Violence and peace

November 26th, 2019

The wars

Last spring, my husband, Nate, and I traveled to Croatia for vacation. One afternoon during our trip we ventured to a family farm and spent the day tasting the fruits of the family’s labors. As our host, who was in his late twenties, drove us back into the city, Nate asked him about the country’s history. He replied that his earliest memories included watching the news of the war ravaging the country and “wondering where my father was.” He continued, “At the end of the war, he came back from the fighting; I was afraid of him because he had a beard and I didn’t recognize him. He returned to work on the farm and got his life back. Some of the other soldiers never have.”

It’s been 24 years since the official end of the Yugoslav wars that eventually led to the formation of the countries of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Kosovo, Montenegro and North Macedonia. The wars were sparked by several rival ethnic groups who clashed over various nationalist independence movements after living as neighbors for centuries. These struggles were spurred on by more recent political resentments, religious differences and quests for vengeance over generations-old wrongs.

These ethnic differences had been suppressed under the Yugoslavian Communist regime, whose power and cohesion slowly began to erode after the death of Josip Broz Tito, the man who ruled as a dictator for more than 35 years until his death in 1980. Following his death, opportunistic politicians began to exaggerate nationalist sentiments as a strategy to grab power. With these rifts emerging, economic crises led to declarations of independence by both Croatia and Slovenia, who were then followed by other ethnic nationalist groups.

Soldiers from each ethnic group formed armies, but the Croats, Serbs and Bosnians were the largest and most powerful groups. In contrast, ethnic Albanians and Muslim Bosniaks were relatively small minorities and therefore constituted the bulk of the 2.3 million international refugees created by the wars that followed.

These wars were marked by immense civilian casualties, genocidal massacres, mass rape and other war crimes. Over 130,000 people died as a result of these conflicts. In fact, the term “ethnic cleansing” was invented by Serbs who attempted to kill, rape or deport all Croats and Muslim Bosniaks living in Bosnia. Unsurprisingly, these acts of violence further inflamed hatreds on all sides. In several of the conflicts, the United States, the United Nations, or NATO intervened with either diplomatic strategies or military might in order to force cease-fires and peace agreements.

As a result of the conflicts, millions of people were displaced from their homes, and the entire region suffered severe economic losses from the costs of the fighting, destruction of property, years of destabilization and ongoing trauma.

Exclusion & Embrace

In 2000, Christianity Today named Exclusion & Embrace by theologian Miroslav Volf one of the most influential books of the 20th century. Volf, a Croatian living in the United States, wrote the book only a few years after the end of the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Volf had presented a paper comparing God’s love to an “embrace,” but found himself caught when he asked the question, “But could you embrace a Chetnik (a Serbian fighter)?” His search for an answer in light of Christ’s life and death led him to write Exclusion & Embrace.

After witnessing massacres of his own people, Volf’s advocacy of nonviolence is profound. Yet at the same time, he reminds us:

Jesus’s mission certainly did not consist merely in passively receiving violence. . . . The pure negativity of nonviolence is barren. . . . At best, oppressors can safely disregard it; at worst, they can see themselves indirectly justified by it. To be significant, nonviolence must be part of a larger strategy of combating the system of terror.

(from Exclusion & Embrace, Revised and Updated, page 288)

In other words, the opposite of war is not nonviolence; the opposite of war is peacemaking. This includes pursuing both justice and restoration for the oppressed and repentance by oppressors. Beyond this, peacemaking means crafting a new way forward for everyone with the desire to live together in love. In the United States, our schools, our media, and even our politicians often present us with idealized philosophies of nonviolence, but without effective strategies for fighting injustice and the willingness to make immense sacrifices, nonviolence isn’t really a tool for change, only an endorsement of the status quo.

Those who lived through the suffering and hatred might still struggle to endorse a theology of nonviolence as completely as Volf does. International trials for the war crimes committed during the Yugoslav wars ended only two years ago. Young men who fought in the wars are now middle-aged. Both the Serbians and Croatians who fought against each other considered themselves Christians and believed God was on their side. Volf admits that following Jesus’ way is costly. For those who have endured atrocities, only the promise of God’s judgment can offer hope that true justice will be done and that true love of the enemy is possible. During Advent, we may be tempted to domesticate the idea of peace. Those of us who live fairly comfortable lives can forget that peace is often hard won by those who oppose injustice, those who stand in the gap in conflict, and those who forgive for the sake of the future. We can also forget that many people — even some in our own country — long for peace but do not currently experience it. For us, a commitment to peacemaking is a commitment to the hard work of justice and healing. 

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