How does your life help to remove the causes of war?

"How does your life help to remove the causes of war?" is a popular bumper sticker. Is this just moralistic bromide--or does it really mean something?

Featured Responses

  • Yes. Study, study, study... Nat Hentoff

    Often among the causes of war - on both sides - is the inability of large numbers of people to think independently, clearly, and critically. As a result, highly toxic plagues of fear of "the others," virulent bigotry, and susceptibility to conspiracy theories nurtured by governments can create destruction and deaths.

    For over sixty years, I have been a reporter, focusing on education and civil liberties. Challenged by this question for the panel, I begin with two statements that have increasingly driven my work (which is my life).

    With regard to education, I have written books and many stories about specific ways of teaching in schools around the country, but years ago, while interviewing schools chancellor Tony Alvarado in New York City, I realized what was crucially missing in most efforts to "reform" the schools.

    The reading scores had just come in and were markedly higher than usual, but Alvarado was glum. I asked him why.

    "Oh, they can read," he said, "but I'm not so sure they know how to think. That's where teaching has to go."

    A second illumination on how I could be more useful at my lifelong work was when I was researching a New Yorker magazine profile of Justice William Brennan.

    In his chambers at the Supreme Court, Justice Brennan suddenly looked unusually troubled. "How," he said more to himself than to me, "can we get the words of the Bill of Rights off the page and into the lives of students?"

    Back then, I began to connect the vital priorities of the schools chancellor and the justice. In education, the reliance on mass testing - for tests to measure the success of whole classes and even schools and sometimes close them down as failures - has increased exponentially with the No Child Left Behind mandate. Arne Duncan, President Obama's secretary of education, is continuing collective testing.

    The differences among individual students in their capacities and diverse obstacles for learning get far too little attention, if any, in some schools. Accordingly, I search out and report on those principals and teachers who work to make each student believe he or she can learn. Some are in charter schools or in some regular public schools, and my next book, Is This America? will have sizeable sections on nurturing the self-confidence in individual students that they can be - and are desirous of being - lifelong learners.

    From this adventurous sense of the rewards of reading and exploring interests beyond school assignments come critical thinkers. And such citizens are much less likely to be swept up in the fears, bigotries, and conspiracy theories that lead to war.

    As for Justice William Brennan's concern that Americans know why they are Americans - with their individual liberties and rights underlined in the Constitution - he strongly advised me that day, knowing I was on the way to rural Pennsylvania to speak of the Bill of Rights to high school students:

    "Tell them stories about who we are and were!"

    I had already been doing that, but spurred on by Justice Brennan, I did more to bring our history back to life. Once, at a book fair in Miami where authors had to work for their publicity, I was assigned to speak about my book Living the Bill of Rights (University of California Press) to a large audience of high school students.

    Just before I began a teacher advised me, "Don't be upset at the limited reaction. These kids are mostly interested in music and clothes."

    For more than an hour, I told them how Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty - though not having access to anything like the Internet - created the Committee of Correspondence to spread word throughout the colonies of abuses of their inherent rights by the British officers here and by the king of England. I added that Thomas Jefferson believed that Samuel Adams thereby had been a precipitating cause of the American Revolution.

    I also told them stories of what had been done to people speaking from their consciences against government censors before we were protected by the First Amendment - along with why individual privacy is essential to a truly democratic government, and is guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. Or should be.

    And at the end of my talk, I received a standing ovation - not because of my oratory, but because the students had discovered America!

    Listening to those stories, I knew, would inspire them to learn more about our history and what it has taken, and still does, to keep the Constitution, very much including the Bill of Rights, our shield against government overreaching into our individual rights.

    American citizens aware of how war and fear of war threaten our personal as well as national independence - as did the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts, President Woodrow Wilson's suspension of the First Amendment in World War I, and the Japanese-American internment camps here during World War II - will be far less easily led to support unjustified wars.

