Can the military do peace?

I recently took part in a panel discussion at Eastern Mennonite University that addressed the question, “what should the role of the military be in peacebuilding?” The planners did a good job pulling together the panel—we had a retired Navy captain, a retired military chaplain, a professor of peacebuilding at EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding (CJP), and myself. I was the only pacifist.

Our first question was about our own personal experience with peacebuilding and/or the military. I never served in the military (though, I not growing up Mennonite, I was not taught to be a conscientious objector). I just missed being drafted—the year I turned 19 was the year the draft ended in 1973, near the end of the Vietnam War. If I had been drafted at that time, I would have accepted the call. I was happy not to have to go in, but not because of my moral convictions.

Both of my parents were in the military in World War II, one of my uncles died as an Air Force pilot in Greece in the late 1940s, and my oldest sister married a career Army man. So, I grew up with a positive view of the military. But when I was 21 I became a pacifist, largely simply due to grappling with the issues of violence and warfare in light of my newly energized Christian faith. A few years later I learned about and then joined the Mennonite church near where I lived due largely to the Mennonite peace position. Eventually I became a Mennonite pastor and professor.

One of my central interests for a long time has been peace theology, working at understanding the relevance of Jesus’ teaching about love of enemies and other core convictions that lead to a rejection of violence and warfare and an embrace of a commitment to active nonviolence.

So I am very interested in question of what the role of the military should be in peacebuilding. We need to start by asking what we mean by “peacebuilding.” This term can have many meanings, from something like maintaining order (as in calling policemen and policement “officers of the peace”) to an academic discipline having to do with conflict resolution and group processing (as in EMU’s graduate CJP program and its undergraduate major in Peacebuilding and Development) to something more related to a deeper vision of human flourishing.

For my purposes in these reflections here, I would say that “peacebuilding” has to do with active participation in work to resolve conflicts, to assist people in face of major disasters, to prevent warfare and other types of violence, in general to work to cultivate the kind of social well-being that the Bible calls shalom. So, the broader more universal sense of human flourishing is at the root of authentic peacebuilding. Continue reading “Can the military do peace?”