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Militarization and rearmament must be confronted

by Benedikt Kern & Julia Lis
Mysticism always fertilizes the political through its transcending power. What is meant by this is that it not only points beyond the status quo, but also questions the conditions in their foundations and overall architecture. In this respect, mystical thinking always introduces a hint of how things could be and perhaps should be.
Militarization and rearmament must be confronted
"Militarization and rearmament are a complex that has been unlearned to confront."

A discussion about anti-militarism, pacifism, the legitimacy of revolutionary violence and the role of Christians in the struggle for a different world.

With: Cristina Yurena Zerr and Jakob Frühmann, authors of the book Breaking Bread and Laws, Christian Antimilitarism from the Dock (Mandelbaum-Verlag, Vienna 2021) and Benedikt Kern and Julia Lis from the Institute for Theology and Politics. Published March 11, 2023.
[This discussion posted on 3/11/2023 is translated from the German on the Internet,]

Antimilitarist civil disobedience by Christian*s who invaded the Büchel military base.

Benedikt Kern: In your book "Breaking Bread and Laws" you refer to the anti-militarist practice of Christians* in the Ploughshares and Catholic Worker movements. These actions of occupation of military bases up to sabotage actions and their explanation before courts are also described in your book as mystical practice and confession. From your point of view, how do mysticism and politics relate to each other here? Isn't there a tendency in Christian peace movement interventions to be much about confession and little about sabotage, which is really an interruption of the militaristic normal state?

Jakob Frühmann: Yes, that is partly true. We also asked ourselves the question about the effectiveness of such actions, some of which have strong symbolic power but very little material or political impact. At the same time, it is perhaps also important to remain modest or humble, despite all the audacity and revolutionary longing, and to state: Taking a radical stand is a start and hard enough. Who among us dares to break into a military base? What if all Christians in the world took even a fraction of Christian ethics seriously and took on a few weeks in jail because of their anti-militaristic testimony?

"Mystical thinking always includes a hint of how things could be and perhaps should be."

Finally, mysticism always fertilizes the political through its transcending power. What is meant by this is that it not only points beyond the status quo, but also questions the conditions in their foundations and overall architecture. In this respect, mystical thinking always introduces a hint of how things could be and perhaps should be. This may sometimes be vague, abstract, and dwell in the symbolic, while the political struggles with hard reality, but the gaze, the methodology, our questions, and perhaps our practice are thus broadened.

Cristina Yurena Zerr: The so-called anti-draft actions of the late 60s and early 70s in the U.S., where tens of thousands of draft acts were sabotaged in hundreds of actions as a sign against the war, are for me a powerful example of how sabotage can go hand in hand with confession. On the one hand, the war effort was actually disturbed, in that many soldiers could not be drafted; on the other hand, the actions - precisely because of the public confession of the activists, and the broad attention they received for it - sparked a confrontation with the war and one's own complicity.1

A sabotage action throws sand into the gears and disturbs the normal state of affairs. This is usually answered with repression, fences are built higher, the monopoly on the use of force is strengthened. A public testimony that leads to a court case, for example, as it is the case in the tradition of the Plowshares actions, however, additionally opens a place of confrontation that can lead to the disturbance of the normal state on the level of consciousness, for example, by a judge having to deal with their testimonies.

When four activists were on trial in Vienna for a protest action against Rheinmetall / MAN, I attended the proceedings on one day. Since the defendants refused to testify, at no point in the trial was there any mention of involvement in war crimes by the arms company Rheinmetall. Nevertheless, I find the action absolutely worthy of support and am not saying that it is not legitimate to refuse to testify - but due to the lack of public confession, there could not be a space for debate and politicization in this courtroom.

"We need both sabotage and confession."

Confession, for me, is ultimately about the call to conversion - that is, a radical change toward liberation, toward goodness, beginning with ourselves. Living out this conversion opens up a space that can touch others, wake them up, and move them to conversion themselves. So we need both: sabotage and confession.

Nevertheless, it is important for me to state that sabotage is an important, but not the only, way of offering effective resistance that is critical of violence. Our book focuses on this, but we need a broad variety of forms of resistance that complement each other and are not hierarchical.

