The Evils of War

St. Justin the Martyr
St. Justin the Martyr

Christians have in their long history experienced all sides of war – being attacked as well as sending forth armies to defend and protect themselves.  The early Christian centuries saw Christians persecuted by the empire in which they resided: the Roman Empire brought to bear on the Christians all of the weight and might of its power to contain and eliminate them.   At least as far as I know, the early Christians did not call their fellow Christians to strike back at the Empire in armed resistance.  There were no calls to take revenge or to fight evil with evil, death with death, eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.

The persecuted Christians defended themselves through the writings and speeches of the apologists, such as St. Justin the Martyr.   Despite seeing their fellow Christians martyred by the Empire, I’m not aware of any early Christian calling for or organizing an armed defense.  Certainly they would  have been aware of the armed rebellion by the Maccabees from the Scriptures.  That was a Jewish example of how to respond to persecution – but the Christians didn’t follow that path.  Miraculously, without an army or call to armed resistance, they survived and continued to gain new adherents.  The witness of the martyrs and confessors continued to sew seeds in the hearts and minds of other Romans which yielded a harvest of faith in God among more and more of Rome’s denizens.

40 Martyred Soldiers of Sebaste

Only with the Emperor Constantine and the legends of his vision do we see an Empire being conquered by the cross with a use of force.

In later centuries, once the Empire itself embraced Christianity, the Christians found themselves with new moral dilemmas as to what it meant to be a Christian soldier and what it meant for Christians to go to war or to defend their empire.  The Christians did not lose or forget the morality of the Gospel commands, but they struggled with how to apply it to their new found position of power.  In the year 300, it was forbidden by the Empire for Christians to be in the army.  By 400, it was required that to be in the Roman army you had to be a Christian.

One early Christian writer who did write about the moral dilemma for Christians being in the army and going to war is St. Augustine (d. 430AD).  Apparently Augustine found that it was not war in itself which was wrong for Christians, but the motives and passions which guided the Christians which could be sinful.

“For Augustine, soldiers in battle must be motivated by charity, love of neighbor, and even love of enemies. They must not delight in the blood sport of war or be motivated by revenge.

‘The real evils in war are love of violence, revengeful cruelty, fierce and implacable enmity, wild resistance and the lust of power.’”

The moral problem as St. Augustine describes it is what war does to us internally.   We can be changed by war so that we take some pleasure in the the violence we do against our enemies.  We rejoice in their suffering and believe our wrath is godly.  We come to find joy in destroying those that we have come to  hate.   It appears that for Augustine, the issue is losing the sense that we are defending the innocent and those who can’t protect themselves and coming to enjoy inflicting pain and suffering on those enemies we hate.  It is dehumanizing ourselves and our enemies which itself is morally wrong.  This is one of the evils of war – changing the very reason one goes to war and what one does in war into an evil.  When war raises our own sinful passions and those passions take control of our behavior, then war causes evil to exist in us.

At first blush, Augustine seems hypocritical. He decries violence in the name of self-defense but allows killing in battle and says it is not murder. For Augustine, intention and authority are key. When an individual sheds blood with vengeance (motive) or without permission (authority), that person commits a sin; but as a tool or delegate of the state, the soldier can kill without sinning, so long as the soldier does so dispassionately (without taking delight) and in service to the common good.”

(Mark J. Allman, Who Would Jesus Kill?, p 169)

This is a very treacherous moral path.   We can lose justification for our fighting in war if we allow sinful passions to take control of our reasoning.  But it also is possible that leadership may have the authority to declare war and do it for wrong or evil intentions.  The individual does not surrender responsibility for what he or she does to authority, but can without malice obey authority to serve others who cannot defend themselves.   None of this glorifies killing, or makes war a good.  The world is not perfect; it is fallen.  It is in this world that we have to function and make choices – difficult and hard choices.  We can make wrong choices, or right choices for wrong reasons, as well as wrong choices for right reasons.  Whenever their is choice to be made, we answer ultimately to God’s judgment.

The question remains: What level of force is allowed to stop others from committing evil?   When is lethal force morally correct?

