Beyond Just War and Pacifism

In what is so far the most challenging chapter (at least for me) in Christian Political Witness, Peter J. Leithart begins his essay “Violence” with a rather controversial claim: “From beginning to end, the Bible is utterly opposed to violence.” Violence, he says, is the only thing that “God hates down to his ‘soul’” (147). He then goes on to reference just a smattering of the many times that God directly commands Israel to wipe out entire races of people or vows to utterly destroy entire nations. Where’s the disconnect?

Leithart suggests that the Bible has a different definition of violence than we would normally use. While we would normally define violence as any use of force that inflicts harm on another, Leithart catalogues the many uses of the word hamas (Hebrew for “violence”) in the Old Testament and notes that it primarily refers to sinful uses of force, while just uses of force – even those that inflict harm – are not referred to as hamas. God hates hamas so much that he goes to war and wipes out entire people groups to eradicate it. Hamas includes false witness, exploitation of the poor/widow/orphan/stranger, fraud, and corruption. On the other hand, the intensely fiery words of the prophets are not hamas, nor are physical discipline or punishments (including capital punishment). So while our standard definition of violence refers to the use of force resulting in harm, it appears that the OT definition is the use of force (physical or verbal) from sinful motives. Or as Leithart put it, “As a shorthand answer, I would say that violence is unjust and sinful use of force.” Which raises the question: “what counts as a sinful use of force?” (155).

Leithart refers us to the theological just war tradition for guidance, and it certainly appears that God’s actions against sin and injustice support just war. “Yahweh’s war against violence is the paradigm for human judgment. Rulers are to be deacons of God’s avenging wrath…punishment is not counterviolence that keeps violence within bounds but an act of purgation…force can be used not to oppress but to deliver the oppressed” (154). I have a hard time disagreeing with his reading, and up to this point in my life I’ve placed those violent texts from the OT in my “I don’t know what to do with this, but I don’t like it” category and hoped for something that can help me to connect those passages with the teachings and actions of Christ that have led me toward pacifism. Because of this, I only reluctantly admit that just war is probably the best way to interpret God’s stance on violence (or physical force) in Scripture. But that still leaves the question of whether just use of force is actually possible for us today, or a good option even if possible. How does the Church fit into all of this, and how do members of the Church balance this with being members of a society in which this occurs?

Leithart notes how a dominant view of power in the past few centuries, and most recently exemplified by Slavoj Zizek, is the “valorization of violence” which, in the words of Hannah Arendt (from her 1970 book On Violence), is the idea that “violence is nothing more than the most flagrant manifestation of power” (157). Arendt takes Max Weber’s definition of power as the legitimate right to violence and turns it on its head, instead defining power as “the human ability ‘to act in concert’…empowered by a group to act on behalf of the group” (158). As such, a government or ruler resorts to violence due to a lack of actual power, while the use of violence erodes power, so that violence and power are actually mutually exclusive. (Note: Arendt’s definition of power corresponds to Weber’s definition of authority, which he contrast with power and violence, so that they end up saying much the same thing!) The problem with both Weber and Arendt is that they define a polity by who has power or uses violence, which means that the Church is not recognized as a polity. It is a polity, but it doesn’t use violence. It also doesn’t have much in the way of power, at least in our society: power as Arendt defines it (and authority as Weber defines it) depends on the empowerment or assent of others. The Church places authority in Scripture, but as Leithart points out, Habakkuk complains that Torah cannot restrain violence. “If the Torah cannot restrain violence, neither can the US Constitution, the criminal code of Illinois, or the Geneva Accords” (159). So while the Church does not resort to violence, in either the OT definition or our common definition today, even “legitimate” uses of force (in the just war sense) or uses of force that the OT wouldn’t consider to be hamas are incapable of fulfilling God’s war against violence.

