The serious case peace – On the war in Ukraine

Theological and ethical considerations

1. Introduction

Wars are waged by all means, including with the help of statistics. Figures can give a first impression of the dimensions. According to British estimates, around 70,000 Russian soldiers and mercenaries have been killed and between 180,000 and 240,000 Russian soldiers and 40,000 mercenaries have been injured in the war in Ukraine. In April 2023, the Ukrainian defence minister at the time put the number of Ukrainian soldiers killed at under 50,000. According to UN figures from November 2023, there were at least 10,000 Ukrainian civilians killed, although the actual number is likely to be considerably higher because the UN only records victims who are independently confirmed. According to the UNHCR, 6.3 million people have fled Ukraine, over 5.9 million of them to Europe. The number of internally displaced persons within Ukraine is put at 4.9 million. Almost 60,000 people from Ukraine have found protection in Switzerland. Since the terrorist attack by Hamas, Israel has registered around 1,200 deaths and around 5,500 injuries in its own country. According to the Ministry of Health in Gaza, around 24,500 people have been killed and around 61,500 injured by Israeli military operations in Gaza to date. According to the ACLED Conflict Index, there were armed conflicts in 168 countries and regions in 2023, 50 of which are classified as particularly serious and affect one in six of the world's population. In the last five years, armed conflicts in the world have thus increased by 22%. In the middle of last year, the UNHCR counted over 110 million "forcibly displaced people" worldwide, including 36.4 million registered refugees, 6.1 million asylum seekers and 62.5 million internally displaced persons. According to SIPRI, global military spending in 2022 totalled almost 2.2 trillion US dollars, an increase of around 4.3 % compared to 2020. Switzerland spent 5.87 billion Swiss francs or 0.86 % of its gross domestic product on military purposes in 2022.

Talking about war, let alone against war, means talking about or even against normality. Given the sobering statistics, is it even normal not to be confronted with the normality of armed violence in everyday life? Almost reflexively, we are convinced that Switzerland and the peaceful countries in the West are where the whole world should actually be. But are we really ahead of the rest of the world, or are our peaceful conditions not instead being paid for on a daily basis by the discord in many parts of the world? So is our peace not real peace, but merely the politically and economically created and secured tip of the iceberg in a sea of violence? These are urgent questions that need to be answered in advance, as they will not be the subject of this lecture. The following considerations focus on the topic of war and peace from a theological and ethical perspective.

2. Who is speaking?

"Once again, someone clapped a hysterical salvo of machine-gun fire into the tree trunks, then they turned round and ploughed back into the copse. We immediately ran back behind the embankment, crouched down: the ground was red, red oh. One of the old farmers sat stolidly, holding his dripping, flailing arm. And one of the children was almost completely torn apart by two giant splinters, neck and shoulders, everything. The mother still held her head high and looked in amazement at the fat crimson pool. [...] The priest comforted the weeping woman; he said: 'The Lord has given it; the Lord has taken it' - and, fetch the devil, the coward and Byzantine added: "Praise be to the name of the Lord!" (And looked proudly at us poor lost heathens, the shameless lackey soul! - The guiltless child - He can only tell his 2000-year-old jokes about original sin to someone who no longer has a brim on his hat: Have these people never thought that God could be the guilty party?"

The passage from Arno Schmidt's "Leviathan or The Best of Worlds" describes a Russian artillery attack on a refugee route from Berlin to the West at the end of the Second World War. The challenges and difficulties of theological and ethical reflection on the war are condensed in the scene like a burning glass: the unspeakable brutality and violence against the defenceless child and the powerless mother, the cynical fatalism of the biblical pastor and the deadly violence of the Russian soldiers who come from their homeland, which is littered with victims of the German war of aggression, to liberate the world from the Nazi terror regime with the Allies. It is an intricate plot because the massacre described generates anger and indignation in the reader, which is directed against the perpetrators who, from another perspective, are the victims of the state to which the victims depicted in the scene belong. The moral division between perpetrators and victims depends on the perspective that determines which story is told. At first glance, the different stories appear to relate to the same facts. But the objectivity of the facts is an assumption that overlooks the fact that facts are always the objects of communication about them and disappear when they are no longer told. This is why the propagandistic struggle for the supremacy of narratives and interpretations, for self-presentation as a victim and the scandalisation of the enemy is so indispensable (not only) in war. This should not automatically lead to the conclusion that the narratives are incorrect or untrustworthy. For in the absence of an alternative, it would be complete madness to reject across the board everything that is told, that can be spoken about as a matter of course and that cannot be present in any other way than in these narratives. What is wrong, however, is the associated claim to know and tell the only correct story.