The defense of war is that it is using lethal force to stop others from committing evil or from  inflicting evil upon people.  The moral dilemma remains for us: as people who are ourselves sinful and living in a fallen world, our motivations for doing things can be wrong.  Our sinful passions can control our behaviors which can lead us to act for wrong reasons and to accomplish sinful ends.  We can take men and women and remove from them moral reasoning and empower their sinful passions to commit acts of violence without having any remorse. The military has become quite successful at training its soldiers to accomplish their mission.   That might be the key to military victory.  But therein also lies part of the danger and evil of war.  It is not only what we do to our enemies – it is what we do to ourselves that is the problem.   In war we can encourage sinful passions to take control of ourselves.  We can turn off our moral reasoning in order to accept or justify whatever behavior we engage in.  We can dehumanize ourselves, not just our enemies,  in order to win a war. But, as the Lord Jesus asks . . .

“what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?  Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”  (Mark 8:36-37)

We can train soldiers to win wars, but we bear responsibility if they lose their souls in the process.   Physical death may not be the worst end for the soldier. Those who die in battle are hailed as heroes.  Those, however, who live and are emotionally and spiritually wounded, are sometimes pitied, sometimes forgotten, sometimes incarcerated, sometimes left homeless.

Certainly this tells  us we have as a nation not only a responsibility to defend ourselves from evil, but we also have an obligation to tend to the men and women we send to war – to help them deal with their passions, moral dilemmas and regrets not only while in the military but when they return to civilian life.  It is wrong to send young men and women to war, to make them killing machines and then to fail to help them return to society.  The cost of war is not just supporting our military in the actual combat.  It also means funding the care for the souls, hearts and minds of those who return from war with their moral, spiritual or emotional lives broken or in turmoil.    The nation has a responsibility to rehumanize all who might have suffered because they went to war.

The cost of war and the evil of war can be the damage it does to us, to cause us to be less than human.  The war may end, but sometimes it does not for those wounded by it.

Christ raising Lazarus

Was Constantine’s Vision Dreamt Up?

I’ve been slowly reading through Mark Allman’s new book WHO WOULD JESUS KILL?: WAR, PEACE AND THE CHRISTIAN TRADITION.    Two comments by St. Augustine which in my opinion are thought provoking:

 “For every man is in quest of peace, even in waging war, whereas no one is in quest of war when making peace.” 

War is thus never a goal, but serves only as a means to an end, whereas peace is a goal, a desired end.  It makes me think of the Patristic idea that evil has no substance, it is only a negation of the good, whereas good exists, founded in God.  Good is substantive, but also is of God’s will and energy as well.  Evil is none of these, literally!

Commenting on Matt 26:51-52, Augustine wrote:  “The Lord, indeed, had told His disciples to carry a sword; but He did not tell them to use it.”

It is a very interesting observation.   Jesus does not command the use of the sword.  St. Paul believes the sword in the hands of rulers/authority to be approved by God for its use, though he nowhere comments about a Christian being the authority to use it.    In the Koran there is command to use the sword but there is no approval for pacifism as Allah says when it comes to war humans may not want to fight, but that God knows better as He knows what humans do not know and so humans must obey Him when the call to arms comes. 

Allman’s book has brought a question to my mind:

emperorPrior to Constantine both the Roman Empire and the Christian Church forbade Christians to serve in the military.   The story of Constantine seeing a vision (“by this sign you shall conquer”) before going to battle, seems to have become a justification for Christians embracing the military – it shows God using the Roman Emperor and His military to achieve God’s will, so the use of military would be God ordained.  But if I remember my history correctly, the story of Constantine’s vision is only first reported many years after Constantine had come to power but not at the time it supposedly happened.  I thought I even remember it being attributed to Eusebius, the very pro-Constantine Church historian for whom Constantine is a hero.   I wonder if anyone has researched whether Eusebius promoted or even concocted the story to justify Christians being in the military?   After all Constantine could hardly embrace a religion that forbade military service especially since he used the military to defeat the other co-reigning emperors to become the sole emperor of the Roman empire.  And once in power, he wouldn’t be able to defend his position or the empire itself if Christianity maintained its pacifist stance.   So is it possible that Constantine’s “vision” was “dreamt” up (as it were) to justify the melding of militarism and Christianity? 

