Some Thoughts on Christological Non-Violence (Pacifism) and Just War Practice

My most excellent friend Richie Cronin took me to task over the belligerence, if I can use that phrase, of my “pacifism” this week. Here are some stray thoughts that might try and wrap up that conversation.

It Is Not Realistic
Non-violence doesn’t elicit a peaceful response. People are annoyed when you insist that you are against war. “All war?” You assure them that it is all war, even the so-called good ones. Then the annoyance begins.

Pastorally, when people get annoyed (and there isn’t anyone flicking their ears or snapping their bra-strap or breathing loudly through their nose or checking their phone while standing in a public doorway), it is usually a sign that sensitive emotional nerves have been touched. “Don’t meddle with my dishwasher organisation scheme!” (because it is one place in the chaos of my life that I can implement order and so on).

One of the expressions of annoyance that follows after you admit to agreeing that war is good for absolutely nothing, is a line of incredulity that takes the form of “You can’t really believe that!” As a Christian, I believe at least 66 incredible things before breakfast, including the claim that the Creator of the world was born of a Jewish teenager only to die at the hands of a smalltime Roman bureaucrat. The idea that people should refrain from killing other humans is smallchange after that set of commitments is brought into play.

Before long, the incredulity will turn to moral dismay. After all, HOLOCAUST. That the Germans who implemented the systemized and industrialised murder of millions of Jews, Catholics, homosexuals and disabled people also wore belt buckles that read “Gott mit uns” doesn’t appear to be relevant to the calculus, sadly. I should commit to memory this interaction between the 10 year old boy on his way to Germany and his father in Aidan Mathew’s great short-story “Train Tracks“:

“If anyone annoys you, just tell them this: in the middle of 1944, the Allies precision-bombed a munitions factory outside Auschwitz. Precision-bombed it.

Pulverised the whole complex. But they didn’t bomb the train tracks leading to the camp. They knew perfectly well that the camp was there; they knew perfectly well what was happening inside it. Flame-throwers turned on pregnant women; newborn babies kicked like footballs. But they didn’t bomb the train tracks. And now after twenty years, they talk about preserving the otter.”

Stanley Hauerwas and Enda McDonagh might be mocked for their “Appeal to Abolish War“, but people told William Wilberforce that his bill would bankrupt Britain. That the law passed didn’t mean slavery ended in the Empire. But it definitely helped reduce it.

This insistence that pacifism is unrealistic is so curious for Christians who have spent the last two millennia changing what is considered realistic. Remember that the belief in a Creator God seemed borderline crazy among the intellectual elite of Rome. Hospitals and orphanages, care programs for widows who then implemented care programs for the homeless, and a range of other costly social interventions by centuries of Christians literally changed the world so that compassion seemed like the most natural thing in the world. Wilberforce read the Scriptures and stood up to the slave-traders. It is not inconceivable that you might read the Scriptures and stand up to the weapons manufacturers.

Luke Bretherton, in Christianity and Contemporary Politics talks about how the Canon laws of sanctuary changed the social imagination of the world. Christians read their Scriptures and decided that the Christ-event meant we could never despise a human being because the state found them guilty. The monastic practice of sanctuary was our unrealistic response. As Bretherton unpacks it: “Theologically, if Christ is King, then no earthly sovereign or community has the power or right to utterly exclude or make an exception of anyone from the status of a human being.”

It was the duty of every man in eleventh-century England to pursue an outlaw, ravage his lands, burn his house, and hunt him as prey for he was a caput gerat lupinim – a friendless man, werewolf, wolf-man – in other words, he was bare life. Yet at the same time, the right of sanctuary and liturgical processes of giving satisfaction provided a countervailing injunction to enable the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation.

– Luke Bretherton, Christianity and Contemporary Politics, 157.

The determined and costly practice of Christians made lepers human, made the sick human, made the orphan, the widow, and the embryo human. It gave the outlaw sanctuary and the slave liberty. It is not unrealistic that the God of Resurrection would honour our determined and costly practice of non-violence and save the soldier from the battlefield.

Sanctuary was so successful a practice that when it was officially abolished by statute in 1624 its decline was “not lamented but viewed as part of the proper triumph of the modern secular state.” The polis was converted by the ekklesia.

Christological non-violence is not unrealistic because the miracle of conversion does actually happen.

Calvin and Hobbes

It IS Realistic

My friend Richie thinks there are only two options for Christians: Just War or pacifism. I think there are an infinity of ways to try to work out what it means to be a Christian but non-violence is the right answer. An analogy: on the spectrum from “Jesus was a great moral teacher” to “Jesus is the long awaited Messiah of Israel” you can find a bajillion gradations. Only one of those two options is correct however, and to whatever extent it is correct, it assumes the best of the wrong answer too. So the truth is found when we say “Jesus is Israel’s Messiah” and saying that commits you to also thinking that Jesus was a great moral teacher. Similarly, non-violence is the right response to the Messiah’s death on a cross, and that means that reasoning about war must be just.

G.K. Chesteron quipped that “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” The same might be said in the modern era for Christian non-violence. But if the argument against pacifism is that it is unrealistic, the arguers must believe their alternative is realistic. But if it turns out that Just War thinking has been held and advocated by the majority of Christians and it has functionally offered moral under-writing to unjust aggression, then the reasoning is not just.

Those last two, dense paragraphs can be summed up as: Can we take it for granted that Just War practices are realistic?

