Christian Faith and War 5: Christian Agapism (Or “In all things, even war, love…”)

VIETNAM_WAR_U.S_3536132-300x271In his searing 1990 semi-autobiographical novel, The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien speaks of the moral experience of Vietnam War veterans while instructing his readers about the stories that we tell about war:

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil. (The Things They Carried, 65)

Notwithstanding O’Brien’s warning, Christian ethicists have not been shy in telling stories about war. Over the last few weeks I have been introducing some of these stories. Christian pacifists argue that the very idea of a just war is incompatible with the eschatological age inaugurated by Christ on the cross, a new age in which Jesus’ followers are called to embody God’s peaceable kingdom for the world. Christian realists deem war “a final revelation of the very character of human history,” a necessary evil that Christian sinners embrace for the sake of justice, fully aware that in doing so they are embracing sin as a means to an end.

O’Brien’s words about the futility of the moral stories we tell about war chasten me, and they call into question the wisdom of what Christian ethicists do when we speak about war.  I intend to return to this idea later in this blog series. For now, I will assume the implicit risk to which O’Brien points–the possibility that all of what I am saying here is, in the end, a lie–and turn my attention to a third story that Christians tell about war. Over the last several decades a growing number of Christian ethicists have argued that love serves as the primary virtue that motivates Christians to wage war. You can imagine that such an idea is precisely the sort of one that warrants the skepticism that O’Brien advocates. Isn’t the idea that love motivates war just another way of salvaging “some small bit of rectitude” from the wasteland? Isn’t this just another story that Christian tell to make us feel better about our violence?

Christian agapists say no. Now to be clear, agapists do not argue that all wars are motivated by love. Rather, they claim that only a certain type of war–a just war–is so motivated. Paul Ramsey famously argues that the just war tradition is rooted in “the interior of the ethics of Christian love” (The Just War, 142). More recently, Timothy Jackson has argued that love is what compels Christians to come to the aid of the innocent, using violent force if necessary to curb unjust aggression (The Priority of Love, chapter 3).  Likewise, Charles Mathewes urges Christians to embrace an alternative politics grounded in love.  Not a utopian ideal, a politics grounded in love transforms power from the mere manipulation of one human by another into “enabling and creative” actions that are for the sake of the other’s good (The Republic of Grace, 160).  Mathewes echoes Ramsey in arguing that slaying an aggressor can itself be “an act of charity,” an obligation for the Christian enmeshed in the harsh necessities of the world (The Republic of Grace, 168).

The last paragraph offers a very brief introduction to what I am calling Christian agapism. In framing this blog series as I have, I run the risk of conveying the misconception that agapism is in sharp conflict with Christian realism. In some ways it is, but I prefer to see Christian agapism as a species of Christian realism. Christian agapists embrace Niebuhr’s realistic sense of sin and human limitations while rejecting his fatalism about the possibilities of love in history. But I fear that my language here is starting to drift toward abstraction, so allow me to clarify the distinctiveness of Christian agapism by highlighting three claims that set agapism apart from both Christian pacifism and Niebuhrian realism:

(1) Love motivates Christians to wage just wars.  While realists (or, more precisely, Niebuhrian realists) deem just wars a necessary compromise with sin–a necessary “evil”–Christian agapists see just wars as fully compatible with Christian love. Contrary to Niebuhr’s claim that war is a necessary evil that entails the sacrifice of love for the sake of justice, Paul Ramsey argues that it is this unconditional regard for the wellbeing of the neighbor intrinsic to Christian love that motivates the Christian to wage war in the face of unjust aggression.  The violence of the just war thus entails no conflict between love and justice. Says Ramsey, love can actually motivate Christian violence:

