When Elephants Fight

Thoughts of a Paraguayan on the dangers of a "religious" war

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There is a cable TV in the student social room of the lnstituto Biblico Asuncion campus in Paraguay. I had just came out of a busy editorial meeting of our local Christian newspaper Panorama Cristiano on that Sept. 11 morning. A colleague urged me to watch the news about an airplane accident in New York. At first, I didn’t give it much attention. But, after a few more hours, all of us realized that this “airplane accident” would have unsuspected international repercussions.

And soon it was clear, as an African saying states, ”When elephants fight, the grass takes the worst part.”

An old-fashioned religious war

The first war of the new millennium and the first international crisis of postmodernity is in fact an old-fashioned religious war. Constantianism and the dream of “Christendom” isn’t over, as the late author and theologian John H. Yoder warned us.

Islamic fundamentalism’s promotion of armed confrontation and suicide attacks is in line with some Koranic teaching and the practice of Muhammed, the founder of Islam. Islamic religion, even in its best moments, understood itself as a territorial religion with sacred places, dividing world geography basically into two camps: the house of Islam and the house of war, the latter belonging to Christian, Jewish and Hindu unbelievers.

Historically, Christian theology has considered Islam as “false religion” because of this “territorial power character” and its lack of divine salvation and a divine savior for sinners in favor of “unconditional surrender” to Islamic law.

I find it sad that once again in history a vast majority of western Christendom react in an “Islamic way” instead of choosing the “Jesus way.”

In the weeks following the attacks, one of the first things I noticed was the heavy war and religious language being used by the “international alliance against terror.” First, war language was used by U.S. officials and media—”targets” had been successfully hit, “missions” had been “accomplished” and the death of civilians, children and old folks were referred to as “collateral damage.” If the campaign was to “succeed,” said officials, the main Taliban and Al Qaeda leaders “must be killed.” President Bush’s slogan, ”Wanted: Dead or Alive,” set the stage for an old western movie, where the “good guys” fight and kill the “bad guys” and the “evil-doers.” Then the Southern Baptist camp together with many other Christians issued the statement that America has biblical authority to bomb terrorism in Afghanistan.

In December, the last Taliban of Kandahar surrendered and a spokesman considered “the world will be a better place without the Taliban.” He might be right in that human rights might be implemented in a broader sense—and that, of course, is something the church of Jesus always will applaud.

But the idea of religious war must be rejected categorically by the followers of Jesus. Even the Vatican—an old pioneer of crusades—reflects this. Contemporary spokesman Pope John Paul II says, “If we speak of religious wars, we can only talk about false religions.”

Finding the church’s role

The church of Jesus has had a hard time these days trying to find its role. Answers are not as easy as some Christians have proposed. To produce “biblical authority” in matters of war is very problematic, and assuming that bombing will assure peace has historically proven to be wrong in most cases.

While the church is not sure about its role, we do know one thing: the role of the church definitely is not that of a war adviser to those in power, telling presidents what to do. We might not have all the answers to international terrorism, but it’s clear that our role is to live out the message of the Kingdom of God. The church is a medium of God to act in history.

And, as Yoder puts it, “The medium is the message.” As we seek to find our role as the church and disciples of ]esus, there are several things we can consider:

Sacredness of life. Paradigms are changing rapidly, and the challenges of being a peace church and the duties of being Christian peacemakers change alongside. Today, the challenge for Christian testimony in public will be combining the search for justice with the search for peace.

As Anabaptist and Mennonite Brethren churches, we’ve done quite a bit of homework in face of the challenges of the twentieth century—the Selbstschutz (the “self-cleansing” of the Nazis), two world wars, the arms race and the Cold War being a few examples.

International terrorism and interreligious hostilities seem to be the peacemaker opportunities of the future. Many of our churches have had very little experiences in this area, but our brothers and sisters from Congo, Colombia, Peru and the former Soviet Union can teach us some lessons in this new field.

In this broken world, peace and justice will never be accomplished completely. It is because of this that I think the absolute sacredness of human life must even be placed above the search for justice and for peace. Terrorism, interreligious hostilities and the collapse of Just War theory because of the new armament technologies are new challenges. The sacredness of human life has been the same during the centuries.

Reading history. Every war and every major conflict is the result of a particular reading of history. The reading of history tells society who is right and who is wrong and which is the historic role a particular group has to assume.

Both sides in this war reflect their own reading. President Bush, according to his reading of history, understands his particular role of leading an international coalition against terrorism. And according to his historical role, he holds a confrontative position: “Those who are not with America are with the terrorists.” Bin Laden and Mulah Omar also have their particular reading of history which enables them to declare war on the non-Islamic world. Every reading of history leads to a particular view of the future—or, even better, our view of the future determines our reading of history and the particular role we have to play.

Therefore, it is important that the followers of Christ position themselves in the future of the cause of Jesus and try to find their role in the present from the way God sees history and from the place God has prepared for the future of his church.

Realistic view of humanity. During a recent study conference in Switzerland, representatives of the historic peace churches elaborated a five-thesis study paper on overcoming violence in the new decade. While sharing our views in Geneva with a theologian of the Faith and Life Commission of the World Council of Churches, he asked a question I cannot forget: “Do you have a realistic biblical view of man?”

Since the fall, violence seems to be an endemic evil of mankind. That means, on one hand, that we have to learn to live with violence, diminishing its destructive consequences until the Lord as King of Peace appears in his Second Coming and brings endurable peace. On the other hand, it means that mankind will only be able to overcome violence in as much as there is a transforming identification with Jesus through the “God of peace that keeps our minds and hearts in Jesus Christ” (Phil. 4:7).

Signs and wonders. The whole wave of “signs and wonders”—a popular movement focusing on miracles and the Holy Spirit in the 1980s—seems to have disappeared as a theological issue, making room for a spiritual warfare focus. But I believe that signs and wonders are still a good paradigm for Christian peacemaking. The church is only able to put up the “signs,” the biblical way of peace. But again and again, the Holy Spirit produces the “wonder,” that peace actually happens. People stop and take notice. In that sense, “signs and wonders” are a way the church gives testimony to the transforming power of the transcendent God.

Of course, the church will not automatically make out of this world a better place in history. But we do less so by bombing with “biblical authority” in already ruined Afghanistan, leaving the world “without Taliban.”

The way of the cross

The Lord has commanded us as his disciples to walk his way, to be faithful servants of peacemaking, to confront the endemic evil of violence with the way of the cross.

We should go this way out of a missionary motivation. When Michael Sattler was asked in 1527 to take up arms against the Turks, he refused. Through his rebaptism, he had broken already with the official reading of history. Therefore, he said, he preferred being killed by the Islamic-Turkish camp through the hands of “Christians” than participating in the killing of unsaved Turks, sending them to hell.

His testimony and his martyrdom were just a small “sign,” but it continues to make people wonder about the Christian alternative to violence that Jesus has handed over to his disciples.
 I recently got a letter from a former student and colleague, now a missionary in Pakistan who had to leave the country because of the Sept. 11 conflict. He writes, “In these days of tensions it is a real comfort to know that the Prince of Peace at the end will take over complete lordship. Till then it is our duty to be messengers and makers of peace, even though success is not always soon at hand.”

Alfred Neufeld held a doctorate in theology and was the dean of the Facultad de Teologia de la Universidad Evangelica del Paraguay (faculty of theology at the Evangelical University of Paraguay) when this essay was published in 2002. He died June 24, 2020. 


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