Tuesday, June 21, 2005

War...HUH..Good God, y'all!

The question is: do Christian ethics allow for war?Rmj, Wandering Aengus

What is the responsibility of a Christian concerning war? The opinions, both historical and current, range from embracing armed conflict in God’s name to denunciation of any violence whatsoever. It is possible to provide evidence from both scripture and tradition to support both viewpoints. There are dedicated adherents on both sides of the issue, but most Christians attempt to find some balance between the reality of our world context, in which wars would seem to be a constant feature, and the reality of our call to discipleship as followers of Christ and seekers after the Kingdom of God, in which violence seems to have no place.

Where these Christians find themselves is in the many faceted issue of just war. Is there any situation that could justify war waged by Christians and what are the criteria for determining its justification? Another aspect of just war is the concern for how a just war must be waged in order to remain just. It seems unreal for Christians to be debating the extent to which they may wage war and still be justified in doing so, but the theory of just war attempts to define this issue and clearly indicate the boundaries of determining if a war is just and determining how to wage war justly.

Have Christians ever been of one mind concerning war? There is reason to speculate that the early church was pacifistic in nature. This would be logical, considering the early church’s preoccupation with imminent eschatology. New Testament writings urge Christians to be aware of their status as a people set apart, called to belong to Jesus Christ. Paul’s remarks in Romans concerning the “marks of a true Christian” are explicit: “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all…never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God…if your enemy is hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink…do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.”

This initial stance seems to have lasted until near the end of the second century as there is no evidence of a single Christian soldier after New Testament times until about A.D. 170. Origin wrote to condemn Christian participation in war. This stance came under criticism from outside Christianity as being hypocritical, as Christians enjoyed the fruits of hard won peace and were kept secure by the Empire’s ability to make war. The response to this criticism claimed that Christians were set apart from the world and performed an “alternate service by improving the moral fiber of society and by praying for the government.”

As long as Christian communities considered themselves to be separate from the world, the pacifistic stance held up, even under persecution. The shift in this stance became prevalent in the wake of Constantine and his actions making Christianity the official religion of the Empire. Suddenly the church was very much a part of the world, and opinions varied widely as to whether or not this was a good thing for the followers of Christ. Fifty years later, Augustine would articulate his theory of “just war” in his great work, The City of God, in the context of being in just relationships with others.

There remained tension between pacifism and just war thinking in the church, but a new attitude was developing in the face of “barbarian invasions” and repeated conquest by belligerent nations. A fusion of the Germanic religion of war and the religion of peace took place. Five hundred years after Augustine articulated the theory of just war, the church became the “church militant” as the crusades began and a new and bloody chapter in the history of Christianity and war was written. War, in fact, became accepted as “part of the necessary condition of society.” Aquinas addressed the issue sparingly, using Augustine as a source, and focusing on the necessity of the justice and order of natural law for the common good, which may require safeguarding.

Regardless of whether or not war is considered to be a “necessary condition of society,” today, it is an unfortunate reality in society today. The three main stances of Christians towards war are crusader, pacifist, and just war thinker. There is a variation known as nonresistance, a form of nonparticipation in armed conflict that preserves the obligation to support the nation in any way short of active violence, that seems to fall somewhere between pacifism and just war thinking.

In so far as concerns the subject of war, pacifists and just-war thinkers share many beliefs. At the very least, both are focused on avoiding violence. What perhaps binds them the closest is the conviction that all people are created by God and are in covenant with God. From both pacifistic and just war stances, this requires a proactive approach to being in relationship that is guided by agape love. The divergence comes in the differing interpretations of what that love is.

For a Christian pacifist, that love is a manifestation of a “practical knowledge of God’s forgiving love and of the generosity towards others that the experience of being both loved and forgiven engenders.” (Cahill, Lisa Sowle. Love Your Enemies: Discipleship, Pacifism, and Just War Theory. Fortress Press: Minneapolis. 1994.) This goes somewhat beyond the “Jesus as model” rationale that Joseph Allen provides (Allen, Joseph L. War: A Primer for Christians. Abingdon Press: Nashville. 1991.), which Cahill states can “make nonviolence wholly a matter of compliance with some extrinsic duty.” Agape love for a pacifist is rather experiencing God’s love so strongly that one cannot help but respond in discipleship which precludes acting towards anyone, regardless of the provocation to self or others, in any way that is not reflective of this love. It is “a commitment to embody communally…the kingdom of God so fully that mercy, forgiveness, and compassion preclude the very contemplation of causing physical harm to another person.” Inherent in this definition is the possibility of suffering the consequences of such a stance; pacifists acknowledge that suffering is inevitable and their own experience of it is also a manifestation of love.

Pacifism is grounded in a virtue ethic. Virtues mentioned repeatedly are compassion, mercy, inclusive love, and forgiveness. According to Cahill, pacifism as discipleship is not a following of a specific set rules that direct a Christian’s life in the Kingdom because “in the New Testament, change never occurs via intentional adherence to a superior moral system, but by conversion to more compassionate and inclusive attitudes.” Nevertheless, it would appear that the “hard sayings” of scripture have, in a sense, become the basis of a divine command ethics that is certainly deontological in nature. It is also not a way to achieve the goal of living in the Kingdom. Pacifist discipleship is a “joyful living out of what has already transpired.” The form of pacifism I have concentrated on, witnessing as opposed to pragmatic, does not seem to be based on teleological ethics. Pragmatic pacifism, on the other hand, is very much grounded in teleological ethics. Joseph Allen goes as far as to call it utilitarianism.

A just war thinker is also deeply concerned about how agape love is to be understood. According to Joseph Allen, “just war thinkers believe that love can obligate us to use force to protect the victims of unjust attack.” As such, war can be justifiable under certain circumstances, and only under certain circumstances. This series of criteria, which has been developed over time, reflects the reluctance of just war thinkers to accept the necessity of resulting to force.

There is more to follow on this topic, but I thought I’d get my $.02 worth in for now…

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