.O. status. I disagree, however, with the logic that we should start making creedlike statements about violence just to make it easier to protect our young men.


alkali said...

Further to fausto's comment, I note that the first chaplain of the U.S. Army, Joseph Thaxter, was wounded at Bunker Hill. I am informed that Thaxter was "unofficially" Unitarian (it is my understanding that one could be "out" as a Unitarian in varying degrees at the time).

Anonymous said...

CC: Thanks for the great post. I'm a UU pacifist, but I'm against this GA resolution. This resolution would alter our fundamental covenant with each other in ways I find troubling... more below.

Bart: When they brought back registration for Selective Service in the late 70's, we were all sure that there was going to be a draft -- so as a pacifist UU youth, I registered with the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, and I had long conversations with my UU minister about my objections to violence so that we could establish my moral and religious objections to war (he also helped me clarify my thoughts about war theologically). I never had to put it to the test, but you might consider doing something like this now.

Kim: Actually, as a UU, you can't just invent your own theology (after all, not even James Luther Adams invented his own theology, he built on the work of others!). Nor do you get to just pick any theology you want. As a UU, you are required by the covenants of our religious communities to engage in mutual theological dialogue with others, and you are required to listen carefully to what they have to say about your theological journey (and vice versa). And there are quite a few people who find their theology no longer fits in with the wider covenant, and they leave UUism. This is exactly why this GA resolution is so important: it would fundamentally change our basic covenant with each other, and it would probably require individuals (and even congregations) to feel compelled, in all good conscience, to leave our covenant.

One last little snarky comment about this whole issue: If I wanted to join a peace church, I'd go join the Quakers who have been doing this for practically four centuries, not some Johnny-come-lately hop-on-the-bandwagon newly-invented UU peace church.

--Dan Harper