    I have also written widely, as a reporter, on a particularly important warning by retiring Supreme Court justice David Souter at the Georgetown Law Center in May of 2009.

    The republic, he said, "can be lost and will be lost if it is not understood." He showed surveys demonstrating how large numbers of Americans can't even name the three branches of government, let alone the core necessity of keeping the separation of powers functioning.

    And I have found other chilling pools of ignorance when I have spoken not only at middle schools and high schools but also at classes in graduate schools. How many Americans do you think can list the five freedoms of the First Amendment? Can you?

    In his farewell address, David Souter, soon to return to Weare, New Hampshire, said he had already agreed to be part of a committee engaged in revamping the civics curriculum in New Hampshire's public schools.

    "If I can do it," he told the audience, "you can do it too."

    "What is needed," he emphasized, is nothing less than "the restoration of the self-identity of the American people."

    That means our self-identities as Americans who as free citizens think for themselves and think critically.

    The words alone of the First Amendment, for example, are not enough. As Erich Fromm reminded us in his book Escape from Freedom:

    "The right to express our thoughts means something only if we are able to have thoughts of our own."

    What I do for a living as a writer is to spread the words about those educators who are enabling Americans to, as Henry David Thoreau put it, "listen to their own drum." They are then less likely to be attracted to the drums of war.

    Veteran columnist Nat Hentoff is an expert on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. His new book At the Jazz Band Ball: Sixty Years on the Jazz Scene (University of California Press) is scheduled for publication in June.




  • Yes, but...Sometimes we must fight... Daniel Johnson

    War is so inimical to modern Western sensibilities that we find it hard to imagine anything worse. That is why we have songs and slogans and bumper stickers as mantras to ward off the thought of war. And yet, as the history of the last century has amply (and bloodily) demonstrated, there are even worse things than war. Totalitarian regimes do not always need to make war in order to annihilate entire peoples, while terrorists practice their murderous trade without any of the rules or conventions of war. Sometimes, too, in order to preserve peace it is necessary to confront those who are bent on war with force. Democracies almost always prefer to deter rather than to destroy, but this is not always possible. So removing the causes of war may well involve engaging in various kinds of conflict.

    "Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God." When we consider how we may be true to the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, we must not pretend that making peace is the same thing as pacifism. During the Cold War, in which my generation reached adulthood, there was always a choice. You could support the so-called "peace movement", which in practice only ever protested against the military preparations of the West, and which was in many cases manipulated by the KGB to serve its own purposes. You could preserve the status quo, thereby preventing the immediate threat of nuclear war, but acquiescing in tyranny. Or you could reject the status quo and use words and ideas to bring about a bloodless victory. When Reagan used the words "evil empire" to describe the Soviet Union, he inspired dissidents everywhere, and when he called on Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall, he helped to bring it about. In both cases the president was opposed by the entire American and European foreign policy establishment; in both cases he was vindicated by events.

    In my own case, like many others, challenging the Evil Empire took the form of visiting opposition activists in what we then called Eastern Europe. Later, when I became the Daily Telegraph's correspondent there, I was fortunate to have a small part in the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the famous press conference on November 9, 1989, when the easing of travel restrictions on East Germans was announced, it fell to me to ask the final question: "What will happen to the Berlin Wall now?" This was the first time the Wall itself had been mentioned in the press conference, and it seems to helped to encourage the watching East Berliners to go out and demand to be allowed to pass through the checkpoints.

    Today the situation is very different, but there are still threats to the West from various quarters. In 2008, I launched the monthly magazine Standpoint to defend the values of our civilisation, because I still believe that the free market in ideas is the best method to persuade those who can be persuaded to embrace the liberty under the law that is uniquely on offer here. For those whose implacable hatred of the West leads them to wage war against it, persuasion is no doubt insufficient. But in the arsenal of democracy, the only weapons that I know how to fire use words as ammunition.

    It was John Stuart Mill who first expressed the idea, often wrongly attributed to Edmund Burke, that "bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing." However ineffectual my efforts for peace, I hope that I cannot be accused of doing nothing to thwart the foes of freedom. 