Sometimes love does what justice requires and assumes its rules as norms, sometimes love does more than justice requires but never less, and sometimes love acts in a quite different way from what justice alone can enable us to discern to be right.  When one’s own interests alone are at stake, the Christian governs himself by love and resists not one who is evil. When his neighbor’s needs and the just order of society are at stake, the Christian still governs himself by love and suffers no injustice to be done nor the order necessary to earthly life to be injured. (War and the Christian Conscience, 178).

genocide_sml-620x330Ramsey argues that in Jesus’ own ministry we observe the origins of a “preferential ethic of protection” that compels the Christian to serve the concrete needs of the neighbor, even through the employment of violence (Basic Christian Ethics, 169).  Such means may be “unpleasant,” but the Christian who wages war justly need not compromise faithfulness to Christ.  As Timothy Jackson argues, “[i]t is not that in the political sphere we leave love behind, but rather that here love leaves (or may leave) nonviolence behind” (The Priority of Love, 110).

(2) Love doesn’t merely permit Christian to wage war. Sometimes love of neighbor obligates Christians to wage war. The Christian just war tradition, says Mathewes, deems just wars not merely permitted responses to injustice but rather obligatory responses that are born both from our deepest awareness of our own complicity and our deepest recognition of our present responsibilities.  Without flinching from the sometimes “terribly difficult actions” entailed even in just wars (The Republic of Grace, 168), Christians properly understand these wars to be both evidence of our own sin as well as regrettable but necessary acts that flow from our deepest sense of our obligation to confront injustice.  Indeed, with respect to Christian pacifism, the fundamental question that the agapist perspective raises, says Jackson, is “whether, by failing to protect innocents from unjust attack, pacifism represents not admirable perfectionism but dereliction of duty” (The Priority of Love, 109).

(3) Christian love also constrains the violence of war. In the pursuit of justice, there are some things that love will not permit.  “Unbridled lethal means would contradict the end of love,” says Jackson (The Priority of Love, 107).  The demands of love prohibit the intentional targeting of noncombatants, for example, and love compels just warriors to limit the violence of war to a level sufficient to accomplish the objective of securing a just order.  Agapists worry that Niebuhr’s idealization of love translates into a practical ethic in which consequentialist concerns trump moral principles in war.  After all, if it is necessary for Christians to participate in war as a necessary evil, what other sorts of evil might Christians pursue if the consequences are high enough?  As I observed in a previous post, Niebuhr himself defended the bombing of civilian populations by Allied forces during World War II, one of the “necessities of history” that Christian sinners embrace as a sort of moral sacrifice for the sake of their just cause. By contrast, agapists reject such consequentialist calculus.

In short, war is, in Ramsey’s words, “an unavoidable necessity, if we are not to omit to serve the needs of men in the only concrete way possible, and maintain a just endurable order in which they may live” (The Just War, 143).  It is not going too far to speak of the just war as a loving war, however alien such an idea might be:

Participation in regrettable conflicts falls among distasteful tasks which sometimes become imperative for Christian vocation.  Only one thing is necessary: for love’s sake it must be done.  All things are lawful, all things are now permitted, yet everything is required which Christian love requires, everything without a single exception. (Basic Christian Ethics, 184)

The just warrior faithfully embodies agapic love toward the neighbor when engaging in violent actions in defense of victims of unjust aggression. War is tragic to be sure, say agapists, but the just war does not require the Christian to sacrifice love for the sake of expediency.

So what are we to make of the story that Christian agapists tell about war? I identify as a reluctant Christian agapist, so readers can well imagine that there things about this account of war that I find quite persuasive. I am drawn to a perspective that helps me make sense of my intuition that intervening to protect victims of genocide and mass atrocity is morally defensible. I cannot reconcile myself to a Christian realist perspective that implies that there are moments in life when Christians needs to stop following Jesus. However, I have not yet pinpointed for readers the reasons for the reluctant spirit with which I embrace agapism. Tim O’Brien’s warning about the lies we tell about war hints at some of my concerns, but I am running out of space to explore these concerns in any serious way, and reading back through this post I am feeling the need to deviate briefly from my exploration of Christian accounts of the morality of war in order to explore a concept that I keep referencing in this series: the just war.