In addition to the horizontal difference between the narrative perspectives, there is also a vertical distinction between the levels of participation and observation. In violent conflicts, this can be seen directly in the localisation of the bodies. The fear of the threat, the pain and the destruction of the person involved is different from the fear of the observer of getting into such a situation with their own body. From the perspective of vulnerability theory (see Freedom an Security by Frank Mathwig), it is about the categorical distinction between the wounds suffered by one's own body and the threat posed by one's own vulnerability. Both perspectives are real because they are actually threatening. But while the wounds represent a threat to the person, the vulnerability represents a threat to the person's safety. The differences between participation and observation become even greater when a theoretical perspective is adopted. This also applies to theological-ethical reflection on peace and war, which is not characterised by direct involvement and acute danger, but is based on observations that guide reflection and judgement.

3. The biblical understanding of peace

From a Judeo-Christian perspective, peace is a predicate of God. "Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you." (John 14:27) At the ethical centre of Christianity is the call from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount: "Love your enemies" (Matthew 5:44) and the promise "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons and daughters of God". (Mt 5:9) In both Testaments, the extension of love of neighbour to love of strangers is found as a Jewish-Christian characteristic in relation to the cultural environment (cf. Lev 19:18.33f.; Deut 10:18f.; Mt 5:43-48; Lk 6:27-35; 1 Cor 4:12; Lk 10:29-37). Jesus universalises love of neighbour by extending it to every person through love of one's enemies and by demanding the renunciation of retaliation (Mt 5:38-48). In the Christmas story, the birth of Jesus is announced as "peace on earth" (Lk 2:14), Paul refers to Christ as "our peace" (Eph 2:14) and many New Testament letter introductions begin with the Jewish greeting of peace, which brings about shalom in those who are greeted (Gen 43:27f.).

From a biblical-theological perspective, peace cannot be "created" or "produced", but must be established. The Bible does not understand this to mean a political status or social state, but rather a wholesome overall order that is based on God's relationship with his creation. The God of Israel is the God of peace. Shalom does not only mean the absence of war, hostilities and discord, but also "a state conducive to life in the community from the family to the people and the world of nations, the beneficial interaction between[ischen] man and nature and the reconciliation between[ischen] God and man. There can only be life in F[rieden] if šalôm prevails in all these fields of interaction, which are inextricably linked". In the First Testament, peace and justice are inseparable. "Righteousness and peace kiss each other" (Ps 85:11). "And the work of righteousness shall be peace, and the fruit of righteousness quietness and security for ever." (Is 32:17) Eschatological, political and virtue-ethical aspects can be combined: "And he will judge between the peoples and give instruction to the nations; and they will forge their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. No nation shall lift up sword against sword, neither shall they learn war any more." (Isa 2:4) Against the violence and peacelessness of the world, the two testaments call for us to "seek peace and pursue it" (Ps 34:15) and "pursue peace with all men" (Heb 12:14). The biblical talk of peace "appeals to a deep dimension of experience and self-understanding, which lies ahead of all action and all rationality of action, but can therefore realign and orientate it".