So we see that God’s definition of violence is limited to the unjust use of force, that God readily employs just use of force to purge violence, and that God’s use of just force is a model for our own use of force. But we also see that our own use of force is incapable of finishing the job, and vulnerable to corruption:

As institutions of the saeculum, governments use force to curb worse violences, but all too often they become agents of violence themselves. Even at their best they do not have the kind of tools needed to carry on Yahweh’s war on violence. Law enforcement is a good, and Christians may legitimately do this good work. But it does not swallow violence in victory.
Only Jesus does that. (159)

This is the point at which I expect to see Leithart turn to pacifism and nonviolent direct action, and start talking about the church subverting violence with love. Not quite. While acknowledging that Jesus and his church do not engage in violence, Leithart also does not see Jesus as nonviolent: “Scripture is a manifesto neither for pacifism nor for law-and-order conservatism” (159), and “The church is not violent in either the biblical sense or in our usual sense of the word. She does not employ the normal form of political force, but negative ‘nonviolence’ is not her essence. Jesus’ city is something far stranger” (160).

“…‘nonviolence’ is not her essence.” This is hard to swallow, because I see Jesus as being nonviolent. But Leithart has already shown that God is ready and willing to kill in order to fight violence in the biblical sense, and has even pointed out with Paul that “God’s treatment of sin in the Old Testament was mild, almost jocular” (149) compared to the coming judgment. There is continuity between God’s war on violence and Jesus’ nonviolence: “God purges violence in the flood, clears out the violence of Pharaoh, destroys the Babylonian destroyers. It is Jesus who launches his decisive campaign against violence” (159). Jesus does so by absorbing violence in his own body, the Suffering Servant pierced both by and for our transgressions who swallows death and overcomes it. Jesus’ nonviolence is not a sharp contrast with God’s war on violence, but its fulfillment. As his followers, we are not nonviolent in the sense that we are not to show pity as we flay the unjust with our prophetic critique, nor are we necessarily to abhor war or punishment as inherently violent in the OT sense, nor are we to be strangers to violence. Instead, we are called to go beyond avoiding and decrying violence, and instead to act as a human shield for those who are victims of violence.

I think that Leithart has a limited notion of nonviolence when he says that the church is not essentially nonviolent. While I see his point about the biblical definition of violence, and can concede that just use of force is not inherently wrong and may even be very godly and good, I still see the example of Christ (to nonviolently absorb violence in himself) as better. Many/most nonviolent theorists would also include absorbing violence in our own flesh in imitation of Christ as essential to nonviolence, a point that Leithart’s chapter misses. But even so, without naming it he touches on something that I think is key to the just war/pacifism debate, and which may even lead to a synthesis: the gratuity of God’s grace in Christ.

While it may be good and just to use force to punish and purge violence from the world, God in Christ gives grace and forgiveness and in so doing makes peace. While it may be good and just to avoid the use of force altogether, love of neighbour compels us to protect the weak and purge violence from the earth to bring about peace. Neither just war nor pacifism in itself is wrong – both are very good! – and neither view should look down on the other (and those who hold either view should hold the other to account for any corruption or failure in practice), but what is better is the gratuity of grace and love that leads us, like Christ, to absorb violence into our own bodies for the sake of the other, even our enemies, even the enemies of God, and in so doing bring about peace.

I propose, then, a new branch of peace/just war studies that explores in practical terms just how one might sacrifice oneself for another nonviolently yet to great effect. Because I know that the first thing that people will say about the notion of self-sacrifice as the ultimate expression of both pacifism and just war is “well, it sounds good in theory, but…” A good start is made by the next chapter, “Just War as Christian Politics” by Daniel M. Bell, Jr., wherein he distinguishes between Just War as a Public Policy Checklist (i.e., Just War as it’s actually practised) and Just War as Christian Discipleship, working through the traditional criteria of just war from both perspectives to contrast them and highlight how Christian discipleship forms people capable of actually abiding by the just war criteria reflexively and generously. It’s a good start, but I’d like to see it go further.

