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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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.