Benedikt Kern: Sabotage and confession constitute two important dimensions of liberating practice; they refer to the interruption of the normal state, and at the same time, confession intervenes on the ideological level that enables and reproduces the normal state. For Christians, however, in our view, a gesture of superiority must under no circumstances follow from confession, which refers to a surplus of mysticism that others lack. Confession can only be a confrontation with the logics of, for example, the violent, capitalist-military complex, which can be understood through a valid analysis and ideologically attacked on the basis of it. Understood in liberation theology, praxis should always be collective and depends on practically and strategically going hand in hand with non-Christians in liberation struggles. I think that especially in the question of confession, Christians should always choose a form that connects to the existing struggles of the anti-militarist movement or relates to them.

Julia Lis: On the one hand, the change on the level of consciousness is certainly necessary to break through the prevailing ideological hegemony. On the other hand, we should not give it too much credit: Judges, police officers and soldiers do not only act out of their own personal conviction, but also because they have a certain function within the existing system and are always subject to structural constraints. Therefore, as Christians, we have to make sure that our actions do not get stuck in a moral appeal to individual actors, but always take the structural level into account.

Cristina Yurena Zerr: Yes, I agree with you. It was not my intention to attach too much value to the moral appeal. An impulse for a change of consciousness in the other person can be the effect of a certain action, but not its goal. An example of this is Franz Jägerstätter's resistance to the Nazi regime, in which he refused to join the Wehrmacht and was therefore executed.

I don't think he had the intention to convince anyone of his decision. It was a matter of radically following his conscience. And with that he moved and inspired many people, so he became again and again a point of reference for conscientious objection or in the struggle for civilian service, i.e. in the (albeit small) change of militaristic structures. But he could just as well have been forgotten, like probably many people of whom we do not know today that they gave their lives because they did not cooperate with the violence of the rulers.

Is his action less worthy or radical because it is 'only' a decision of conscience and - at least publicly - does not offer structural criticism or organized resistance? I don't think so - but just that both are necessary, and do not always unite in one action.

Benedikt Kern: Actors of (Christian) pacifism were repeatedly in a mutually critical confrontation with those of liberation theology, for example in Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, with regard to the "liberation struggles from below" (e.g. correspondence between Berrigan and Cardenal). What would be your position today, also with regard to liberation struggles that are led militarily, for example by the Kurdish or Zapatista movements?

Jakob Frühmann: First of all, the two movements mentioned are hopeful projects of the left, among other things, because they seek to make a good life for all possible with their resistance and thus also take a stand against capitalism, environmental destruction and oppression. This ideological position and all the consequences that follow from it - the critique of the state, a radically different understanding of democracy, the intersectionality of struggles - all these are essential differences to the military resistance in the face of the war in Ukraine. That both the Zapatista uprising and the resistance movement in Rojava were also realized with armed force (though the Zapatistas have not made use of it since the first days of the uprising in 1994) is, of course, a chunk we have to chew on, and ultimately also leads us to think about privileges of nonviolence.

"The violence and brutality of a postcolonial and neoliberal system is less tangible than the violence of a gun in the hand of a Zapatista liberationist."

Cristina Yurena Zerr: "The correspondence of Berrigan and Cardenal - two people who have worked for a just peace in different ways - shows us that it is possible to share in the sufferings and struggles of others and to stand in solidarity with each other, even though one does not unconditionally agree with the means of struggle. Like Berrigan, I believe in "the total inability of violence to change anything for the better "2 - even if, from a short-term perspective, it seems possible, or even more effective, to use armed force to achieve one's goal. The liberated Nicaragua that Cardenal fought for has failed.

But I also think that we cannot condemn this kind of military struggle without drawing attention to the structural violence that creates it in the first place. Martin Luther King gave a speech in 1968 in which he talks about the disproportionate condemnation of black uprisings in the struggle for equality: "It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn the riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do so without at the same time condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. "3 In relation to the resistance in Rojava, for example, this means that I must first and foremost call attention to the violence and oppression that lead to military resistance by the Kurdish movement.

But I am also generally cautious about taking a stand on something that is so far from my reality. Rather, I think we need to start by analyzing our own entanglements in violent relations: Europe's wealth (from which I benefit) is built on colonialism, that is, the subjugation and exploitation of other regions, such as those of the Zapatistas. The problem that leads to a shift in the discourse of violence: The violence and brutality of a postcolonial and neoliberal system is less tangible than the violence of a gun in the hand of a Zapatista liberationist.

