The False Choice of Just War

There’s been a lot of talk about war lately, both in response to the age-old conflict in Israel/Palestine, and in response to the militant group ISIS (Islamic State). There’s a strong sense that the conflict in Israel/Palestine is unjust, on one side or another or both, but there seems to be an equally strong sense that virtually any military action taken against ISIS is justified – the more the better. I’ve written about it a few times, and had some conversations about it, and I see a lot of the same arguments from multiple sources, so I thought I’d address some of them here. The biggest one is the idea that we have a choice between killing people and doing nothing, as if there are no other options in the world. Let’s start there.

I’m a pacifist. That doesn’t mean that I would choose doing nothing when violently confronted by people who wanted to kill me, or kill others; far from it. Non-violent resistance, to be truly effective, requires us to be willing to absorb violence into our own bodies. To put it another way, I would rather die saving someone else’s life than kill to save someone else’s life. So for those who would argue that pacifists are “passive-ists”, or that we’d choose to do nothing at all, I ask: what is more passive, standing in front of a gun or standing behind one?

In no way do I mean to denigrate soldiers. I recently had someone (who appeared to be in the military) say “you’re a civilian, war costs you very little.” I agree, it costs most of us far too little – which is why I find it terrifying that people who declare war never have to be the ones in battle. They can do it far too easily. I find it interesting that whenever I speak out against war, soldiers defend it. I speak out against war because I think that soldiers are put in harm’s way by politicians who often have ulterior motives and rarely have any risk to themselves or their own families. I think soldiers are asked to do terrible things without having a clear or truthful story about why they’re asked to do it. Soldiers are not cowards who stand behind guns – far from it. They put their own lives on the line just as much as non-violent approaches would require – less because they have more means of self-defense, but more because violent actions invite retaliation while non-violent direct action is aimed at defusing violent situations. Soldiers are asked to kill and die by politicians and, increasingly, opinionated people on the internet, for whom war costs very little.

A friend and colleague of mine wrote a blog post the other day about ISIS and just war. Dr. V and I probably agree about most things in life, but you’d never know it from our blogs. I’ll respond to the whole post here, but it begins with the false choice of just war:

Which would you choose: war or peace? Peace, surely.

But what about these options: war or a peace at home which permits a murderous tyranny in other countries, a tyranny bent on world conquest?

In such a scenario, if peaceful diplomatic efforts are ineffective and cost the lives of large and growing numbers of innocents, I would choose war—just war.

I would choose just war as a last resort, with reluctance, to protect innocents from evil aggressors. Lethal force would be limited to what’s needed, protecting non-combatants, aiming for a just peace.

I should be clear from the get-go that he never explicitly calls for war against ISIS. He’s questioning, which is something he does a lot, and for the most part, very well. But there are a lot of assumptions in this opening section, which he doesn’t unpack or address in the rest of his post, which is aimed at objections to just war (which I’ll address below). Let’s look at some of the assumptions here:

1. There’s a plausible situation in which there are only two options: war, or permitting murderous tyranny. This is the false choice of just war in a nutshell: we can kill our enemies, or we can do nothing. There are no other options. I find this strange. We’ve put people on the moon, we’ve invented music and art and mathematics, we’ve built multiple systems of athletic events that require massive international cooperation and sportsmanship every few years, and we can’t figure out how to disarm and defuse a violent situation without killing our enemies? This bogus binary is absurd, yet I see it constantly. Ask Gandhi if he was doing nothing when he kicked the most powerful empire in the world out of his country without violence. Ask Martin Luther King, Jr., if he was doing nothing, enjoying “peace at home” while he non-violently led the civil rights protests that were ultimately responsible for universal suffrage in the US, and also ultimately responsible for his own death by assassination. (I’d also like to point out that his own death didn’t stop him from saving the lives of many others.) Ask the Scandinavian countries who either remained neutral or even allied with the Nazis in WWII if they were doing nothing when they chose not to engage militarily, but instead to wage campaigns of sabotage and non-violent resistance; I’ve read reports that say that they were more effective at saving their Jewish population than any of the countries that resisted militarily. No, there are more than just two options.

2. “Peaceful diplomatic efforts are ineffective.” Dr. V did say “IF” in front of that statement, but while I’ve seen dozens of articles about ISIS, I’ve never seen one that even mentions diplomatic efforts. All too often, the assumption of just war is that diplomacy doesn’t work. Well, diplomacy isn’t the only non-violent option either (as my point above hopefully shows), but again, I’ve rarely seen an actual commitment to diplomacy. Diplomacy in our world usually corresponds to another quote about non-violence I’ve seen recently from Theodore Roszak: “People try nonviolence for a week, and when it ‘doesn’t work,’ they go back to violence, which hasn’t worked for centuries.” The Israel/Palestine conflict is a perfect example of this: we’re always relieved when there’s a ceasefire that lasts more than a week. There’s simply no commitment to diplomatic resolution; it’s assumed that war is inevitable, or even simply justified, and therefore that diplomacy itself is a concession. They don’t come to peace talks willingly. How sad.