 

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On Forfeiting the Right to Life

In discussing pacifism and just war recently, the argument has come up several times that some violence is acceptable or morally just because the recipients of this violence (in this case, ISIS) have forfeited their right to life. This is a popular argument in favour of the death penalty, but I have difficulty figuring out where that logic comes from: what is a right to life, and where do we get the idea that it’s something that can be forfeited? There’s a lot to be said here, but I’ll limit myself to looking for a biblical and/or theological argument.

1. On Forfeiting the Right to Life

The first thing that comes to mind when I think of “forfeiting the right to life” is Genesis 9:

“But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.

“Whoever sheds human blood,
    by humans shall their blood be shed;
for in the image of God
    has God made mankind.

As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.”

At first glance, this passage seems to imply that God sanctions humans to shed human blood in response to shedding human blood. This passage is traditionally taken to be the creation and sanction of the first form of government for this reason. I think that reading is difficult to follow, for a few reasons.

a) Cities of Refuge. The rest of the Pentateuch has several examples of God deliberately working against the vengeance/retaliation mentality that was prevalent among Israel and in the rest of the Ancient Near East. It used to be believed that the several passages that refer to taking “an eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth” imply that it’s morally acceptable (and even a duty) to repay a wrongdoer in the same manner in which they’ve harmed another; this has been thoroughly debunked by looking at the social context of these laws, wherein it was considered acceptable to escalate in retaliation. “Eye for an eye” is a limitation on retaliation, not a sanctioning of it. Note also that God limits our right to just deserts in Deuteronomy: “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord.” But limitations on retaliation are more practically shown in the example of Cities of Refuge.

Cities of Refuge were designated in all of the tribal territories allotted to the tribes of Israel, and their sole function was to provide sanctuary that allowed someone to escape the practice of retaliation or vengeance. If God told Noah that humans who shed human blood will have their blood shed by humans, and he meant it in a prescriptive sense (i.e., if he said “humans who shed human blood should have their blood shed by humans”), then we’d have a strong case for retaliation as justice; why, then, would he command his people to construct a network of sanctuaries and an intricate system of appeal and protection, if retaliation is just?

b) Prescriptive vs. Descriptive. In light of the fact that God says a lot more about limiting retaliation than he does requiring it, it’s worth considering whether this passage in Genesis 9 is descriptive rather than prescriptive. Could it be that God is actually saying the opposite? That he will demand an account of everyone who sheds human blood because he recognizes that it creates a cycle of retaliation and endless violence?

There are several places in Scripture where interpreters are asking this kind of question. Several of Paul’s sayings, for example, are now thought to be quotations of his opponents that he challenges or strips down; this makes more sense of the troublesome verses in their context, and often leads to a clearer message for the letter as a whole. The confusion about such verses has to do with punctuation and a lack of context: the Greek text had no quotation marks, and thus we aren’t aware right away that this is a quotation; and we’re unfamiliar with the works or arguments that he’s quoting or making reference to. The other reason that we don’t pick up on quotations, or descriptive statements that appear to be prescriptive, is because we (and especially us Evangelicals) have been conditioned to read the Bible as straightforward and prescriptive, so that every text is a letter directly to me, telling me how to live. This leads to assumptions about the intent of the text, and in this case I’m not 100% sure that we’ve been reading it correctly. Given the repeated contrary messages to this in the rest of the Pentateuch, I’d say the chances are good that this is one of those verses we’ve missed the point of, and in the process reversed its intended meaning.

2. On Whether We Have a Right to Life in the First Place

While talk of “human rights” is commonplace today (and I’m generally supportive of the concept and its application), it’s a very recent idea. Despite the fact that this idea descends from the ancient codes of law found in the Bible and elsewhere, as well as the application of Christian theology and morality, the Bible itself has no real notion of “rights”, except perhaps the right of ownership and a few other rights implied in the Law. The rights that existed were not universal, and the right to life wasn’t one of them in any case.