4. Violence against, for and with God

It is well known that the Bible is far from all peaceful. In the First Testament, God appears as a war hero, as Lord and man of war (Ex 15:3), has peaceful nations slaughtered (Mic 4:13) and crushed like a threshing cart (Is 41:15) or King Menahem slashes all pregnant women (2 Kings 15:16). "God exterminates, destroys, tears down, strikes, shatters, pierces, kills, slaughters, makes childless, devours, devours, tears apart, makes sick, makes hungry and starves, [...] scatters, drives away, leads into exile, confuses, abandons, exposes, shears, causes fire, forgives, tempts, passes the cup of wrath and condemns." A threefold understanding of violence can be distinguished in the First Testament: It is either (1.) ontological interpreted as an expression of creaturely sinfulness (prototypically in Cain's fratricide of Abel, Gen 4) or (2.) subjective as a violation of the divine commandments (Moses' revenge murder of the Egyptian taskmaster, Ex 2:11f.; David's insidious plan to kill Uriah; 2Sam 11) or (3.) relational as an expression of an explicit divine mandate and a special closeness to God or a special gift from God (Esther's order for a massacre against the enemies of her people, Esther 8f.; Samson's suicide bombing, Jdg 16). The judgement of violence does not depend on the actions, but on their authorisation. Violence is ostracised if it is motivated by human emotions, motives and reasons. From a Jewish-Christian perspective, a crime is fundamentally an offence against God himself and his commandments. God not only establishes the law, he also enforces it and, as judge, sanctions it either immediately (Jewish) or at the end (Christian). Violence also occurs as an expression of obedience to God when God himself acts through the person and thus confirms his presence. Such behaviour on God's behalf is no different from a crime. As a result, the biblical understanding of violence creates a moral irritation: violence is forbidden and will be punished unless it is done on God's express command.

In the First Testament, violence is not a question of morality, but of justice. Human behaviour must comply with the applicable laws. This does not prevent the prophets from massively denouncing purely legalistic ideas of justice. After all, justice is aimed at a life-enhancing relational practice. Accordingly, the Hebrew term for justice (Hebrew zdq, zedaqah) is translated as "community loyalty". God is faithful to his people and his creation. The strongest expression for this unilateral promise of loyalty given by God is the "covenant". When God promises Abraham the gift of the land (Gen 15:17f.), this promise is absolute and applies regardless of whether Israel keeps or breaks its covenant obligations. The Noahic covenant (Gen 9) does not recognise any reciprocal contractual partners, but is made unilaterally by God and depends exclusively on God's faithfulness to his people and his creation. Justice and God's faithfulness form the inseparable unity of the "everlasting covenant" (Gen 17:7.13; Ex 31:16). Violence and peace belong to a triangular constellation with the cornerstones of non-violence/violence - peace - justice/righteousness. Peace denotes a complex and conflictual relationship of justice and life-enhancing relationality that is not categorically opposed to violence, but includes the possibility of divinely authorised violence. The structure of the triangular constellation is formed by God's covenant of blessing with his people and his creation.

5. Ambivalent renunciation of violence

The Sermon on the Mount and Jesus' field discourse, his exemplary actions and the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) are guiding principles for the Christian ethos of peace. However, even these basic texts convey a differentiated picture. Jesus' best-known parable has become synonymous with Christian morality in the present day. However, it also illustrates its tangible dilemma, because the exemplary love of neighbour amounts to a precarious reduction of real living conditions. Viewed soberly, the parable jumps on the bandwagon of human violence and injustice rather late. The crime and injustice have already happened before the Good Samaritan appears. Characteristically, the common moral interpretations do not say a word about the perpetrators of the violence, the "robbers". Strangely enough, the "robbers" to whom the man falls victim on the road to Jericho are always already there in a fateful way. The actual perpetrators of violence are the others who are concealed by the parable. It does not say a word about the structures and practices of violence that produce the victims, but concentrates entirely on dealing with the consequences. This is unproblematic as long as the interpretations of the parable remain limited to this. However, church and theological history have regularly broadened the focus and used the parable to justify the prohibition of fighting against the causes of violence and injustice.

The silence about the fact that violence comes into the world with the "robbers" raises a question that Jesus does not ask: How would the merciful Samaritan have acted if he had been on the scene at the time of the crime and had caught the "robbers" in the act? Would he still have gone down in Western moral history as the paradigm of mercy? Would he have waited until the brawl was over so as not to get into moral trouble? Or would he have taken the pacifist stance of Mahatma Ghandi and Bertha von Suttner? Or would he have intervened mercilessly like Harry Callahan in "Dirty Harry" and Beatrix Kiddo in "Kill Bill"? It is difficult to understand why charity should demand the same behaviour towards victims of violence as it does towards the perpetrators of violence. This would amount to a morality of notorious tardiness, which sleeps through the causes of injustice and violence, or a broom wagon morality that restricts itself to sweeping up the broken pieces and healing the wounds. And Aron Ronald Bodenheimer would have added: "Above all, the non-violent-violent cries do not want to recognise this one thing: that the peace of some has always been bought with the discord of others."