3. There’s such thing as just war. As I mentioned in a previous post, there’s a long list of conditions under which a war could be seen as a just war. There hasn’t been a single war in human history that meets those conditions. Just war is a figment of our imaginations, and it’s completely implausible in reality. Just war being theoretically possible but completely unlikely is not an argument for war. One condition of just war stands out: military necessity, which is described as follows:

Just war conduct should be governed by the principle of minimum force. An attack or action must be intended to help in the military defeat of the enemy; it must be an attack on a military objective, and the harm caused to civilians or civilian property must be proportional and not excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated. This principle is meant to limit excessive and unnecessary death and destruction.

Which brings us back to non-violent direct action. There are frequently (maybe not always, but probably most of the time) non-violent ways to defuse violent situations. They’re almost never tried, or limited to diplomacy which is usually assumed to be ineffective, is used reluctantly, and is given up on almost immediately. If a war would be just, it must use the minimum amount of force necessary – so if nonviolence is actually attempted it would be no force at all. “An attack or action must be intended to help in the military defeat of the enemy” – but surely your enemies deciding not to attack you anymore would fit that description, wouldn’t it? (It would if your overall military objective was peace, which is required by the other criteria of just war.) Working for peace and refusing to engage in war is the only way to keep war truly just.

I appreciate the sense of reluctance that Dr. V has in the last sentence I’ve quoted above, and I know that it’s genuine – the guy’s got a heart of gold and wouldn’t deliberately hurt anyone – but there’s also a sense in which, in spite of his reluctance to engage in violence, he believes that doing so would be justified, right, and good. This is at the core of my frustration with just war: it’s situational ethics of the worst kind. Things that would never be considered morally permissible in any other situation are suddenly not only justified, but good and praiseworthy. (I don’t know if Dr. V would call it praiseworthy, but just war in general implies it, and our society definitely lauds it). A little while ago I wrote that, in spite of being a pacifist, the news about ISIS makes me want to kill them all with extreme prejudice; but I recognize this as the worst in me coming out, whereas to just war theorists, it is theoretically a good thing and morally justified. Feeling bad about doing bad things is important, but it doesn’t excuse those bad things; and doing bad things for good reasons is important, but it doesn’t justify those who engage in bad things. There’s no such thing as a get-out-of-jail-free card in morality, and we can’t get away with doing awful things (like killing people) just because other people are doing what we assume to be worse things (like killing people). We’re still morally accountable for doing those bad things, and those bad things do not become good. If we want to engage in war we must recognize the cost of it on ourselves (as soldiers do): it may cost us our lives, but it also costs us our humanity, dignity, and morality. There may be times when we must be willing to take that on, but we can never assume that we maintain some sort of moral purity just because the other is more morally perverse (by our own standards and perspective) than we are.

I want to quickly comment on Dr. V’s response to “objections” to just war, because I think they’re fairly shallow:

1. “The Bible commands ‘do not kill.'”

Dr. V makes a distinction between killing and murder, and he’s right to do so in the context of the Pentateuch, but not in the context of the Bible as a whole. A follower of the same Jesus Christ who abstained from violence in spite of having legions of angels at his call (those same legions that Elisha did call upon in the Old Testament, by the by) and instead submitted himself to torture and death in order to save others, including his torturers, cannot simply refer to a distinction between killing and murder as an argument for war. The distinction is true, but unimportant in the light of Christ’s more powerful example of non-violence. Dr. V’s example of a police officer shooting to kill in order to stop a school shooting only underlines this: a police officer is a trained marksman, and presumably has the power to shoot to wound and incapacitate; there are also other steps police officers can take to stop a shooting in progress, and many police officers are trained at de-escalating situations. Shooting to kill may be justified as killing instead of murder, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s concerned with saving some over saving others. Christ was concerned with saving his own torturers and killers, and wouldn’t use his own far more legitimate power so that he could accomplish that. If the police officer wanted to save everyone, including the school shooter, they’d shoot to wound. And if they accidentally killed the shooter, it would still be different from shooting to kill.

2. “Jesus said ‘Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.’

Dr. V rightly points out that context is very important here, but I think he gets the context wrong, and thus the meaning it implies. He says:

Yes, Jesus said this, but this has to do with personal relationships, not matters of government. It has to do with a backhand slap to the face, which in Jesus’ culture is an insult. It means that if someone insults you, suck it up.

