Wednesday, June 22, 2005

"It is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith."-Dietrich Bonhoffer

I stepped forward on a day in May, 19**, raised my right hand, and took an oath that confirmed my willingness to be inducted into service in the Armed Forces of the United States of America. Immediately afterwards, I was shipped away to spend eight weeks learning how to utilize the many devices designed specifically for the taking of a human life in an armed conflict. I had been told that I was signing a legal contract by joining the Army, and I was warned to be quite certain that I knew to what I was committing. I did not.

My service in the military was relatively short and uneventful. I emerged from it thankful that it had been. By the time it was complete, I knew that I would never take that oath if I had it to do all over again.

I’ve given this issue a great deal of thought and it weighs very heavily on my mind. I can only speak for myself as an individual striving to be who God calls me to be and as a citizen of a nation currently at war. I do tend to conflate my understanding of person responsibility with that of social responsibility, but it is in the context of human society and covenential relationships, not specifically in the context of being an American citizen. Now…on to it.

I am greatly attracted to the pacifistic stance. If I was called to make a decision about which stance, pacifistic or just war, was a more perfect way to be a Christian, I would give the nod to pacifism. I would also have to admit that I am not perfect, and that the context in which I am engaged in ethical thinking and action bears far more resemblance to the just war context that Cahill describes as “ relations of citizens and states in the political world.”

I am still at the place of reluctance to embrace the witnessing approach to social responsibility. This is related to the sense that the church, or myself as a pacifist, is a witness to the world without being a part of the world. On the extreme end of this approach are those churches that are sects, not recognizing the world outside of their community as a valid reality in which to know and experience God. There are variations of degrees to which a separation of church and society determine the responsibility of Christians within society. While some remain dedicated to the living of the Kingdom ideal, they feel that they are serving the world through their beliefs and their example, and that, therefore, they should be involved in world affairs, particularly politics. This is their sense of social responsibility.

However, there is still the barrier of the context. While the ultimate goal is the same (as all Christians hope to participate in the Kingdom of God), the context that the witnessing pacifists are in is one that rejects what they see as a compromise of the Kingdom by accepting the standards of the world. As witnessing pacifists present an alternate reality, one that I would embrace with all thankfulness and joy, we still live in the reality that is. Ideally, a witnessing pacifist whose witness does not consist of withdrawing from the world would hope that their alternative reality would shine uncompromisingly on reality as it is and bring about a new reality.

It is similar to Bonhoeffer’s discussion of the ultimate and the penultimate. To simplify to a perhaps inexcusable degree, just war thinkers live in the penultimate; pacifists are trying to live in the ultimate. Some pacifists have taken the radical stance of rejecting the penultimate altogether, others lean more towards a compromise stance which is still extremely radical.
The task of living in the penultimate, however, is to live in such a way that prepares for the ultimate. A question that looms large in my mind is which stance is more preparatory in nature. And in this, despite my personal preference, the paradigm underlying just war thinking is still a candidate.

For Bonhoeffer, the proper action for a Christian is one which takes seriously the commandment to “love your neighbor,” by living covententially, providing for the needs of the other. There is a strand of pacifism that embodies this, according to Cahill, known as Compassionate Pacifism. However, in rejecting all forms of violence, a pacifist places herself in a place wherein lies the potential of being unable to provide for the needs of another, if she is unable to come to the defense of another. Although Bonhoeffer did not specifically mention the use of violence in providing for one’s neighbor, given the context in which he was writing, and the circumstances surrounding his eventual demise, he did not reject it outright.

It is the absolute uncompromising nature of pacifism that prevents me from fully embracing it-not because pacifism should compromise, but because I hold out for the possibility that I might. Although I frankly agree that pacifism is a more perfect approach to discipleship, I can foresee circumstances in which I would feel called to defend another. I simply could not maintain the high standard of discipleship that is required for pacifism, yet.

Although pacifists may legitimately dispute this, particularly in light of the situation we find ourselves in today, I think that just war thinking, when used extremely critically and to its fullest extent, essentially attempts to avert the necessity of armed conflict, and hopefully, change the reality in which we live. My premise as a just war thinker would be that war is never desirable, nor is it ever the best way to achieve a just result. The burden of proof is always on those who would engage in conflict.

I disagree with those who would say that war is ever “an expression of faith in God, loyal discipleship to Jesus Christ, and love for all one’s neighbors.” On this point, I agree with the pacifists. I will agree that the nature of humanity has a tendency towards conflict that must be taken into account within relationships. There are times in which a response to the needs of another occurs within a context of conflict. If there is no alternative with which to meet the needs of another outside of armed conflict, then that is preferable to not trying to meet the needs of another. But let’s not fool ourselves; when we make that decision, we’re reacting from a standpoint of no hope, and we will have much to repent for, especially if we try to tell ourselves that this is what God desires of us.

By accepting the context in which we live, we try to do our best within it. That is what just war thinking is about. The hope is that, through just war thinking, we will engage in fewer wars, not more. We will also have in front of us the price of war as we make the decisions and will perhaps be motivated to seek solutions that will change the context in which we live. War cannot do that. Pacifism tries to do that from the distance of witnessing.

My own approach to just war thinking would involve tightening the criteria. My experience in the military did not expose me to high ethical standards, and I have grave doubts concerning the necessity of a standing army. Preemptive strikes are the embodiment of “do unto others before they do unto you.” Legitimate authority is helpful only in that it stresses the need to place in authority people with empathy, compassion, imagination and the ability to look for hope in a situation rather than be resigned to hopelessness. No authority exists on this earth that I acknowledge as having the right to demand that I help one person by killing another. That is a responsibility I do not abdicate.

What concerns me is that the criteria can become a checklist to justify a war, rather than a check to prevent one. As an extremely reluctant just war thinker, my tendency would always be to err on the side of caution and seek other alternatives. Quite frankly, once a war is deemed justified by use of these criteria, I doubt there is much effort involved in finding alternatives, as all energy is focused on the determined option. I do not believe war is a necessary condition of humanity; I do believe that it is easier than the struggle to heal our brokeness and one overarching aspect of our brokeness is our tendency to take the path of least resistance. Just war thinking is a battle against the path of least resistance, if used conscientiously, consistently and at the highest levels of decision.

My conclusion that I am, however reluctantly, not a pacifist, is based on my teleological goal of acting in such a way as to change this reality in which I live, while I live in it. I acknowledge that pacifism can do this, and I hope that my discussion of the detachment required on a practical basis by a pacifist does not leave the impression that I feel that a pacifist is disengaged or oblivious to the reality that is. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is also based on the knowledge that I do not yet have the ability to manifest the virtues of compassion, mercy, and especially, forgiveness, to the extent that would enable me to live under the standards of discipleship required for a Christian pacifist. Therefore, I will continue to struggle through the moral issues surrounding the decision to react with violence, always attempting to maintain hope in a time and a context in which violence will no longer be a part of where I am.

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