Jesus' other statements on violence must also be assessed in a differentiated manner. During his arrest in Gethsemane (Mt 26:47-56), he rejects violent resistance by a disciple: "Put your sword in his place! For all who take up the sword will perish by the sword." (Mt 26:52) But he justifies the renunciation of self-defence with two unexpected arguments. The first justification is explicitly not pacifist, but power-strategic: "Or do you think that I could not ask my Father and he would immediately put more than twelve legions of angels at my side?" (Mt 26:53) Jesus thus formulates a constitutive condition for renouncing violence: violence can only be renounced by those who can dispose of it, otherwise it would not be a renunciation but a compulsion out of powerlessness. It therefore makes a fundamental difference whether a person becomes a victim of violence because they voluntarily renounce their self-defence or because they simply cannot defend themselves against it. Jesus' voluntary renunciation of self-defence is also behind the second reason: "But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, according to which it must be so?" (Mt 26:54) He makes no mention of the most obvious argument from the fifth antithesis of his Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:38-42): "But I say to you, do not resist evil, but resist it: If anyone strikes you on your right cheek, offer him the other also. And if anyone wants to take your coat, let him have your cloak also." (Mt 5:39f.) Ulrich Luz interpreted the demands as "a piece of deliberate provocation". "It is about alienation, about shocking, about a symbolic protest against the cycle of violence. Their evidence is not that the behaviour they demand is plausible". This interpretation is obvious because Jesus' impulses "[n]owhere, perhaps not even in Matthew, [...] were carried through in full vigour".

This applies all the more to the history of reception. The radical line of a consistent practice of loving one's neighbour extends as far as the Constantinian Revolution and is subsequently only encountered in the shadow of the state-supporting mainstream church. Since the Reformation, the statist pragmatism of the large denominational churches and Anabaptist and certain Calvinist currents, which return to the radical claims of the early Christian communities, have been in opposition to each other. The tightening of the doctrine of sin and justification and the fight against Anabaptist circles led to the fact that in the Reformation "for the first time, the tones emphasising the unfulfillability of the Sermon on the Mount [predominated]". The love of neighbour and enemy is either subsumed under Paul's criticism of the law or discredited as a form of works righteousness or reduced to an individualistic private morality. Ulrich Luz summarises that "in the area of the Reformation churches, a real practice of Christianity based on the Sermon on the Mount did not occur for the most part" and continues: "No interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount was ever completely protected from justifying what actually happened in the church at the time." Nevertheless, the radical juxtaposition of renouncing violence and demanding love "reminds Christian love of its origins in the kingdom of God [...]" and "prevents it from being merely a worldly survival aid".

6. The doctrine of just war (bellum iustum)

With reference to the Sermon on the Mount, the early Christian communities refused to serve in the armed forces, take the oath of allegiance and worship the emperor, and the Church still criminalised them at the beginning of the fourth century. However, these provisions were relativised a few years later. The conquest of Rome by Alaric in 410, which Augustine witnessed and to which he responded with a theological justification of military service and defensive warfare, was a profound turning point. The Constantinian Revolution, which elevated Christianity to the status of a state church, placed the topic of peace and war in a new context. Against the background of the new concept of security (securitas), a distinction is now made between legitimate state rule (potestas of auctoritas principis) and illegitimate violence (violentia). Negative violence is to be combated with positive violence. This also includes war as a means of state violence to protect the state's own territory against external attacks. St Augustine's criteria of "lawful war" (bellum iustum) form the starting point for a discussion that has continued to the present day via Thomas and Aquinas, the theologians of the Reformation and their successors. In a current formulation of the "ethics of law-preserving violence", they read as follows:

Criteria for war (ius ad bellum):

1. Is there a legitimate political authority (legitima potestas)?

2. Is there a justifiable cause (causa iusta)?

3. Does the use of force prevent a greater evil that cannot otherwise be combated (recta intentio)?

4. Is law-preserving military force the last resort (ultima ratio)?

5. Does the goal justify the means of violence used (iustus finis)?

Criteria in war (ius in bello):

