The 30th anniversary of the GreenhamCommonWomen‘sPeaceCamp in Berkshire, England, which irritated the military and political establishment from 1981 until 2000 – though the last missiles left in 1992 – was appropriately observed with newspaper articles and TV news features.
Whatever one may have thought of the policies they were advocating, the moral seriousness of the women who put up with physical discomfort, intimidation and mockery for their beliefs was wholly admirable – particularly as their protest spanned the era of “Wall Street’s” Gordon Gecko, whose “Greed is good” mantra defined a generation.
Did it do any good? In terms of hastening the end of the Cold War, or persuading the British government or the Americans to have the missiles moved, categorically not.
Was it a good thing to do? Yes, surely; it stood as a witness to a profoundly felt sense of outrage that human beings could be regarded as disposable – as low-value chips in the game of geo-poker played between Moscow and Washington.
That outrage was not, as a general rule, as sharply felt or clearly expressed in the churches – a pity.
If the campaigners had been successful in their aims, would it have been a good result? Almost certainly not, and this is where the rubber of morality meets the road of circumstance.
The problem lies with the absence of any comparable group in the former USSR, at Teykovo or Derazhnya or Pervomaysk.
If the Americans could have been persuaded to beat their Cruise missiles into tractors, it is far from certain that the Russians would have done the same.
A world dominated by Communism – not the highbrow Marxism of, well, Marx, but the gangster version of the USSR and its satellites – does not bear thinking of.
The game of brinkmanship played for such appallingly high stakes by Cold Warriors with ice-water in their veins – with hot wars displaced to far-away countries in Africa or South America of which their electorates knew nothing and cared less – did, in the end, bring about a world where change is conceivable.
Put that way, it is a modest achievement, but it is something worth having.
Why such a retrospective? Because we have just been faced again with the sort of choice that Christians and other peace-lovers have struggled with for centuries.
A brutal assault on innocent civilians was launched by a megalomaniac dictator with a record of atrocities. Their ghosts would not have thanked us if we had only wrung our hands and spoken loftily of the sanctity of all human life.
There was a moral case for intervention, and for this to be effective it requires a whole military apparatus – its weapons, training, culture and resources. Without it, we could have done nothing.
Of course, Libya is not yet at peace; of course, there is a danger of another Iraq. But change is conceivable, and that is worth having.
For this, British Prime Minister David Cameron, who appears to have been the driving force behind this intervention, deserves high praise.
This is all very obvious, but it is worth saying for two reasons.
First, as citizens we should be deeply concerned if our armed forces are being run down to the point where they are being asked to do things beyond their capability, or where they will not be asked to do things because it is obvious that they can’t do it.
The world is still not so safe that it can do without a powerful and effective military alliance that is generally responsible and accountable.
Second, as Christians it is time we engaged far more deeply with questions of peace and war and the appropriate use of force.
Augustine’s Just War criteria are still foundational in any discussion of whether it is right to go to war, but have Christians in the 21st century nothing to add?
Are we content to take our theology from the Telegraph, the Guardian or the Mail, rather than from the pulpit? Or has the pulpit abdicated its teaching responsibility in this area?
Just suppose the next intervention were to be in Syria. What would we think – and why?
Mark Woods is a Baptist minister and managing editor for ChristianToday.com. He served previously as the editor of The Baptist Times of Great Britain.