Round Table: Christian Warfare
Every month Conciliar Post offers a Round Table discussion, bringing together various Christian voices to reflect upon an important question or topic. Today’s Round Table considers the following question: Are Christians ever justified in supporting or advocating warfare, either on their own behalf or by the nation of which they are a part?
Represented in this Round Table are some fascinating perspectives, including that of a veteran of the United States Armed Forces and that of someone who was raised in the context of pacifism. We hope you find this discussion stimulating, especially in light of all the recent violence in our world.
As a response to this question, I offer my experience as a Christian who played war from afar.
I joined the Marine Corps out of high school and served on active duty from 2005 to 2010. My job was 2671 Middle Eastern Cryptologic Linguist. Nevermind the officious phrasing; I was a translator. Specifically, my job was to translate foreign enemy communications for the National Security Agency. I supported real time and strategic missions in both military and counter-narcotics operations. I never deployed, but I’ve been a fly on the wall in places I could never see in the flesh. I’ve heard bored enemy radio operators tell very funny jokes, frustrated officers from opposing militaries complain about supplies, a child ask his father to come home—these things and more, all in a language other than my native tongue. I’ve also cheered a drone strike against men whose crime I did not know or even care to know, watched in amusement live footage of a man abducted from his fields, and nodded in approval at gruesome photos of bullet-ridden enemy fighters.
War is not terrible merely because it causes death, at least not in the eyes of the Christian. Death is not the worst thing to happen to man. Nor is it the last. A final and everlasting separation from God is the worst of all fates, and that cannot be caused by stray bullet or rocket. I cannot rob a man of his salvation by robbing him of his life. There is nothing made by human hands that can sever another’s bond with God. The man at war can truly endanger no soul except for his own, and therein lies the heart of the matter. War is terrible because it is a crucible of passions, where the best and worst parts of this broken race we call humanity blends in fire and smoke. Righteousness becomes an alloy mixed with bloodthirst, and in losing its purity loses its raison d’être entirely. Atrocities are committed by the heroes. The abuses at Abu Ghraib, the inhumane torture of our prisoners, and the murders by Marines in Haditha and U.S. Army soldiers in Kandahar province all speak to the monstrous sin that war enables.
That is not to say I am concerned only with conflict’s ravages of the warfighter’s soul. Far from it. Like ripples in a pond, the effects of war radiate outward and stretch far beyond the original point of impact. Families and communities are destroyed by incomprehensible suffering and loss. Towns are wiped out and the environment is poisoned. Worst of all is the horror experienced by the innocents caught in the crossfire. As an illustration, I had hoped to share an article on the war in Syria I read several months ago. In the piece, the author interviewed a distraught Syrian man who returned to his bombed-out apartment in hopes of finding the missing leg of his young daughter, which doctors hoped to reattach. I could not find the article. There were just far too many stories of Syrian children who have lost limbs.
But another question: Could I ask the United States (and the Christians in her military) to sit idly by as a brutal extremist regime spreads its horrific reign of terror across the Middle East? I could not in good conscience do so. Worse than anything I have described is to watch your neighbor be swallowed by cruel and violent evil and offer nothing but words. Sometimes we must fight-but we must do with conduct befitting disciples of a loving God who died for all men, not just the ones who speak our own language.
If we lived in a world of absolutisms, with no freedom of discernment and no moral gray area, the answer would be no, because war means killing, and killing breaks the Fifth Commandment.
However, the world which we inhabit is not a world of absolutisms. Our reality includes sins, free will, and moral gray areas—which means there is no absolute answer to this question. As Christians we cannot unequivocally answer no to this question, even if war does involve the taking of human life.
Scripture presents a complicated answer to the question of whether Christians should support or advocate war. In the Old Testament, particularly in the Pentateuch, God forbids murder while also leading Israel into war and blessing their efforts in war—i.e. the killing of the chosen nation’s enemies. In the New Testament, while Jesus rebukes anger and murder—in Matthew 26: 52 he warns that “all that take the sword shall perish with the sword”—yet in Luke 3:14, when soldiers ask Jesus what they must do, he responds, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” He does not command them to leave behind soldiering—a life that involves warfare.