As Nora Ziegler, an antimilitarist from Britain, provocatively puts it, "The ordinary lives of privileged people tend to be violent, and their resistance tends to be nonviolent. The ordinary lives of exclusionary people tend to be nonviolent and their resistance tends to be violent."

We need "differentiation in the concept of violence in order to better relate structural violence, state repressive violence, and revolutionary counter-violence"

Julia Lis: At two points I would have an objection to formulate or need further discussion: I don't agree with saying that the liberation project in Nicaragua failed because armed struggle played a role in the liberation struggle. I think things are more complex than that and we should not reduce them to saying that armed struggle usually leads to failure and pacifist methods to success. Moreover, in a world of such immense injustice, structural, imperial and repressive violence, failure is the rule, a successful experience of liberation the exception. This should not discourage us, but it should make us more cautious in our judgment. In addition, it should be asked whether we should be too quick to equate violence with armed struggle or whether a greater differentiation in the concept of violence is not necessary, in order to be able to better relate structural violence, state repressive violence and revolutionary counter-violence to one another.

Cristina Yurena Zerr: The failure of the Nicaraguan liberation project was a statement without a detailed analysis of the reasons for it. These are certainly many-sided and complex.

That the failure of liberation movements is not an exception - no matter by what means they are fought for - is something I see in the same way. It is not my intention to show that non-violent resistance leads to more success, and yet I see it as the only way. In a letter by Thomas Merton to the young activist Jim Forest, who at the time was full of despair and discouraged about his opposition to the Vietnam War, which was very formative for me, Merton replies to him in 1966: "Don't rely on the hope of results. If you are doing the kind of work you have undertaken, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work seems to be worthless and even produces no results at all, if not perhaps results contrary to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you begin to focus more and more not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. "4

This is a great challenge, and of course does not mean that we cannot, must not, hope that our actions will have an impact. But to the extent that we cling to success, we lose our ability to persevere, and with it, the meaning in what we create.

"I think the inability to recognize the structural violence of a system is very dangerous."

On the question of the definition of violence: I would like to emphasize again that by non-violent resistance or resistance critical of violence (because in a society permeated by violence, we can only approach the absence of violence) I do not mean merely the absence of an armed struggle, but fundamentally a path that rejects all structural and direct violence. A breaking with logics of violence that affects all our spheres of life: the economy, politics, the justice system, our relationship with nature and other living beings, which are built on different valuations of life.

I consider the inability to recognize the structural violence of a system to be very dangerous. For example, I often have discussions with people who argue that the Plowshares Movement protests - the unauthorized entry into a military base - is an act of violence, and they don't say a word about nuclear weapons. I think it's understandable that people don't agree with this kind of civil disobedience, but that they are incapable of seeing the immense violence of the existence of a weapon of mass destruction, and get stuck on the broken fence, shows in a startling way how structural and institutionalized violence - in this case, the militarization of our societies - is normalized and internalized.

Jakob Frühmann: I find it difficult to counter the thought experiment of what I would do in a fatal situation of attack. That we may, should, can defend ourselves is clear. But at what cost? By what means? How can I pass judgment here from a distance? Isn't that too easy from such a privileged and comfortable position?

Benedikt Kern: Of course, a thought experiment on the defense situation is difficult to do in the abstract. But what seems necessary and right to us in the ITP from a liberation-theological perspective is to analyze the situation from a partisan point of view - namely, one that advocates a transformation of the relations of violence and an emancipatory practice for this purpose. Of course, the perspective of those affected by violence is important. In liberation theology, the oppressed, the poor, are the place of knowledge. At the same time, however, this also means that those affected are not automatically right in the assessment of their situation and the options for action derived from it. Rather, it is a matter of critiquing ideology from this perspective, in order to then start interventions in the relations of violence. This is not a practice from on high in an ivory tower, but it goes to the heart of our existence.

Cristina, you say you are cautious about taking a stand against armed resistance, for example in Kurdistan. I think that from the outside it is not a matter of moral judgment. But it seems important to me to distinguish whether resistance and self-defense are integrated into emancipatory processes and protect them - especially when a counter-power to the ruling status quo comes under massive pressure. At the same time, of course, revolutionary violence from below does not simply replace the necessary revolutionary processes in social organizing and subject formation - but there may be historical moments when precisely these processes need to be protected.

"It is their war, not our war. There is nothing to be gained from it in terms of a good life, so we must not allow ourselves to be made a party to the war."

