Category: Pondering Peace

An Alternative to War

This year I spent part of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday reading his speeches and thinking about the relevance of his words for us today.  Since parts of our world are gripped in the brutality of war, I was drawn to what Dr. King had to say about this.

Dr. King initially held to the possibility that although war could never be a positive good, it could perhaps function as a negative good in restraining the spread of an evil force.  That is, he considered that perhaps war, despite its horrors, would be preferable to surrendering to a totalitarian force.  However, he later moved to the conclusion that “the destructive power of modern weapons eliminated even the possibility that war may serve as a negative good.  If we assume that mankind has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war and destruction.”  He declared that “wisdom born of experience should tell us that war is obsolete” and became convinced that the methods of nonviolence also needed to be applied to international conflicts.  He wrote, “The choice today is no longer between violence and nonviolence.  It is either nonviolence or nonexistence” (“Pilgrimage to nonviolence”). Dr. King was speaking in the midst of the nuclear arms race and the prospect of global destruction that a nuclear war would bring if such weapons were used.

We have managed to survive without a nuclear war for many decades since that time, and it is easy to no longer think about or be alarmed by the reality of the situation in which we live.  Nevertheless, the danger is just as real and the possibility threateningly looms as the background of every war in which nations with nuclear weapons engage.  Both Russian and Israeli leaders have mentioned them recently.  As nuclear deterrence treaties have lapsed amidst deteriorating relationships between the United States and Russia, a new type of nuclear arms race has emerged.  The Congressional Budget Office projects that the United States will spend $756 billion maintaining and upgrading its nuclear weapon systems over the next ten years.  The restraint on using nuclear weapons by the nine nations that have them always has the potential of shattering with each new conflict.

Dr. King also felt compelled to speak out against the Vietnam War, despite the opposition and loss of support he then experienced.  In his 1967 speech at Riverside Church entitled “Beyond Vietnam – A Time to Break Silence,” he explained his reasons. His first reason was that the war was hurting the poor by taking funds that should have been directed toward the War on Poverty, and funneling them instead to the Vietnam war effort.  He wrote, “America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.”  He therefore came to see “war as an enemy of the poor.”

Military spending continues to be such a high priority that it leaves little for domestic programs that help the poor. A little less than half of all discretionary spending at the federal level is budgeted for defense, with all other federal programs  sharing the other half (excluding entitlements such as social security and Medicare).  Programs that directly help those who are poor receive only a small amount.  Dr. King’s words continue to carry this prophetic caution.  “The nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

As one committed to the ministry of Jesus Christ and the conviction that the good news was meant for all people, Dr. King was horrified at what his country was doing to the people of Vietnam – bombing their villages, killing the people, herding them off their land, destroying their crops, and poisoning their water.  As I read his words, it all sounded so familiar – much of this is happening in Gaza right now.

According to Dr. King, the Vietnam war was preceded by years of American involvement first in supporting France’s attempt to recolonize the country and then in supporting a ruthless dictator in the name of fighting communism.  Soon the United States was fully engaged in a war that was decimating the people.  Dr. King protested, “Somehow this madness must cease.  We must stop now.  I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam…I speak as a citizen of the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken.”

Instead of communism, it is now terrorism that rationalizes the brutality of war.  A long history of Palestinian dislocation, occupation, and oppression with reciprocal violence between Israel and Hamas preceded the current war. The October 7 Hamas massacre was horrific and must be condemned, but the Israeli response of military bombardment and destruction is even more horrifying – more than 24,000 people dead including over 10,000 children, over 1000 children with legs blown off or amputated, 85% of the population displaced with over half of their homes destroyed, and now starvation and disease – conditions so bad that many are calling it genocide.  And it is American weapons that have been used to do this, with the United States continuing to fully support Israel and provide more weapons.  Dr. King’s words echo, “Somehow this madness must cease.  We must stop now.  I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor…I speak as a citizen of the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken.”  The United States has been a loyal ally to Israel in upholding its right to exist and be a country after the Holocaust.  But surely there needs to be limits on loyalty and support to an ally that is committing such atrocities and decimating a civilian population.

In reality, the United States believes in the value of war and the supposed security that it brings.  It spends more on its military than the next ten countries with the largest militaries combined, which includes Russia and China.  It asserts itself as the greatest military power in the world and feels justified to strike targets in other countries as needed, most recently in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. When it experienced the 9/11 terrorist attack, it started a war on terror, just as Israel did. Brown University’s Costs of War project estimates that over 940,000 people were killed from direct war violence in the post-9/11 wars (in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, and Syria), 432,000 of them being civilians, and 38 million people were displaced or made refugees.  These wars have cost the United States over $8 trillion, and we can hardly say that the war on terror has been decisively won.

Dr. King also bemoaned the environmental consequences of the Vietnam war, mentioning the poisoning and destruction of land, water, and forests.  In the face of the climate crisis, the stakes today are even higher.  The Conflict and Environmental Observatory estimates that the total military carbon footprint of all countries is around 5.5% of global emissions  That means that if the world’s militaries were a country, it would rank fourth in carbon emissions, after China, the United States, and India.  Greenhouse gas emissions can drastically go up during times of war.  During the first 60 days of the Israel-Hamas war, it is estimated that the climate cost of Israel’s military response was equivalent to burning over 150,000 tons of coal, with close to half of those carbon emissions coming from US planes flying military supplies to Israel.  Hamas rockets generated the equivalent of around 300 tons of coals during that same time.  The scale of rebuilding after the war will add significantly more emissions.  The United Nations special rapporteur for human rights and the environment David Boyd has said, “Armed conflict pushes humanity even closer to the precipice of climate catastrophe, and is an idiotic way to spend our shrinking carbon budget.”

Dr. King’s call for an alternative to war could not be more needed or relevant for today.  War is ineffective in dealing with terrorism or bringing lasting peace.  We must move toward embracing nonviolent ways of resolving conflicts between nations.  We must move away from the mindset of having to dominate, win, and be the most powerful nation to recognizing that all nations are mutually interdependent and need to work together for the wellbeing of all.  We are facing a global climate crisis that is threatening us all, along with many other significant threats such as biological diversity loss and potential nuclear annihilation.  We need the world’s unified and concerted focus of resources, attention, and efforts to successfully address these and move toward sustaining life on our earth.

In his 1964 Nobel Lecture, Dr. King spoke of the reality that in sharing one great “world house,” we “must learn, somehow, in this one big world, to live with each other. This means that more and more of our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional.  We must give an overriding loyalty to (hu)mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in our individual societies.  This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all…”

Such love is at the heart of Jesus’ life and teachings.  As Christians and as people of all faiths, we have global bonds with others that cross all national boundaries and a loyalty to God that supersedes that to our nation.  With the “cosmic companionship” of God’s spirit working among us, should we not seek to make more a reality another of Dr. King’s dreams, expressed in his last Christmas sermon in 1967.  “I still have a dream today that one day war will come to an end, that men will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, that nations will no longer rise up against nations, neither will they study war any more. I still have a dream today that one day the lamb and the lion will lie down together and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.”

Rev. Ruth Rosell, Ph.D.
Director of the Buttry Center for Peace and Nonviolence
Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology Emerita
Central Seminary, Shawnee, KS

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

Photo by Ben Masora on Unsplash