The context of Jesus’ comment was a class-based society in which the upper class, or occupying force, was Roman citizens. He’s correct in saying that it has to do with a backhand slap, but a backhand slap itself is a meaningful statement of subjugation, representing the entire occupation and oppression of the Jewish people by the Romans. A backhand slap on the right cheek is easy for a right-handed person, but if you turn your left cheek to the person, they can’t connect with a backhand slap. If they want to strike you, they have to do it as if you’re a real person instead of a subjugated non-person. Jesus is not just telling his audience to suck it up if you’re mistreated in a personal relationship; he’s telling them to encourage their foreign oppressors to inflict obviously unjust amounts of violence against them, and then to suck it up. This is using the Roman sense of justice to illuminate the injustice of their rule, and the other two examples Jesus gives in the same speech show this: when you’re being sued for your outer garment, give them your inner garment too (i.e., if someone is using the legal system to take the coat off your back, strip naked in the courtroom to show that they’ve taken everything from you, which highlights the injustice of using legal means to systematically devour your enemy’s property, as Romans did in Jesus’ day and as some Israelis do to Palestinians today); and when you’re asked to walk one mile, walk two (Roman soldiers could order any non-citizen to carry their pack for a maximum of one mile; more than that, and they’d be in trouble for it). Dr. V quotes CS Lewis, who points out that Jesus lived in a disarmed nation and “war is not what they would have been thinking about.” We agree on that point!

3. “Aren’t we supposed to love our neighbours? Doesn’t love preclude war?”

Dr. V answers this objection by saying that sometimes love requires us to protect our neighbours from murderous thugs. To this I would ask the same question that someone once asked Jesus: “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus’ answer pointed to the historic enemy of the Jews, someone who was probably considered a “murderous thug” to many Jews of Jesus’ day – a Samaritan. In saying that we’re justified in killing “murderous thugs” to protect our neighbours, we’re implying that these murderous thugs are not our neighbours. It may be clear that they don’t see us as neighbours to be preserved, but that’s the point of Jesus’ parable: we are to love our enemies.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer participated in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler during the second World War, in spite of being a committed pacifist. He felt compelled to do whatever he could for his neighbours, the Jews. He never actually committed any violence against the Nazis, but he struggled with the notion of it, and decided that doing so would damn him, but that he was compelled by his love of neighbour to do so anyway. He was willing to accept damnation for the sake of his oppressed neighbours, just as Paul wished he could do on behalf of the Jews. He’d do it anyway, and throw himself on the mercy of Christ, knowing he was wrong to do so but also knowing that he could do no less because of love of neighbour. He was hanged by the Nazis just weeks before the end of the war, and I imagine that he walked to the gallows with his head high and peace in his heart, because he’d done everything he could for his neighbour and had also been spared from having to take a life. May we all experience such grace and mercy.

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12 thoughts on “The False Choice of Just War

  1. Hi Jeff,
    I have been reading the discussions of this issue with great interest, since while everything in me wants to reject the notion of non-violence, I have so far not found a good and Biblically sound argument supporting that idea.
    A little bit of background so the following makes sense….I grew up with a Mennonite background, am a member of a Mennonite church (though I confess I am not a ‘good’ menno by any stretch of the imagination). I also however spent much of my growing up years in one of the most violent towns in Northerns Saskatchewan, with violent crime rates to rival Hastings. I have also found that those who have actually experienced violence firsthand tend to have a slightly different view than we who sit and theorize.
    While I lean towards the opinion that just war is most likely never to truly occur and would consider myself leaning towards non-violence on that front, I also have issues with the conclusion that many of my heritage have drawn: That is, that violence is never ok under any circumstance. I have seen my former church ostracize a member because he chose to join the RCMP, regardless of the fact that they are quick to call the police when robbed etc. I have heard of girls expected to accept rape because retaliation is never acceptable. I can still remember some of the things my dad reported on while growing up, and cannot condemn those who used violence to stop people who rivalled anything on Criminal Minds.
    In a more hypothetical vein, what about the psychopath bent on destroying your entire family? You sacrifice yourself to stop one or two bullets, and in the process doom your children to die. What about the guy feeling some girl up in an alleyway? Is she now not allowed to slap his face?
    I don’t know the answers and I probably never will. But until we address the very real conclusion that many pacifists reach and the problems that may occur as a result of this conclusion (which I have never heard anyone adequately address and your aside comment about shooting to wound comes the closest), we are ignoring the dark side of non-violence, and I think these issues need to be discussed in conjunction with a discussion about war. I would be interested to hear your thoughts.

    • Thanks Candace, I appreciate your perspective!

      Yes, non-violence can definitely be misused. I suppose many of my critiques of just war theory are not about the theory itself, but rather about how it has been misused to justify violence (though I still think it’s deeply flawed even in its ideal theoretical form). People refer to pacifism as “passive-ism” for a reason, and it’s been used for generations in ways that reinforce social imbalances, etc. These misuses and distortions of pacifism are part of the reason why most pacifists today prefer the term Nonviolence or nonviolent resistance, which remove any sense of inactivity or passivity.