On the contrary, the dominant notion in the Bible about human life is that it’s a gift, offered at God’s good pleasure and easily withdrawn. The value and sanctity of human life is provided by its status as a gift from God: it has sanctity because it belongs to God and reflects God (as the passage from Genesis 9 says pretty clearly). While we can see that God is a giver of good gifts, and that he is both generous and full of grace and mercy, it is clear that human life does not belong to humans. This is further emphasized in the New Testament, where it is stated explicitly and in many ways that the value of a Christian’s life is in its service to Christ and to others: we are to die to ourselves and embrace a new life in which Christ lives in us. Christians recognize that we have no right to life, but only live because of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, apart from whom we’re already dead. Christian theology has held, based on passages in Genesis, Psalms, Romans, and many other places in Scripture, that all human beings are fallen and under the penalty of death.

So how can we forfeit something that we’ve never had?

3. On Jesus’ Mercy and the Time and Place of Judgment

It’s always good to end with Jesus (and start there too). My ethics (hopefully) always come from Jesus, and my stance on pacifism comes directly from the way I see him interacting with his own enemies in the gospels, as well as his explicit statements about loving enemies and serving those who persecute you. So I was pleased to see that I’m not the only one who thinks this way when a student asked my friend and colleague Dr. V about how he can square his view of forfeiting the right to life with Jesus’ mercy and salvation. I appreciate Dr. V’s response, though I disagree with him on it.

Dr. V says (in the comments) that he sees the salvation that Jesus provides pertaining to the second death, i.e., the judgment of the living and the dead. I can certainly agree with this: one of the big changes that occurred between the OT and the NT eras was the view of an afterlife (the OT had very little notion of one, while by the NT time Jewish theology had developed a much stronger notion of a resurrection). You can actually see the turning point in Daniel, which speaks specifically of a resurrection, though not all Jews in Jesus’ day believed in an actual resurrection of the dead. The basic idea is that all of the dead will be raised to new life, but will also be judged and separated (by Jesus), good from evil. However, given the nature of this final judgment, I find it problematic to distinguish one form of salvation from another. Said differently, I don’t think that Jesus acts in two ways at the same time, demanding death in one place and giving life in another for presumably the same offences. Let’s unpack that a bit.

There’s been a recent resurgence of emphasis on the embodied nature of human existence. We long believed that “heaven” is a place on the clouds where disembodied souls spend eternity in the spiritual presence of God. Aside from the obvious gnostic problems this can create for our theology, it’s just not what Scripture describes. In the Old Testament, salvation is a physical salvation: God saved us from Egypt! God saved us from Babylon! Heaven is depicted as everyone having their own fig tree, and all of the nations coming to Jerusalem to worship God. It’s very physical. In the New Testament, in spite of the development of a notion of after-life, that after-life is (as noted above) a physical resurrection of the dead. Salvation is from sin (in its power over us as well as the consequences, both personal and social/corporate), and heaven is depicted as a city (the “new Jerusalem”) where all the world lives with and worships God. In both the OT and the NT, heaven is life on earth as God intended it, and salvation is God’s work to make that happen.

If the final judgment is to separate the good from the wicked, we must remember that these are living people in physical human bodies who will be expected to live together in the just ways that God intends for human society. If God has decreed to us that human beings can be the agents of God’s justice upon each other in this life and society by killing those whose sins warrant it, and everyone who is killed is resurrected to be judged by Jesus (who is also God), then Jesus has judged people twice. We would expect him to be somewhat consistent in his judgment, but this may not be the case. He might a) allow a sinner to live a long life and die of natural causes, only to resurrect them and consign them to death for their sins; b) authorize humans to kill someone for their sins, only to resurrect them and kill them again; or c) authorize humans to kill them, and then resurrect them to eternal life. Now surely Jesus has the ability and right to do all of these things, but the idea that God would demand us to perform his judgment duties by killing those who are deemed to have forfeited the right to life, and then either double-up on it or reverse it, seems a bit convoluted to me. It seems to pit Christ against God or Christ against us.