What is a just war?

More on the “just war tradition” on next week’s blog.


Christian Faith and War 4: I am not a Christian Realist

hiroshima 2Last week I offered a brief introduction to how Christian realists understand the morality of war. Here’s my brief summary of the perspective:

(1) Christ offers to humankind an uncompromising, radical moral ideal against which human life is to be measured.

(2) This ideal is an impossible one to live up to. Sin pervades every facet of human life, and the brokenness of the world entails tragic choices.

(3) War exemplifies this fact.  There are some circumstances where we must participate in the sins of history for the sake of justice. We do so as sinners, and with regret.  When we go to war we fall short of Christ’s call, but we do so trusting in God’s mercy to forgive us our sin.

Two weeks ago I explained why I am not a pacifist. Readers might assume by implication that I am a Christian realist. No, I am not a Christian realist either. I find myself even more troubled by Christian realism than I am by the Christian pacifism I described earlier in this series. Why so? What is the problem with Christian realism? That’s the focus of today’s post.

On the one hand there is much about Christian realism that I appreciate. I believe war is sometimes an appropriate response to injustice, as do realists like Niebuhr. I find myself echoing Christian realists when they criticize utopian forms of pacifism that presume that if we just love our enemies enough this will cause justice to blossom. No, charity does not always transform the enemy into a friend. Niebuhr was correct when he criticized Christian pacifists who “rest upon illusions about the goodness of man” (Love and Justice, 268). Niebuhr’s realist account of human nature and the pervasiveness of sin seems true to me. I also agree that in this world those of us seeking to do the right thing often face terribly difficult choices that admit no obvious solution. Niebuhr’s unsentimental perspective on the ubiquity of sin remains an important part of any conversation about the morality of war, something I’ll be returning to later in this series.

But I am not a Christian realist. Or more precisely, I am entirely uncomfortable with the sort of Christian realism that I’ve been describing over the last two weeks.  Reflecting on the reasons for my discomfort, two are most pressing. First, I am not persuaded that describing Jesus’ moral instruction as an impossible ethical ideal appropriately captures the voice of Christian scripture. Jesus has a lot to say to his disciples. Love your neighbor. Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Do not resist an evildoer. But where in Christian scripture does Jesus ever imply that following him is an impossible ethical ideal? Does Jesus ever couch his message in such a way? The Christian realist frame seems entirely alien to the biblical text.  Certainly we can imagine Jesus saying something like this: “Okay, disciples. I am going to teach you to live a radical way of life in which you subversively love your enemies and refuse to return violence for violence. But I understand that in the end you can’t really live up to this. I’m offering you an ethical ideal that is impossible for you to live by. You’re sinners, after all, and this way of life is too demanding to be practicable in the real world. Do the best you can. Remember that when you sin, I’ve got your back.” Christian realism suggests that this is the real import of Christ’s message, but nowhere in Christian scripture does Jesus ever imply that the way of life to which he calls his disciples is an impossible one, that Christians sometimes have to settle for doing something less than following Jesus. In his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament, New Testament scholar Richard Hays raises the critical theological problem with Niebuhr’s claim about the impossibility of Christ’s moral vision:

“If Jesus of Nazareth was a historical figure who lived–as all persons in history do–amidst ‘contending factions and forces,’ how could his ethic fail to address the moral problem of human life? On the other hand, if the life of the historical man Jesus symbolizes a transcendent reality, why is it ‘impossible’ for other human beings also to act in ways that participate in that symbolization? It seems that Niebuhr has unintentionally created a theological problem for himself by placing Jesus’ teachings on a superhuman pedestal; this distancing of Jesus from the human condition contradicts the portrayals of Jesus in the New Testament and in the christological definition of Chalcedon” (218).