Let’s consider that question. I propose we take the last century as our sample, because humans are physically inclined to think in multiples of ten and because 100 years ago a very big war began which should be called the First Iraq War but because we are collectively insane, we call it the Great War.

Just War thinking is broken into two phases. We need to consider the justice of a proposed war before the battle and we need to consider the conduct of our war forces in battle.

The questions that must be answered before war are:

    Just cause
    Competent authority
    Right intention
    Probability of success
    Last resort
    Comparative justice

The questions that must be answered during war are:

    Minimum force
    Exclusive combatant engagement
    Respect for international law

There is no war in the last 100 years that I am aware of that meets either the prior or direct requirements for just war. Even the war I most directly benefit from fails under both tests. The Irish revolutionary forces of 1916 did not have competent authority and they did not distinguish their targets. The Allied forces in World War II come closest, although any serious reading of that history which accounts for the role of the Versailles Treaty would call right intention into question. However, their means of fighting jus in bello fails on every count.

Modern warfare, especially as the West fights it, cannot possibly meet Just War standards. Bombs cannot distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. When they can, that algorithm will still be programmed by human beings intent on killing people. International law cannot be honoured when France or the UK or Germany sell Israel or Colombia or Burkina Faso weapons that are outside the pale in terms of what is warranted. Augustine, Thomas and Grotius could never have imagined surveillance or drone warfare but neither of those developments make things easier for the majority Christian position. In the years to come, things are going to get messier still with the augmentation of soldiers through biotechnology or their replacement by robotic substitutes. I haven’t even addressed the issue of atomic weaponry, whose mere invention was so astoundingly stupid that their continued existence serves as proof for the Satan’s reality.

If there are only two options for Christians: Just War or pacifism, then a considered look at the world we live in removes one of those options. The existence of dark evil like Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany or our modern-day ISIS ought not to be news to people who read about Herod. If John the Baptist and Jesus the Redeemer were peaceful in the face of that maniac, we know the way to go. Just war theorists give licence to maniacs like Tony Blair to rub his chin an go to church and bomb Iraq into the ground with a clean conscience. There is only one option. Because Christians live in a world of war, they cannot imagine being anything else than non-violent. If modern-day Just War advocates only sanction lethal violence when the terms of the theory are met, then they will be functional pacifists.

These may seem like strong words, improportionate and without warrant. But pacifists have committed to only fighting with words. Forgive us if they are sometimes very sharp.

Richie sometimes feels frightened by the claims of pacifists. His fears are misplaced. God sees every action and will judge them. The spilling of blood in Syria and Gaza, in Kurdistan and Missouri… it all flows as a result of military commitment. Jesus’ birth was met with the slaughter of the innocents. His death was the slaughter of The Innocent. If his victory is won by the subversion of the Empire’s military, then we should quake with holy and reverent fear to find ourselves on the side of war.

Drone victims are people too

Your Correspondent, He tries to be on time for his appointments, so as to be late for his disappointments.

6 Replies to “Some Thoughts on Christological Non-Violence (Pacifism) and Just War Practice”

  1. I think this is like the third time I have inspired a post. There should be a league table. Is there a league table? There should be.

    Firstly let me say that I feel the love and I appreciate it. 🙂 I hate arguing with people on the internet. Its always better to do it in person and as such I’m almost afraid to come back on this in case this has to go on… but anyway…A couple of things:

    I think i’ve misrepresented my own views here.. or at least it would have been helpful for me to be more clear about what I do believe.

    So in the spirit of Mark Twain let me say “do I believe in pacifism? believe it! Hell I’ve even seen it!!” I’ve never held back from pacifism (at least not for a few years) because it seemed unbelievable or unrealistic. The more I think of it the more it makes sense. It “fits” you know?

    And you’ve done a great job here of sticking it to the Just War types!.. but I’m sure they can defend themselves. I suspect that in a nuclear weapon and post-Christian age, just war will be harder to defend and the Yoderian idea that God has a dual mandate for ekklesia and polis will become clearer to point out but thoughtful and loving brothers and sisters who believe in just war will continue to their expound their position. And that’s all i’m trying to get at. I, like yourself, have thought for a long time that ww2 is the only war which even comes “close” to meeting the criteria of a Just war. But what I should have made clear earlier is that I don’t buy this just war theory! But I know others do. I grant them the right to do so and hold to the possibility that they could be right..

    That’s not to say that, I have bought into non-violence as a way of life. I’m not there yet. I thought I was last year ( I even said I was in the WCF class on chapter 23 and I think most of the lads have me labelled as one) but I have a lot of questions of how it matches up with the NT and I have many more questions about neo-Anabaptist thought in general.

    I’m less scared today. Thank you.

  2. Going to meet Declan next week. If he changes me i’ll come back here and leave a link to an escopetarra. 😉

  3. I had a thought yesterday that I figured you might like Richie:

    If it is true that all Just War people in this day and age must be functional pacifists (since there is no conceivable war they could support), then this thing you describe as “neo-Anabaptist pacifism” is actually the means by which the integrity of Just War theory is restored.

    Not until all the Christians have removed themselves from military participation that cannot achieve proportionality and discrimination will nation states be forced to adopt other policies.

    So the most committed, “realistic”, pragmatic Just War person will behave exactly like a Hauerwas or a Yoder, since only by starting a fight with the generals can you hope to bring about an army capable of just battle.

  4. Pacifism makes a lot of sense in the context of Christianity. God is presumably a very capable individual, and does not need our iron sticks and pellets to protect His plans.

    Although I have to admit that my source is The Stand by Stephen King.

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