(Also, if God has decreed that retaliation and retribution are just, and we’ll all live in a physical world and real human society, presumably that sense of justice hasn’t changed (and there are no verses that I can think of suggesting that it has). Would we live in perfect society in the new world under the threat of righteous vengeance from our fellow citizens of heaven?)

My train of thought is unravelling a bit (it’s late), but the point is that in Jesus we see God revealed in his fullness. If Jesus tells his followers to reject the sword (and he does), we should question whether or not God has told us to pick it up. If Jesus dies for his enemies, who are certainly sinners and murderers, then we should question whether or not God has asked us to kill them for their crimes. And if Jesus will judge the living and the dead, then we should remember that God said “Vengeance is mine” and not try to add to it.

4. Okay, one more thought: Who Decides What Constitutes Forfeiting One’s Right to Life?

While not a biblical or theological objection, I can’t get past this one: who are we to say that certain people have forfeited their right to life? ISIS believes that everyone who is not of their particular brand of Islam has forfeited their right to life by rejecting God. Theologically speaking, their version is probably more accurate and certainly more straightforward (for if life is but a gift from God rather than a right…). They believe their killing is just and a service to God; we believe that using lethal force against them, whether as punishment or deterrent or in defence, is justified for the same reasons. We could go around and around this circle forever – and we already have been for far too long. So long as both sides justify their actions in reference to a different religion, there isn’t even any common ground on which to judge one side’s argument over the other. Even if we were to make the argument specifically about forfeiting the right to life by the killing of others, ISIS has more claim against Westerners in this regard than we do against ISIS: Westerners have been bombing them for decades. To say that their crimes forfeit their right to life places us on a very high horse indeed, and I hope we can get off of it in time to get out of this cycle of killing before we have another generation of it rise from the ashes of today’s conflicts.

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.

Gaza, ISIS, and Two Types of Just War

I’m currently reading In the Fray: Contesting Christian Public Ethics, 1994-2013 by David P. Gushee, a series of essays and addresses in a variety of ethical topics and issues. Today I read “Just War Divide: One Tradition, Two Views”, written in 2002 just before the US invaded Iraq again, and it got me thinking about the possibility of a third Iraq invasion on the horizon.

Gushee points out that Just War theory has been divided into what he refers to as “soft”, or “dovish” views of just war, and “hard” or “hawkish” views. He then gives an example of each view. I’ll give you his definitions of the two views, followed by more contemporary examples from Gaza and Iraq today. First, “soft” just war:

Soft just war theory is characterized by seven key components: a strongly articulated horror of war; a strong presumption against war; a skepticism about government claims; the use of just war theory as a tool for citizen discernment and prophetic critique; a pattern of trusting the efficacy of international treaties, multilateral strategies and the perspectives of global peace and human rights groups and the international press; a quite stringent application of just war criteria; and a claim of common ground with Christian pacifists. – Gushee, In the Fray, 32.

Soft just war theory starts with the notion that war is hell. Gushee later points out that soft just war theory developed in the 20th century, in large part in response to the horrors of the wars of that century. The fact that he separates between articulating the horror of war and having a presumption against war may seem strange: if war is awful, why wouldn’t we presume against it? Starting with the presumption that war is horrific, even evil, soft just war theory sees the criteria of just war as a criteria for the limitation of war: if war cannot be carried out justly, it should not be carried out at all. Gushee goes on to describe hard just war theory:

Hard just war theory reverses these emphases, replacing them with the following: a presumption against injustice and disorder rather than against war; a presumption that war is tragic but inevitable in a fallen world, and that war is a necessary task of government; a tendency to trust the US government and its claims for the need for military action; an emphasis on just war theory as a tool to aid policymakers and military personnel in their decisions; an inclination to distrust the efficacy of international treaties and to downplay the value of international actors and perspectives; a less stringent or differently oriented application of some just war criteria; and no sense of common ground with Christian pacifists. – Gushee, In the Fray, 33.

