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Angela Merkel visits Yad Vashem

WHAT DOES WAR DO TO HUMAN RELATIONSHIPS?
War destroys economic value in a nation, but it has a bigger impact still. Can people learn to trust one another after years of violence?

Most thinking about the impact of war is conducted on a geo-political level. How can nations learn to trust one another after conflict? The good news is they can: Germany and other European countries have achieved this remarkably in the last seven decades. The bad news is they also don’t: China and Japan remain embittered and we may see this boil over in the South China Sea. Between nations, three commitments are vital in re-building trust: an honest admission of guilt; reparations; co-option into new international structures. This is how Germany has made a success of its re-integration into the democratic world.

Twentieth century versions of inter-state war are being replaced by inter-ethnic or inter-religious war in the twenty-first. The traditional understanding of war as one nation’s struggle for power, resources and land is being replaced by a very intentional desire to harm the other based on their ethnic or religious identity.

At least this is how it appears. We tend to see World War Two in conventional terms in Britain, yet staring us in the face is a malevolent racism in both the Japanese and German prosecution of war. Many Jewish thinkers see it as a total war on the Jews and Hitler’s opening of the Eastern front essentially as a way of destroying the entirety of European Jewry while doing it further away from German soil.

Since the end of the Cold War, a series of horrendous conflicts have been driven by ethnic hatred in the Balkans, Sudan and Rwanda; there has also been shocking violence in places like Sri Lanka, Burma and Sierra Leone. All this has led Daniel Goldhagen in his treatise Worse than War to suggest that genocide is a prism through which we should contemplate war and that our international structures should be crafted in a way which minimises this risk. The outcome of this can be seen in the United Nations’ concept of the Responsibility to Protect.

In the unfolding new Middle East, the hardening of the division between Sunni and Shia Islam is the key to understanding almost every conflict, except for the Israeli – Palestinian dispute which is now conceived less in the nationalist terms it once was and more in religious categories as the rise of both the ultra-Orthodox in Israel and radical Islamism among its neighbours gives a new and more disturbing shade to life.

The prevalence of ethnic and religious conflict makes the work of building trust between people even harder. When you know you are being targeted for death because of how you were born or what you believe, conflict feels very personal; as Leon Trotsky said: you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.

There are two responses we might make from the relative comfort of our lives. The first is for people of faith and especially those who lead them not to co-opt God blithely in support of battle and to demonise the other. A lot of idolatry has been committed through the centuries by people with the temerity to assume they can stick the sword, launch the missile or detonate the belt because God has called them to. This may seem an unexceptional thing to say here, but when confronted with life and death struggle, there is immense pressure on faith leaders to sanctify a war effort.

The clarity which was felt over Hitler’s war on civilisation is not always so easily obtained in conflicts and we should pray for faith and community leaders in today’s messy wars because they hold power which should be exercised faithfully and courageously. Those who mean harm know this. The first people the Hutu militia killed in the genocide of Rwandan Tutsi were not the Tutsi themselves but Hutu priests and moderate community leaders. This took a handbrake off the slaughter.

In his trial in the wilderness, Jesus was tempted to abuse his sense of specialness before God but resisted the allure, defining his mission as one where he would voluntarily die for all, not capriciously subdue them to his will. He understood the universality of God’s love, demonstrated in the covenant made with Noah which is between God and every living creature. We must never allow the almighty creator of this vast expanse to be distorted into a petty and vindictive tribal god, for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

The second response concerns the way we pray. When people lose trust in others it makes them unhappy, insecure and vulnerable; they become unhealthy and unproductive. Many people recovering from today’s wars face incalculably bigger challenges. They are likely to have seen or felt violence at first hand with all the psychological harm this causes. And they are more than likely to be refugees, living a bewildered and precarious life in the hands of hard-pressed humanitarian workers or, much worse, at the mercy of cynical traffickers.

When we pray, we need to think ourselves beyond the headlines, which are governed by editorial constraints, and develop a sense of what I would term ‘spiritual presenteeism’, a commitment to stay in a place beyond the point at which it becomes comfortable. This is the beating heart of intercession.

On the whole we do not devote our prayers to the re-building of trust after conflict; we move on to the next trauma to pray through. Few of us continue to pray for the restoration of trust in the Balkans or Rwanda twenty years after genocide, yet this is only a slither of time in the duration it takes to make things right between people. Without this healing, there may be more grief for future generations.


 

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