As I write this in the context of the war in Ukraine, massive protests have erupted in Sri Lanka in response to perhaps the most severe economic crisis in its history. Buddhist monks who overwhelmingly supported the present government and its nationalistic agenda have demanded that the parliament be dissolved. While the situation in Sri Lanka pertains to the theme of this article, the fluidity of the present situation compels me to publish this as it is, with the hope of addressing the impact of religion in the Sri Lankan crisis later.

The above picture is of Pope Francis blessing Iraqi children.

                                                     _____________________________

In the light of her recent death, the media has showered the former U.S. Secretary of State Madeine Albright with many deserved accolades. Yet, few seem to remember her most calculated and cold-blooded remark in support of a genocidal policy in a 60 Minutes interview in 1996 while she was the UN ambassador under President Clinton. Interviewer Lesley Stahl asked Albright whether she could justify the devastating sanctions imposed by the US on Iraq following the 1991 Gulf war; a policy that starved Iraq of medicines and food.

“We have heard that a half-million children have died,” Stahl said, “I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?”

Albright’s response was chilling: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.”

I couldn’t believe my ears! I expected that the following day she would be fired. But no. I expected an apology, a walking back. Instead, the following year she became the Secretary of State and continued the sanctions. This led to the resignation of a senior UN official, Denis Halliday. Speaking at Cornell University in 1999 he said that as many as 1.5 million Iraqis had died from the sanctions, either from malnutrition or inadequate healthcare. The US and its allies were "deliberately, knowingly killing thousands of Iraqis each month. And that definition fits genocide."

In her 2006 book, The Mighty and the Almighty (2006:Harper) Albright offered a mild apology, saying she regretted it “as soon as [she] had spoken.” But there was no formal apology to the American people, on whose behalf she spoke, or to the people of Iraq. Shortly after 9/11 following protests at University of Southern California, she expressed some regret. But the damage was done. Her 1996 comment flooded the Arab world. How many terrorists heard and were motivated by that is something we’ll never know.

I don’t think of Madeline Albright as an evil person. Neither do I think so of her boss, President Bill Clinton. But they clearly thought it was “worth it.” Centuries of political theory that affirms the inevitability of violence, and a centuries-long and established Just War theory that provides it religious legitimacy, clouded (perhaps continues to cloud) such thinking. Presented as a religious value, Just War theory clearly trumped what they learned in their religious (Christian) faith formation.

 

Bill Clinton and I share a religious tradition, although my faith formation took place in a Sri Lankan Baptist Church. I distinctly remember a preacher saying: “Jesus came to this world to die for you – yes YOU! He loves you so much that if you were the only person living on this earth, he would still come and die for you – yes, EVEN YOU!" There is no doubt that Bill Clinton heard a version of this theology during his faith formation. It pierced my teenage heart, perhaps it pierced his too!

I remember that quote because it gave me a core value. Each and every person in this world, however poor, however despised, however outcast by society, has enormous, intrinsic value. So much value that if s/he were the only person living on this earth, God would come to this world and die for even him/her. How can we possibly say that killing, wounding, or depriving anyone is "worth it?”

 

Vladimir Putin clearly thinks it is “worth it” to kill over 15,000 Russian soldiers (by NATO estimates) and a similar number of Ukrainians (it’s hard to estimate) to get the territory he wants in Ukraine. His spiritual leader, Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill agrees that it’s "worth it.” Large numbers of Russians disagree. Despite the threat of imprisonment, many have come out to protest the war, and many have fled to neighboring countries such as Finland and Georgia.

The “worth it” argument has been used so often by those who profess war, and by those who are convinced that war is inevitable. Theologian Walter Wink warned us about this many years ago in his Engaging the Powers (1992: Fortress Press).

        Violence is the ethos of our time. It is the spirituality of the modern world. It has been         accorded the status of religion, demanding from its devotees an absolute obedience to         death….. Violence is so successful as a myth precisely because it does not seem to be         mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be in the nature of things.

Patriarch Kirill has provided justification and legitimacy to Putin’s war, presenting it in unambiguously moral terms. He has been taken to task by other Christians, including other Orthodox Patriarchs and his own flock in the Russian Orthodox Church. According to him, the fight is not against Ukraine per se, but against the morally decadent West. His evidence: the western societies’ acceptance of those who are gay and transgendered. It’s “worth it.”

Can we say this in unison: WAR IS NEVER WORTH IT!

On the other side of Kirill is Pope Francis. In an encyclical issued in October 2020, called Fratelli Tutti, the Pope attempts to summarize the key outcomes of his papacy. In it, he makes this startling statement:

        We can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be         greater than its supposed benefits. In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke         the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just         war.’ Never again war!

Then in a recent (March18, 2022) comment on the War in Ukraine the Pope said: “There is no such thing as a just war: they do not exist!”

Just War Theory, a way of justifying the “worth it” argument, is a Christian doctrine initiated in the time of Augustine and more firmly established in the 16th and 17thcenturies. In questioning this historic doctrine, the Pope is questioning what we in OMNIA call "received theology.” As Fratelli Tutti asserts, he prefers to listen to the people and their struggles, and in that, he comes as close as he can to what we in OMNIA call “contextual theology.”

In 2011, in Kingston, Jamaica, the World Council of Churches convened the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation -- a massive gathering of Christians, including the Vatican -- which came to a similar conclusion. The gathering declared a repudiation of “just war,” in favor of “just peace.”

This, I believe is one of OMNIA’s core-values.

This is why we build Interfaith Peacemaker Teams. The notion of the inevitability of violence, widespread and destructive, makes it very difficult for us to break up the violence of Boko Haram, or the violence of Chicago’s streets. The OMNIA Peacemaker Teams seek to shift the paradigm. They promote robust democracies, advance just economies, just politics, and just social relationships, all of which are necessary components of peace. As a result of their actions, first public opinion, and then entire cultures, shift from their toleration of extremisms to affirmations of pluralism. When a large number of teams work together in one geographical area, their collaborative and strategic victories shift people’s values from affirming the inevitability of violence, to loving their neighbors as themselves.

Shanta Premawardhana

President

Shanta Premawardhana is president of OMNIA Institute for Contextual Leadership. Prior to OMNIA, he served as the Director for Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation at the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland. He was also the Associate General Secretary for Interfaith Relations at the National Council of Churches, USA. While serving as pastor of Ellis Avenue Church in Chicago, he engaged in community organizing in the Southside of Chicago. He is an emeritus trustee of the Parliament of the World’s Religions, National Council of Churches, USA, and Common Cause Illinois. He earned his Ph.D. at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

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