Hard just war theory sees war as a necessary evil, a regular function of government as a way of keeping the evils of injustice and disorder in check. This is where references to Hitler usually come into play: what’s more evil, to kill thousands of people in a war, or to not go to war and let millions of people die at the hands of a radical dictator or terrorist group? Governments have the responsibility to protect their people, and some would argue that they even have the responsibility to punish those who would attack their people (Gushee points out that this was argued as a reason for the US invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11). Starting with such presumptions, hard just war theory sees the criteria of just war as a criteria for the justification of war: war must be waged, and should be waged as justly as possible.

Before continuing to the examples, make sure you take a look at the criteria of just war. There has never, in the history of the world, been a war that meets all of these criteria; yet even the most pacifist of us, with the benefit of hindsight and recognizing the life we enjoy today, may be willing to admit that there are some wars that we’re glad were fought. I think I would insert into Gushee’s analysis, then, a difference in the way that the word “just” is understood: soft just war theorists would argue that no war is just, even if war is necessary; while hard just war theorists would maintain that the ends justify the means, i.e., that a war is actually just in the sense of being morally acceptable if it is waged for the right reasons and in the most humane and effective ways possible.

Now take a look at the current conflict in Gaza. Israel and her allies tend to lean pretty heavily on hard just war theory, which Gushee points out is natural for any government to do: he notes that we tend to hold the position on just war that best aligns with our loyalties. Those loyal to a state or military body are naturally going to have their reasoning affected by that loyalty. In Israel, every male and a large portion of the female population is a member of the military; further, their ethnic identity is tied with their national identity, as Israel is a Jewish state. Even further, they have reason to understand their survival and continued existence as a part of that Jewish identity, as from the moment Israel became a nation they have been subject to attack from neighbouring nations whose explicit aim was to completely destroy them for racial and religious reasons – so loyalty to the state and the military can be seen as inherent to cultural and religious identity for Jewish Israelis.

On the other side of the conflict, hard just war theory (of a different sort) also rules: Palestinian governments and militant groups such as the PLO, Palestinian Authority, and Hamas have all at different times and to different degrees justified their militant stances. The difference is that they pay no lip service to just war criteria, and work within revolutionary frameworks that include guerrilla warfare, suicide bombings, kidnappings and torture, and targeting civilians. Make no mistake, Western governments do this too (Israel is surely no exception); we just claim that we don’t. In any case, the Palestinian governments’ concept of just war is much broader, with no restrictions on methodology but instead deriving its justification entirely from right reasons for war: being oppressed on one hand, and (at least to extreme conservative islamists) the existence of a Jewish state in a Muslim holy land on the other.

International parties in this conflict aren’t quite so firmly on the side of hard just war theory. The US government affirms Israel’s right to defend itself, but is more insistent that other means of conflict resolution be at least attempted (Canada hasn’t said much in that regard, to my shame). Other nations condemn Israel’s attacks on Gaza, but support the Palestinians’ rights to defend themselves. Of course, both nations are defending themselves by offensive means, attacking their neighbour as a way of defending against them, and this is deemed justifiable only by the most “hawkish” of just war theorists.

International groups and individuals are more prone to supporting Palestine than most national governments are. Hamas began as a (terrorist) militia, and other militant forces around the world support their struggle openly and verbally, while governments who support them do so secretly and with smuggled shipments of weapons. Individuals who have no connection to the conflict except through news reports online are more commonly soft just war theorists: Paul Estrin, the now former president of the Green Party of Canada, wrote a blog post in which he lamented the entire war, and even recognized several of Israel’s faults in the conflict, but implied that if Hamas didn’t change their aim of eradicating Israel that Israel would be justified in taking more severe measures. His whole post seemed a long way short of pacifism on one hand, and yet there was nothing “hawkish” in his view that Israel would be right to defend itself. Even so, there were immediate calls for his removal based on his so-called support for “genocide” (the implication being that Israel is engaged in genocide, and therefore any support of Israel was support of genocide). So even people who have no connection to the conflict other than being a human being on planet earth are regularly expressing some form or other of just war theory in support of either side of this conflict.