Hays is right, I think, to worry about the docetism implicit in the Christian realist ethic.

hiroshimaSecond, I am concerned that in practice Christian realism devolves into a consequentialist ethic that encourages Christians to justify morally wrong acts in the name of practical expedience. Niebuhr himself illustrates my worry. Consider this question: is it morally right for soldiers to intentionally target civilians in war? I believe that the answer is no. Intentionally targeting civilians in war is morally wrong. When soldiers intentionally target noncombatant men, women, and children in war we should not defend their action; we should put those who perpetrate such acts on trial as war criminals. We should hold leaders who command such acts accountable. At the very least I would hope that Christians would agree that intentionally targeting civilians in war is something that we should not do. I think this is true even if the consequences that tempt us to target civilians are weighty. Bringing an end to a destructive war is a laudable goal. I don’t believe this goal justifies intentionally killing civilians. Notably, the rules of engagement taught to soldiers in the U.S. military are based on this moral presumption. My assertion that targeting noncombatants in war is morally wrong is not radical. It sits comfortably within the moral framework that circumscribes the conduct of soldiers in our military.

All of this should be uncontroversial, or so I would argue.  At the height of World War II, however, Niebuhr–the Christian realist–wrote a piece in which he justified obliteration bombing of German cities. This is a problem! Obliteration bombing by its very nature is indiscriminate. When we bomb entire cities we are explicitly choosing to not discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. Shouldn’t the conclusion here be that this is something we ought not to do? Niebuhr disagrees. While pointing to the “sorrow” of American and British citizens, Niebuhr nonetheless described indiscriminate obliteration bombing by Allied forces as a ” necessity of this terrible measure of war,” and “a vivid revelation of the whole moral ambiguity of warfare”:

It is not possible to defeat the foe without causing innocent people to suffer with the guilty. It is not possible to engage in any act of collective opposition to collective evil without involving the innocent with the guilty. It is not possible to move in history without becoming tainted with guilt” (Love and Justice, 222).

800For Niebuhr, the threat of Nazi tyranny compelled the Allied forces to return evil for evil: “Once bombing has been developed as an instrument of warfare,” he says, “it is not possible to disavow its use without capitulating to the foe who refuses to disavow it” (Love and Justice, 223). At the close of World War II, Niebuhr similarly describes the Allied bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though with greater ambivalence. “Critics have rightly pointed out that we reached the level of Nazi morality in justifying the use of the bomb on the ground that it shortened the war,” says Niebuhr (Love and Justice, 233). On the other hand, Niebuhr questions whether the leaders who decided to drop the bomb were simply “driven by historic forces more powerful than any human decision.”

What is one to make of this? Here’s my take: something is amiss in a perspective that offers moral cover for obliteration bombing, especially one that purports itself to be an extension of the moral wisdom of the Christian tradition. Such justifications seem more realist than Christian. Niebuhr is surely correct that in war the innocent often suffer with the guilty, but this fact alone offers no basis for the incredible conclusion that aiding and abetting the suffering of the innocent by indiscriminately targeting their homes is morally justifiable. There is a moral difference between the unintended suffering of civilians experiencing the side effects of justifiable violence directed against combatants and the intended suffering of civilians being victimized by our refusal to adhere to the principle of noncombatant immunity.

I have a hard time using the word Christian to describe a position that makes us feel better about intentionally killing civilians. If Christians are going to embrace the mass killing of civilians as a necessary means to an end, let us not hide behind the language that we are unwilling victims of “historic forces.” Let’s simply admit that we’ve decided that there are some circumstances in this world in which we are going to perpetrate moral atrocity and  stop following Jesus.

