by Sister Joan Chittister
Excerpted from Becoming Fully Human: The Greatest Glory of God (2005) with permission of Sheed and Ward.
The Tao Te Ching, the ancient Chinese manual on the art of living, reads:
Weapons are the tools of fear... a decent person will avoid them except in the direst necessity and, if compelled, will use them only with the utmost restraint ....Our enemies are not demons but human beings like ourselves. The decent person doesn't wish them personal harm. Nor do they rejoice in victory. How could we rejoice in victory and delight in the slaughter of people? Enter a battle gravely, with sorrow and with great compassion, as if attending a funeral. (c. 550 B.C.E.)
The problem is not a new one. Over seven centuries ago, people began to recognize that war was an attack on the innocent by the ruthless for the sake of the privileged. They wanted it stopped. And if that was an unrealistic goal, given the thirst for power in the human condition and the absence of any overarching negotiating bodies, they at least wanted it regulated. They wanted the innocent protected. After all, the people were not fighting their neighbors. They wanted the defenseless made secure. After all, war meant that armies were to fight armies, not civilians. So they turned to the church, which, by threat of eternal punishment, might be able to bring sense to chaos. They popularized and developed the just war theory, first articulated by Augustine, and for a while it seemed to make sense. But over time everything has changed: the nature of the world, the nature of war, the nature of weapons, and the nature of nations themselves.
Adults seem to have a problem understanding such things. Children see it clearly: Some second-graders asked their teacher what was going on between the United States and the place called Iraq. So the teacher said, "Well, think of it this way: Somebody in your neighborhood has a gun in her house. All the neighbors are afraid of it, and they go to Margaret, the owner of the gun, to ask her if she'll get rid of it. "And Margaret said yes, she would. But after a while, the people began to doubt that Margaret had really thrown the gun away. So they went to see her again and asked her if she still had the gun. And she said yes, she did. "So they told her that the fact that she had a gun made them afraid, so she had to get rid of it. "But Margaret said no, she wouldn't because it was her house and her gun. "So all the neighbors went back to their own houses, got out their own guns, pointed them at Margaret, and shouted that they would shoot if she didn't throw her gun away. "Then a child in the room spoke up and said, "Teacher, that is a really dumb story. It doesn't make any sense." Right. When is war "just," or is war .already obsolete now?
"You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake," Jeannette Rankin wrote. But we go on trying. Why? What exactly is to be gained? The powerful stay in power. The innocent are expelled from their homes. Children grow up with fear and hatred in their hearts. Who wins what?
For war to be just, the first criterion is that it must only be waged in the face of "real and certain danger." So when did we start waging war "just in case"?
"All war is insane," Madeleine L'Engle wrote. Killing doesn't stop killing. It just gives the world a new reason to do it called "vengeance." In the meantime, the poor get poorer and the strong get stronger. Nothing really changes.
After years of Nintendo and shopping mall video arcades, Americans know that no one bleeds and no one gets hurt in war. In fact, we teach our children to love it. Or, as Ellen Glasgow said, "The worst thing about war is that so many people enjoy it."
War is not what happens in the military. It is what happens in the hearts of the rest of us who applaud it. Marianne Moore, the poet, wrote, "There never was a war that was / not inward; I must / fight till I have conquered in myself what / causes war.