Teaching for Peace in a Time of Impending War

A presentation from the GTU’s panel discussion on February 19, 2003

by Rosemary Radford Ruether
Carpenter Professor of Feminist Theology at Graduate Theological Union/ Pacific School of Religion

The question that has been posed for our discussion this afternoon is “Teaching for peace in a time of impending war.” But this topic begs the question. With the present military and national security policy of the United States, is it possible to distinguish between a time of war and a time of peace? Although war might become more intense or less intense at particular periods, has the United States declared itself to be in a state of permanent war with a permanent war economy? The Bush administration chose to respond to 9/11 by declaring “war” on “terrorism;” that is, the global pursuit of terrorists, and the states that harbor them, through the full panoply of modern weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear bombs.

This is a questionable approach. Terrorists are by definition stateless groups that network in secretive cells across the globe. Our European allies, who have had much more experience with dealing with terrorism in their own borders than we have, assume that you deal with such groups by highly coordinated international police action. Such groups are criminals, not armies, and you deal with them through methods of criminal justice. You arrest suspects, you put them on trial, you seek to dry up their sources of funds, etc. You try to understand what motivates them and to ameliorate the injustices to which they appeal. Bombing them is like trying to rout cockroaches from your kitchen with a blow torch. You are likely to burn down the whole house. You are also likely to kill a lot of bystanders in the process, while never finding the particular culprits.

We have chosen the methods of warfare, using our high powered weapons against terrorists who hijacked airplanes with box cutters, for several reasons, most of which are counter-productive to the stated goals. Temperamentally, Americans seem to prefer large firepower to careful sleuthing, somehow imagining that the bigger the bang the better. Secondly, we already have a bloated war economy and to declare a permanent war is a way for the military to continue to justify the endless expansion of the military budget at the expense of all other social needs of our own citizens. Thirdly, the war on terrorism has been itself hijacked for the goals of American hegemonic world empire, at the expense of the social and ecological needs of the rest of the world.

Teaching in a time of war, particularly as U.S. Americans, is about teaching one another, students and faculty together, how to analyze and respond to this whole situation by which the United States has put itself on a permanent war footing against the wellbeing of its own citizens, against the wellbeing of the rest of humanity and the planet earth.

There are many aspects to such an exploration. We need to explore how the United States has shaped its identity from its beginnings through notions of exceptionalism, divine election and manifest destiny, making it imaginable to its leaders and people that we should be, not simply the policeman, but in some sense the apocalyptic avenging angels of the world, endlessly fighting hosts of demonic powers. Why does the rhetoric of a war of good against evil come so readily to our leaders' lips and find general acceptance among our population, while the rest of the world finds such national self-images absurd and frightening, moving more and more people around the people to see the United States, rather than the cells of terrorists, to be the bigger danger to the world. Where are our theologians, our church leaders and pastors in response to such apocalyptic rhetoric? Is it not the Christian churches, who are, after all, the source of such rhetoric, who ought to be a resource to help their people to question it, to recognize its fallacies?

Second, we need to explore, as a learning and teaching community, how the United States, since the 19th century Mexican-American and Spanish-American wars, but particularly since the Second World War, has used the rhetoric of promoting democracy, justice and peace to build colonial and neocolonial empire. Working through global extensions of our economic power, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and now the World Trade Organization, backed up by our vast military power that dwarfs that of all our allies, much less our enemies put together, we have claimed the right to appropriate the resources of the whole world for the benefit of a mostly U.S. and western elite, while preventing any challenge from alternative ways of development that might benefit the vast majority of people in more ecologically sustainable ways of development.

I need not review the sordid details of this history here. The record is well known to Third World people, but largely unknown to most U.S. Americans. We need to understand who we are, as we have actually behaved in the lives of Latin Americans, Asians, Africans, and peoples of the Middle East. We needs courses here by which students and faculty can learn this history, and sort out the actual workings of economic globalization as defined by the Bretton Woods institution. How many of us here understand devices such as TRIMs and TRIPs, Trade-related Investment Measures and Trade-related Intellectual Property laws by which the WTO flattens any efforts of Third World countries to protect their own resources for the development of their own peoples, while carving an open highway for corporate takeover of these resources? How has a world economic system been built by which 20% of the world owns 85% of the world's resources, leaving the other 80% sharing out the remaining 15%, with the poorest billion people in a state of direst misery? How do such realities penetrate the cozy niche in which we live here in Berkeley, California?

Some of us at the GTU might say that such study is not for a consortium of theological schools. We teach the religious traditions here, mostly Western Christian, with a passing nod to Eastern Orthodoxy, Judaism and Buddhism. Such study belongs to an American or world history department, a political science department, or an economics department in a university. Surely it is also the job of such departments in universities to explore such themes, and to prepare their students to understand the world they live in, its historical roots, its political and economic systems. But it is also the job of theological schools to do this, and they particularly can do it holistically, and not through the lens of a series of fragmented academic disciplines.

Theological schools are the place where we need to look at the big picture of our human reality. Despite post-modernist caveats, our job is to grapple with the grand narratives, the narratives of good and evil, sin and redemption, God's plan for human history and our responsibility to cooperate with it. This means we particularly need to understand, and help our constituencies in the churches understand, how such grand narratives are abused, how they are used to forward vast schemes of exploitative and destructive power, but also how a chastened understanding of them might be a way of creating some real peace, justice and planetary health. We cannot do that if we hole ourselves up in an religious ghetto, devoted to understanding pasts divorced from the present, theological symbols divorced from their embodiment in economic, political and military power relations.

To equip ourselves as those who train pastors, and those who will train pastors, we need to be engaged practical scholars who are able to read the signs of the times in our morning papers, in the pronouncements of political leaders, the budgetary proposals of governments and the designs of secretive committees of corporations, banks and world trade organizations. If that means we need to be global generalists, knowing something about many areas of world society that do not communicate with each other in most academic institutions, so be it. We can do nothing less if we are to have anything to say as people of faith and ethical concern to our society today.


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