A Modest Proposal for Peace

Stuart Murray Williams

I have on my office wall a small poster with a silhouette of two people embracing and an intriguing proposal superimposed on this background: ‘Let the Christians of the world agree that they will not kill each other.’

This proposal has been dated to 1984 and attributed to John Stoner, an Anabaptist church leader, although some have suggested an earlier version of this was already circulating. It is explicitly designated ‘a modest proposal’ for peace. In other words, this is not a final solution to global violence or a full expression of shalom, the all-embracing vision to which Scripture points. But it might be a beginning, or at least the start of a beginning.

Over the years I have tested out this proposal with many different Christian communities, and I have been intrigued by the various responses. Sometimes I ask whether everyone present would be prepared to make a definite commitment to refrain from killing anyone else in their own community. You may fall out with each other, I suggest. You may argue and bicker. You may insult and slander each other. You might even come to blows. But you agree that you will not resort to lethal violence. Is this a realistic proposal? Can you all make this agreement in good conscience and expecting never to act against it?

Some regard this as a no-brainer: of course they will not kill another member of their own community. Others are more wary, conscious of the violence lurking beneath the surface of their apparently placid exteriors and reluctant to second-guess their reactions to severe provocation. But most, after brief reflection, respond that they would be willing to agree to this proposal.

But what if your ‘enemy’ is someone from another Christian community, such as the church down the road? What if it is someone whose theology or ethical position you find not only wrong but outrageous? Are you sure that you would never consider killing them in order to preserve the true faith? Few people find this a step too far. Having got over the hump of agreeing not to kill members of their own community, extending this kindness to members of other nearby communities does not require much additional reflection.

But what if your ‘enemy’ is not nearby but far away, in a Christian community in another nation? What if your nation is at war with that nation? What if you are a member of the armed forces responsible for defeating that nation and you believe that the war is justified and necessary? What if your actions might result in the killing of Christians in the army that is opposing you? What if the armaments you use result in Christians being among the civilian casualties referred to as collateral damage?

This is the point at which the debate really begins. Do Christians owe a higher allegiance to their nation or to the global Christian community? In modern warfare how can soldiers know who their actions might impact? Are members of the armed forces exempt from the ethical norms of not killing others? If so, can Christians ever take part in military action? Agreeing not to kill another Christian might preclude this unless there is some way of ensuring that no Christians are in the opposing army or anywhere near the battle zone. At this point some draw back from the ‘modest proposal’.

Then, of course, there is the question of complicity in the killing of other Christians by less direct means. If you pay taxes that help to fund military action in which Christians are killed, if you have shares in companies that make the weapons that kill them, if you buy goods that are produced by Christians working in conditions that shorten their lives, if you fail to take action to redress the global injustice that results in Christians starving or succumbing to preventable diseases or dying in many other ways…

This ‘modest proposal’ is looking increasingly demanding and radical. How many other Christians have you already killed – by default if not by design?

At some stage in the debate a different point is usually raised. Why should this agreement apply only to Christians? Does the proposal imply that it is acceptable for Christians to kill Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, atheists and those with no definite views? Sometimes this point is raised early in the debate by those who find this an offensive and unjustifiable implication. Sometimes it only dawns on people later as the wide-ranging potential of this proposal becomes apparent. But if Christians are to refrain from killing anyone, doesn’t this mean that pacifism is the only option? And this leads into the much older debate about what Jesus meant when he told us to love our enemies and whether this is realistic in an unjust and violent world.

For a ‘modest proposal’ the suggestion that all the Christians of the world might agree not to kill each other opens up a remarkable range of issues. It is the thin edge of a very large wedge, a Trojan horse (to use a rather inapt militaristic image) that gets through our defences, an invitation to imagine a different kind of world and a different kind of global Christian community.