Methodical. Inexorable. Annoying, sometimes provoking, and yet, ultimately convincing and convicting. All these words sum up my reaction Daniel Bell’s important book on the Christian just war tradition.
First the bad:
Bell could have used a better editor, and bears the hallmarks of a first book from the author. He slides all too often into a repetitive and heavy didactic style, and uses paragraphs chock full of rhetorical questions that pile onto one another. Not as bad as Mr. Chadband from Bleak House, but I might parody this habit of Bell’s thusly:
“And what are we to make of the Gadsden flag motto (used by Marines) “Don’t Tread on Me?” Does it express a sentiment in line with the sacrificial love of Christ? Does it encourage a transformative view of suffering? Would such an attitude lead to just warriors? What kind of motto’s should our soldiers use? Is the church ready to inform the military about such things?”
So this was wearisome.
Bell also never applies his ideas to any particular conflict, which seems too easy for me. Bell espouses some controversial ideas, but I wish he stuck his neck out a bit more and applied his thinking to some actual wars. Granted, the reader can do this for himself, but Bell should have guided the reader a bit more in the interpretation of his ideas.
Despite these weaknesses, the book reminds us that the Church, nations, and militaries have almost completely lost touch with Christian concepts of “Just War” theory and practice. Bell’s book does not condemn war outright. Rather, he seeks to completely reframe the way we examine the issue, which may explain why both pacifist theologians and military chaplains have endorsed his work.
Speaking from a “Just War” tradition within the Church has its limitations. Rarely did any accomplished theologian comment on the issue at length. The Church’s most powerful voices on the topic, St. Augustine, and St. Thomas Aquinas, dealt with just war theory only in an in ad-hoc fashion. Bell points out, however, that while the Church had few official individual voices on the topic, an agreed upon understanding more or less existed from the early days right up until the modern era around the 17th century. Thus, Christians have access not just to Scripture, but also to an authoritative history of understanding of just war, what I will refer to as “The Tradition” in the rest of this post.
Bell’s main argument centers around his assertion that waging “Just War” has much more do with sanctification than a checklist of criteria that then give us justification to act as we please. To fight justly means fighting as a Christian, with love for one’s neighbor and one’s enemy. Fighting justly means not seeking to maximize personal well-being, or national safety, but working for the good of others. Bell rejects pacifism. There are times when acting faithfully might mean using force to achieve just ends. But Bell argues well that if we cannot apply the central truths of the gospel message in how and when we fight, we have no business fighting at all.
This has many implications for us.
Modern understandings of just war often primarily focus on personal self-defense, or defending property, or maintaining a “way of life.” But this approach puts ourselves, or our nation, before others. Thus, “self-defense” can thinly disguise selfishness. As Augustine stated, “Christians should rather be killed than kill, rather suffer harm than harm others.” Charity must prevail even under dire circumstances.
But as happens so often in this book, when you think Bell resolves the issue it deepens. Christians can fight to defend others, particularly those who cannot defend themselves. Christians can put others first by risking their own well-being to serve others.
If we wonder how we tell the difference between defense of self and others, Bell sympathizes. The Tradition gives us no formula, no checklist, and this flows directly from the gospel itself. For example, no checklist can tell you when you love your wife. A husband cannot say, “I bought her flowers and watched the movie she wanted to see. Therefore, I love her, and she should know I love her as long as I continue to do those things.”
What really guides the practice of Just War is not a list but just warriors themselves, who apply the gospel ethic to their situation. This lack of black and white guidance may frustrate us at times, but Bell fears that the checklist mentality will give us carte blanche to do as we please once “the enemy” meets certain conditions. I remember an anecdote about an ex-boxer bothered by a drunk. The drunk hit the boxer a few times, and the boxer responded, “The Lord told me to turn one cheek, and then the other. He said nothing about a third time,” and proceeded to whale away on the unfortunate man.
The Purpose of War
From General Sherman we get the modern view that, “War is all hell.” Those that follow Sherman believe that war remains essentially irredeemable, and making war as short as possible forms much of our strategy as to how we fight.
The Tradition offers another perspective. In one sense we must treat fighting a war like any other activity. We fight wars that we might grow in holiness, that we would grow closer to God. For Christians war should develop the fruits of the Spirit. If it can’t we have no business in it.
This may mean exercising patience. It may mean that we fight in such a way where we give up physical advantages because of the moral problems that may result from our use of these advantages. If we maximize the pain and suffering of our enemy in such a way that minimizes our own, we cannot claim to be just warriors following the call of Christ.
When We Fight
Following Christ means exercising charity towards one’s enemy, and charity requires us to give every reasonable chance to settle differences without violence through diplomatic pursuits. We can use violence only when we know we have given other measures a fair try. This raises questions about the impact of a large, professional, full-time standing army. German theologian Karl Barth (no pacifist) argued that standing armies make it much easier for states to go to war than it should be. Having an army always ready strongly tempts nations to use it much quicker than they ought.
We might reasonably ask whether or not one can exercise love and charity and kill another human being. The Tradition says yes. Justice can never rise to the dignity of the word if it stands separate from love. “The Lord disciplines those He loves.” Using force against another could be an act of charity. You may be preventing them doing evil. Your “discipline” might move them to repentance. Of course, once a person dies they cannot repent. So the Tradition states that while we may at times use force, we must try not to kill our adversaries if we can avoid it. Again Bell urges us to abandon the checklist in favor of Christ-like character. Sometimes a just warrior may kill, but this killing must serve the gospel for the world and, crucially ourselves. We cannot sacrifice our own souls or our own humanity in war. One thinks, for example, of Joan of Arc, weeping over the English dead and praying over their wounded after a battle.
This might reduce the effectiveness of the military. But it would be grossly uncharitable for us to urge that the military de-humanize itself and stand outside the Tradition so that we may be safer. And–a dehumanized military would not serve us well in the long run anyway, and perhaps might even pose a threat to us.
Bell’s calls us all to own the call of “Just War.” The military draws its direction from society, so the public must practice just policies if we want our military to do the same. Again, the “just war” lifestyle is nothing less a Christian lifestyle, and we are all called to this.
In light of the witness of the Tradition, we have much to consider from not only our history (Sherman’s march through the South, carpet bombing in W.W. II, etc.) but also our current practice. We already have extensive moral failures in how we use drones. We waterboard but use the “checklist” mentality and avoid calling it torture. The Guardian reports that we get doctors to harm prisoners by a perverse use of semantics. The full articles is here, but the pertinent quote from it might be,
“Medical professionals were in effect told that their ethical mantra “first do no harm” did not apply, because they were not treating people who were ill.”
This does not mean that soldiers sin more than the rest of us. Rather, soldiers sin in the same spiteful and selfish ways as all of us. And this is part of the point Bell tries to make. Fighting involves the application of our Christian faith just as much as teaching Sunday school. Whatever, our problems as nation, whatever issues we have in the military, all of us own them.
Bell touches on other topics, but at its core, the Tradition calls us back to our primary allegiance to Christ, not victory, the “mission,” expediency, country or tribe. If our main concern is the salvation of our soul and the spread of His Kingdom, we will view war very differently than we do currently. We may need to reevaluate why, when, and how we fight. We may need to adopt the practice of stepping outside our national context and ask if our side even represents justice in the first place. This is what makes Bell’s book so necessary for us, and so difficult to accept. As the Catholic theologian Jacques Maritain wrote,
We have no illusions about the misery of human nature. But we have no illusions, either, about the pseudo-realists who cultivate and exalt evil in order to fight against evil, and who consider the gospel a decorative myth that we could not take seriously without throwing the machinery of the world out of order.