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"A Plea for Peace" Flawed by Moral Equivalency

Rev. Johannes L. Jacobse

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Orthodox Peace Fellowship erroneously argues moral equivalency conforms to the Orthodox moral tradition.

Revised April 14, 2003

On first glance "A Plea for Peace," a statement from theOrthodox Peace Fellowship critical towards the war in Iraq, possesses considerable moral weight because of the long list of Orthodox leaders who signed it. They include bishops, priests, seminary professors, lay workers andothers. This first impression is misleading.

The Orthodox Peace Fellowship (OPF) promotes itself as an organization of Orthodox Christians who "seek the conversion of enemies to friends in Christ." Based in Holland, OPF is well known among Orthodox leaders and reaches into a handful of American parishes through sympathetic clergy and laity.

OPF has tried to sway public policy before but held back on explaining their views in any systematic way. "A Plea for Peace" is more comprehensive. It reveals OPF draws deeply from the ideology of the secular peace movement--so much so that the two are often indistinguishable.

The similarities are evident from the outset. "...Saddam Hussein is an enemy of the United States and of the people of Iraq, but we declare that there are better ways to respond to terrorism than to respond in kind," reads the first sentence. (Emphasis added.)

Respond in kind? This is moral equivalency at work. The doctrine of moral equivalency holds that war is the greatest of all evils. Any government engaged in warfare shares the same moral culpability for the conflict as its enemy. A just war is a moral impossibility.

"A Plea for Peace" asserts that American action in Iraq is morally equivalent to the terror of the Iraqi regime. Reports about the brutality of Saddam's regime prove that OPF is wrong, but don't expect them to change. Peace activists rarely abandon the doctrine even when the judgment of history is against them.

In World War II for example, the peace movement argued that the feared German expansionism could be settled through negotiation rather than war. Their champion was Neville Chamberlain who believed that when Hitler signed the Munich Accords, lasting peace between England and Germany was achieved. Hitler, on the other hand, learned that England was unwilling to stop him. The result was thirteen million killed in the concentration camps alone (six million were Jews), and hundreds of thousands more on the battlefield.

During the Viet Nam war, weak political leadership and peace movement activism forced the American government to withdraw from Viet Nam. Reasonable people can argue that America should never have entered Viet Nam. No one can argue that the movement shares moral culpability for the two and one half million people slaughtered when the Americans withdrew.

Peace movement ideology is built on the doctrine of moral equivalency. Moral equivalency is built on the premise that war is the greatest evil. Drawing moral distinctions that grant legitimacy to one side over the other threatens the premise. When the premise falls, so does the ideology.

This is critical in conflicts with totalitarian regimes. Totalitarian regimes are uniformly evil. They have no moral legitimacy. They rule by the fear created through the brutal torture and murder of their own people.

When a democratic nation is in conflict with a totalitarian regime, the activist needs to relativize the totalitarian evil in order to preserve the ideology. He will reduce the potency of the evil or deny it altogether.

"A Plea for Peace" suffers from this flaw. By characterizing the American response as morally equivalent to the evil perpetrated by Saddam on his people, the statement diminishes the real evil of Saddam's reign of terror. Further, when no moral differences exist between either government, the moral condemnations of the Iraqi regime are applied to America with the same force and authority.

Peace movements have no influence on totalitarian regimes but it makes no difference to the activist. In a morally equivalent world, democratic governments are as great a threat to peace as totalitarian regimes -- at least in the mind of the activist. He sets out to dismantle the moral and military defenses of democratic societies convinced he is serving a greater good. In reality he becomes the apologist for totalitarian brutality.

This self-deception is common to the peace movement. Peace activism continued long after the German war machine stormed through Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Holland, and Belgium. Hitler's apologists held firm even when evidence about the concentration camps started to emerge. So did their Stalinist counterparts who denied the Soviet show trials of the thirties because they feared it would exacerbate hostilities with the Soviet Union.

Religious leaders are particularly susceptible to the ideology. Clergymen were leaders in the movement to appease Germany before WWII. Liberal Protestant churches were vocal apologists for the Communist North Vietnamese. Soviet Russia skillfully manipulated the World Council of Churches. "A Plea for Peace" continues in this tradition.

Moral equivalency also shapes the conclusion that there is no moral difference between the American soldier and the murderer. The statement reads:

Because we seek the reconciliation of enemies, a conversion which grows from striving to be faithful to the Gospel, the Orthodox Church has never regarded any war as just or good, and fighting an elusive enemy by means which cause the death of innocent people can be regarded only as murder. Individual murderers are treated by psychiatrists and priests and isolated from society. But who heals the national psyche, the wounded soul of a nation, when it is untroubled by the slaughter of non-combatant civilians?