6. Is the use of military means proportionate (proportionality)?

7. Does the use of force differentiate between combatants and civilians (discriminatio)?

7. Fairer peace

A new dynamic of political, legal, ecclesiastical and theological reflection on peace and war began in the 20th century, the cruellest and most brutal century in human history. Dietrich Bonhoeffer's lecture at the conference of the World Alliance for Friendship Work of the Church in Fanø in August 1934 was ecumenically groundbreaking: "How can peace be achieved? Through a system of political treaties? Through the investment of international capital in the various countries? i.e. through the big banks, through money? Or even through an all-round peaceful armament for the purpose of securing peace? No, not through any of this for the one reason that peace and security are being confused everywhere. There is no way to peace by way of security. For peace must be risked, is a great risk, and can never be secured. Peace is the opposite of security. Demanding security means having mistrust, and this mistrust in turn gives birth to war. Seeking security means wanting to protect yourself. Peace means surrendering oneself completely to the commandment of God, not wanting security, but rather placing the history of the nations in the hands of Almighty God in faith and obedience and not wanting to selfishly dispose of them." These crystal-clear statements are set against the backdrop of German National Socialism, the Gleichschaltung of the churches, a war-loving, nationalistic neo-Lutheranism and a fatal appeasement policy of international states towards Germany.

Under the impression of the Second World War, Karl Barth soberly states: Anyone who talks about war today must know "that it simply and unambiguously means killing: killing without splendour, without dignity, without chivalry, without barrier and consideration for any side. [...] The possibility of the atomic and hydrogen bomb was all that was missing to complete the self-disclosure of war in this respect." That is why the old Roman wisdom "Si vis pacem para bellum!" - If you want peace, prepare for war - has finally had its day. It must be replaced by the opposite realisation: " Si non vis bellum, para pacem! [If you don't want war, prepare for peace] Take care of a better organisation of peace!" "The normal task of the state, according to Christian understanding of its nature, is not to wage war, but its normal task is to organise peace in such a way that it serves life but keeps war at bay." This requires "Christian faith, understanding and courage [...] - and this is what the Christian church, Christian ethics, is there to prove - to call out to peoples and governments that, conversely, the Peace is the case of emergency: the case in which - only really 'from the outset' - all time, all strength, all assets must be used to ensure that people can live, and live well, so that they have no reason to flee to war, i.e. so that they do not have to expect from war what peace has denied them." The Church has an important role to play here. It stands up "for good faith also in their relations with each other [...], for solid, contractual agreements, and for their observance, for Arbitration tribunals and international groupings, [...] for the open-mindedness, for the understanding, for the patience towards others, for such an education of young people that endears them to peace and not to war, [...] and against all inflammatory hysteria, i.e. against all premature "painting on the wall of that other, warlike emergency". This does not exclude the case of war as ultima ratio, in which, however, the Church never adopts the "language of propaganda" of the "wilfully agitated" and the "agitated seduced by them", but "first and foremost makes this distancing, this postponing movement".

Karl Barth's interweaving of the task of peace in international law and civil society anticipates a development that began after the powerless bystander role of the international community in the massacres in Rwanda in 1994 and Srebrenica in 1995 and led to the concept of the Responsibility to Protect. At its centre is the idea that state sovereignty "does not only include independence (non-interference in internal affairs) and self-determination", but "must also be measured against the sovereignty of its citizens". [muss]. This includes the protection of the population. If states are unable or unwilling to protect their own populations, this responsibility falls to the international community." This gives rise to three main tasks: 1. prevention (responsibility to prevent), 2nd reaction (responsibility to react) and 3. reconstruction (responsibility to rebuild), prioritising the obligation to prevent violence. The complementary tasks of the state and the population correspond to Barth's triad of justice, peace and freedom. Peace does not exist only when state law applies or is restored, because a legal order can produce and cement highly violent, oppressive and precarious conditions. Barth sets his third criterion of peace against such formalisation. Peace only reigns when a legal system actually guarantees the freedom of all persons subject to it.

