Christians and War

by Brian Edgar

The Evolution of War
Some of the changes which war is undergoing can actually be interpreted as a return to previous patterns. Western society in the middle-ages involved a mixture of city-states, regional alliances and aristocratic estates. They formed loose confederations and created multiple loyalties that frequently degenerated into conflict, confusion and chaos. Consequently many of them created private armies and violence became a common way of settling disagreements. There were small and large-scale disputes, religious conflicts, crusades, invasions and peasant revolts. Pirates and bandits often had to be repelled. Many city-states and regional lords had the right to call on peasants to serve in their armies. The lack of any coherent, legitimate authority led to constant fighting. This chaotic situation was one of the influences which led to the creation of the modern, secular state which controlled and pacified regions by creating centralized authority structures which we now call ‘nations’. In the process these new states sought to reduce or eliminate the authority of the kings and lords who had been prone to wage war (known as ultima ratio regum – the last resort of kings). They developed national legislation and got rid of private, local and regional armies, only to replace them with highly institutionalised, professionalised and centralized armies. The new states reserved to themselves the right to wage war and in order to eliminate religious conflicts they tended to opt for secular – rather than religiously based – approaches to authority. While this had some advantages the costs included the potential for even greater conflicts as states were bigger and alliances of nations could now produce huge armies. Hence the terrible effects of World Wars I (‘the war to end all wars’) and II. There was also the problem that a powerful central government could itself become the instrument of state oppression of those supposedly under its care. It also inevitably led to large scale and dangerous alliances. Another cost was the development of nationalism – the conviction that one nation is superior to another – a blight on human relationships.

Some Changes for the Better
Some positives resulted from these developments. As a result of a combination of
(a) Christian peace-making influences,
(b) the development of secular liberalism opposed to religious intolerance or totalitarianism of any kind and
(c) the horrific effect of the world wars there arose a new desire for peace-making between nations. This led to the gradual de-legitimisation of wars of conquest (but not their elimination) and increasing support for pacifism. There was also the legitimation of conscientious objection as part of a pluralist, liberal democratic society and, some would argue, a reduced enthusiasm on the part of people for external wars. It also resulted in the search for a legitimate and independent authority: the League of Nations and then the United Nations. Much of this was positive but the changed situation also meant that now there were many different kinds of war.

International & Intra-National Wars
The most obvious form of war is international war. This is what most people think of when ‘war’ is mentioned and it will remain a threat as long as nationalism, injustice, poverty and other differences between nations remain. There are also intra-national wars which are internal to a state and which have actually become a greater problem than international wars. One set of figures suggests that in the twentieth century 155 million people were killed within their own state compared with 35 million killed in inter-national wars.

The tragedy of these internal situations has led to internationally co-operative interventions. Obviously these are controversial. Are they, morally, akin to police operations within a state? Is the UN a suitable legitimate, independent authority? The various forms of intervention vary significantly. The US sought to intervene in the atrocious situation in the Balkans without having US soldiers setting foot on the ground. The prime weapon was bombing with guided bombs and missiles. Televisions showed supposedly precise, safe and surgical bombing. It was what Michael Ignatieff called ‘war with impunity’. One army could engage in a war without any real danger to its own troops. The desire to fight a war without casualties came in response to the intervention in Somalia which was reckoned to be a disaster. 17 US soldiers and 2 helicopters lost compared with 800 Africans, but it was reckoned a defeat of the US forces because of their unwillingness to take casualties in a foreign country. Milosovic could not defeat the US with his army but perhaps if he had been able to get hold of a little anthrax powder and think laterally it might have been different. The US-UK-Australian ‘invasion’ of Iraq was based on war at a distance until it became relatively safe to put troops on the ground.

War on Terror
Then there is the so-called ‘war on terror’. Terrorism involves less clearly defined individuals, groups and coalitions striking at targets which are not part of a traditionally defined theatre of war. Government responses to this blur the differences between war and policing. It is possible to see these alternative forms of war as a return to the privatised, religious, ethnic, confrontations of the middle ages. How is this war to be fought? The rules of engagement have changed. Those who do not have powerful weapons tend to fight in a war with no front line, with no attention to the rules of war, with no defined army. Those who fight according to the established laws of war (designed with respect to international war) view undeclared acts of violence (especially those which kill civilians) as terrorism while at the same time condoning large scale bombing with its associated and inevitable civilian death toll. Moral contradictions abound.

Super Power Wars
In this context the possibility of super-power war also emerges. This was seen clearly in the ‘cold-war’ between USA–NATO and the USSR. The extremely risky balance of power [involving the MAD (‘mutually assured destruction’) philosophy] led to a certain, perverse, form of stability until the collapse of the Soviet empire. This left only one active super-power, but there remain significant dangers. There is the danger of one, unfettered, single, super-power acting unilaterally and unjustly, without appropriate legitimation And it may turn out that the most damaging long-term development is that in the Iraq conflict the action was, arguably, outside UN legitimation. Finally, there is also the danger of a new super-power confrontation, perhaps the USA and its allies versus an alliance of Islamic nations. If the USA is perceived as behaving more like a super-power bully than a super-power policeman then there could be problems.

The oldest Christian attitude to war is pacifism which involves the fundamental belief that killing is never right. It is an idealistic approach in which it has to be argued that ‘it is better to let someone kill me than for me to kill someone else. It is bad enough that they are committing sin by seeking to kill, I will not participate in this sinfulness by killing.’ The aim is to overcome evil with good. The pacifist refuses to become involved in any war of aggression and pacifism even involves a preparedness for the destruction of one’s own property and even life when attacked. It is a bold, radical and brave approach.

It is often argued that pacifism is the right action whatever result it brings, simply because it is right. On the other hand it is sometimes argued that when it is combined with passive resistance it is an effective way of actually overcoming evil and ending war. Where two nations are fighting a war there seems to be a tacit agreement that they will fight until one is defeated and that this one will then have to act as subjects of their conqueror. The pacifist argues that even if one is defeated there is no need to be subject to the other. If one believes that one’s own life is not to be defended by every means (especially if they are evil means) then one is logically able to passively resist even when threatened. The ultimate resort of the conqueror is to threaten and then kill their captives, but, it is argued, this attitude will eventually collapse under the weight of its own evil if it is revealed for what it is. This will not happen, as long as violent resistance takes place, for that resistance legitimises the conqueror’s repression. Pacifism is sometimes criticized as being impractical because not everyone will act this way, but the reality is that war is also impractical unless a large majority agree to act in that way too. The history of successful pacifism is told less often than the history of war. It needs to be told more often, as for example, Ron Sider and Richard Taylor do in their Nuclear Holocaust and Christian Hope (Hodder and Stoughton)

Whether it makes logical sense or not the biblical starting point for pacifism is the life of Jesus. ‘I tell you, do not resist an evil person. … you have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies.’ (Matt. 5: 38-43). Nor was this simply a nice piece of theory. In the garden of Gethsemane Jesus was confronted by armed men who were doing the bidding of those who wanted Jesus dead. Simon Peter acted bravely when he took his sword and swung it in defense of Jesus. He was seeking to do what was right and it could well be described as a reasonable, rational, proportionate response to unmitigated evil done in the defense of the innocent.

The only problem is that Jesus does not always act in reasonable, rational, human, ways. His ethic is not determined by what the world thinks is a good or fair or rational thing. What did Jesus do? Two things. First he said something. ‘Put your sword back in its place. For all who live by the sword will die by the sword.’ At another time he also said, ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. And if someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to them the other as well.’ It is one thing to say that sort of thing when there is no one in particular out to get you. It’s quite another thing to say it when there is someone standing in front of you with a sword, ready to take you away! At that point it’s really serious, but Jesus is up to it. It’s not an idealistic theory. It’s the way to live.

And then Jesus does a second thing. He reaches out and heals the ear of the man who came to arrest him. Instead of resistance he offers support; instead of a sword he gives a helping hand; instead of hurting he brings healing; instead of violence he comes in peace; instead of fighting he shows love. This is one of the annoying things about Jesus. He doesn’t always do what seems to many people to be the logical, rational, thing. The fundamental belief of pacifism is that killing is never right and it is undergirded by a very powerful philosophy that ‘we’ are not intrinsically more important or more valuable than ‘them’. Jesus could, of course, have got out of the danger he was in, ‘Don’t you know,’ Jesus said, ‘that I can call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve battalions of angels?’ But violence is not the way. It wasn’t then and the pacifist says it isn’t now.

The Justifiable War
The second main approach to war utilized by Christians is just (or justified) war theory. This approach argues that there are certain situations where war is justifiable. The genuine justified war theorist is in search of peace as much as the pacifist but a justified war approach involves this belief: that it is ‘better’ or ‘just’ that the aggressor be killed than that an innocent or oppressed people die. It involves the destruction of the enemy and their resources. Like pacifism it requires a commitment by a large majority of the people involved. Justified war theory has a set of principles which need to apply in order to be able to declare that a particular war is justifiable. Briefly, they usually include the belief that the war is to be waged for a serious and just cause; it must be undertaken with the right attitude (to do justice rather than to gain some benefit); it must be an action of last resort and involve a prior declaration of war (to indicate to the enemy that the matter is this serious) and have a reasonable hope of success. The likely damaging effects of the way must be proportionate to the good it is hoped will be achieved and, importantly, there must be immunity for non-combatants.

The biblical basis for justified war theory is Romans 12:9 –13:10 where it is argued that one must ‘overcome evil with good’ and that this means that ‘everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established … he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong … for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.’ While pacifism is by nature idealistic, just war theory is in essence pragmatic and calculating. Pacifism tends to be a theology of redemption for it looks forward to the future, perfect kingdom of God and seeks to bring that into the present. Justified war theory tends to be a theology of creation for it looks at the sinful realities of the world and uses law to deal with them.

Questions for Pacifism
Both pacifism and justified war theory can be questioned. Pacifism has to deal with its idealism. Firstly, can pacifism cope with all the changing circumstances of violence? Is pacifism an approach that deals more with international war rather than with terrorist attacks? Secondly, can pacifism maintain a good conscience at the expense of the suffering of others? Pacifism is at it strongest when considering violence against oneself or one’s own country’s potential involvement in inter-national wars of conquest, but what does pacifism do with the fact that the greatest problem of the twentieth century was the wars which took place within states – oppression by the victim’s own government? Can the idealism of pacifism allow one to stand by while mass murder takes place? While pacifism takes the utterly selfless principle that it is better for someone to kill me than for me to kill someone else, can it continue with its idealism saying it is better for an aggressor to kill the innocent than for me to kill the aggressor? Or is the utter selflessness of pacifism better represented by a revised argument such that ‘it is better for me to forego my own moral purity for the sake of another and therefore to kill the aggressor and have a bad conscience, than it is for me to allow them to go unchecked and kill another innocent person.’

Challenges to the Just War
Justifiable war theorists have to defend their approach against questions which challenge both its underlying philosophy and its practical application. Firstly, can a dualistic ethic be right? When the modern state took war to itself it embraced a form of morality with a great split in it. It distinguished the moral responsibilities of the state from that of the individual. What was forbidden to the individual (lying, theft, killing) was permitted by the state in its relations with other states. Making something legal does not necessarily make it moral. It also sharply differentiated one’s moral responsibility to one set of human beings (in one’s own country) from moral responsibility to another set of human beings (in another country). Inevitably this means a differential in the value attributed to different people (as seen in the Somalian episode referred to above). This dualistic form of ethics is supported by some versions of Christian ethics. Some are prepared to allow that the instructions of the Sermon on the Mount such as ‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘give to whoever asks of you’ are appropriately applied to individuals but not to states. Other forms of ethics repudiate these distinctions and insist on a coherent and consistent application of these principles. Of course, anyone wishing to overcome this dichotomy has to be prepared for the implications of doing so!

Secondly, the just war theorist has to be able to show that war can bring peace. There was a slogan during the Vietnam war which said that ‘Fighting for peace is like fornicating for chastity’ (except they didn’t say ‘fornicating’). Isn’t it a contradiction in terms to talk about a war to bring peace? More pertinently, if the answer is that it is possible, then how does one ensure that the cost isn’t greater than the benefit? Which takes one on to the justifiable war principles. Are the justifiable war rules themselves justifiable in the modern context? There can be arguments about the applicability of all of the principles but there are some fundamental issues which relate to a number of them.

a) Can there be a neutral, legitimate authority? This is necessary in several situations. When is it ‘the last resort’? There is always someone to say that there should be ‘one last chance’. Who decides? And is there a legitimate neutral authority to determine that it is a just cause? Can the UN function in that way? Even the requirement that a just war be conducted with the right attitude is difficult. Can one really have a clear, objective frame of mind for this?

b) Does the style of modern warfare make the principles unrealistic? Just war theory requires that there be non-combatant immunity and a degree of proportionality in the response. Can these apply with modern weapons? If they cannot then there cannot be a justified war.

c) Does justifiable war theory legitimate the Islamic concept of lesser jihad (that is, the concept of holy war which is distinguished from the greater or spiritual jihad of the heart which is aimed at fighting sinful tendencies)? There is a strong similarity between the justifiable war principles as set out for the church by Augustine and the rules of the lesser jihad (eg. avoid non-combatant harm; only proper authorities are to conduct war; it must bring about peace). Although the lesser jihad is repudiated by moderate Muslims it remains, at present, as a legitimate aspect of other forms of what must be considered to be genuine Islamic belief. One possibility is to help moderate Muslims in their quest to change the nature of Islam to exclude the possibility of war. This can become a powerful incentive for Christians to repudiate the notion of justifiable war. As it now stands one would have to say that there is a legitimately Christian approach to justifiable war, will Islam repudiate its version of it if Christianity retains its version?

A More Basic Issue
All these questions reveal that there are problems with both pacifism and just war theory. In short, both are trying to deal with a situation that has already gone seriously wrong. In that sense neither of them is right for it should never have been allowed to get to the point where nations are considering killing each other. Both are responses to situations which already contain evil and in that sense neither one of them can be the ‘right’ answer. At best they can only be the ‘least-worst’ option in the circumstances. While we probably have to decide which is appropriate for us to take in specific situations arguing about which is ‘right’ is fairly pointless. If it gets to that point it is indicative of massive human failure and neither pacifism nor just war alone will bring real peace.

The only undeniable option is for Christians to become peace-makers. Peace-making is not merely a response to a situation that has gone wrong. It is positive, preventive action, creating a world of love, peace and righteousness in which even thinking about war becomes absurd. In the Old Testament peace is linked to justice and righteousness (eg Isaiah 59:8) and the saying is true: ‘those who want peace should work for justice’. Christians should work towards creating societies where moral reasoning is integrated in political debate and decision-making. In the New Testament peace is connected with love. If we love those who are our enemies then there will be peace. When we get to the point of war it is because of a lack of love at a much earlier time. It would have been far, far, cheaper in the 1980’s to have flooded Iraq and Afghanistan with aid rather than to go to war today. Far cheaper and not only would lives not have been lost in the war but lives that ended from starvation and lack of medical help would not have been lost. Instead, the west gave to Iraq weapons of mass destruction to help in their war with Iran. Jesus’ words are true, ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword.’ It is perhaps ironic that an American president, Dwight Eisenhower said, ‘Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and who are not clothed.’

Christian peacemakers will also be working to reduce the ‘distance’ between cultures. Our world faces numerous problems related to separation and difference: economic, religious, social and cultural. We need more mixing of cultures, not less. And can we Christians be less ‘western’ and ‘nationalistic’ in relationship to the world? Nationalism may be fine when supporting the cricket, but in terms of international relations it is a problem that one-day may be considered as sinful as racism and sexism. Nationalism allows us to treat people in different parts of the world according to different value systems. While we will not allow mass starvation of Australians we allow it for other people in other places.

Finally, for Christians to be peacemakers they must be involved, must be passionate and must take sides. The Italian writer Dante, wrote about heaven and hell in his poem The Inferno. In his very graphic, literary descriptions of hell and its inhabitants he observes that ‘there is a special place in hell for those who remain neutral in times of moral crisis.’ Remember Christ who said, ‘blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God’ (Matt. 5:9).

Thursday, November 9, 2006   printer friendly version | 8928 reads