      I recently came across an article that outlines some principles of nonviolence: http://www.filmsforaction.org/articles/six-principles-of-nonviolence/

      Some key points to consider: nonviolence does NOT mean refusing to acknowledge or respond to violence or other things that are wrong, it just means refusing to respond in violent ways (and I wouldn’t consider a slap as you described it to be violent, as it provides no threat to the person and only addresses their impropriety; I would have a problem with you suggesting that a woman should stab or injure them though!). Violence is our knee-jerk, go-to reaction, not least because it’s been reinforced as such for us throughout history. Nonviolence is a commitment to confronting injustice by other means.

      That would also mean that it would be totally okay for someone committed to nonviolence to join the RCMP, though it would be very questionable for them to join the military. So far as I know, the RCMP never orders officers to kill, and most officers in the RCMP are not even placed in violent situations for most of their career. Soldiers, on the other hand, would have to disobey orders to maintain a commitment to nonviolence. However, even if the RCMP was a completely violent career, shunning is another practice that’s difficult to square with the principles of nonviolence! A community broken by shunning is not reconciled or peaceful, and that kind of response to potential violence undermines the pacifism that led to the shunning in the first place.

      I recognize that I’m extremely privileged. I’m a large white male in Canada, and haven’t been oppressed a day in my life (unless you count having an older brother, heh). It’s probably far too easy for me to talk about nonviolence. What keeps me interested in it is that the people who stand out for using non-violence throughout history were in a position in which choosing nonviolence was costly, and yet it ended up being more effective for them than violence. Martin Luther King, Jr., was not the only black activist to be assassinated in the 60’s civil rights movement: Malcolm X was a major figure revered by the Black Panther Party and other militant black nationalist groups. He was a brilliant man, by most accounts, but it’s not his victories that we celebrate, it’s King’s.

      I’ve already mentioned Bonhoeffer, but I think his example is particularly relevant to the charge that pacifism means that we must never ever engage in violence. Sometimes it may be necessary to engage in violence, but we should recognize it as a failing and throw ourselves on the mercy of God. We tend to think that these binary moments (where it seems the only way to stop greater violence is to commit violence) happen all the time, but I think they’re mostly hypothetical. Nonviolence advocates often have training in de-escalating situations and stopping violence long enough to get conversation going. I’ve read stories about women using such tactics to avoid rape and murder. The thing is, such tactics don’t work very well when you’ve got a gun pointed at the person you’re trying to divert or calm down.

      I also want to point out that being willing to absorb violence into our own bodies doesn’t mean that we throw our lives away meaninglessly. Jesus avoided being stoned to death many times before he was finally taken, and I probably wouldn’t advocate throwing yourself in front of one bullet when you know there are ten thousand following it. Being nonviolent means that we need to use our heads a lot more, keep our cool, master our pride – all of the things that get us into violent situations.

      What do you think?

      • I think they are good thoughts Jeff, and I would say I am much more comfortable with this post having read your additional thoughts. I would never advocate for violence in general, but as I said, I do believe there are some situations where as a last resort violence may have to be used….and then as you say, repented of. The aftermath of having to resort to hurting another is also truly painful and I think perfectly illustrates that violence cannot be simply right.
        I was pondering the question more this afternoon, and I wonder if perhaps this is a principle illustrated in a much less severe form by the Egyptian midwives of Genesis and Rahab in Joshua. No one would argue that they lied or that we should walk around covering up the truth and thus sinning, and yet their actions are certainly not vilified. Perhaps this is a similar thing in a much more extreme form? Not the main thrust or context of either story, but interesting to think about. Of course the question then arises of whether the end justifies the means. Scary road to go down and my main struggle with the entire question of ‘nonviolence’.
        In any case: yes. I think your comments greatly clarified things and I can agree with you. While I understand the need to focus on one aspect when writing to avoid creating a novel, I think I would love to see a consideration of both sides of an issue in one post. We tend to assume everything about Christianity is black and white and thus swing from one side of the pendulum to the other when rarely is it that simple and usually a position should be taken somewhere in the middle where truth can be gleaned from both sides. Or perhaps my drug addled brain (I’m recovering from bronchitis/pneumonia) is spinning in circles 😉

      • Thanks Candace – I think you nailed it. The story that defines us as Christians is far from unambiguous, and the Hebrew midwives in Egypt were far from girl-scouts – but they did what was right. In this, as in all things, I am comforted by Luther’s words: “sin boldly.” Not that I advocate sin, but there are times that it may be necessary to do what is wrong for the sake of what is right, which I think is better than maintaining a strict hold on what is right no matter what wrong comes of it. If that makes any sense.

