by Johannes Fischer, former Professor of Systematic Theology in Basel, Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Zurich, and Director of the Institute of Social Ethics
Due to Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine, the government of the Federal Republic of Germany made a U-turn in its security policy. In his statement to the German Bundestag on February 27, 2022, Chancellor Scholz announced a massive rearmament of the Bundeswehr (the armed forces of the Federal Republic of Germany), with a 100 billion euro funded investment program and an annual defense budget of over 2% of the gross domestic product.
The goal of the program is to dissuade Russia from further military campaigns and to be able to fulfill its alliance obligations towards the states of Eastern Europe. This program has received broad support in the Bundestag from both ruling parties and the CDU opposition.
The Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) has not yet reacted to this rearmament program. Based on its position on the ethics of peace, it should express firm public opposition. The last great EKD declaration on the ethics of peace was the declaration “A Church on the Path to Justice and Peace” of the 12th Synod of the Evangelical Church in Germany in Dresden in 2019. This is the solemn commitment of the members of the Synod: “As Christians who proclaim the peace of God through worship and prayer, we participate in God’s peace movement in this world.”
The declaration is intended to go beyond the 2007 EKD Peace Memorandum “Living in God’s Peace – Taking Care of Just Peace” (Aus Gottes Frieden leben – für gerechten Frieden sorgen). In line with the global political situation of the time, this document concerned the humanitarian interventions and the overseas deployments of the Bundeswehr, especially in Afghanistan. Their position was: unconditional priority to civilians, focus on prevention, research and development of non-violent conflict management strategies – but: if unavoidable, the threat and use of military force, in the sense of law-keeping force, is also desirable as a last resort.
“The Path of Non-Violence”
Hence the appeal. The members of the Synod are committed to a “path of non-violence,” that is, to follow Jesus with “the active renunciation of violence.” They “call upon those with political responsibility to overcome military violence.” Instead of armaments, money should be invested in prevention: “Prevention is the most sustainable form of peacekeeping. This is why we ask that federal budget funds – at least 2% of gross domestic product – be prioritized for development policy measures, to combat the causes of violence, for crisis prevention, for non-violent conflict management and for civil assistance and reconstruction work in crisis regions.”
Based on what is happening today, after all the unsuccessful diplomatic attempts to prevent Putin from invading Ukraine, the following passage justifying the “path of non-violence” is particularly noteworthy: “Experience shows that people, communities and states are capable of addressing problems and conflicts in all areas of social and political life in a constructive and non-violent way. There are proven concepts and tools to find ways out of violence and guilt, to protect each other from violence and to shape processes of reconciliation – both in times of peace and in situations of crisis and war.”
This is the worldview on which the declaration of the Synod of the EKD is based. Now the Synod members are called to explain what are the proven concepts and tools to protect against violence and shape the reconciliation processes in the current situation in Ukraine, where Russian forces have surrounded Kiev and a terrible bloodbath looms. (I write this on March 2, 2022.)
Basic Theological Confusion
The appeal of the Synod of the EKD is based on a fundamental theological error. I have explained it elsewhere and I do not want to repeat it here. This political naivety and the denial of reality are evident, and they were already evident when ISIS was militarily defeated in Iraq and Syria. How should the reconciliation processes with ISIS have been designed? This aspiration is also found in other documents of the EKD. For example, the Rhineland Regional Synod recommends ecclesiastical communities and districts, as well as the regional Church and its institutions, “to continue working on civil society conflict solutions as alternatives to military options … to regain momentum. of the Rethinking Security initiative and to consider joining this initiative.”
The Rethinking Security initiative supports the concept of a civil security policy through social defense rather than military defense. As for the chances of success of social defense against a very powerful militarily attacker who will stop at nothing, the initiative’s homepage does not present very convincing content. In addition to the visions and collections of quotes, there is also a reference to the statistics according to which there have been many successful non-violent riots. But this refers to situations where the conditions for success were favorable. What is sought in vain on the homepage is a discussion of the failing realities of the present, such as the successful suppression and suffocation of civil resistance in Hong Kong, Belarus or Russia.
These examples tend to suggest that civil resistance has no chance against authoritarian regimes that know no moral scruples and are therefore ready to use any means and that also have a considerable surveillance and security apparatus. A not-insignificant question in this context is by virtue of which authority an ecclesiastical synod recommends ecclesiastical communities and institutions to join the Rethinking Security initiative. Does the Synod have special competence in security policy? Or does it do so for theological or faith reasons? This would, of course, mean that issues of security policy are turned into issues of religious faith, just as is done in the battle cry of the 2019 EKD Synod. This is the real scandal in this debate, that one is unable or unwilling to distinguish between issues of faith and issues of security, that is, politics.
To be political and pious at the same time?
Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, former president of the EKD Council, is credited with the phrase: “He who is pious must be political” (that the phrase is true is a moot point; if it were, one would seriously doubt, for example, that the apostle Paul was a pious man). What does it mean to be political? A political position or attitude does not manifest itself in the fact that someone makes religious or moral requests and appeals to politics, such as a request to renounce military armament. This simply demonstrates a religious or moral attitude.