I can’t accept this. As a Christian if I can’t justify war itself as an outgrowth of my identity as a follower of Jesus then I think pacifists are correct: Christians should not participate in war. But as I have said previously, I am not a pacifist. So here is the question: is there a way for Christians to embrace some wars not as a necessary evils but as morally positive acts that are entirely consistent with Christian discipleship? Some Christians think that this is possible, and these days I find myself a reluctant representative of this perspective. In my next blog post I’ll be turning my attention to Christian agapism, a moral perspective that treats a particular type of war–the just war–as one that Christians may participate in as outgrowths of the Christian’s commitment to loving the neighbor.

Christian Faith and War 3: Christian Realism

home-guard12_1479983iIn the early days of the Second World War, Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr had had enough of Christian pacifists. “I accuse pacifists of self-righteousness,” he said, “because most modern pacifists have only a slight inkling of the real contradiction between life itself and the law of love” (Love and Justice, 268). Pacifists too readily assume that war results from a human failure to be more creative. Reject violence, pacifists seem to be saying, and trust in the possibilities of moral suasion to change your enemy. Christian pacifists  combine a religious absolutism–an unbending commitment to the fullness of Christ’s message–with a utopian story about human progress in which the violence of war can now be replaced by more rational, nonviolent alternatives to human conflict (Love and Justice, 261). Follow Christ, say pacifists. Love your enemies, turn the other cheek, and watch as the world is transformed. Niebuhr will have none of such sentimentalism:

“There is a theological gulf between pacifism and nonpacifist Christianity. I do not believe war is merely an ‘incident’ in history but is a final revelation of the very character of human history.”   (Love and Justice, 268)

War is the final revelation of the very character of human history.

N-Reinhold-Niebuhr1That sentence encapsulates most succinctly Christian realism, the perspective that I am introducing in this week’s blog post. This school of thought sometimes goes by the name “Niebuhrian realism,” clear evidence of Reinhold Niebuhr’s immense influence in this conversation. So what does Niebuhr mean when he describes war in this way, and how does this claim set Christian realism at odds with Christian pacifism? Here is my brief summary of the Christian realist position:

(1) God is love, and Jesus, the son of God, offers to the world a prophetic word, calling humankind to embrace a rigorous, uncompromising love that elevates others over the self. This love is universal, calling us out of our narrow sympathy for those like us to a regard for those who are different.

(2) The ethic of Jesus is impossible to live by. Sin is a pervasive reality in human life that impedes our ability to live up to the standard to which Jesus points. Our actions are frequently motivated by self-interest that competes with Jesus’ prophetic word.

(3) While love is an impossible ethical ideal, it remains as an ultimate standard against which human life is measured. Love is an “impossible possibility” that Christians strive to uphold even as we recognize our constant, inevitable failure. Christians find themselves caught in a tension between the perfectionism to which Christ calls us and an awareness of the limited possibilities available to us in history. The ultimate end of divine love is found in the forgiveness that God offers those inevitably involved in the “sins of history.”

Focus on the word tension for a moment.  It is essential to understanding the Christian realist perspective. Consider the tensions at the heart of the Christian tradition. Grace and judgment. Mercy and wrath. Love and justice. The unbending demands of the gospel, and the woeful possibilities of life in this world. Our day-to-day lives are fraught by these tensions and many more. For the Christian, the dialectical nature of our moral lives faces us with two equally  problematic temptations: (1) a wholesale embrace of moral realism that ignores the demands of the gospel, and (2) a sentimental embrace of moral perfectionism that denies the limited possibilities available to human sinners.

Reading through my summary, I’m concerned that my language may be too abstract for some of my intended audience, so let me try to reframe the Christian realist position in a way that will give some perspective into how Christian realists understand the morality of war:

(1) Like pacifists, Christian realists agree that there is a conflict between the demands of Christian love and the realities of war. War is hell. War is evidence of human sin. War conflicts with the uncompromising call of the gospel. Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Do not resist an evildoer. Christians should not deceive themselves into thinking that when they go to war that they are embodying the way of Christ.