    Otherwise, the most important thing that I can do for peace is to live up to the principles that I hope to pass on to my children's generation. If respect is the tribute that age exacts from youth, the debt is often repaid with hypocrisy. A peacemaker is one who knows the value of what is sacrificed in war.

    The most precious and most vulnerable blessing of peace is that it makes possible the life of the mind. The warrior may be a noble calling, but there is nothing ennobling about war. Peace is the elixir of the intellectual life. It is not enough to call yourself an intellectual: anyone can do that. No, you must lead the intellectual life. I believe passionately that those who have enjoyed the benefits of the intellectual life must set an example to the less fortunate. We who have inherited our civilisation also have a duty to bequeath it intact to posterity.

    English journalist Daniel Johnson is the founding editor of Standpoint, a monthly cultural and political magazine.


  • Yes, through humble love... Johann Christoph Arnold

    The idea that a single person can prevent war by the way he or she lives was suggested hundreds of years ago by George Fox. When asked to take sides in the English Civil War, he said that he wished to live such a life - and by such a Power - that would "take away the occasion for war." Every time one person decides to live for peace, it makes a difference for the whole world.  When that happens, the world becomes a more peaceful place.

    War is the most destructive form of hatred and violence. In war nobody wins and everybody loses. But the seeds of war and the seeds of peace lie in every human heart. In my lifetime, I have counseled many veterans and have discovered that the scars of wars are passed on to the next generation, through hatred. Every conflict sows the seeds of the next conflict.

    Politicians plan and make wars. Common people fight them. It is ordinary people who suffer and die on the battlefield. But these same ordinary people-who later return as veterans-can make an enormous difference. I know of at least one Vietnam vet who returned to Vietnam seeking reconciliation with people who were once his enemies. A woman I know, who served in the first Gulf War, returned to Iraq to build water supply systems: an act of repentance and peace done out of love for the people she once tried to kill.

    The emotional harm that is inflicted on the families does more destruction than the killing. I have experienced this personally. During World War II my family became refugees and had to flee from Nazi Germany to England and then to Paraguay.

    So how can we start to break this cycle of violence? I learned that it has to start with me, and that taking small steps toward peace-rather than worrying about my personal effectiveness-is better than doing nothing. I decided at an early age that war is wrong, and that there must be a better way to resolve conflicts.  

    Already as a teenager, I was inspired to live and work for peace after reading the Old and New Testaments and the writings of Gandhi, Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King, Jr. I read that humble love was the strongest weapon a person could use to overcome evil, and I wanted to serve this power for the rest of my life.

    Those were the early years of the Civil Rights Movement, and it wasn't long before I saw firsthand how this love-in one person-could indeed make a difference. This was when I attended the funeral of Jimmy Lee Jackson in 1965, and saw how Dr. King steered thousands of mourners away from violent confrontation with the police to the prayerful singing of spirituals-which had a calming effect on the whole crowd.

    Ever since then I have tried to spread this message to children and young people all over the world: that violence cannot be resolved with revenge. The need for this message has taken me to Northern Ireland, Iraq, Israel and the West Bank, Rwanda, and the slums of New York and Los Angeles. Only forgiving those who hurt us will free us and change the world. Every person who decides to live for love becomes an important role model for all children.

    We all will be hurt sometimes. This gives us the choice to either forgive those that hurt us, or to seek revenge. The latter always leads to bitterness. Bitterness is like a cancer that will kill you as effectively as any bullet. I have seen the lives of the most beautiful people-even members of my own family -destroyed because they wanted justice and could not forgive. So I recommend to everybody to try out forgiveness. In forgiving, everyone wins and no one loses. But when we forgive, we cannot wait for our enemy to make the first move. We have to start with ourselves, because in the end, that is the only person we can change. When we do that, it will have a powerful ripple effect on others that will remove the causes of war. As Dostoyevsky wrote:

    Sometimes even if he has to do it alone, and his conduct seems to be crazy, a man must set an example, and so draw men's souls out of their solitude, and spur them to some act of brotherly love.

