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Monday, 2 May 2022

When it comes to defending the flourishing of country, and of human life, I am no pacifist

The war in Ukraine is, of course, just one of the conflicts raging in the world right now. For the moment, the conflicts in Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Ethiopia, northern Iraq and many other places, no longer enjoy sustained attention from international media organisations. The extent to which the following comments about the war in Ukraine might pertain, also, to these many other conflicts, I will leave to the reader to decide. I am no expert on the geo-politics of any of these places.

I begin by pointing out that, in this world at least, we are dealing not with the ultimate and the perfect but with the penultimate and the imperfect. So whilst a more robust form of pacifism might suffice in the face of lesser forms of violence - refusing to fight in a morally ambiguous war in another part of the world, for example - pacifism of this kind does not seem sufficient when one's own land, livelihood and the lives of one's loved ones are under threat.  In the face of such clear and present danger, I believe the Christian has not merely a right, but actually a duty and responsibility, to mount some kind of defence.

My reasoning goes something like this. All life is sacred because it is brought into existence by the action of the creator. Inherent in the gift of life is a right and responsibility to maintain the conditions by which that life - within reasonable limits - can flourish and become what it was created to be.  Insofar as that is possible without, simultaneously, seriously curtailing the flourishing of other forms of life, we might speak in this context of a 'responsibility' to live and flourish. That word 'responsibility' suggests that a life is lived before the one who gives it. That 'one', I would posit  - as both a Christian and trawloolway man -  is the creator, the one who gives us life in all its myriad forms. We are responsible to our creator. We live our lives in a way which responds appropriately to what is given.

Now, it is clear that human beings have a responsibility to take life for the sake of our sustenance and our thriving. We may take from what is given in creation - its flora and its fauna - in order to sustain our lives. But there are limits to what we may take.  We may not, for example, hunt particular animals to the point where their own capacity to thrive and flourish is severely diminished. Neither may we do so with plant life. For if we do so, we risk compromising the entire biosphere's responsibility and capacity to flourish before, and to the glory of, our creator.

The same principle applies when it comes to human life, but perhaps in an even more robust form. Both the Jewish and Christian traditions put severe limits upon the taking of human life. 'Thou shalt not kill', whilst not an absolute command which applies in any and all circumstances, nevertheless inscribes a serious duty to do everything possible to avoid the taking of human life.

What this means, I think, when it comes to the theatre of war between human nations, is simply this: that one should avoid policies and practices that are likely to lead to war. One should never be the aggressor or the provocateur. One should never be the one who creates the conditions - whether these be political, cultural, economic or environmental -  in which war becomes the most likely outcome. We should do everything we can to avoid starting wars. For wars destroy life - not only human life, but also animal and plant life - on a scale which makes the likelihood of recovery exponentially difficult.

There are circumstances, however, in which war becomes inevitable. Having done all that is rationally and morally possible to avoid conflict with an aggressor, sometimes one simply has to take up arms in order to defend one's right and responsibility to live and to flourish before the creator is a way that is commensurate with the equatible distribution of that right and responsibility across the whole biosphere.

An example, from the recent history of my own people, is the way we took up weapons to defend our country and our way of life from the British invasion, which took place in ever more disruptive and devastating waves from 1802 until the present.  In the face of that invasion - which proceeded on the assumption that Aboriginal people enjoyed no right or responsibility to life and its flourishing - we had no choice. Before our creator-ancestors, and because of their injunction to care for country and for each other, we had to fight.

Now, the fact that we lost those wars and continue to sue for a more just settlement for our people and our country, means that the nation named 'Australia' by the invader is no longer the biospheric wonderland it once was. Thousands of specifies are now extinct as a result of the destruction of habitat. The ecosystem on which all of life depends is now either dead or dying in much of the continent. And the right and responsibility of Aboriginal peoples to life and flourishing - precisely as we care for country - remains of little consequence to our religious, commercial or political leaders.

But we had to fight. To preserve the way of life to which our creator-ancestors had called us. To prevent the destruction of that way of life by a people who had little regard for the call and injunction of the creator. We lost, obviously. But we had to fight.

To the extent that the war in Ukraine mirrors what we have experienced ourselves, I would argue that the people of the Ukraine also have to fight. Before God, they must fight. For the sake of the way and form of human flourishing which God has given, they must fight. For the sake of resisting an evil and destructive ideology, they must fight. And we who believe in the sacredness of all forms of life, precisely as they are given in creation, must offer whatever forms of solidarity we can.

Garry Deverell

With thanks to Dr Jonathan Foye, who provoked me to give this some thought.