On the contrary, a political attitude manifests itself in behavior and action that takes into account the special constitution of the political sphere and is accompanied by a willingness to assume political responsibility. Such an attitude can be found in deep conflicts with religious and moral convictions. For the Churches, therefore, the relationship with politics has always represented a special challenge, as demonstrated in particular by the many efforts in the history of the Churches to reconcile the Sermon on the Mount with the reality of the political sphere.
It is important to remember that the sphere of politics is structurally shaped by the specific nature of political communities. One of their characteristics is the difference between those who belong to it, that is, their citizens, and those who do not belong to it. In this sense, exclusion is part of the essence of the politician.
Since political communities are territorially constituted, this difference also draws a dividing line between those who have the right to live in the territory in question and those who do not have that right, unless they are granted a corresponding right of residence.
It is essential, for the existence and maintenance of political communities, that they are sovereign in determining the criteria that decide who belongs and who does not and who must have the possibility or the right to be tolerated or admitted. In this regard, the American philosopher Michael Walzer has compared political communities to associations, which can also exist and last over time only if they have decision-making authority over who to admit as members and on the basis of what criteria.
Defending sovereignty in the long run
Political communities can maintain their long-term sovereignty only if they defend it from attempts to undermine it or eliminate it completely and if they also enforce the rules of membership and residence rights, which includes in particular the protection of their external borders against illegal immigration. In a world of flight and migration, conflicts are therefore inevitable. The ability to adequately defend against a potential aggressor is also a prerequisite for preserving the sovereignty and survival of a political community. We are currently experiencing this in Ukraine.
From a religious or moral perspective, all of this can be found terrifying and highly problematic. The question, however, is how human coexistence can flourish without its political organization and planning. Considering the many stateless people of her time, Hannah Arendt described it as the most basic right of any human being—to have rights.
But political rights exist only thanks to the political communities that enforce them and guarantee them within their borders. Universal human rights become effective only when they are incorporated into the law of the state and are respected and applied within it.
This can be viewed negatively in states where human rights are systematically ignored. Whoever wants people to have rights must therefore want political communities. This, however, inevitably raises the problem of belonging and non-belonging, as well as all that is necessary for the existence and self-affirmation of political communities, including their defense from aggressors who trample on human rights.
These few observations are sufficient to illustrate that there is a fundamental tension between the Christian ethos of love and morality on the one hand and politics on the other. From a moral point of view, it is not essential that someone is German or Afghan. The essential thing is that it is a human being to whom we owe what is morally due to human beings. The situation is similar when looking at things from a Christian perspective. Here too, political origins do not matter, but it is the neighbor in the person of the other who is responsible for Christian action. From a political point of view, however, it makes a decisive difference whether someone is German or Afghan. The political rights he has in Germany depend on this.
Violence and non-violence
The same profound tension becomes evident from a Christian perspective in the question of violence and non-violence. Christians can draw from this tension the consequence of a complete abstinence from politics, in order to be able to live their faith in purity and without compromise. This has always existed in the history of the Churches and—contrary to the motto “He who is pious must be political”—must be respected at all costs. But Christians who choose this path should not then commit the inconsistency of asking politics to renounce military armament.
On the other hand, those who do not want to go in this direction but, like the former president of the EKD Council, are of the opinion that Christians should also assume political responsibility, enter a profound dilemma that cannot be solved by one side or the other. They can only try to do as much as possible what they know they are obliged to do as Christians in the context of assuming political responsibility. This includes, for example, avoiding violence as much as possible and, when the “threat and exercise of force” is inevitable (as made explicit in Barmen V, or in the Theological Declaration of the Confessing Synod of Barmen of May 31, 1934), minimize it as much as possible. No one has written about this problematic structure of Christian existence or the political dimension as clearly as the German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his Ethics (Queriniana, 1995), in the section on the structure of responsible life. Particularly important for Bonhoeffer in this is the aspect of “conformity to reality,” which is the opposite of the denial of reality. No Christian has the mandate to skip the world and make it the kingdom of God, literally writes Bonhoeffer. And likewise, he is opposed to orienting his actions to alleged Christian principles. Reality is too complex for that. The action that conforms to reality must rather be oriented towards what the respective situation requires. This is of great relevance today in the light of all the documents of the EKD that make non-violence a Christian principle and turn it against a policy that seeks to prevent war aggression through deterrence within the framework of the NATO alliance, as it is now in Ukraine.
It is urgent that the EKD rethink its position on the ethics of peace.
Johannes Fischer, Ein Scherbenhaufen, Zeitzeichen https://zeitzeichen.net/node/9604, published 03/02/2022.
- The author refers mainly to the following article: Gewaltlosogkeit in einer Zuckerwattewelt. Die Kundgebung der EKD Synode zu Frieden und Gerechtigkeit, http: // profjohannesfischer.de/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Kundgebung-der-EKD-Synode-zu-Fri- eden-und-Gerechtigkeit-2019.pdf. The article, in fact, expounds arguments similar to those presented here: a) It is necessary to distinguish precisely between peace as the content of the Gospel message and peace as a political objective; b) radical pacifism is a sustainable Christian option, but it implies the renunciation of political responsibility by those who choose it; c) the various proposals for forms of defense that intend to ignore the military dimension and at the same time present themselves as politically effective are unrealistic.
Ph. Berliner Dom, Am Lustgarten, Berlin, Germany © Elias Rovielo via flickr