I think the question of self-defense also needs to be fleshed out: To which individual or collective does it refer in each case? Today, the question of the legitimacy of self-defense is often referred to the war in Ukraine and is being debated in the most heated manner in left-wing and Christian circles. In concrete terms, I think it is important to note first of all that imperial wars are waged in the interests of the rulers and that from an emancipatory, left-wing, and even Christian position, participation in these inter-imperial conflicts cannot make sense. It is their war, not our war. There is nothing to be gained from it in the sense of a good life, therefore we must not allow ourselves to be made a party to the war. Then it is a matter of doing something against this war, of attacking its logics and, if nothing else works, of undermining it. Practices of civil defense, mass refusal to participate in the war, decomposition of military forces and internationalism must then be tested and applied. Refusal then just means, in case of doubt, to flee when circumstances make it possible. For this reason, the history of exile has always played an important role in the left.

Jakob Frühmann: European reactions to the energy crisis are ambivalent: Russian gas and oil are to be renounced. This energy turnaround is being bought through the rehabilitation of nuclear energy, coal and renewed collaboration with regimes that despise human rights, such as Saudi Arabia, and oil purchases there. At the same time, climate justice movements are also gaining strength, at least in rudimentary form. In terms of antimilitarism, such a movement can only be noticed in one direction: It is about more, not less weapons. Why?

Benedikt Kern: In capitalist development, there is currently a crisis of exploitation that makes it necessary to modernize capitalism so that growth can continue to be generated. The expansion of green technologies and the transformation of fossil capitalism with its finite access to resources is therefore now leading to the development of a green capitalism - which, due to its compulsion for capital accumulation and growth, has precisely no less brutal consequences for humanity and ultimately for nature as a whole. In this reorganization of capitalism, imperialist interests are pitted against each other, which are already visible in the war in Ukraine but also in the conflict over Taiwan, in the violent dispute over raw materials in the Congo and elsewhere in the world. That is why, from the point of view of the rulers, rearmament is so plausible. This means that anti-militarism must also question this green capitalism - and at the same time the climate justice movement cannot be happy about burning a little less gas. Instead, it seems important to us that a grassroots climate politics should aim at revolutionizing the relations of production. Only in this way can we overcome this modernizing, then in the future green, regime of accumulation and actually make possible a production oriented to needs, which only then can also be ecological and social and thus no longer imperialist.

"Anti-militarism must also question this green capitalism"

Julia Lis: In the assessment of the potential of the climate movement in the current situation, I would unfortunately not be so optimistic, even if of course the determination that, for example, despite the extremely harsh state repression, the activists of "Last Generation" display in their resistance impresses me honestly, even where I find the forms of action and the political demands that are attached to them worthy of discussion and do not share.

What worries me, however, is that large parts of the climate movement currently seem incapable of dealing practically and theoretically with the contradictions in the transition from fossil to green capitalism and addressing them in such a way that it becomes clear that a new green accumulation regime will not change the situation of the planet or humanity for the better, but rather perpetuate the various catastrophic scenarios of environmental degradation and warlike destruction.

From our point of view, the decisive role in this project of domination is played at the moment by the Green Party: especially in times of the Ukraine war, it becomes clear that in order to consolidate and expand the German and European position, they are ready to accept, even to fuel, warlike conflicts, insofar as this can weaken the imperial competitors. In my eyes, this explains why Green politicians are taking warlike positions as a matter of course at the moment, i.e. why they are on a war course.

Benedikt Kern: An anti-militaristic position is again more necessary than it might have seemed in recent years. However, both among leftists and among Christians, this position is extremely contested with regard to the war in Ukraine. From your perspective, what is the reason why bellicose positions have also gained momentum in the left-liberal to left-wing milieu?

Cristina Yurena Zerr: First of all, we are skeptical about whether we can speak of an upswing. The belief in the necessity of armed struggle has always been widespread on the left. Many revolutionary movements have gone into armed struggle: in Cuba, Nicaragua, Chiapas, Rojava, the RAF - to name just a few.

At the same time, militarization and armament are a complex that has been forgotten to confront: The necessity of desertion or conscientious objection is as little an issue in Germany or Austria as a fundamental and broad anti-militarist stance. In Central Europe, nonviolent resistance is mostly thought of and practiced as civil disobedience within a more or less functioning constitutional state - the violence emanating from the military complex and counterstrategies to it are not on the agenda of the liberal or radical left. In a society steeped in the logic of violence, it is challenging to think of other ways outside of militarism. There is a difficulty in seeing alternatives.

