In 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).
Ramsey 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.