Just and unjust wars in the Christian tradition: what does history teach us?
Written by Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite
February 23, 2003
We seem suddenly to be living in extraordinarily anxious times. Terrorists invade our cities, people die of anthrax from opening their mail, the economy is very unstable, and snipers pick off random citizens doing their ordinary tasks of shopping and getting gas. Israel/Palestine is in flames. The so-called war on terrorism is amorphous and difficult to define. Public enemy #1 only a year ago, Osama bin Laden, disappears from the public screen and is interchangeably replaced with Saddam Hussein. Then bin Laden reappears, perhaps, and issues vague and yet horrifying threats. Apparently the recent tragedy at a Chicago nightclub was precipitated by people panicking because they thought pepper spray was a terrorist attack. Are we at code yellow, code orange, code red? And what does that mean? Exactly how anxious are we supposed to be? Debates on CNN-- shall we attack Iraq or not? Will it increase world threat or decrease it? How to begin to decide? How strange these days seems and how frightening.
The pluralistic religious factor in all this anxiety is also new. Threat and counter threat are couched in the language of religion against religion, of god against god. Words not heard dominating in the political sphere for centuries, crusade and jihad, seem to give the new world struggles a transcendent frame. Are we struggling for good and is the enemy evil? Is the struggle about freedom? About oil? About markets? About who is God?
As we turn to our text in Exodus, we can see how anxiety can provoke people to violence In Exodus 17 the people of Israel have been wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. Sometimes God seems to be on their side and they have been fed by manna, but now thereÍs a big crisis; now there is no water. No water in a desert climate is a profound threat. They will all die without water. And they turn on Moses-they are ready to kill him. Their anxiety causes them to leap to anger and then to threaten violence. Of all the ways I have read this text over the years, I had never before considered this text as showing how threat and anxiety move people to blame and to violence. But when you re-read it from our times, you can see how the anxiety of the people of Israel moves them to want to just lash out and kill Moses.
Last Friday I had this same thought. So much was in the news about Iraq and about possible threats from terrorists and quite seriously the thought popped into my head, ñI wish weÍd just attack Iraq and get it over with.î Even though IÍm opposed to doing just that, I felt within myself an overwhelming desire to lash out in violence just to get rid of the anxiety.
The concept Just War was born in just such an anxious time, the time of Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century, where the Holy Roman empire was suddenly under attack from barbarian hordes of which little was known, but much suspected. The parallels to our own time are rather striking.
From the first to the fourth centuries after the death of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christian community lived under siege, often subject to persecution by the Romans. Christians could not serve in the military; were excommunicated for doing so, and the tiny Christian minority was pacifist.
But what happened? The persecution ended because the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 400. What a miracle this seemed to the Christians of the time. Not only were they no longer persecuted, but also Christianity triumphed and became the official religion of the empire. And then what? From the north and the east, barbarians, pagans, and Arian heretics such as Goths began to invade this newly Christianized empire. In 410 came the terrible trauma of AlaricÍs conquest of Rome. And so Augustine, a bishop and a Roman citizen, considered whether the Christian could ever, in all conscience, kill in war.
There is no such thing as exact historical parallels, but it is interesting to note that those Christians who as pilgrims fled Europe and founded this country as ñthe City on the Hillî or ñthe New Jerusalemî did so to escape religious persecution. What a miracle a new society must have seemed to them. The religious interpretation of this countryÍs founding and reason for being (and for westward expansion) has always been its overarching sense of having been blessed by the Creator with this land and blessed as a nation. Americans therefore see themselves as an ideal nation, a standard to which the rest of the world should aspire. Democratic and free, we are one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all. And how we have been blessed, at least by the standards of materialism.
Of course this is a fiction, like the Holy Roman Empire was a fiction. But it is a prevailing fiction, our national psychic narrative. The sense of ourselves as good, as an ideal, makes the attack on us as a nation by some who profess, in religious rhetoric, to hate us and see us as evil, come as the same sort of jolt as the barbarian invasions must have seemed to Augustine. Has the order of the world turned upside down?
In some respects I think it has. And when we are this anxious, this confused and so filled with emotion that the simmering anxiety just below the surface of our lives causes people to leap into panic, now more than ever we need our ancestors in the faith for guidance. Some would argue today that Just War theory is irrelevant, old hat, doesnÍt apply. I think just because the times are so frightening and confusing and emotionally enraging, that we need to realize we are not the first people in history ever to have faced such turmoil. If weÍre going to try to act like the moral people our founding vision claims we are, we have to try to engage in moral reasoning if we propose to engage in violence.
For Augustine, the intent of both the nation and the individuals in war have much to do with evaluating whether a war can be justified. ñ[F]or it makes a great difference by which causes and under which authorities men undertake the wars that must be waged.î (Against Faustus the Manichean, 222) ñThe real evils in war are love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild resistance, and the lust of power, and such likeî (City of God, book 22) for ñthe natural order which seeks peaceî (Ibid) to be upset, it must be that the reason for undertaking war is to restore human affairs to peace. (Ibid). ñFor peace is not sought in order to kindle war, but war is waged in order that peace may be obtained.î (Letter 189) Even in war, soldiers must conduct themselves as peacemakers, targeting the enemy and not engaging in wholesale slaughter. The innocent must be protected, not killed as combatants.