(2) While pacifists allow this conflict to become a reason to reject war, realists argue that humankind is always, already involved in sin and that war is sometimes necessary for a greater good. Sin is inevitable, and there are circumstances where Christians are faced not with questions of right and wrong but questions of lesser evils. “Your difficulty,” says Niebuhr to his pacifist opponents, “is that you want to try to live in history without sinning. There is no such possibility in history…. We must see the sinfulness of war, but we must also see the sin of egoism in which all life is involved and of which war is the final expression” (Love and Justice, 270). Thus Niebuhr’s point: war is a revelation of the very character of human history.

(3) War is sometimes a necessary evil, but not always. While all wars are the embodiment of human sin to some degree, not all wars are equal, nor are all wars justifiable. War is sometimes a means of securing justice in the face of tyranny. These kinds of wars are justifiable in a way that wars of aggression are not.

(4) In every case, love remains an “impossible possibility,” a moral norm against which even war itself is to be measured. Christians embrace the sin of war with regret, and in war Christians should allow the demands of love to temper their feelings toward the enemy, to remain open to the possibilities of reconciliation and forgiveness. Love also encourages Christian warriors to minimize the harms of war, to embrace just violence while fighting against the all-too-common feelings of hatred that violence can evoke in us. In doing so, Christians are experiencing once again the moral tension that is at the heart of what it means to live as redeemed sinners in a sinful world.

As I shared in my last blog post, I am not a pacifist, and there are at least some of Niebuhr’s criticisms of pacifism with which I have some sympathy. I will note here that Niebuhr’s critique of Christian pacifism speaks well only to a certain species of utopian, liberal pacifism, not to more sober forms of Christian pacifism that share Niebuhr’s sense that sin encroaches into virtually every part of our lives. Some pacifists agree with Niebuhr that rejecting war will not always lead to a more just world. For his part, Niebuhr acknowledges that the pacifist voice remains important and relevant to the Christian tradition, reminding Christians of the unbending demands of love that render us complicit in the sins of the world. This acknowledgement will not satisfy most pacifists, of course, who see Christian realism as little more than a deeply flawed theological perspective that aspires to make us feel better about our violence. I say this, and already I find myself haunted by this criticism. But in the end, while I find much to appreciate about Christian realism, I actually share some of the weighty concerns of those critics of Christian realism.  This will be the focus of my next blog post.

Christian Faith and War 2: I am not a Pacifist

Iraq WarI was a senior in high school during the First Gulf War. I stayed home from church on the Wednesday night when the U.S. air assault began because I was sick, so I had the opportunity to watch the video images of bombs hitting targets with pinpoint accuracy. It was like watching a video game. I remember the feeling of excitement, wonderment, and dread. I remember having questions. What should I feel about this violence? Those white hot explosions on the screen don’t show the death and destruction on the ground. What are people there experiencing as I watch from my family’s living room couch? What should I think about the possibility that I myself might be called to serve if this war drags out?

Later that year I brought up some of my questions to my grandfather, a Church of Christ minister. Grandpa was always one willing to talk about questions pertaining to the Bible and Christian faith. The last 10 years of his ministry he spent in Scranton, PA. Walking the streets and city parks was our common practice, the time when we would have our deepest conversations. As I recall, we were in Nay Aug Park when our conversation drifted to the topic of war. I had never discussed war with him, so I was surprised when I discovered that grandpa was a pacifist who believed that following Jesus meant rejecting the violence of war. I later discovered that grandpa embraced pacifism as far back as World War II, when he was a young minister. While I don’t remember all of the details of our conversation, I do remember this exchange:

Vic: “Grandpa, if everyone believed what you are saying, then people like Saddam would get away with their wrongdoing.”

Grandpa: “No. If everyone believed as Christians should, there would be no need for war at all.”

