On Speaking Hesitantly About A Thing That I Have Never Experienced

soldiersWar is hell. Or at least that’s what I’ve heard. I am not a soldier. I’ve not spent months away from my wife and kids deployed in a combat zone. I’ve never fired a weapon at another human, nor have I had to contemplate the daily possibility that I might die, or that one of my friends might die alongside me. I’m not a soldier. I’m a Christian ethicist, one who makes a living thinking and writing about philosophical and theological questions. What is right? What is good? What is a good person, and how do I become one? As a Christian ethicist I have spent a fair bit of time thinking, writing, and teaching about war. These days, when I contemplate writing about war, however,  I hear a voice echoing in the back of my head:

Who are you to say anything about war? You sit there cloistered in your academic ivory tower writing essays that aspire to say something about the moral reality of a thing that you have never experienced. You are like a virgin writing about sex. Why say anything at all?

Why indeed. In my more cynical moments, my reply is something like this: “Who am I? I’m an academic. This is what we do. We read a lot, and we try to write enough of significance that our employers believe we are worth keeping around. This is a job requirement, nothing more.” I don’t find this response particularly satisfying, but it is one that comes to mind.

In my own defense I could say that in addition to being an academic, I am also a father with a teenage son who cannot remember a time when his country was not at war. In two years, my oldest will graduate high school, so can you blame me for feeling like I have something at stake in speaking about this thing that I have never experienced?

Academic and father, maybe these credentials are enough to justify speaking about war. But for me the most important reason why I speak is because I am a Christian, a member of a religious community that has wrestled with the morality of war for two millennia. I can’t help but speak because I want to follow Jesus, and in a time of war I struggle with what it means to follow someone who calls his disciples to love their enemies.

And so I speak. But I do so hesitantly. I know that while I have never experienced the hell of war, I have family, friends, and former students who have. I speak hesitantly because I feel some obligation to honor the sacrifices that war inflicts upon the men and women who wage it, even if I myself am deeply torn about the morality of the wars we too often wage. I speak hesitantly because I know what soldiers experience allows them to say things that I cannot. When it comes to the reality of war, I am the student. The soldier is my teacher.

Over the last year I’ve been working on some ideas that, broadly speaking, focus on a current debate within the Christian just war tradition about the role of love in war. My ideas are part of a narrow conversation in the field of Christian ethics that has a long history. When I first conceived this blog I thought about exploring this conversation, but I quickly came to realize that for people not already versed in the larger Christian debate about the morality of war my argument would make little sense. Eventually I plan to share some of my own ideas here, but I don’t want to throw readers into this academic conversation midstream.  Over my next several blog posts my plan is to offer readers a map of the debate in the Christian tradition about the morality of war. While I am not well positioned myself to speak about the moral experience of soldiers, I can contribute some perspective as to how Christians past and present have understood the intersection of Christian faith and war. Over the next several weeks I intend to describe three prominent Christian perspectives about the morality of war:

Christian Pacifism: Christian pacifists argue that following Jesus is incompatible with participation in war. Following Jesus requires Christians to reject war and pursue nonviolent alternatives, embracing Jesus’ own nonviolent example as a model of life under God’s reign.

Christian Realism: Christians realists argue that in a world fraught by sin necessity sometimes entails that Christians participate in the violence of war. War is hell and Christians must recognize that the violence of war contradicts Christ’s call to love our neighbor. Love exists as an impossible ethical ideal against which Christians measure their own lives. War falls short of this ideal. Nonetheless, under some circumstances Christians should use the violence of war as a means of securing justice, trusting in God’s grace to forgive us our sins.

Christian Agapism: Christian agapists argue that Christian discipleship is fully compatible with participation in a certain subset of wars: just wars. Contrary to Christian pacifists, agapists believe that Christian love properly motivates Christians to embrace war in some circumstances. Contrary to Christian realists, agapists see just wars not as a compromise of Christian love, but as love fully embodied.

Both Christian realism and Christian agapism are approaches that are part of what is often called the Christian just war tradition. In my discussion of realism and agapism I intend to spend some time as well describing the basic contours of just war theory, which over time has offered two sets of criteria that frame (1) when war is morally justifiable and (2) what actions in war are morally permissible. Eventually I will turn my attention to the narrower conversation within Christian agapism that is the focus of my current research.

War is hell. Or so I have heard. But is that all that can be said about war? Let’s find out…



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