The virulent, revengeful cruelty and the lust for power that Augustine so feared as the worst moral evils in war are our biggest risk. Are we just lashing out in emotional desire for revenge and to just get out from under this anxiety? For even more dispassion and reason in considering the use of violence, look at the development of Just War theory in the work of Thomas Aquinas in the 13th to 14th centuries.
AquinasÍ time was far different from the cosmic struggles of AugustineÍs. In the high Middle Ages the divinely run society seemed finally to have arrived, at least for the elites. Influenced by the reintroduction of AristotleÍs writings into the West via the Muslim world, Aquinas posited a seamless, great chain of being from God as first cause to the last spec of secondary causality in the material world. Whereas Augustine was preoccupied with intentionality and the corruptions of the lust for power, Aquinas, as a rationally deductive thinker, took AugustineÍs question ñWhat is the moral evil in war?î (Book 22) and sanitized it to the question ñWhen is a war just?î His answer is not an exploration of the corruptions of the will to power, but a straightforward list: ñFor a war to be just three conditions are necessary.î (Summa Theologiae, 2a2ae.23-46) The list is not unhelpful. There needs to be a right authority to declare war, a just cause and finally a right intention on the part of the belligerents, i.e. achieving some good or avoiding some evil. This list is subsequently expanded to eight.
So, it all really comes down to whether we have a Just Cause or not. Are we defending ourselves from attack (and that only came in with Aquinas; Augustine didnÍt include self-defense in his original writings on Just War), are we defending someone else from attack? No and no. We are proposing to act pre-emptively; to strike first because some suppose this will prevent a future attack. 100 Christian Ethicists this fall published a rejection of a pre-emptive war with Iraq based on Just War criteria. The major protestant denominations, the American Catholic church and the National Council of Churches all have issued statements questioning the proposed war with Iraq and have often referred to Just War theory. To have a just cause, you have to be defending yourself (or defending someone else from attack).
Joseph C. Sprague, Bishop of the Chicago and Northern Illinois Conference of the United Methodist Church, wrote a long letter to the editor of The Chicago Tribune in late October arguing, ñWe must say ïnoÍ to war with Iraq.î ñDeclaring war on Iraq is morally indefensible. There is no way to read the criteria of the ñJust War Theoryî that could justify this foolhardy adventure. This is not an act of self-defense. All other options have not been exhausted. The devastation envisioned is in no way proportional to the perceived original aggression of Saddam Hussein. Innocent civilians-particularly women and children-will not be protected.î
It is useful, in anxious and unstable times, to turn to a tradition of moral reasoning that has been providing insight (as well as wholesale self-justification) for more than1500 years.
But sometimes it is more useful to take a look at the New Testament.
In the text in John, Jesus is tired. He sits down by a well and along comes a woman of Samaria. Notice the ñcliff notesî in the text: verse 9b ñFor Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.î These two people are enemies. Who would they be today? Fred Herzog, my teacher, re translated this text in the early 70Ís civil rights movement as an encounter of the white and black races. Today, letÍs say, now a Jew and a Palestinian; an American and an Iraqi. Jesus asks for a drink and the enemy woman argues with him. Forget even the racial conflict between these two people, women just didnÍt argue with men in this culture. Jesus does not lash back, he does not threaten, he just engages her again. Jesus offers living water and she argues with him again. You donÍt even have a dipper to draw from the well, Jewish man, how are you going to give me any water? If you can begin to hear some attitude here. Now this is not the usual reading of this text either. But it is very instructive on how you deal with enemies.
Our most fundamental moral problem in all that is happening in our anxious times may be the way in which our anxiety over threats both real and imaged is causing us to see the stranger as a threat; to reject people and cultures different from ourselves and just write them off as strangers and enemies. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who gave his life in resistance to Hitler, once said, ñSecurity is based on distrust; peace is based on trust.î In these strange times, the strange, the other, the one who does not look like us, is a source of threat. We reject their otherness. It makes it a lot easier to kill. Think of all the times in the New Testament, though, when Jesus meets and talks to people who are the sworn enemies of his own race, outcasts, polluted people and in that conversation finds a way to welcome their strangeness. The stranger the better for Jesus. We are a long way from there.
Augustine finally helps us the most, I think, with his deep repugnance for the ñlove of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild resistance, and the lust of power.î The enmity at work in the world today is fierce and implacable and tragic. Terrorist attacks are wild resistance and they move us to lust for revenge, to lash out and vent our emotion through violence. Our revenge response is fierce and implacable. And above all is the lust for power that underlies both globalization and worldwide militarism.
Do Augustine and Aquinas and even the biblical texts answer all our questions about what to do today? No they donÍt. Augustine and Aquinas warn of the temptation to just lash out irrationally and take revenge without sober, critical thought. But more than that, the life and teachings of Jesus reminds us forcefully that thereÍs always another way to deal with enemies. That is the absolute standard and the one to which we are held accountable.
Martin Luther King, Jr. captures this spirit of Jesus when he says, ñReturning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.î (Where do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? (1967), p. 594.) Amen.