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Pacifism and Just War: Is Justice Sufficient for War?

June 9, 2013

Originally this was supposed to be the only article in what has now blossomed into a long series on pacifism and just war. However, I found it worth reviewing assumptions and the texts before arriving back at the place where I meant to start: the place of confusion that I feel the Bible leaves us in. On one hand violence is frequently condemned in blanket terms in the New Testament. The pacifist idea that Jesus’ action to save those who hated him rather than destroy them tells us how to act seems to be one with ample Biblical support. At the same time there are strange discordant notes – the disciples carry swords that Jesus told them to buy and when Jesus and the apostles encounter soldiers they never enjoin them to leave a life of military service for a more less-violent existence. The fact that just war can make a reasonable claim that stopping an evil person from doing evil to others may be a net good even if it involves becoming personally involved with violence is worth considering as well.

My best resolution to this starts with a question: is justice sufficient for war? Just war assumes (at least in most usages) that if war is just then one should engage in that war. Is that really so? Could a war be just and also bad? Could, perhaps, all war be just and also bad?

The idea that something could be simultaneously good and bad isn’t as odd as it sounds. A non-violent example comes to us from battlefield medicine: triage. After a battle or a natural disaster, the number of wounded individuals may outstrip the medical resources needed to care for them all. In such cases triage goes into action. Some individuals will die without medical intervention but will live if they are treated. They get care first. Other individuals will die with or without treatment. They do not get care beyond painkillers. The last category consists of those who will live without medical care. They will get medical care when and if those who would die without medical care are all treated. Obviously this is both good and bad – good because it saves the most lives possible and bad because it involves denying care to some people in need. However, the choices forced on the doctor or nurse in this situation are not good ones. There is no option to give everyone all the care they need. Instead, one has to choose who gets care and who does not. There is a best way to do this but there is no way to make that a good situation.

Just war could easily be such a situation. The broken world in which we live may make warfare the best option but the deliberate killing of other humans can never be considered a good option. It would be completely unchristian to want a world in which more people could be killed “correctly”. Instead, Christianity is obviously striving for a world in which killing in the defense of others is not needed because no one would ever threaten anyone else. In a world composed entirely of perfect Christians (or even rather cut-rate ones) nobody would ever threaten to kill anyone else and the scenarios in which war (or any lethal violence) may be just would never exist.

Of course there are many things that would not exist in a perfect world that are not at all bad themselves. For instance, in a perfect world we would not need truth in advertising laws because no one would lie about their products. This does not make truth in advertising laws bad. In the same way safety regulations are good things that would not be needed in a perfect world because perfect people would never need to be coerced by laws into making their products or practices safe. Is just war more like medical triage, the best of a set of bad options, or more like safety laws, good things that will be rendered superfluous in the Kingdom of God?

Back when I first approached the issue of pacifism and just war I never thought to question even the premises that I have now questioned. However, I think seriously treating this issue will require deconstructing at least one more patterns of thought. This is our tendency to think of good and bad as somewhat external to people. That is, in an effort to take good and evil seriously we have a tendency to think of it as a quantity that exists within a situation regardless of the individuals in that situation. This is especially tempting for someone like me who deals routinely with measurements of the physical world. However, we are also all aware that goodness can sometimes have very strong situational components. If I were attempting to ask someone a question in French (which I do not speak at all) and called them some unpleasant name we would treat this very differently than if a French speaker knowingly did the same. The difference between my internal state (questioning) and the internal state of our hypothetical French speaker (hostile) makes the difference. Similarly, I might jokingly refer to a friend in a way that was outwardly mean but which was part of our friendly in-jokes. The difference between using those same words to remind my friend of our friendship and using those words to hurt a stranger is also a case of the internal state of someone (the target of the words) changing the moral content of that interaction.