        And for some of my perspective on the other end of this issue, see a post or two back where I talk about my visceral response to ISIS 😉

  2. Some comments. 1) I have chosen to not participate in violence as my effort to follow Jesus faithfully. Some call this pacifism — but that’s their term for my position, not my own. 2) I don’t know how to work this out in all situations. I grew up in Zimbabwe, and rejecting violence means accepting that violence to end the unjust society in which I grew up (White-ruled Rhodesia) is wrong. I’m not sure that such violence is simply wrong. It is wrong; but allowing injustice to continue is also wrong. 3) I agree that there are generally options that those promoting war have not considered. Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPTs) are a good option. Diplomacy — identifying and rectifying historic injustices — accepting violence without simply returning it (contra the Israeli stance). But I don’t think they will necessarily work any better than violence does. 4) Even if I accept the use of violence in any given situation, it remains an evil, which requires repentance. Violence is never simply okay.

    Jeff cites the case of Bonhoeffer. It’s a good example — a conflicted man committed to the way of peace, but driven to end a tyrant’s life in the pursuit of peace. ISIS may be as close to a comparable example today as we have. Perhaps violence to fight against ISIS is necessary; but even then it remains a perpetuation of evil.

    • Amen! Thanks Daryl – I appreciate your perspective. We come from very different contexts.

      In a context closer to your home, I often think about Nelson Mandela. He went to jail for a good reason (he bombed buildings as part of a militant resistance to aparthied), but it was the injustice of the length and severity of his sentence that drew attention, and his leadership from behind bars that made him a rallying point for the people.

      I’ve noticed a trend in films recently. There are quite a few films that, while violent throughout, feature nonviolence at their climax. Harry Potter and The Last Castle are examples that readily come to mind, and I think I’ve blogged on this feature before. I find it fascinating, and wonder if it tells us something about the way we understand social change to work – that even in our violent world, it takes righteous nonviolence to make lasting change?

  3. Thanks for this. I read the article in the Carillon a while ago and was quite disappointed. I didn’t have time to write a response, but now I don’t have to! Your response is quite thorough, fair, optimistic and Christ centred. So thanks!

  4. Hi Jeff. I’ve finally had some time to look at your criticisms of my work. We disagree about much.

    I concede that my disjunction between war, on the one hand, and peace at home which permits a murderous tyranny, on the other hand, wasn’t as clear as I’d like it to be (it’s difficult to add nuance in a newspaper article that’s limited to 650 words). In my defence, however, I did point out that I’d choose just war if peaceful diplomatic efforts are ineffective, and I did point out that I’d choose just war as a last resort. This leaves open the possibility of other resorts. So my choice isn’t as “false” or limited as you make it out to be.

    But let’s skip my work (for a moment). You make a much more serious error: you present the just war position uncharitably. In fact, you misrepresent it. Just war isn’t constituted by the “false choice” or “bogus binary” that you attribute to it. Just war isn’t described accurately by your “nutshell.” The just war position simply isn’t, as you assert: “we can kill our enemies, or we can do nothing.” Your characterization of the just war position is false. The truth of the matter is that the just war position does not rule out many of the alternatives you list. The just war view sees military force as a last resort, i.e., one of many resorts. It does not preclude attempts at peaceful solutions. Rather, it adds another option to the available solutions. In other words, when just war is understood as a last resort (which is entered reluctantly), the just war option can provide a broader spectrum of interventions than without having just war on the table. It provides lethal as well as non-lethal options.

    (Aside: It seems to me that the non-lethal interventions have more teeth when there is a real threat of armed intervention and thus greater probability of success. Years ago I worked in an institution for delinquent teens. Ultimately behind all negotiations and reasoned discussions with the young delinquents, one of whom had killed a man, was the quiet but real threat of my fellow staff and me using physical force or calling police who would use greater measures of physical force. Otherwise, chaos would result, with innocents getting seriously injured. ISIS, of course, is much more delinquent/ lethal than these young people, and ISIS isn’t willing to negotiate or engage in reasoned discussion, so armed intervention should be on the table of options—for the sake of protecting innocents.)

    Diplomatic resolution. Yes, we should be committed to this. But we should also realize that diplomatic resolution fails when one party not only is explicitly committed to conquering the other party but also is already actively engaged in conquering the other party. Think of Nazi Germany and its expansion before World War II. Think of Japan’s efforts to conquer the world. Think of Hamas’s charter. Think of ISIS and its commitment and present efforts to destroy, globally, all infidels. Yes, be open to diplomacy, but also realize when others aren’t.

