Wendell Berry on war and peace

June 24, 2010

I just read this challenging Wendell Berry essay, “Peaceableness Toward Enemies,” in his collection of essays entitled Sex, Economy & Community. Happily, after reading it in one of these old-fashioned, analog things called books, I found it online. (Thank you, Internet. I hope Berry is getting compensated in some way!) He wrote it shortly after the first Gulf War in 1991, but it could have been written this morning. Berry, a genteel Kentuckian, has no discernible partisan ax to grind. It’s safe to say whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, libertarian or socialist, he disagrees with you.

Instead of a partisan harangue, he presents what I view as a Christian alternative (although he’s writing for a largely secular audience) to the usual way we understand war, peace, and diplomacy in this country.

Here’s one highlight:

We seem to be following, on the one hand, the logic of preventive war, according to which we probably ought to kill all heads of state and their supporters to keep them from sooner or later becoming power-hungry maniacs who will force us to fight a big war to save freedom, civilization, peace, gentleness, and brotherly love. On the other hand, we have our customary practice of aiding, encouraging, and winking at power-hungry maniacs, because we think them useful and secretly admire them, until they become strong enough to threaten our power-hungry maniacs. But peaceableness is not the same thing as this planning for war and making war, or this reckless dealing in power. If it is to mean anything, peaceableness has to operate all the time, not lie dormant until the emergence of power-hungry maniacs. Amish pacifism makes sense because the Amish are peaceable all the time. If they attacked their neighbors and then, when their neighbors retaliated, started loving them, praying for them, and turning the other cheek, they would be both wrong and stupid. Of course, as the Amish know, peaceableness can get you killed. 1 suppose they would reply that war can get you killed, too, and is more likely to get you killed than peaceableness-and also that when a peaceable person is killed, peaceableness survives.

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