The Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
This is the third in a series of pastoral letters dealing with issues relating to war. In this letter the issue of “just cause” or “Just War” theory will be addressed. This third letter has been slow in coming. The issue required that I spend more time in reading and reflection. I will indicate some of that reading at the end of this letter.
An initial statement has to be made about the morality of war. War is never moral. War embodies everything that stands against God. It is destruction, cruelty, pain and death. To use the rich language of Scripture, it is by its very nature; “anti-Christ”, “demonic”, “darkness” and “flesh”. Therefore war is never to be considered a “moral” tool which politics has at its disposal. The object of politics is the moderating of conflict leading to greater justice and peace. The goal of politics is peace. And war is the failure of the political process. It is never a moral tool of politics. This statement is justified by three theological insights.
The first theological insight is captured by Walt Whitman’s “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim”. It is a poem concerning the American Civil war. In the poem, Whitman is examining the bodies outside of a hospital tent of those who have died during the night. He examines two bodies, and at the third he writes:
“Then to the third - a face nor child nor old, very calm,
as of beautiful yellow-white ivory;
Young man I think I know you - I think this face is the face
of the Christ himself,
Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.”
This is the moral obscenity of war. To use violence against the image of God in another human being is to repeat the murder of Jesus Christ. And tragically, the same rationalization is used to justify this murder: “...it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish”(John 11:50). The banners of “national security” and “national self-defense” are covered with the blood of millions. And Jesus of Nazareth stands among those millions. War is the reversal of the command to love God and neighbor. As the love commandment ties together human and divine, so violence against the neighbor is also violence against God. This issue is intensified by the identification of Jesus with the “little ones”. These “little ones” are children, the poor and other vulnerable persons. And these are the victims of modern “total war”. When we see the pictures of children without arms the words: “what you have done for these little ones, you have done for me,” should echo in our minds. There is no moral war.
The second theological insight relates to idolatry. It is the perennial temptation of tribes and nations to identify the values and will of God to their specific group. It is the temptation to reduce the divine to tribal and national interests. This is called Civil Religion and it is a powerful force for self-deception. As Chris Hedges states in the title of his book, “War is a force that gives us meaning”. It is a religion that calls for unity, sacrifice and commitment. It joins us in a cause that is greater than ourselves. We are joined in a brotherhood (and sisterhood) of a collective effort. And this is a powerful emotional experience. And it is idolatry. We make God in our image. An image which serves our political and national interests. With “God on our side” we justify the death of our brothers and sisters created in the image of God. We become the righteous and our enemy becomes the enemy of God and we are justified in their murder.
The third theological insight has to do with the theme of war itself. The New Testament gives us a key insight into this issue. The issue of war is never directly addressed in the New Testament text, and yet it is the back-ground issue for the whole Gospel. Behind the text stands the expectation of a messianic king who would lead the heavenly hosts in a holy war that would reestablish the Kingdom of David and defeat the enemies of the people of God. Holy War is the background theme of the New Testament. And yet, rather than waging war on sinful humanity, God accepts violence against himself in Jesus Christ and his cross. God becomes the victim of the forces that feed war. Rather than following the logic of war and separating the righteous and the sinner, Jew and Gentile, “my people” and “not my people”, Jesus reveals the universality of the Gospel message. The grace and love of God are offered for all human beings, regardless of race or nationality. War contradicts the revelation that we find in Jesus Christ. War is not how God resolves his conflict with humanity.
Can there then be a just cause for war? Can war be appropriate and necessary? Certainly, the logic of the theological insights above have led some to a passivist position. This is true of the Mennonites and others. For the Reformed tradition and other traditions, the reality of sin makes war a real possibility. The realities of self-deception, will-to-power and self-interest make conflict an ongoing expression of social human life. Conflict will be a part of human life as long as sin is a part of human life. And conflict can lead to war. The ethical question then becomes; at what point does war become appropriate and necessary? What is the “just cause” for war? Over the centuries theologians have identified two basic “just causes” for war. These are 1)social self preservation or the preservation of human life and 2) the limitation of evil. We must remind ourselves at this point that these are also the goals concerned with the task of politics. It is the task of politics to moderate conflict and promote peace. War is the failure of the political process. War is failure in the sense that it is an extreme option. Only when all political strategies have been exhausted can war be considered. It is also an extreme option in the sense that taking life is only justified if it saves life. To use metaphors from medical ethics, it is the extreme decision that a medical professional faces when illness threatens the life of a pregnant mother and child and the doctor can save one, but not both. Or as Hedges states; war is the “poison” that society takes in order to survive, like a cancer patient who undergoes chemotherapy. These are extreme situations. War is never justified by economic benefit or the extension of political or social values.
Given the strength of the theological insights above, and the limitations of “just cause”, many have come to the conclusion that war can rarely be justified in the 21st Century. While war is a theoretical possibility, the arguments that legitimated a “just war” in the past no longer pertain. This observation is based on three realities. The first has to do with our expanded knowledge of social behavior and political experience. We have more knowledge available to us concerning all aspects of human behavior and culture. For this reason we have more tools than ever before to moderate conflict and pursue peace. We have economic, social, political and educational tools at our disposal. To opt for war means that we have ignored the intelligence at our disposal. The second reality has to do with globalization. We are quickly moving beyond the idea of individual nations defending their specific territories. We find ourselves interconnected in terms of economics, ecology, communications, politics and culture. An outbreak of war in any one place now affects all of us. De-stabilization in any region threatens the global community. This insight is strengthened by the third reality; what is now being called Weapons of Mass Destruction. With the development of nuclear weapons, theologians in the middle of the last century came to the conclusion that the logic of “just war” no longer functioned. The justification of “taking a life in order to save a life” no longer serves if the end result is that we all die. This is the growing reality we face as nuclear, biological and chemical weapons are developed across the globe. We can no longer afford the risk of war and the potential for global de-stabilization.
Does this mean the end to war? Probably not. But it does mean that war can only be justified if it is extremely limited and is the result of a significant global consensus.
George M. Wortham
May 3rd, 2003
Karl Barth, Ethics, The Seabury Press, New York, Geoffrey W. Bromiley trans., 1981.
Chris Hedges, War is a Force that gives us Meaning, Public Affairs, New York, 2002.
Trutz Rendtorff, Ethics: Volume Two, Applications of an Ethical Theology, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1989.
Theodore Ropp, “War and Militarism” in Dictionary of the History of Ideas, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1973.
General background reading would be the works of Reinhold Niebuhr.