    Just war. I (still) think that a good analogy for justifying war against ISIS is the case in which a police officer must sometimes use lethal force to stop a shooter from murdering students in, say, a high school. ISIS, too, is on a murderous rampage. The use of lethal force to stop ISIS from murdering, raping, human trafficking, etc. is justified, it seems to me, as is the use of lethal force that’s needed (as a last resort) to stop a high school shooter. In other words, I believe it’s not true that, as you say, using lethal force “would never be considered morally permissible in any other situation.” (Or think of a school shooter on a murderous rampage who is holding a student as a human shield and has a knife to the student’s throat, so the police officer can only make a fatal head-shot to stop the murderer. Yes, police officers attempt to de-escalate situations and shoot to wound, but sometimes they must use lethal force, i.e., shoot to kill—and this is just in such situations.)

    Re: my distinction between killing and murder. Whoa! I’m not a follower of Jesus Christ because I do simply employ this distinction in my argument for war (this is the logical implication of your second sentence in this section) and because I don’t agree with your interpretation of “the context of the Bible as a whole”? (I don’t think I’m being uncharitable in my interpretation of your claim. The plain logic of your second sentence requires this.)

    Come on. Some of us—who are also Christians—think that Jesus’ abstention from violence when being tortured and dying at the hands of evil men was for the particular unique purpose of offering Himself as an innocent sacrifice to satisfy (on our behalf) the requirements of God’s justice concerning sin. Like Aslan, Jesus was laying down his life to satisfy the demands of the “deeper magic.” He wasn’t promoting pacifism. At least that’s how it seems to me and to many other Christians. And not unreasonably so.

    Re: turning the other cheek. You make good points that unpack my phrase “suck it up.” (Thomas R. Yoder Neufeld, in his book Recovering Jesus, makes these points, too.) But I don’t come to a pacifist conclusion. I do think that C. S. Lewis gets things right in his essay “Why I am not a pacifist.” These points have to do with “the frictions of daily life among villagers.” I’ll go with Lewis.

    Re: using lethal force to love our neighbours. I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer was on the right track in thinking that love of neighbour compelled him to do violence against aggressors bent on murdering his neighbours. I disagree with Bonhoeffer that he would be damned by God for this if he had killed Hitler. Here’s why I think this. Jesus commended without reservation the faith of a Roman Centurion (a commanding officer of 100 soldiers, i.e., 100 professional warriors/ killers); John the Baptist advised soldiers (professional warriors/ killers) not to quit their jobs but be content with their pay; David, a man after God’s heart, used violent force to kill Goliath; God in the Old Testament often used lethal force (flood, pestilence, war) to deal with evil aggressors; Ecclesiastes tells us that there is “a time for war” (this phrase seems to have a prescriptive element in it); the apostle Paul in the New Testament says the state bears the sword (a lethal instrument) as an agent of God’s wrath (1 Peter 2:14 confirms the government’s role in punishing wrongdoers); and in Revelation, when Jesus returns, Jesus uses violent force to deal with—destroy/ kill—evil people. I think, then, that love of neighbour compels us to stop evil aggressors, and I think that love for an enemy (an evil aggressor who is also our neighbour) doesn’t preclude violent force to keep him/her from doing harm to innocent others (and perhaps further harm to him/herself). If my believing this and acting on this damn me, then I accept that damnation for the very same reason to which Bonhoeffer and Paul appeal: love of neighbour.

    Anyways, that’s my two cents’ worth (once again).

    • Thanks Dr. V, I appreciate your thoughts. I also realize now that it appears that my frustrations are aimed at you, which is certainly not the case, and I may have come off more strongly than I intended. I referred to your blog post, but my thoughts are aimed largely at the realities unfolding. I sometimes find it difficult to properly distinguish between the discussion of theory and how that theory is used in reality, and while it’s probably fair to say that I’ve misrepresented just war theory, my criticisms are more aimed at the fact that just war theory functionally gives governments today the appearance of justification in spite of the fact that none of their wars meet just war criteria. So I apologize if I’ve misrepresented your argument or just war theory in general – my comments come from looking at the fruit, and not just the tree.

      I’ll try to respond in the order of your comments to keep it clear:

      1. I do appreciate that you’d use it as a last resort, and I quoted you as such, but you painted a scenario in which there are no other options. I recognize that this is because you want to discuss just war itself and whether it is viable, so you’re cutting to the chase – this makes sense. My comment takes issue with such a scenario: we don’t know that such a scenario has ever existed, because we’ve never exhausted our other options. The only other options that you’ve presented are diplomacy and non-lethal violent action, but you’ve been quick to dismiss them. Again, I recognize that you’ve done so in order to get to your point about just war (it would be a long column indeed if you needed to assess every alternative to violence!), but governments also jump to just war, and not for the purpose of testing its validity. Its validity is assumed, and I think that comes from a long line of people skipping over alternatives to get to the question of whether or not war is justifiable. That is, I think that nobody is talking about non-violent responses, even academically, and not enough people ever have – it’s absent from our consciousness, while questions of war are very prevalent and ingrained. I think that by jumping over other options on your blog, either not mentioning them or dismissing them as ineffective for your scenario, you’re actually reinforcing the very prevalent notion that these are not options in any scenario. I know that’s not what you intended to do, but it’s what people see: human nature assumes that our issues are always worst-case scenarios, so a “last resort” is very easily arrived at even without people who know better giving at least the impression that other options aren’t even worth discussing.