8. And what if there is a war?

The war in Ukraine has obviously caught theological peace ethics on the wrong foot. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Christian churches around the world agreed that war should not be God's will and, in view of the monstrous nuclear arsenals, must not be. This stance, which the Western European churches have maintained in their official statements to this day, has long been questioned by academic theologians and has been further fuelled by the war in Ukraine. The criticism is directed above all against the ethics of law-preserving force advocated by the EKD, which - to put it bluntly - is based on the idea of transferring the structures and functions of the national democratic constitutional state to the international world of states and is based on Karl Barth's triad of peace, freedom and justice.

Law-preserving power relies on a well-developed international legal system with a high degree of binding force, enforcement and sanctioning power. All of this applies to the institutions of international law, above all the UN Security Council with the right of veto of the permanent members, only in a more or less limited way. Many of the armed conflicts conducted after 1945 at least formally violated the prohibition of war in Art. 2 para. 4 of the UN Charter and the "measures to be taken in case of threat or breach of the peace and in case of acts of aggression" laid down in Chapter VII of the UN Charter (Art. 39-51). This reality of international law is ignored by the concept of just peace with the means of law-preserving force. It also fails to recognise the fact that "sometimes law-enforcing force is necessary [...]. There may be situations in which it is necessary to take early and energetic action by military means against those who systematically threaten or destroy the lives of other people". For the Viennese theologian Ulrich Körtner, the concept of just peace "mixes the biblical hope for the kingdom of divine peace with the utopia of world peace based on the United Nations". The weaknesses of international law - or more precisely: the disregard for it by the belligerent states - have led to a renaissance not only of the doctrine of just war, but also of the doctrine of nuclear deterrence. The theological discussion follows on from the "Heidelberg Theses on the Question of War and Peace in the Nuclear Age" of 1959. Against the backdrop of the controversy over the permissibility or prohibition of nuclear deterrence, which threatened to break up the Protestant Church in Germany, an interdisciplinary commission drew up 11 theses, which were adopted by the church as a common position. The sixth thesis is particularly controversial, according to which "the various decisions of conscience made in the dilemma of nuclear weapons must be understood as complementary actions". Current theological contributions also refer to the concept of complementarity taken from quantum physics. A responsible peace ethic must boil down to the formula: "Hope for the best, prepare for the worst." Körtner summarises: "The idea of an enemy-free democracy has proven to be an illusion. The enemy of the West is not the Russian people, but its leadership. As important as all steps towards de-escalation and the search for diplomatic solutions are, it would be naive and irresponsible towards the people of Ukraine to assure Putin and his followers that we do not regard them as enemies. If you want to obey Jesus' commandment to love your enemies, you have to know who your enemies are and who they are not."

These are new tones in theological peace ethics: "enemies", "nuclear deterrence" or "candyfloss world", in which the emeritus Zurich theological ethicist Johannes Fischer locates the church's peace ethics. What appears to be directed against the church is in fact a questioning of the political, legal and ethical endeavours to overcome war through a global order of international law, which date back to antiquity and the Middle Ages, through the Reformation and Enlightenment and into the 20th century. It is part of the hectic pace of thought in turbulent times that, in pushing forwards, we lose sight of what is being pushed backwards. In theological peace ethics, there is currently a shift in perspective from "peace" to "security", which Christopher Daase also recognises in politics: "Security is the central value concept of our society. This was not always the case. Just a few years ago, the terms 'security' and 'peace' were competing for priority in strategy debates and party programmes. Today, 'security' is the gold standard of national and international politics, and peace is almost only talked about in political Sunday speeches." This once again catches the church and theology on the wrong foot, because the topic of "security" plays no significant role in biblical studies, theology and ethics. (cf. text by Frank Mathwig on Freedom and Security)

