Monday, February 28, 2005

An Introduction and Conversation on Just War and Pacifism

I have a friend that I have known since high school, Rhett. We had gotten out of touch -- as is so easy to do -- but recently this blog has been the occasion for some interesting e-mail exchanges between him and me. I have been delighted to catch up with him and renew our valued friendship. Rhett and I used to be very close compatriots in our ideological outlook. Our lives have gone in somewhat varied directions since those days, and I think we have each grown and matured quite a lot. While we still share much important in common, we are in rather different places on some other issues now. But he is also a very cordial, charitable conversation partner. I won't say much more about him, especially as he is threatening to start a blog of his own: he can introduce himself more then.

We had a good e-mail exchange last week, and I asked him if I could post most of our conversation online: he said yes.

In essence, he had written me in response to my "weeping and gnashing" post, asking some good questions about Christians and war. My responses try to mediate the Christian tradition as best I know it and my own convictions about the issues involved. The rest of this post contains excerpts from that e-mail and a few additions that occurred to me over the weekend:

There is much more to say about these issues than I am able to express in a brief e-mail at the end of the day, so this might well turn into an ongoing conversation (which I would welcome).

Your questions:
1) Do you think most Christians are pacificists or non-pacificists or haven't considered it all?

I think historically, since Constantine, of those who have thought about it seriously, more have been in the just war tradition. But there has almost always been a strong minority position of pacifism, especially before Constantine and in Anabaptist traditions. I suspect, however, that many Christians do not think sufficiently about these issues and do not consider that there might be a conflict. It is quite important to remember, though, that pacifism is not (merely) resistance to war or unwillingness to fight. It is not just about a decision to not fight in a war. It is an active commitment to seek peace at all times and work towards a peaceful and just world. Many pacifists make the point that if more people worked for this, we would have fewer wars in the first place. It is also important to keep in mind that just war criteria do not justify many of the wars we have fought. This is a good segue into your next question

2) How does pacifism intersect with a just-war? For example, was it okay for Christians to participate in the Civil War and thus liberate the slaves? How about liberating the Jews and others from the Nazi death camps? The reason I ask is that these are often cited as justifications for war or why war is okay.

I could expand on the conditions for a just war here, but I suspect it is more important to say this: to be a pacifist in no way entails condoning -- or even tolerating -- slavery and death camps. Interestingly, the Christian tradition is absolutely unanimous that violence and killing is always abhorrent, it is never seen as a positive alternative. The difference between pacifism and just war is that just war says that there might be some time that we need to -- as a last resort -- engage the evils of war (say in self-defense or defense of another, weaker person). If we do engage in war, just war rationalises, we need to have rules and limits to ensure that we do not sin even more in the conduct of that war. Pacifism, on the other hand, says that suffering evil is better than inflicting it, as that is what our Lord did on the cross. (He could have summoned armies of angels, but instead died, extending even those who crucified him forgiveness rather than vengeance.) From either perspective, pacifism or just war, the Christian is bound to do everything possible in a nonviolent way to secure the freedom of the slaves and the Jews, even to the point of our own death. But the just-war adherent recognizes that there might be some final, tragic last resort when force and violence may be engaged within certain limits.

3) Is there a time when war is okay? For example, Rahab is praised for telling a lie to protect the Israelite spies, and some conclude that there are times when it is okay to lie, i.e., protecting a life -- is there a similar application to war.

I don't think such a case can be made (although others would clearly disagree). This is partly because most of the fighting/battles/wars that seem divinely sanctioned are those of the OT people of God fighting to return to (or protect) the promised land. I don't think a church/ N.T. people of God who follow a Lord known as the Prince of Peace can claim to have similar leadings from God. Even more, I certainly don't think that any modern nation-state (even the state of Israel) can claim that in any way. either.

I find that "divinely sanctioned" fighting quite troubling, by the way. I honestly don't know what to make of it. My general way of proceeding theologically won't allow me to excise it from the text ("oh, that was a mistake", or "we humans have evolved since then", etc.), nor will it allow me to set it up as some sort of divine pattern that must be repeated. When I try to theologize, I usually deliberately leave tensions unresolved. So I let these passages sit in the shadow of the greater part of the tradition, which does not sanction either wars of the modern nation-state or divine violence, and I profess to not understanding what may be a mystery as yet too deep (for me at least) to fathom.

I suspect that the specific example you mention, coupled with other notable, noble examples -- e.g., hiding Jews or other persecuted people in Nazi-controlled lands during World War II -- may have moral force in part just because the people who did these deeds did do in the face of force and violence by others, presumably with potentially quite serious consequences for themselves.

4) In your opinion can a Christian be President of the United States, knowing that in order to protect and defend the Constitution, he may have to initiate a war?