The Israel/Palestine conflict, to me, gives support to soft just war theory. I’m a pacifist, but when I see that there are elements on both sides of this conflict who won’t stop until the other side is annihilated, I can’t help but think that perhaps defensive violence may be necessary. If that defensive violence could be used in a just way as defined by the criteria of just war, I might be won over to soft just war theory from my current pacifist stance. I recognize that my pacifism is easy, given that I’m not currently under threat. Even so, the convoluted nature of the Israel/Palestine conflict suggests to me that a pacifist response is possible: both sides can recognize that they’re guilty of atrocities toward each other; both sides can recognize that they’re not gaining any ground by fighting; and both sides could at least in theory agree to simply stop fighting. I think this would require that both governments agree to more tightly control their citizens, as the extremists on both sides are the ones who keep the fighting going, but I think that would in many ways be more just than trying to exercise strict control on each other. So I still have some hope for a pacifist option, but in general Gaza makes me think that perhaps soft just war theory is justifiable.

Then ISIS happened. Everywhere I look online these days I see news stories about ISIS (an extremist militant islamist organization) murdering Christians in Iraq, even beheading children. My first thought whenever I see a story like this is about the Christians, my people: “Lord, please help those poor innocent people.” My second thought is about ISIS: “Someone needs to kill those motherfuckers.” Not particularly Christian or pacifist of me, is it? Of course, my sudden swing toward thinking that violence is justified is, as Gushee pointed out, a product of my loyalty to the group in question. It’s also due to the nature of ISIS: they’re a completely unaccountable group that seems to function on mob mentality and religious fervor, and shows absolutely no restraint. This is as near to radical evil as I’ve ever seen in this world, the kind of evil that doesn’t follow the rules of war, the kind of evil that can’t be reasoned with. This is mass-possession, the likes of which the world hasn’t seen since…Hitler. And I’ve come full circle, back to the argument that war is justifiable if it’s fought for the right reasons, and that it’s better to kill a few thousand members of ISIS than to let them slaughter Christians for no cause.

Knowing that I have this kind of reaction is helpful, I think. It helps me to identify with those who justify war without immediately resorting to inflammatory and dismissive terms like “warmongers”. It helps me to step down off of my high horse as I offer opinions on the internet regarding the wars of the world from my comfortable couch in Canada. And it helps me to consider the true cost of pacifism, as well as the true potential of non-violent resistance, because all too often we treat pacifism as an ideal that gets thrown out the window as soon as the first shot is fired by our enemies. If we’re going to hold a soft just war position, we need to do so not as a failed attempt at pacifism, but rather as a principled and self-controlled approach to self-defense or the defense of others. And if we’re going to hold a hard just war position, it should be because it makes sense, not because we’re loyal to our state or military body. And finally, knowing that I have a knee-jerk reaction toward a hard just war position reminds me why, more often than not, my standard position is pacifism: because as much as I’m loyal to Christians and may want to defend them, my first loyalty is to Christ himself, who absorbed the violence of Rome into his own body rather than letting himself be rescued by his followers (or a legion of angels), and did so in a way that inspired a more principled and higher resistance in people and shamed the violent powers that ruled by the sword. This is not the kind of action that I can insist that others follow – if I were in their situation, I may feel justified in violence – but it is the action that Christ took, and the action he calls his followers to emulate. I hope I never need to follow him that, and at the same time I watch and wait for an opportunity for my own death or persecution to mean something. If given the choice between justifying killing someone and having a meaningful death, I hope for the latter. Perhaps if more of us looked for ways for our life, and death, to be meaningful rather than looking for ways to justify killing others, we’d have less opportunity for either.