It apparently is St. Ambrose in the post-Constantine era who first writes about the Roman Empire as the instrument of God’s peace.    According to Allman Ambrose simply  “imported the Greek philosopher’s concern for social justice into the Christian understanding of war.”  Ambrose, himself a former Roman governor, assumed that political leaders receive their legitimate authority from God and thus if the emperor orders Christians to war, the Christians are to assume this is God’s will.

Augustine, following his teacher, Ambrose, accepted from the Greek philosophers a notion that order in the world is good and that government has the job of imposing order on the sinful world which otherwise tends toward evil.  Thus, according to Allman, Augustine opined that  “governmental authority and power are instruments God uses to frustrate the power of sin.” 

Christians believing in the omnipotent God accepted the notion that Constantine’s conversion was ordained by God (it did after all signal the end of Christian persecution by the Empire) and thus anything Constantine ordered must be God-ordained as well.    I wonder if there is any research already done on this.

Soldiers of Conscience

I wanted to do something different tonight, and so plopped myself down in front of the TV and began flipping channels.  I have been feeling tired of many things and in need of time off – something I know the importance of – the Sabbath rest which God had built into His week, but which I ignore.  I rarely watch TV as it usually causes me to fall asleep.  But tonight I wanted to do something mindless, to kill time.

I flipped through the channels and came to the PBS station which was airing the POV show Soldiers of Conscience.  I was immediately drawn into the show.  I was watching soldiers talk about their own conscience – some who remained faithful to their sworn oath of duty to the military and defending our country and some who became conscientious objectors to war while serving in the Iraq war.

I have since high school found the military to be terrifying.  I have not thought myself able to kill.  During the Vietnam War I was sickened by the thought of going to war and found strength in the anti-war movement.  My draft number was 13 at a time when deferrals had become a thing of the past.  But then stunningly Nixon stopped the draft and I didn’t have to report to the Cleveland induction center.  I never had to face what I was going to do if put into the military.

Watching SOLDIERS OF CONSCIENCE brought back all those memories, and why I find war so horrifying.  I realized from watching the show that I would not be good soldier material.  I don’t know that I could ever have become the reflex shooter that the military now trains people to be.  The one West Point professor explains how studies in WWII showed how few soldiers were willing to pull the trigger in combat and kill the enemy.  The modern army has virtually perfected their training to make sure that the soldiers don’t think, that they just act on reflex and training.  The military today wants to make sure that the soldier’s conscience is only awakened after the battle, but then the military instructor admitted they never train the soldiers for what to do when the conscience awakens – after you have killed the enemy, or a civilian.   Shoot first, reflect on it later. 

The West Point instructor has specialized in studying the morality of war.  He asked the most difficult question about the Christ’s Parable of the Good Samaritan.    What if you are walking by the victim, not after he has been beaten to a pulp, but while he is being beaten?   Is it “Christian” to wait until the robbery and beating is over and then come to his aid?   Do you have a moral obligation as a Christian to try to intervene and risk your life and stop the beating?  What if lethal force is the only way to stop the beating and robbery?  What is your moral duty?

His take was that the military is not the Good Samaritan who arrives on the scene after the felonious assault takes place, but the military is simply those who walk the path while the assault occurs or while it it being threatened.  The military takes the moral viewpoint that it is better to stop the beating than to be a Good Samaritan.

Then there was the soldier who in his court martial was found guilty and sent to prison for refusing to serve another tour of duty in Iraq because he could no longer bring himself to kill anyone.  He commented that humanity had figured out that human sacrifice was unacceptable and had outlawed the practice.  And humans had figured out that slavery was inhumane and banned the practice.  Maybe the time has come for humans to figure out that war is no more moral than human sacrifice and slavery.

I do not know that this documentary can change anyone’s mind about the morality of war, or of the goodness of the war in Iraq, but I did find it most engaging and challenging.  Not at all the mindless TV that I had begun flipping the channels to find.  Think TV would not give me the peace I wanted for the evening.

Killing time turned into facing up to killing people.  And my pacifist nature was challenged by the realities of the world.  “There is no peace for the wicked,” says the Lord (Isaiah 48:22, 57:21).