This is a good question, to which I don't have a good answer, any more than can a Christian be emperor of Rome or king of England. I need to think about it some more, but I think I would at least be content with whoever was both a Christian and President of the U.S. at least acting a little uncomfortable about it, confessing that he felt quite torn at times, etc. In other words, it would be a start if a Christian who wanted to be president at least entertained the possibility that he or she might not be able to become president because of the things they would be expected to do.

It would be good if we could at least see that there was conflict between the two things, being a Christian and being a president. I think in the same way I wouldn't be so horrified with us going to war if we really did so as a last resort, with some sort of almost tragic sense about it -- an awareness that going to war means not national glory, but an admission that we have failed. Instead, many people seem to see it as some sort of triumphalistic fulfilling of a national destiny.

5) In the Old Testament God uses war to achieve His purposes -- do think that that happens now and that he would call Christians to participate?

I don't know that I have a really satisfying answer to your fifth question beyond what I have replied to question three.

I suspect that we also need to think carefully about what we mean when we say that God "uses" things. If we subscribe to a robust sense of God's providence, we confess that God uses even our sin to achieve God's ends -- but we would never say that we ought therefore to sin.

But the OT war tradition is something that I am not all that comfortable with (for Christian reasons), and I haven't yet thought out what I think about it, beyond feeling pretty certain that it's not something for us today.

Also, I think how one views end-times theology may have bearing on this as well.

I'm not entirely sure this is true, although it has some intuitive appeal. If you subscribe to a dispensational, premillenial view of the end-times, then the primary task of the church is to save souls and wait for Jesus to return and take you out of the world (for a time) while it undergoes tribulation. This discourages a kind of care for the world and other people that might guard against going to war. (This is not uniformly the case, though, as Seventh Day Adventists tend to be premillenial and dispensational, yet have historically been pacifist and conscientious objectors.) It also might encourage you to participate in war so as to, perhaps, usher in the "last days" -- there has been much speculation (Hal Lindsay, et al.) that the Middle East and some conflict there will be instrumental in bringing about the return of Christ.

If you are postmillenial (or, generally, amillenial), then you would see the Church and (especially) the Holy Spirit as instrumental in bringing in the salvation, righteousness, justice and peace of the Kingdom of God, which would seem to encourage the kind of care for the world and other people that would cause you to refrain from war. On the other hand, most of the nations in Europe which dominated and oppressed much of the world through massive empire from the 17th to the 19th centuries were officially Christian, and subscribed to amillenial or postmillenial eschatologies. I suppose that if one starts to be to self-congratulatory about one's own righteousness (and rightness), particularly being postmillenial, then one can easily begin to see those who do not accept one's prescriptions for them as being ignorant or wicked -- in which case extermination might not seem like a bad option.

The irony is that premillenial dispensationalism has traditionally been the eschatology of preference of (self-described) fundamental Christians, who have traditionally been known as a socio-economic underclass. So -- in purely sociological terms, not theological or philosophical -- one can understand the profound desire for deliverance, and the disconnect from power that would prompt one to look for it from outside: Jesus returning to remove his elect from the world. The problem is (and Caleb has adverted to this on his blog): what happens when that eschatological scheme becomes the dominant ideology of the world's regnant power?

I always appreciate this kind of interaction and look forward to more of it, Rhett.
grace and peace,

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Blogger Caleb said...

Thanks for this very thoughtful and subtle post. I share your feeling of discomfort about the OT, and I admire your ability to say that we just might not be able to understand fully what the meaning of those narratives are.

It helps me to realize, though, that the OT also includes a countervailing strand of more peaceable thinking, just as the Christian tradition always has. The prophets, for instance, are usually prognosticating God's "use" of foreign armies to judge his people, yet the reason for judgments usually has to do with their making alliances with said armies and pursuing military conquest without the leading of God.

It's also worth remembering that sometimes OT armies lose, which seems to allow for the possibility that the writers did not want to glorify all and any wars as God-willed. And unlike some other ancient narratives, like the Iliad, there's very little dwelling on the military prowess or shining spears and helmets of even a military figure like Joshua. It at least deepens the mystery to realize that Joshua is not anything like Achilles.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005 1:24:00 PM  
Blogger Jason said...

Thank you: I found what you said here helpful for my own thinking, especially your third paragraph. I also wonder if it is significant that Israel would have (almost certainly) been the weaker power in any sort of conventional conflict?

Also, you helped me to remember an insight that my wife had about the Old Testament: that the overriding theme throughout is worshipping the right God in the right way. That helps me to wrestle with the fighting in, say, Joshua, in a different way, as much of the reason for the conflict was syncretism and idolatry versus true worship. (This doesn't condone -- or even necessarily make intelligible -- the violence in the expulsion of people from the promised land. It does however put it in a context which helps me, in ways, feel a bit more at ease with the mystery.)

Thursday, March 03, 2005 2:26:00 AM  

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