Taking me back to his office, my grandfather pulled out a photocopy of David Lipscomb’s Civil Government. Lipscomb was a major figure in the 19th century American Restoration movement. He wrote Civil Government shortly after the conclusion of the American Civil War. Distraught by a war in which Christians killed Christians with each side praying to the same God asking for God’s blessing, Lipscomb came to a radical conclusion: Christians are citizens of the kingdom of God living amid the kingdoms of this world. Citizenship in God’s kingdom conflicts with citizenship in the kingdoms of this world. When Christians mix their loyalties, they do very bad things like killing one another and asking God to bless them in their killing. To be faithful citizens of God’s kingdom Christians must reject citizenship in the world’s kingdoms. Thus, Lipscomb concluded that Christians ought to not serve in the military. He also argued that Christians should not vote or hold elected office.  To the best of my knowledge, grandpa embraced Lipscomb’s vision to the end of his life. While I have never been persuaded by Lipscomb’s argument, in retrospect I do think he was right about one thing.  The world would certainly be a less violent place if all Christians could agree with the modest proposal that we will stop killing one another (with credit to Stan Hauerwas who makes a similar argument in one of his books, though I can’t begin to recall where).

I bring up my experience and my relationship with my grandfather here because I feel it important to say that I have a deep and abiding respect for my colleagues, friends, family, and fellow Christians who identify themselves as pacifists. I share with them an aversion to the violence of war, and I applaud them in the concrete, sometimes costly peacemaking practices that they embrace. I also share their feeling that we are far too hasty in our willingness to embrace violence in the name of pursuing justice.

But I am not a pacifist.

In last week’s post I posed a brief description of Christian pacifism, one that I hope accurately reflects the views of those who embrace this vision. In this week’s post I want to offer up a brief explanation as to why I myself am not a pacifist. I can’t begin to offer a detailed rebuttal of pacifism in a single blog post, so my response here will be necessarily broad and incomplete. I do hope that some of my readers will find something here that resonates with them, or even something they feel the need to respond to.

CPTLet me begin by rejecting one of the common criticisms of pacifism. Some argue that Christian pacifists are irresponsible, that pacifism encourages a sectarian withdrawal from the violence of the world. I don’t endorse this criticism of pacifism. For anyone who thinks that Christian pacifists are encouraging a “do nothing” response to injustice, I encourage you to check out some of the examples of what Christians committed to nonviolence are actually doing in the many violent, conflicted parts of the world. I have learned a lot from the example of the Christian Peacemaker Teams in Iraq, Palestine, and Colombia–Christians who are entering into real-world contexts of violence and injustice and pursuing creative, nonviolent alternatives to war. This is noble work, something that is worth embracing irrespective of one’s convictions about war.

My rejection of pacifism stems in part from my sense that violence and Christian love are not necessarily incompatible, that simply asserting that the violence of war conflicts with love is to speak too simply about both love and violence. Is violence by definition incompatible with love? Consider the practice of corporal punishment, a practice that up to the present has been quite common in Christian homes. One might say many things about the practice of spanking. It is ineffective.  It can easily become abusive. A growing body of research points to adverse long-term consequences of spanking on children. But while I agree that we have very good reasons to not spank, I don’t think that one can say that parents who spank are doing so because they are failing to love their children. Quite the contrary, I suspect that many parents who spank–i.e. many parents who use controlled violence against their children–are doing so because they do love their children and because they see corporal punishment as itself an act of love, a temporary form of discipline that seeks to steer their children’s moral behavior. This is an example of love motivating violence (albeit a violence that research suggests we should question).

At first glance the example of parental discipline might seem a far cry from the violence of war. Spanking is certainly not the same thing as firing a lethal weapon at an enemy. However, it is notable that in the Christian tradition there are a fair number of voices that describe just wars as violent acts that are similarly motivated by a concern for moral discipline. In his treatise “Whether A Soldier, Too, Can Be Saved,” Martin Luther speak of just wars in this very way:

“For what is just war but the punishment of evildoers and the maintenance of peace? If one punishes a thief or a murderer or an adulterer, that is punishment inflicted on a single evildoer; but in a just war a whole crowd of evildoers, who are doing harm in proportion to the size of the crowd, are punished at once.” (quoted in Arthur Holmes, ed. War and Christian Ethics, 2d edition, pg. 145).