The current debate follows the well-worn pattern of argument between ethics of conviction versus ethics of responsibility and principles versus consequences. From a theological perspective, this includes Bonhoeffer's formula of the willingness to accept guilt. As an example, the EKD states: "In situations in which responsibility for one's own life or the lives of others necessitates action that simultaneously threatens or destroys life, no amount of careful weighing of interests can free us from the risk of becoming guilty." What does this mean? If it were a matter of the everyday wisdom that where there's wood, there are chips, the theological reference would be trivial. If allusion is made to one's own conscience towards God, then the demands of conscience and ethical duties come into conflict with each other and confront the person with the choice of coherence of conscience or guilt. When it comes to the urgency of an action with regard to those affected, the normative reference changes: it is not about how an acting person can be and remain in agreement with themselves, but about what must be done to the best of their knowledge and conscience in order to defend and protect their personal integrity. When making decisions that affect the living conditions of third parties, the general public and society, it is the factually competent, argumentatively well-balanced and ethically prudent judgement that counts. The question of personal conscience is at best subordinate to this. The responsibility towards the people who have to bear the consequences of an action or inaction cannot be offset against the personal obligation of conscience with regard to this action or inaction. Because: "It is not the subject that sets itself the task, but the task that constitutes the subject." Or to put it theologically with Karl Barth: from a theological perspective, the ethical subject is "the sanctified human being, who is not the subject, but the predicate of the statements of theological ethics. He is God's creature, he is a sinner who has been graced in Christ, he is an heir to the kingdom of God because and insofar as God claims him as the all." The theological discussion of guilt is based on the false assumption that an objectively rational, ethically founded and morally justified judgement, decision and action necessarily draws on sources other than personal conscience orientation. This strange assumption owes its largely uncritical acceptance to a two-world theory practised in the theological tradition.

Conversely, renouncing such a position of retreat means not levelling out tensions, incoherences and ambivalences, but recognising them as an inescapable feature of challenging, existential and borderline situations. One example of this is Karl Barth's letter to the Prague theologian Josef Hromádka a few days before the annexation of Czechoslovakia by National Socialist Germany in October 1938: "Strange times, dear colleague, in which it is impossible to say anything else in one's right mind than that it is necessary for the sake of faith to resolutely put the fear of violence and the love of peace in second place and the fear of injustice and the love of freedom just as resolutely in first place!" In the letter, Barth assigns the Czechoslovak soldiers in the resistance against Hitler the same representative role for Europe that is attributed today to the Ukrainian struggle for its own state sovereignty against the Russian Federation. The lines of the letter are not without conflict with Barth's considerations on peace ethics outlined above. This reveals an ambivalence that always occurs when well-founded convictions encounter real situations in which they are neither cancelled nor exposed as errors, but can only be broken or even only counterfactually oriented. In a letter written a little later, Barth endeavours to clarify this: "The church may have to suffer dictatorship. But the political space that it alone can affirm, approve and want is that of order and freedom." From this remarkable distinction between what the church and the state may or must be expected to do, it is possible to derive a framework for an ethic of peace from a church and theological perspective:

1. Pacifism as a Christian virtue is a respectable attitude of persons;

2. a legal pacifism based on robust international law, in which wars have no justification and no place, is a desirable goal of global civil society;

3. pacifism as a state principle would oblige citizens to martyrdom in an emergency;

4. the personal attitude and state action are incommensurable, because the state has no general right to oblige a person to suffer and die.

These guidelines also apply to the church's public statements on peace and war, which make a justified claim to socio-political relevance. Many arguments and positions are possible within this normative framework. In addition, the guard rails make it possible to keep alive the doubts that necessarily accompany such borderline decisions. And these are appropriate in the face of a security policy that still appears with the elitist habitus of secret knowledge. Peter Ustinov recalls a highly symbolic event: on 4 February 2003, "the US Secretary of State Colin Powell entered the UN building to promote the American-British war against Iraq in front of the microphones of the international press, accompanied by the honest weapons inspector Dr Hans Blix. A tapestry of Picasso's 'Guernica', donated by Nelson Rockefeller, has been hanging in the foyer of the UN building for years. When Powell arrives, it is covered by a blue curtain with UN logos. For the horrors conjured up by the most famous anti-war painting of the 20th century would be part of everyday life in the war against Iraq. This war too, cynically announced as 'surgically clean' by the propaganda of the attackers, would cost the lives of the civilian population: dying women and screaming children. They could not afford a panorama that symbolised this truth. Nothing should and must disturb the lie."


This lecture was given by Frank Mathwig in the adult education series 2024 "Ernstfall Frieden" of the Reformed Church of Frutigen. In Aeschi on 23.01.2024.

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Frank Mathwig

Frank Mathwig

Prof. Dr. theol.
Beauftragter für Theologie und Ethik

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