The Voice: Summer 2003

The Voice

Krygsman sets the stage for delegates in opening address at three-day session

Dordt's Model Arab League Iraq debate team, made up of Amy Nugteren, Christel Poeleman, Sarah Wisniewski, Brian Schiebout, Coralin Davelaar, and Jonathan Vander Vliet, tied with Dordt's Syria team for the first place award at the conference

By: Hubert Krygsman

We are living in strange and momentous times. At this moment the US and its coalition allies are an invading force in Iraq, and the shock waves of that war reverberate across the world: casualties on both sides in the war; suffering citizens and refugees beginning to flee; growing opposition to American policy across the Arab world; rifts in alliances among Arabs, NATO, and the UN; a potential shaking of the modern world to its very foundations. And here we are in the American heartland, serenely and innocuously imagining we represent Arab nations and trying to solve the problems of the world. Are we caught in some paradoxical time warp? How can we even begin to think of solutions for a world that is in uncertain flux? Are we engaged in an exercise of futility? Are we shirking our responsibility to give more practical service to our countries, to hungry civilians, or to world peace and justice? Are we fiddling while the world burns?

All of these questions occurred to me in the last few weeks as I thought about this meeting and about what to say to you. Such questions reminded me of C. S. Lewis’s famous address on “Learning in War-Time.” Lewis gave this address to his students at Oxford University in 1939, when the outbreak of World War II and the dark threat of Naziism was leading many Europeans to march off to war, and to view study as a shirker’s luxury. Why study, Lewis asked, when the world is in crisis? Part of Lewis’s answer was this: war was indeed a crisis, but it was not the gravest crisis facing humanity. “The war,” said Lewis, “creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.” War, Lewis went on, is not new; it is a reminder of the reality of the broken world we live in; it makes death and our mortality real to us; and it exposes our failures—indeed our inability—to build utopias on earth.

In sum, it forces us to come to terms with the world we live in. In this situation, Lewis replied, learning was not a mere luxury, but an urgent necessity. Learning was one of those quintessential human activities that must be continued even in wartime, lest we instead allow war to degrade us into subhuman barbarism. But more, Lewis said: “To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet the enemies on their own ground—would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen. Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” It was especially in wartime that true learning—understanding the world, ourselves, others, our past—was necessary for challenging the lies that lead to war and for building at least a relatively peaceful and just society.

Here, then, is the first challenge I wish to present you: your task is to envision, debate, and plan for the coming peace. As one of my favorite scholars put it, “Ideas have legs.” That is, everyone thinks, interprets, and makes assumptions about the world and acts on the basis of them. It is vital that you learn right understanding, to think critically and constructively, to sympathetically understand others, to work together effectively in envisioning the coming Middle East order. Though you are young twenty-somethings now, in the next ten, twenty, and thirty years the world will stand on the legs that you have developed here, in preparation, and wherever you go from here.

And as Zbigniew Breszinski said in an interview last week, the greatest risk in the world right now would be that of failing to take this time of crisis to develop a long-term vision for reconstructing world relations and a peaceful order in the Middle East and the world. So while you will need to consider the causes of the war, I urge you to go beyond recriminations about just war to focus on envisioning the creation of just peace.