Scripture and tradition must accompany each other as we shape our consciences, so let us turn to one of the greatest moral theologians—Saint Thomas Aquinas. In the second part of the second part of the Summa Theologiae, question 40, he addresses the question of whether it is always sinful to wage war. He lists three requisites for a just war: the authority of a sovereign, a just cause, and the rightful intention of attaining peace.
A sovereign—in Aquinas’ time a king, in our time a nation—must watch over the common weal of its people and protect them from both internal and external threats. In order to maintain civil peace and protect the lives of citizens, a nation sometimes must go to war. This first requirement also means that an individual inciting war for his own purposes—lust for power, hate towards a particular nation, religion, or an ethnic group, etc—is not justified. This war must also come from a just cause, such as if the nation has already been attacked, if an attack is most definitely impending, or if an uprising has shed the blood of the innocent. Finally, war must be a means to the greater end of peace. War must ultimately restore right order to the nations. If a nation enters war because it wishes to acquire territory, plunder the goods of a wealthy nation, or cruelly inflict suffering upon others, then the war is not just.
Aquinas wrote this with a different concept of warfare than ours. Yes, warfare involved violent killings, torture of prisoners, rapes, and pillaging—all horrendous things. Warfare in the modern era includes all these things, but it has expanded into total war—where cities are annihilated and thousands of civilians die with the force of a single bomb. Can total war still be just? Most moral theologians argue no, since it removes any and all moral limitations in warfare—peace cannot be attained when no one is left to live peacefully.
To return to my introductory point, there is no such thing as absolutisms on the moral issue of war. There can be no blanket statement for whether Christians can support, advocate, or participate in war, because each war entered under different circumstances with different intentions and different proportionalities. A great difference exists between wars such as the American Civil War and the Iraq War—differences that our consciences must be able to discern.
I have always lived with the seeming oxymoron of the “Christian Soldier.” My mother is descended from a long line of pacifist Quakers, yet my grandfather spent over a dozen years serving in the U. S. Navy, in peace and in war, and was buried with military honors. My father was drafted and sent to Korea, yet our family rejoiced when my older brother was not required to serve in Vietnam. When I was a child, one of our ministers was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam conflict; his successor was a decorated veteran of the same conflict. Both were men of God. Weren’t they? How could they both be right?
I’m not a theologian, but a former librarian and a shop owner. I don’t come to this discussion armed with unassailable logic or long-held historical positions. But I know two things: 1) I am not God, and 2) I AM a “soldier” of the cross, engaged in a war that is constantly fought on a spiritual plane. Taking only these two things that I know, I would like to address the awful concept of war.
First, I know that I am not God. In the same way that I will never be able to give a definitive answer to the questions of evil in the world, the random and tragic nature of disease, disaster, and poverty, and other horrors that leave us all scratching our heads, I cannot provide an answer the question of war for everyone and for all time. For myself, I can only look at what the Bible says (and doesn’t say) about war, examine what I know and may learn from history, and delve into my own heart on the matter. I think it is important to look at all three BEFORE engaging with anyone else (and this is true not just about war, but about all important issues), and revisit them AFTER engaging with others. As we seek to know the truth about God and the issues we face, and we raise concerns, it is important to use the resources He has given us. God doesn’t provide convenient answers to many of our big questions in His word, but He does give us important guidelines that can be applied to any situation. And history can show us the consequences others have paid for acting on a set of beliefs. Using all four sources (and earnestly bringing our desires before God in prayer) can give us, not a definitive answer, but a strong and defensible position.
Given these two truths, and looking at the Bible and history as guidelines, I am struck by two things that shape my final conclusion. First, God calls all of us to actively engage in the world AS IT IS. We are to build, engage in commerce, plant and reap, enter into contracts, pursue careers, relationships, and civic activities, and live obediently as members of our communities, countries, etc. This can be done by both pacifists and warriors. My Quaker ancestors risked their lives and livelihoods to fight for the right of men, women, and children to live in freedom; that they should be able to own land, raise their families, and live peacefully side by side as neighbors, and fellow children of God. I was privileged to grow up in the community that resulted, one hundred and fifty years of free people of multiple races living together. The Quakers didn’t’ march off to war, but they supported and didn’t condemn those who did bear arms, and they shouldered the same risks, horrors, and sacrifices as their neighbors.