      2. Just war theory in itself isn’t a bogus binary, but the scenario you presented deliberately ruled out other options. While your scenario was hypothetical and for academic purposes, in practice most people come to the same conclusions (but with much less rational thought). Just war theory (which I linked to) is well-developed in its criteria to limit our notion of what could possibly constitute a just war, and it’s very clear that it must be a last resort, must have reasonable chances for success, etc. I have a high regard for just war theory in the soft sense (I blogged about it last month), but that’s just war theory in a particular reading, which is quite different from the theoretical and practical applications in question. Real just war theory provides non-lethal options, but you deliberately ruled them out for sake of argument, and it seems that the media and governments don’t even mention them.

      3. Your aside makes a good point, and I’m torn about the threat of force as a pacifying factor. Ultimately though, I think that if the subtext of peace talks is the threat of violence, then they’re wide open to suspicion.

      4. You’re not wrong, but you describe a shallow view of diplomacy, which goes far beyond peace talks (though admittedly I didn’t elaborate on diplomacy either). Economic sanctions, ideological pressures, favourable alliances, etc., all have roles to play. ISIS isn’t a nation in spite of their name, so most of these don’t apply in this particular case, but they should not be ignored. A diplomatic tack in this case might be to enlist the support of Islamic nations to wage propaganda campaigns against ISIS.

      5. Let’s take a look at the high school shooter analogy a little bit. I know you’ve said that it’s not a perfect analogy, but I think that its failures are also true of the same arguments made justifying war. The scenario seems to fulfill most of the just-war criteria, except for the criteria of last resort. Is it really a last resort to kill the school shooter? If, using your example, a school shooter is holding a knife to the throat of a human shield, that suggests that the scenario has devolved from being a school shooting to being a hostage scenario, and we have protocols for hostage situations that include police negotiators and the use of non-lethal force. But even if we’re looking at an active school shooter, let’s examine some of the (far too many) examples: how many school shooters die as a result of police making the call to shoot them to prevent them from shooting someone else, and how many school shooters kill themselves? I’m under the impression that most mass shootings end in the suicide of the shooter; a few prominent exceptions (the Norwegian white supremacist and the guy who thought he was Batman) resulted in the capture of the shooter. Their cases are not exceptions in the sense that it would make sense (and has been argued extensively by pro-gun folks) to shoot the shooter as quickly as possible. If doing so is just, then the capture of these shooters rather than a killshot represents a failure on the part of police (or the general public, who don’t carry enough guns to satisfy those pro-gun folks); presumably the incident could have been ended earlier with the death of the shooter, and it would have been just. Except that that scenario is, evidently, just as hypothetical as the situation in which a police officer is left with no other choice but to kill the shooter, as neither of them seems to happen in most of the mass public shootings we’ve seen in the past decade or two. The police, in most of these cases that last long enough for a police response at all, has a strong and coordinated presence; there’s no time in which a police officer is facing a school shooter on their own, so their options are never limited to the binary choice that your example proposes.

      In the same way, we have thousands of tools and hundreds of allies to try to take on ISIS. We have a “coordinated presence” that makes the kill-or-do-nothing scenario moot. We haven’t used the vast majority of those tools, haven’t engaged most of those allies (that I know of), and the very first solution I heard proposed to the ISIS situation was airstrikes. That reminds me of an unfortunate incident at Liberty University this year, in which an armed security guard shot and killed a male student who was in the women’s dormitory; the immediate escalation to maximum force often results in unintended tragedy, and in this case the student who was killed turned out not to be a school shooter, but an unarmed boy sneaking into the girls’ dorm. I’m not trying to say that ISIS is an unarmed boy, but in this case their existence is the unintended response to previous wars which stirred up enough anti-Western xenophobia that religious nationalism had fertile grounds for rapid and terrible growth. I’d rather not reinforce that again.

      6. I certainly did not mean to imply that you’re not a follower of Jesus Christ! I only meant to say that there’s a disjunction or dissonance between being a follower of Christ and doing the opposite of what he did in analogous situations; even the plain logic of my statement doesn’t require the maximum possible force of my words (i.e., to imply that you’re not a Christian). There are texts in the Pentateuch that seem to make a distinction between killing and murder, and imply that there is such thing as just killing. This is also true of many OT texts, and I admit that they’re very difficult. But Christian interpreters of those texts need to read them in light of Christ, and I would argue that his own example and teachings overrule any previous understandings. This does create other hermeneutical difficulties, but it’s been a prominent/dominant interpretive method since Paul.