Lethal violence cannot be anything other than internally damaging. Most people find killing someone else to be traumatic. Indeed, even in WWII, arguably America’s most just war, an astonishingly large number of American soldiers could not bring themselves to shoot another human being. The people who do not find killing traumatic are in an equally troubling spot. What has happened to their souls that destroying one who bears the image of God means nothing to them? We find those who can kill easily and without remorse extremely disturbing because we recognize that this is not a natural or correct state. Indeed, in warfare we often go to great lengths to dehumanize our enemies (dehumanization is also fundamentally non-Christian) in order to produce people who can pull the trigger quickly and easily but only when aiming the gun at certain sorts of people. Not surprisingly we sometimes do this too effectively and end up with soldiers who become callous about civilian casualties or even deliberately kill non-combatants because they have lost all sense that certain sorts of people remain human. (Many of my friends seem surprised when soldiers from “civilized” Western nations are found to have done horrible things to civilians in war zones. Personally I am surprised at how well we have managed to end the once commonplace practice of butchering or at least raping and stealing from civilians on the “wrong” side.)

Given all of this, it seems impossible to say that war, even just war, is mostly like safety regulations – the outgrowth of a good impulse that will cease to be necessary in a perfect world. Instead, war must be far more like triage – a bad decision that may sometimes be the best one. War remains horribly and inexorably tangled up in the sinfulness of the world. Participation in war can only come about through sin or response to sin and it inevitably does bad things to those who participate in it. If you identify sin not only as a crime against others but also the soul-damage wrought by those crimes then war is sinful even when it is also just. (If you only identify sin as crime then nothing just can be sin.)

So, where does this leave us? Perhaps this answer is also unsatisfying: I did not wrap up to some neat conclusion in which I either leave us with a set of rules for just war or deny the validity of war. But I think what we do have fits the Biblical evidence well: violence is condemned in the New Testament because it is so wrapped up in sin. However, even though violence is bad for you violence might be the best of bad options from time to time and so we have these odd gaps in the New Testament’s condemnation of everything associated with violence.

Moreover, I think my conclusion allows us to make more sense of our world. On one side we tend to have people who regard the sacrifices made by those in the military as morally nebulous (which in certain cases they may be for other reasons entirely). On the other we tend to see a glorification of “righteous violence”. I think that Christians would be best off regarding violence in the way we regard amputation. We don’t glorify amputation but we can respect amputees. We don’t resort to amputation unless we absolutely must. We expect that people who have had to have an amputation will require healing. And, of course, we all hope for a world in which no one must ever undergo amputation. Similarly, Christians cannot glorify violence or hope for anything but an end to violence even if we believe that sometimes war is just. And, as Christians, we must never allow the decisions about war to become too simple or too easy. The moral tension present in the New Testament is itself instructive: it should always be difficult to condone violence.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2013 10:28 pm

    An excellent, thoughtful series!

    Your discussion of the Centurion is the best that I have ever read. Along with your points, I would ad that those who emphasize the Centurion’s occupation never note that he was also a slave holder.

    On two swords, the key word is “enough,” no matter how we take it.

    We also need to pay close attention to the context of Romans. Too often we mingle the role of the Christian with that of the government. Too often, Christian pacifists sound as if they are demanding that the state follow the same calling as the Christian.

    Most of us American Christians are too bound to our culture. We would be shocked to hear the faithful words of past heroes like Charles Spurgeon:

    • Eric permalink
      June 13, 2013 10:37 pm

      My apologies for not responding sooner – I wished to have time to read and digest your links before responding.

      The link about swords is interesting. I do think your work there leans us towards a more pacifist reading of the text but I also find it interesting that (unlike a number of pacifists I know) Jesus is willing to make a statement like “go buy swords” (even if he intended it as hyperbole the disciples seem to have already been armed) and that he doesn’t flip out significantly more when he is presented with swords. He’s perfectly capable of saying things like, “Get behind me, Satan,” to the disciples so he could have rebuked them at length for sullying his holy work with their tools of violence. It’s just one of these odd things that I sort of wish we didn’t have at all so that we could make a simpler picture out of the gospels.

      As for the point about the government I’m very unsure about this (meaning that I am actually unsure – I would wish to study the issue in more depth before saying anything certain). I’m simply not sure how the divide between government and populace was really understood in Jesus’ day and whether it would make sense to have two sets of morals, one for the government and one for the people. Given that the government was normally a person (the Emperor) it would seem to make sense if personal morals should apply to him but his duties may have given him additional leeway. Translating that over to our democratic societies looks like another large project with lots of careful thought.

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