"That solidarity must remain anti-national and or at least transnational seems to be forgotten in the heat of the moment."

Then - and this is the really questionable thing - many leftists also seem to be looking at easy solutions, which then explains why all of a sudden people who would swear off any national flag are suddenly hanging Ukraine flags out the window. That solidarity must remain anti-national and or at least transnational seems to be forgotten in the heat of the moment.

Finally, a fascination for armed struggle and an accompanying understanding of the "strong man" probably remains on the left as well. Perhaps our Western European society is not as peace-loving and post-heroic as we often tell ourselves these days.

"The armed struggle of resistant individuals and movements is not simply to be equated with wars between states waged by governments."

Julia Lis: I don't agree with this after all very sharp criticism of the left, I think it is exaggerated. Here, too, we should make it clear once again: The armed struggle of resistant individuals and movements, whatever one may think of it as a method of the struggle for liberation, cannot simply be equated with wars between states waged by governments that rely on a military-industrial apparatus in the process and act according to the logic of national competition in the struggle for resources. These are two fundamentally different situations. So a fascination with armed struggle, which I'm not at all sure plays such a big role on the left right now, cannot simply be equated with authoritarian aspirations to power. Anitmilitarism, by the way, is definitely an issue on the radical left, as the work of the "Informationsstelle Militarisierung" or the campaign "Rheinmetall Entwaffnen" make clear. The left's criticism of the security discourse, both within European societies and externally, also shows how little peace-loving this society, in which leftists have to act, is.

Benedikt Kern: This society is not peace-loving because it supports brutalization at the borders and in the "ungovernable zones" instead of really opposing it. Where are the uprisings in Western Europe, such as those that are sparked off again and again in many places globally, which are directed - albeit sometimes diffusely - against the globalized normality of exploitation and oppression? These uprisings are often violent, of course, because they are also met with massive repression. However, left-liberals and leftists, and even more so most Christians, make far too little reference to these rebellions. This reference would have nothing to do with a glorification of violence, but would take the anger at the system seriously. More rebellion would be bitterly needed in the capitalist centers as well. It would also be diametrically opposed to a war-supporting position that is in common with the geostrategic goals of governments.

Jakob Frühmann: I agree with you that the question of armed violence in relation to liberation movements and state-led wars must be viewed in a fundamentally differentiated way - we have not made that clear enough.

And yes, presumably "peace-loving" in this context can only be understood under almost cynical auspices. We want to live in peace, usually means: We want to live in prosperity and security at the repressive and violent expense of others, and as individualized as possible, without entanglement with collective dimensions.

Cristina Yurena Zerr: In many private conversations, but also in public discourse, I perceive that there are mostly only two options discussed: (self-)defense with weapons or doing nothing. The latter is mostly blamed on people who oppose arms deliveries. That is why it seems to me particularly important to point out that there are very well non-military forms of resistance and defense practiced within Ukraine and Russia. But what then are our possibilities to resist this (and other) wars from outside? How can we support opponents of war in Ukraine and Russia? Where are our possibilities to act as a civil society?

Benedikt Kern: In the war in Ukraine, Germany is a war party and not neutral. The logic of war in this country is that there can only be a victory for Ukraine and NATO instead of an agreement with Russia. From an anti-militarist perspective, we say: neither this nor that empire stands for a good life. The old internationalist conviction that the main enemy is at home is therefore still relevant. It is therefore important to expose, criticize and delegitimize the war ideology of the rulers. This is the task here of all those who oppose the spiral of rearmament and war on reasonable grounds. Theologically speaking, we are concerned with freedom and egalitarianism instead of prosperity and security. Bonhoeffer put this in a nutshell in 1934: "How does peace come about? Through a system of political treaties? Through investment of international capital in the various countries? i.e. through the big banks, through money? Or even by an all-round peaceful rearmament for the purpose of securing peace? No, not by all this for one reason, because here peace and security are confused everywhere. There is no way to peace by the way of security." This is what needs to be made strong. That's why Christians should support initiatives that take in deserters from both sides, take action against the war industry and dare to say publicly: we won't take part in this war, because it's their war!


2 "The total inability of violence to change anything for the better."


3 "It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society." The Other America

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