      7. Jesus was quite explicit in several places (notably his prayer and instructions in John) that he was going to give himself up for his friends, and that his disciples are to do likewise. While you refer to a particular interpretation of the crucifixion (penal substitutionary atonement), this is far from the only understanding of the cross, and many other views are found in the New Testament itself; while all of these views see Christ’s death as particularly significant, most of them have no notion of somehow satisfying God or the “deep magic” (though I am quite fond of Lewis’ version, as far as penal substitution theories go). Christ’s death changed everything, but it was not unique in the sense that in it he modelled how Christians are to die: for doing good, not for doing evil (as Peter reminds us), and his submission to unjust and violent authorities was modelling how Christians are to overcome the powers and principalities of this world (as Paul emphasizes). Martyrdom, or to die with and for Christ, has always been seen as the highest virtue of a Christian life well lived, and the closest identification that we can have with Christ. In spite of the fact that Christians have historically justified violence (along with the rest of the human race), I have much difficulty aligning that stance with the clear example and commands of Christ. In this, as in many other areas, I think that we’ve historically suffered from cognitive dissonance. Again, I’m not saying that a just war theorist cannot be a Christian, but only that just war theorists are incorrect when they connect that stance to their Christianity, and that they stand opposed to Christ on this issue. If being a Christian meant being exactly like Christ, there’d be none.

      8. Regarding Lewis’ interpretation of the sermon on the mount: Agree to disagree 🙂

      9. I may have overstated Bonhoeffer’s stance when I said “damned by God,” but I do see it as the logical implication of his views that we must never assume forgiveness and that we must be willing to take on guilt, both indirectly (vicarious confession) and directly. In any case, he certainly never claimed that those who kill to save their neighbour would have clean hands. In your argument here, though, I think you’ve mistaken grace for approval.
      -Jesus approved of the faith of the centurion, but he did so for the sake of hyperbole, in the same way that he condemned the Jewish cities of his day by saying that Sodom and Gomorrah were better off, or in the same way that he commended the faith of tax collectors and prostitutes. That doesn’t imply that he approves of prostitution, complicity with empire, or the depravity of Sodom and Gomorrah, but only that faith among the depraved is better than pious lip service from religious elites. I’m sure that Jesus loved the centurion very much, but that need not imply approval of his career.
      -David is called a “man after God’s own heart” in spite of his repeated and flagrant sins, many of which are among the most despicable in the Bible. Clearly this title is not an endorsement of his actions.
      -God used violence to deal with any number of things in the Old Testament, but most of them were not evil aggressors; Israel’s conquest of Canaan was a conquest, not a defensive maneuver against evil aggressors. I have a lot of trouble with those passages, and especially with their lack of justification. It’s one thing to say that God had a good reason for it, quite another to say that justice itself is different for God (not that you say this, but it’s commonly said, and I struggle with it).
      -Ecclesiastes can be read in two ways in this regard: either there’s only one prescriptive verse (remember to fear God), or else there are dozens, which include enjoying all of the pleasures of life (including those most Christians would disagree with). I’m open to it being read either way, but either way I don’t think “a time for war, a time for peace” is prescriptive, but rather reflective.
      -Paul and Peter both say that the state has the power of the sword for a reason, but they both actively encourage Christians to subvert the state. Many nations and rulers are called God’s agent of wrath (with a Persian king even being called God’s “anointed” or “messiah”), but that is not a title that anyone can grant to themselves, and it is always used (as far as I’m aware) by prophets to tell oppressed peoples that there is purpose in their oppression. OT prophets used that logic to explain the exile and return, and in the NT Peter and Paul use that language to attempt to build up in faith the Christians who are suffering persecution.
      -When Jesus destroys his enemies in Revelation, he does so with the sword of his mouth: the divine Word. We see similar imagery used in Hebrews, which says that the Word of God is sharper than a two-edged sword. Revelation is full of violent imagery, but it IS imagery.

      I very much appreciate the end of your comment here: “then I accept that damnation for the very same reason to which Bonhoeffer and Paul appeal: love of neighbour.” On this we agree, and if it were necessary I would stand beside you to do it! But I maintain that we must make a distinction between the theological and philosophical uses of the word “just” and “justified”, because using violence, though it be necessary (or “justified” in a philosophical sense) is not exempt from moral condemnation (“justified” in a theological or ethical sense). The grace of God gives us the hope we need to be transgressors for the sake of righteousness, but not the assumption that allows us to feel comfortable with it, if that makes any sense.

      Thanks for this Dr. V., I always appreciate our ability to civilly disagree 🙂

      Jeff

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