The second truth I glean from God’s word and history is that we are called to a defensive position in an ongoing spiritual war. As spiritual warriors, we are not called upon to engage the enemy on our own power, but rather to resist him. We are to resist temptation, resist the Devil, hold fast, and remain on guard. God is not our tank or our chariot—he is our strong fortress! So, whether or not we take up arms in a man-created war, I believe Christians are called on to protect and support their families, communities, and their country—actively, sacrificially, and, when necessary, to the death.
Asking if Christians can ever be justified in supporting or advocating warfare, either for themselves or for their own nation-state, is to ask if they are committed to pacifism. Can it be morally right for an American Christian to support our President’s order for the current airstrikes in Iraq? The question is not about this particular instance, but concerning the principle itself – not this war, but war in general. Any such discussion, such as this roundtable, will be all too brief, but one can say a few words. A discussion of war in general must first observe that war (i.e. the active killing of another nation’s soldiers, resources, and at times peoples, by another’s nation’s soldiers, not to mention sending them to be killed and mangled as well) is a sin: it shows the fall in man, that he exploits rather than trades, and takes up the sword rather than the plowshare so to speak.
For example, even at times many citizens of European countries involved in WWI were convinced of their nation’s righteousness in the war effort and in the carrying out of that cause, today retrospectively one sees WWI was, qua Peter Hitchens,“the beginning of the end of Christianity in the West” – Christendom falling on its bayonet. Assuming for a moment the cause on one side was justified, seemingly good intentions can bring about disastrous consequence: the German government funded Lenin’s return to Russia and thus caused the Bolshevik Revolution. Disaster arises out of good intentions. Yet in God’s creation it should not be expected by Christians that good effects come from evil actions. Cold War nuclear proliferation arose out of the bombings from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even G.K. Chesterton observed in The Everlasting Man, written nearly a decade after the end of WWI, that the Church was blamed by some for failing to stop Christian nations from fighting other Christian nations: on “the general view that the Church was discredited by the War—they might as well say that the Ark was discredited by the Flood. When the world goes wrong, it proves rather that the Church is right. The Church is justified, not because her children do not sin, but because they do.” The failure of the Church actually proves its first doctrine, Original Sin, since it shows how culpable we all are in our very nature to cut down each other.
Yet if someone ought to be aware of such propensities in fellow neighbors, then that implies their neighbors can also be their enemies. The Church has thought long about this fact of the universality for human evil (“the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts”) and out of such reflection has emerged the Just War tradition, with all its criterion and demarcations designed to limit when warfare can be justified, and how it can be carried out. I note however that while there are sins of commission (e.g. bombing of civilians without any military targets in mind), it seems plausible that there are also sins of omission: the West not stoppingthe genocide against Christians and other religious minorities in Iraq by the Islamic State. As Oxford moral theologian Nigel Biggar points out, “Not even pacifists object simply to acts that result in the deaths of other people, for they themselves are prepared to perform deliberate acts of omission, which permit innocents to die at the hands of the unjust.” That is, pacifism itself can be a sin with the particular circumstances. So can a Christian be morally justified in advocating warfare?
It would be interesting to see George Weigel and Stanley Hauerwas in the same room discussing that question. Historically Christians have not always been morally justified. But our question is if ever one can be justified morally, and the answer it seems then that in defense of oneself or in defense of one’s neighbor, one can repel the sin of the unjust attacker, always remembering though that I can be the unjust attacker, or even if my cause is just, my acts of warfare are not, and that neighbors can enemies to each other, and that enemies can one day be neighbors as well. As St. Augustine pointed out, the injustice of the enemy requires rather than the justice of oneself that justifies one to wage violence. Justice demands defense of oneself and one’s neighbor, even against other neighbors; it also demands intending to ultimately reconcile with one’s warring neighbors. To do otherwise is not be a peacemaker: for the purpose of any possible just war is peace, and putting an end to the violence perpetuated by one’s neighbor. In the murky fog of war, there must be the willing of the good of one’s enemy if war is ever justified — a test I doubt many wars ever pass.
Image courtesy of Jim Forest.