Overlooking the self-justification that opens the paragraph, the statement argues that when civilian deaths occur in wartime, the soldier is guilty of murder. He must be treated in the same we treat all murderers: lock him up and try to rehabilitate him.

There's more. Not only is the soldier morally equivalent to the murderer, American society shares his culpability. American support of the soldier in Iraq indicates that a cultural pathology exists where the "national psyche" needs healing. Americans are "untroubled" by the "slaughter" of civilian deaths the statement asserts.

The facts prove otherwise. American military action in Iraq was conducted to avoid the deaths of innocent people--often at considerable risk to the American soldiers themselves. But facts don't matter here.

Innocent people die in wartime. It's horrible that they do. But how many more die because of the moral paralysis created by the baseless condemnations offered here? Peace movements contribute to the instability that creates war because their moral equivocation blinds them to real evil in the world. They appease the brutality of tyrants. They sabotage any effort that confronts the evil regimes. Their ideology has contributed to the death of millions.

Iraqi civilians cheered the American soldiers because they brought real liberation from real terror. American soldiers emptied the Iraqi jails, not the peace activists. Let these Iraqi's be their judge, not OPF.

In a response to another critic, OPF founder Jim Forest explains that the analysis offered here misreads the appeal. He argues that the authors were trying to point out that killing innocent people is a grave sin, not that those caught up in this "terrible tragedy" are guilty of murder. He adds that no one should take offense that a group of Orthodox Christians points out that their actions, however well intentioned, are sinful.

It doesn't add up. If the war in Iraq is morally equivalent to terrorism, then how can those who are engaged in this terrorism be anything else but murderers? Are the soldiers caught up in a system they can't control? Mr. Forest apparently believes they are since "A Plea for Peace" tars American society with the same broad brush. The only way to read this paragraph is exactly as it is written. Nothing else makes sense.

"A Plea for Peace" owes even more to the peace movement. "Elusive enemy" is a term that adds nothing to the meaning of the paragraph yet is nevertheless included. Why? Anyone who knows the history of Viet Nam peace activism will recognize it as a euphemism for the North Vietnamese guerrillas and the difficulty Americans had in fighting them. The sixties peace movement mythologized the guerillas as heroic freedom fighters and the ability to stymie American tactics was a large part of their appeal.

Thirty-five years later it's a different enemy but the same thinking. The euphemism implies that the Republican Guard were heroic freedom fighters and that the Iraqi war would end in quagmire. OPF activism increasingly resembles an unrepentant radicalism recycled from the sixties.

The most serious error however, is the assertion that the Orthodox moral tradition sanctions the moral equivalency championed by "A Plea for Peace." The appeal states, "the Orthodox Church has never regarded any war as just or good." No reasonable person would argue that war is good. But it is false that the moral tradition teaches that all wars are unjust. The assertion is flat out wrong.

St. Basil writes (in the thirteenth canon), "Our fathers have not, in fact, held that homicides committed in warfare to be murders, thus pardoning, it seems to me, those who have taken up the defense of justice and religion."

In 1821, when the Greeks where ready to throw off Turkish oppression, they sought out the Bishop of Patras for his blessing. The Bishop heard the plea and blessed the men by taking the curtain of the Royal Doors (in front to the altar) and declaring that the curtain would become their flag!

We train men in our seminaries to become military chaplains. If no war is just, if all war is morally criminal, why sanction this crime by providing chaplains for the men that fight in them? Are the chaplains complicit in murder because they bless the soldier? Does the Church sanction murder by training these chaplains?

The assertion is a transparent attempt to join the ideology of the peace movement to the Orthodox moral tradition. If the tradition supports moral equivalency, then it's a short jump to argue that peace activism ideology and the moral tradition are one and the same. The ideology receives the imprimatur of the tradition when in fact the tradition has been hijacked.

Religion should never serve ideology. So why did the Orthodox leaders sign "A Plea for Peace?" Perhaps they sympathize with the ideology more than anyone realized. Maybe it was the most convenient venue to register their disapproval. Maybe they just didn't think hard enough.

Reasonable people can disagree about the American policy in Iraq--but they have to give their reasons. The Orthodox leaders who signed "A Plea for Peace" substitute ideology in place of moral reasoning, and thereby posit that the ideology and the moral tradition are the same. They should remove their signatures to clear the confusion they have created.

Copyright 2003. Johannes L. Jacobse. Rev. Jacobse is a priest in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

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Copyright 2001-2021 OrthodoxyToday.org. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article is subject to the policy of the individual copyright holder. See OrthodoxyToday.org for details.

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