The violence of the just war, says Luther, is analogous to the violence a doctor inflicts upon a patient whose limb he is removing. An initially violent act is aimed at a greater good: the preservation of life, or the restoration of a just peace. What seems unloving is actually motivated by loving regard for the wellbeing of others.

While I am not persuaded that love and war are always incompatible, this isn’t even a good reason for rejecting pacifism. One could agree that love can motivate war and still conclude that war is consequentially bad, like spanking, that nonviolence is more effective at securing justice and that war should be abolished. This is what I wish I could accept. But I cannot. I believe there are circumstances in which state-sponsored violence can be more effective in securing justice, and there are circumstances in which the refusal to resort to violence will lead to greater misery and suffering for victims of unjust aggression.

vangogh_samaritaan_grtThis is really the rub, isn’t it? For me, debates about the morality of war would be much easier were we simply talking about my life. If my life is at stake, then it’s not hard to see how loving one’s enemy and turning the other cheek might lead me to sacrifice myself in order to avoid harming my enemy (Sidebar: not all Christians would embrace this rejection of self-defense. Aquinas accepted self-defense as justifiable for the Christian, an appropriate extension of self-love). But what about when the lives of others are at stake? Paul Ramsey famously raised this question in his book Basic Christian Ethics. We all know that the Samaritan showed love toward his neighbor who had been beaten and bloodied on the road to Jerusalem when the Samaritan tended to the man’s wounds and cared for him. But what would love require of the Samaritan were he to come across the man while the robbers were in the act of beating and robbing him? If nonviolence proves ineffective, could loving regard for the man actually require the Christian to leave nonviolence behind? Ramsey concludes that it seems most likely that Jesus would have encouraged the Samaritan to aid the victim in his resistance against the robbers, even up to the point of using violence to defend the victim. This seems plausible to me.

Outside of hypothetical debates about Christian scripture, I believe there to be historical incidents that beg real questions of pacifists. Appeals to Nazi Germany are so common these days as to be trite, and yet the appeal seems most appropriate here in that World War II serves as a frequent example of a modern “just war.” I don’t find it the least bit plausible to suggest that nonviolent resistance would have been more effective in stopping Hitler than armed resistance. While it is impossible to evaluate the hypothetical question of whether a mass Christian movement of nonviolent resistance in Europe would have quelled Hitler’s genocidal plans, it is possible to evaluate the real world efficacy of a war that culminated in Hitler’s defeat. Maybe pacifists are correct that effectiveness is not the proper measure of Christian faithfulness. Maybe pacifists have a point when they insist that the failure of nonviolence requires Christians to embrace the virtue of patience, trusting in God’s final vindication. Maybe it is true that God has not given Christians the responsibility of “making history turn out right.” And yet I fear that these common pacifist tropes downplay the very substantial price of nonviolence, a price paid not by those of us sitting in the relative security of our air-conditioned homes but by those sitting in concentration camps watching their mothers, fathers, children, and friends march to the gas ovens. These tropes also misstate the aspirations of Christians who embrace war, who are motivated by goals decidedly less ethereal than resolving the ultimate end of history. Sometimes just keeping children from being gassed to death is cause enough, and calls for patience ring hollow when dying gasps of Syrian children echo from the television screen.

I am not a pacifist. I say that reluctantly, keenly aware of all the contradictions, potential compromises, and difficulties entailed when a Christian embraces war. That said, I know I am not alone in my reluctant acceptance, and among those who accept that war is sometimes morally permissible, perhaps even obligatory, there are different ways that Christians describe how war relates to Christian discipleship.  I’ll turn my attention to one approach next week. Enter Reinhold Niebuhr . . .