    Johann Christoph Arnold is an author and leading elder of the Bruderhof, a small Christian denomination closely related to Anabaptists and Hutterites.


  • Yes, through spiritual growth Metropolitan Jonah

    What is the cause of war?  On the surface, it is a means of asserting the political will of one country or people over another, using violence.  Politics with force.  It is often justified as the protection or liberation of oppressed people, assistance to those who are threatened by other countries or peoples.  Or, it is simply aggression against others, for the sake of political and economic gain.

    On a deeper level, war is something primal, in which the passions are loosed, judgment and depersonalization of the "enemy" is actualized and justified, and all the aggressive and violent potential of man is loosed against others. The tribe becomes a kind of corporate ego, jealously defended. Our tribal identities are raised above all other values, and any threat to that tribe, much less identity, is forcefully defended.  The goals of our tribe become foremost in our minds, and we forget that the "enemy" is just like us.

    The cause of war, when it comes down to it, is egocentrism writ large, on an ethnic or national level, in a corporate self-surrender to the will to justify ourselves.  This is true whether a war is defensive, protective, or sheer political aggression.

    For Orthodox Christians, and especially monks like myself, the goal of our spiritual discipline is to overcome ego and selfish motives, and attain inner peace through communion with God and neighbor.  The very things that make war possible, imaginable, are what become unthinkable to the monk, who values every human life as his own.  Our spiritual discipline is rooted in the practice of inner stillness leading to unceasing prayer, which is the conscious unbroken awareness of God.  This leads us to see each human being, and indeed all of creation, as existing in God and in a sense, as transparent to God.  Every created being dances and shimmers, radiant with the Divine Presence in the glorious harmony of the Creation as a thanksgiving to God.

    To ascend into divine vision, to overcome ego and all the passions that blind us to the Presence of God in ourselves and in one another, is the means of overcoming the causes of war.  To witness to that reality of the Kingdom of God in our midst, by incarnating it within one's own person, is the means of bringing peace to the world around us.

    This process of spiritual growth and transformation leads to a new identity.  We must overcome and leave behind the tribal identity, the ethnic and cultural identity, the ego-identities that we have created in our falleness.  Then we can acquire and foster that new identity which is only discerned in the awareness of communion with God, that is hidden in God, and derives from our union in Him.

    With this deep identity of the new man hidden in God, united in Christ, there is nothing that can threaten us, nothing can disturb us.  No words or force, or even being put to death itself, can move us from our union with God.  This is the strength and hope of the martyrs.  So also, there can be neither the desire nor will to force or injure anyone or anything, for all are sanctified by grace, and all men are our beloved brothers.  "Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."  This has inspired countless martyrs to lay down their lives for their fellows, to be killed rather than to kill, to be injured rather than to harm another, to offer their lives vicariously for those of others.

    Saint Mother Maria Skobtsova, a Russian nun who lived in Paris through the Second World War, for example, died in place of a Jewish woman in the Ravensbruk Nazi death camp. To refuse to commit violence does not mean to refuse suffering.  It rather means to suffer in the place of, or for, another; and thereby, to transform suffering into redemption. 

    As a monk, and now as a bishop, the task set before me is to not only maintain that living consciousness of God's Presence, but to teach others how to nurture it within themselves.  It demands courage to bear witness to the vanity of violence, and to reveal through my own actions, words and thoughts the deeper peace given by the Spirit.  It is to maintain, constantly, the remembrance of God in my life, that others may also partake of that same fountain of grace, and be still, to know that God is.

    Let us remember the words of the great Elder Saint Seraphim of Sarov: "Acquire the spirit of peace, and thousands around you will be saved. "  Let us acquire that same Holy Spirit, to enlighten our every thought.

    Metropolitan Jonah is the primate of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA).