War & Peace, Part 1 image

War & Peace, Part 1

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Liam’s recent post on mixed martial arts, and the various debates that swirl around Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday have got me thinking again about violence and pacifism.

Whether Christians should serve in the military and whether war can in any circumstances be just are questions that have long vexed Christian thinkers. At first reading, the teaching of Jesus would seem to be very straightforwardly pacifist. Instructions such as “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” seem unambiguous in their emphasis. However, applying Christ’s ethical teaching in the real social world is rather more complicated; and Christians have also often felt a tension in harmonizing Jesus’ teaching with the clearly non-pacifist history of the Old Testament.

I don’t expect to provide the last word on these matters in a couple of brief posts (in fact, I think this is one of those subjects about which a ‘last word’ is by definition impossible this side of the resurrection), but perhaps I can nudge a few ideas along. Remembrance Sunday stirs up questions on the macro level: What should be the Christian attitude towards war? which will be the subject of this post. MMA is somewhat different, provoking questions more along the lines of: Can Christians exercise violence in an appropriate, even recreational, manner? and this will be the subject of a subsequent post.

The New Testament
When we turn to the scripture we see that neither John the Baptist nor Jesus instructed serving soldiers to give up their soldiering, rather admonishing them to be honest in their dealings with the civilian population. Outside the gospels the New Testament writers also seem to open the door to the Christian’s participation in the state in general and in military affairs in particular.

Both Paul and Peter warn believers to obey those in authority and this has often been interpreted as meaning that Christians should participate in the institutions and defence of the state, including serving in the military. As a consequence most Christians have considered it appropriate to fight in defence of their country but the theory of just war has been developed to provide a moral framework in which this might be done. However, there have always been those who have argued that pacifism is the correct Christian response.

The Early Church
The first three centuries of the Church seem to have been largely pacifist and there is no evidence of Christians serving in the Roman army before about 170AD. This lack of evidence may simply be that though – a lack of evidence – and it is possible that in the Pax Romana serving in the Imperial Army was more akin to modern day policing in which there was no expectation of fighting and killing. This seems to have been the viewpoint of Hippolytus in the third century who said that Christians could serve in the army so long as they did not kill. However Tertullian’s statement that, “Christ in disarming Peter disarmed every soldier” perhaps better represents the sentiment of those centuries.

With the conversion of Constantine and the rise of the ‘Christian Empire’ the argument shifted. Eusebius viewed the emperor as God’s agent on earth and his wars as holy wars. Augustine, with his generally gloomy assessment of the state would not assent to Eusebius’ enthusiasm but he did formulate a just war theory that accorded with his view that the state, though deeply compromised because of the fall, had a God-given mandate to uphold order which Christians should support. Augustine’s formulation of a just war was that it must have as its goal the establishment of justice and restoration of peace Moreover, it must be fought under the authority of the legitimate ruler and be conducted in a just manner, including not injuring non-combatants.

The Middle Ages and Modern Developments
By the middle ages pacifism had been almost entirely rejected by a church that had become virtually indivisible from the state; and in the ideal of the Christian knight, religious and military practices became interwoven.

While we may imagine recent military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan to be raising unique ethical dilemmas, there is nothing new under the sun. For example, In response to the activities of the Spanish in South America the political philosopher Vitoria examined the nature of just war. Vitoria posed and answered four questions, beginning with the fundamental one of whether it is lawful for Christians to wage war at all. He answered this by following Augustine’s and Aquinas’ lead in saying that Christians can wage war if the cause is just. As participants in the state Christians have a responsibility to support the state in its just actions. Along similar lines, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that the killing of the enemy in war is not arbitrary killing for even if the enemy is not personally guilty, he is participating in the attack of his people against my people and must share in bearing the consequences of the collective guilt.

Vitoria’s second question is on whose authority war may be declared or waged. His answer to this is that it is lawful for the individual to defend himself and his property and it is lawful for the commonwealth to defend itself and its property. The prince, as the one who represents the commonwealth, therefore has the authority to declare and wage war on the commonwealths behalf.

The third question is as to what may and ought to be the just cause of war. On this Vitoria is clear – the sole and just cause for waging war is when harm has been inflicted. It is lawful for the state to defend itself and it is lawful for the state to recover property and punish wrong doers. Moreover, the aim of war should be to establish peace and justice. Karl Barth adds that states may come to the aid of other states even if they are not directly threatened themselves. Or, as Luther expressed it, “No Christian shall wield or invoke the sword for himself and his cause. In behalf of another, however, he may and should wield it and invoke it to restrain wickedness and to defend godliness.”

The fourth question is once war has been declared what is the extent of what Christians may lawfully do to their enemies? Vitoria frames this within strict limits. The enemy is not to be treated mercilessly but only to the extent that wrongdoers are punished, property retrieved and restitution made for the costs of the war. Luther expressed this in strong terms, claiming that it is “both Christian and an act of love” to kill, plunder, burn, and injure the enemy (though sexual abuse was off limits) until he is defeated. Then mercy and peace should be offered to all those who will submit.

The Pacifist Response
So what of those Christians who despite the caveats of just war theory and the opinion of most Christians over the centuries decide that the most honest response to the gospel message is one of pacifism?

Liam will look into this more fully tomorrow, but for now suffice it to say that Vitoria would not leave much ground for the conscientious objector, believing as he did in the state’s claim upon the individual’s obedience. Only when the case for war is obviously and overwhelming unjust should the individual refuse to fight – but where there is the slightest doubt the subject should trust the judgment of their prince, doing so in the knowledge that they will themselves be innocent of any wrongdoing. This may have been very well in the middle ages, but in our mass media age it is harder for any individual to maintain blissful ignorance about the rights and wrongs of a war they may be called upon to fight. Barth argues that the individual does indeed have responsibility for his actions and is not simply an instrument of the state. This is not least because killing is a very personal act, both for the one killed and the one carrying out the killing.

In a typically inventive twist Barth claims that conscientious objection is wrong if it absolutely refuses to permit of the possibility of war and that “Christian ethics cannot be absolutely pacifist.” As in all his ethics Barth wants to leave space for the command of God, and this may actually necessitate the Christian going to war. Barth personalises this in the case of Switzerland which he says he would fight to defend in its territory, independence and neutrality. In such a case, having done everything possible to avoid war and having said all that can be said about peace the Christian should go to war even if he knows that defeat is inevitable. War is not to be waged on the basis of ‘whether we can win’ but in response to the absolute demand for war.

Following this train of thought Barth claims that pacifists above all should support conscription as it forces every individual to examine what they believe about war and therefore personalises it rather than allowing the individual to hide behind the decisions of the state. If the Christian still chooses the way of pacifism and conscientious objection they must do so knowing that they will rightfully face punishment from the state but that their actions are actually in support of the state.

Added to Barth’s subtle, although broadly supportive, questioning of pacifism we may add the following criticisms. Does the pacifist emphasis on peace, love and reconciliation lead to a neglecting of the equally biblical emphasis upon justice? And is there not something rather perverse in the tolerance of a tyranny compared to which resistance may be a lesser evil? It could be argued that pacifists participate in the structures of violence by not resisting them and are therefore guilty of a greater crime than they would be by participating in war against tyranny.

These are deep waters indeed. But they are the kind of waters it is worth navigating before you decide whether or not to pin a poppy to your coat.


Follow this link to read more in this series on violence and pacifism.

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