logo Practical Dreamers

Geoff King:

Overcoming violence
by threat of force:


the paradox of making and keeping peace



Leaving their loaded weapons at the door,  one by one the soldiers came.   Some were still in uniform from the day's activities;  most wore the mixture of overalls and civilian dress permitted when not on duty in the evenings around the camp.   Some were regular attenders at Sunday chapel services;  most were not.   All were trained in the use of rifles,  pistols,  and other weapons of war;  all were part of a United Nations–sanctioned mission to make and keep peace.   And all had come to the Chapel of the Sisters of the Order of St Paul of Chartres in Suai that evening to reflect prayerfully on what peace might mean in the war–ravaged territory of East Timor  . . . 

I find it impossible to write about the World Council of Churches' initiative of a Decade to Overcome Violence without referring to my recent experiences as a military chaplain in East Timor.   In reflecting on this brief but intense period of ministry,  I am acutely aware of a palpable sense of paradox:  as an idealistic teenager growing up in the final stages of the cold war,  I won a public speaking award for an address opposing the proliferation of nuclear weapons and advocating a form of philanthropic pacifism as a panacea to the world's ills.   How on earth did I find myself,  barely twenty years later,  wearing the uniform of an officer in the New Zealand Army and working alongside people whose profession requires,  among other things,  that they be trained to kill other human beings?   Could there be circumstances in which the use of force might be morally justifiable,  or even mandatory?   Is it conceivable that the threat of disciplined violence might,  in some situations,  serve the greater causes of justice and peace?   This article represents my attempt to answer at least some of these questions.   It does not purport to be an academic treatise;  to some extent,  the subjective content of some of the stories I heard and some of the things I saw in East Timor precludes that.   It does,  however,  aim to offer some insight into the paradox of peace–making and peace–keeping as endeavours that employ the threat of violence to overcome violence in an increasingly unstable world.

Walter Brueggemann,  upon whose work some of the conceptual framework of the WCC initiative is based,  suggests that the taproots of violence in human society are threefold:   material deprivation,  the breakdown of connections,  and the silencing of those at society's margins.   All three can be found in the recent  (and not–so–recent)  history of East Timor and other conflicted regions of the world;  all three contributed to produce the eruption of violence that preceded the intervention of members of the international community in the form of the INTERFET and UNTAET organisations that have been charged with 'keeping the peace' in East Timor since September 1999.   As an antidote to this unholy trinity,  Brueggemann proposes the 'offer of bread',  the 'affirmation of covenantal solidarity amidst social dissociation',  and the 'legitimation of speech in a context of enforced silence'.   Although Brueggemann does not say so,  I would argue that all three of his antidotes have been and are possible outcomes of the UN–sanctioned peacekeeping missions insofar as they aim to address and overcome issues of structural injustice in the countries concerned.   This does not necessarily resolve the inherent paradox of peace–making and peace–keeping,  however.   In order to subvert the dominant reality of the violence that arises from material deprivation,  broken connections  and the silencing of the marginalised,  peace–making and peace–keeping missions employ people who are themselves trained in the use of violence,  albeit in a disciplined,  military manner.   Since,  according to Brueggemann,  military violence is traditionally the last resort of the dominant reality,  this state of affairs necesarily calls into question whether the dominant reality is actually being subverted by peace–making and peace–keeping missions at all.


One of the ways in which well–meaning liberally–minded people endeavour to get around this philosophical and theological impasse is by regarding peace–making and peace–keeping operations as 'softer' military options than the waging of total war  —  and to some extent they are right.   The law of averages dictates that soldiers employed on peacekeeping operations tend to face hostile fire less frequently than soldiers ordered to invade someone else's country.   They tend to be photographed more often in the company of smiling children and grateful civilians than against a background of dismembered corpses and bombed–out buildings,  and consequently there is a growing public acceptance of the good that UN missions appear to be doing in all sorts of troubled spots around the globe.   But appearances and the law of averages can be deceptive.   Evidence drawn from peacekeeping experiences in East Timor and elsewhere suggests that in order to be an effective peace–keeper,  a soldier needs to be thoroughly trained in the art of war  —  a concept which is of itself sufficiently paradoxical to give any thoughtful person pause.   What this awkward phrase means in practice is brutally simple.   Were it not for the soldiers who risk their own lives patrolling the troubled borderlands of the Timors of this world with loaded weapons and the willingness to use them in the defence of others,  peace would be little more than a pleasant–sounding word in many places such as these.   Whether liberally–minded Christians and others like it or not,  peace–makers and peace–keepers need to be highly skilled soldiers.   They need to be well–versed in such things as camouflage and concealment,  and well–drilled in the use of battle tactics that few people outside military circles ever get to see.   They are,  in fact,  soldiers first and peace–keepers second,  and the nature of their task obliges them to live with the constant awareness that in their efforts to overcome violence they may be compelled to resort to violence themselves.

The inescapably harsh reality of this situation gives rise to two closely related questions.   Under what,  if any,  circumstances can the use of violence be morally justified?   Is it conceivable that failing to intervene  —  if necessary with violence  —  might in certain situations be morally wrong?   These are questions that confront military chaplains and the men and women with whom they work daily,  and they need to be answered honestly and clearly if peace–making and peace–keeping missions are to have any chance of doing their job.

In practical terms,  the circumstances under which graduated force may be applied by soldiers engaged in peace–making and peace–keeping missions are spelled out at length in compulsory lectures on an increasingly complex area of military law known as the rules of engagement.   Soldiers are briefed thoroughly on how they are to respond to a wide variety of situations in which they,  or civilians under their protection,  may be threatened with or exposed to violence,  and these briefings are updated regularly in the course of each deployment.   However,  clarity about the legality of the use of force does not necessarily imply the same degree of clarity as to its morality.   Even a situation in which shots have been fired in self–defence can give rise to moral questioning as to the instrinsic rightness or wrongfulness of the act,  particularly where a human life has been lost as a result.

It is at this point that Christians and many other people of faith have traditionally parted company.   For some,  violence  (and particularly the taking of human life)  in whatever form is always intrinsically wrong.   For others,  the ages–old concept of a 'just war'  provides a useful starting–point for determining the circumstances under which military violence may legitimately be applied.   Often,  particularly within liberal Christian circles,  pacifism is simply assumed to be the only reputable option for dealing with situations of actual or potential conflict;  and frequently the historic example of Mahatma Gandhi's campaign of passive resistance in India is help up as proof positive that this approach can actually work in the real world.   What is often overlooked by proponents of this argument,  however,  is the fact that Gandhi's campaign was effective in India because it was predicated upon his knowledge of the English sense of justice and fair play.   It would be both unrealistic and naive to expect the same approach to be equally effective in overcoming violence at all times and in all places,  as it cannot simply be assumed that all cultures have a common understanding of the Anglo–Saxon concepts of fair play and justice.   I cannot,  for example,  bring myself to believe that a campaign of passive resistance would have worked in East Timor,  having lived just a few kilometres from the place in which rampaging militiamen massacred unarmed women and children as they sought sanctuary in a church in September 1999.


  So where does all this leave us?   Many of the above questions and concerns came to a head for me as the month of August 2001 approached,  and with it the historic election to decide who should draw up the constitution of East Timor.   Gradually my own response to the paradox of peace–making and peace–keeping began to take shape in the form of an event entitled:  'Sowing peace,  harvesting justice:  a service of prayer,  testimony and song by candlelight in the Chapel of the Sisters of St Paul of Chartres.'   The service took place on August 5,  and featured brief comments on the meaning of peace in East Timor from a local seminarian,  one of the Roman Catholic sisters who had formerly run a hospital on the premises where we lived,  and a New Zealand soldier who had returned for his second tour of duty in Timor,  having served there in the aftermath of the violence of September 1999.   Their testimonies were interspersed with hymns and songs drawn from some of the cultures represented at the service,  and the central act of worship was an invitation to gather around a cross to pray for peace in the land.   Drawing on the wording of James 3:13–18 in the CEV,  the liturgy explicitly linked prayer with the soldiers' task of working for peace and justice.   It acknowledged that peace and justice can be plants of slow growth,  and that many innocent people had already paid with their lives for the harvest that the East Timorese hoped one day to enjoy.   On its final page the liturgy left worshippers with some thoughts to consider as they continued to live out the paradox of praying and working for peace by carrying and being prepared to use weapons of war:


'What is the weight of a snowflake?'
The question echoed in the darkness.
'Nothing more than nothing'  was the reply.
And through the night the snowflakes fell softly on the forest.
The branches sagged,
The trees bowed beneath the weight of hundreds upon hundreds of snowflakes,
Each one weighing nothing,  like all the rest.
Until finally,  when the millionth snowflake fell
Weighing nothing more than nothing,
Just like all the rest
The branches snapped
Releasing their burden of snow to the ground below.

            [adapted from  'A Race to Nowhere'  by Mary Lou Kownacki]

If you think that one person can't make a difference
Think of this story and consider:
The weight of your work may be all that it takes
For change to come to your corner of the world.
Consider that prayer is not telling God what we want
But tuning in to God so that we can hear what God wants;
And consider that God has always wanted God's people
To live in peace and harmony with one another and the rest of creation.

Whilst peace and harmony may be laudable goals,  it seems sadly self–evident that human beings are incapable of living peacefully and harmoniously with one another as they try to attain them.   No lesser personage than Mahatma Gandhi himself once noted that  'strictly speaking,  no activity and no industry is possible without a certain amount of violence,  no matter how little.   Even the very process of living is impossible without a certain amount of violence.   What we have to do is to minimize it to the greatest extent possible.'   For me as a Christian,  and especially as a Christian minister called to work among soldiers,  minimizing violence globally means accepting that its use may occasionally be warranted and even necessary locally.  It means taking seriously the words with which I closed every email I sent from East Timor,  that 'the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing'.   It means being prepared to intervene,  with the disciplined use of violence if necessary,  in order that greater violence may not be done.   In summary,  and with all due respect to friends and colleagues of a more pacifist persuasion,  it means simply this:   when people ask me how I,  as a Christian minister,  could don a military uniform and leave my wife and young son to work for a time alongside armed soldiers in a place like East Timor,  I show them photos of Timorese children,  some of whose parents or grandparents were in all likelihood killed,  maimed or tortured by the militia,  and I ask simply  'How could I not?'

Geoff King is a Presbyter in the Dunedin Methodist Parish and served
as Chaplain to NZBATT 4  in East Timor from May–August 2001.


>>>   Home Page


>>>   Site Index