If you want to think hard about the morality of war, and the effects of war on some men who served in Iraq, I would recommend watching POV’s  SOLDIERS OF CONSCIENCE.  For each, whether continuing to obey orders and fight, or choosing to lay down their arms and not kill again, was using the conscience God has given us as human beings.

Passivity is not Pacifism

Perhaps peace is not, after all, something you work for, or “fight for.”  It is indeed “fighting for peace” that starts all the wars. What, after all, are the pretexts of all these Cold War crises, but “fighting for peace”?  Peace is something you have or you do not have. If you yourself are at peace, then there is at least *some* peace in the world. Then you share your peace with everyone, and everyone will be at peace. Of course I realize that arguments like this can be used as a pretext for passivity, for indifferent acceptance of every iniquity. Quietism leads to war as surely as anything does. But I am not speaking of quietism, because quietism is not peace, nor is it the way to peace.

– Thomas Merton,   Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander  

Indeed somehow each time a war is begun some believe it is the path to peace or the war to end all wars.  St. Paul wrote: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21).

And yet with Merton, I am troubled by the fact that evil is a real force in the world that must be reckoned with.  It cannot be ignored.  Those intent on war will not be stopped by the threat of war, nor by the activities of pacifists.  Pacifism is not passivity.  One has to choose to wage peace, peace will not happen by doing nothing, unless one thinks death and burial gives peace to the pacifist.  The violent, the terrorist, the tyrant are not moved by pacifism.  Jesus’ descent into Hades was not the act of a pacifist, but of a conqueror.  Liberation and salvation are active concepts demanding energy be expended.   Death, the final enemy, is overthrown, trampled down, and destroyed  by Christ not ignored, lulled to sleep or pacified .  We are neither to compromise with evil and death nor form an alliance with it.  We are not instructed by Christ to live at peace with evil or death but to overcome them.    This is why pacifism cannot mean passivity.

Fighting for War

I generally consider myself a pacifist, but I often find pacificism to be an unrealistic idealism when faced with violent evil.   So I find recent comments that World War II might have been unnecessary to be intriguing, and yet these revisionist writings to be totally unconvincing.  And just because a war is necessary doesn’t mean it is good to have to wage it.

Christopher Hutchins’   “A War Worth Fighting”  in Newsweek (23 June 2008) takes on Pat Buchanan’s revisionist history of World War II, CHURCHILL, HITLER AND THE UNNCESSARY WAR.  Buchanan  argues that WWII was an unnecessary war especially if the Europeans would have gotten all the issues from WWI worked out properly.  Hutchins critically debunks many of Buchanan’s assumptions and defends the war to defeat “the homicidal, paranoid maniac” Hitler and his Fascist party which took tens of millions of people to their deaths.

Hutchins admits there were plenty of mistakes made by various ally leaders that contributed to the rise of the Nazis and which helped make the war necessary.  But the reality of the world is that war was necessary to stop the racist Nazi agenda for world domination.   At best Buchanan can only point out how the various decisions contributed to the outcome but his re-reading history 60-70 years later does nothing to change what actually happened.  In fact the decisions Buchanan criticizes were the ones that were actually made, and the world always has to deal with what is not what could have, would have, and should have been.  Buchanan’s efforts would seem more prescient if he could tell us what policies the US has recently engage in are actually the foundation for our next war, and how we can avoid that war by changing ourselves right now. 

If Eve and Adam hadn’t eaten the forbidden fruit – if humans never sinned –  the world would have been different too, but we have to deal with what is, not what might have been.  Humans sin, make mistakes, have blind spots and suffer lapses in logic and sound judgment which become part of the matrix that makes up where we are today; and yes if everyone made perfect decisions, and perfectly sound decisions, and perfectly godly decisions, we wouldn’t face the host of forces that threaten world peace.

Hutchins makes Buchanan’s book to sound like:  “if things had been different, WWII wouldn’t have happened.”   WWII was not inevitable or pre-ordained.  It happened because of all the decisions which preceded it.  And though we can spend endless time speculating which different actions taken before the war might have prevented the war – though history can be rewritten by revisionists – it does not change the actual course of events.   And we are brought no closer to world peace by speculating on what unnecessarily happened that made war a necessity.   All the wars we fight are not about logic and better judgment.  There are non-rational forces at work in the world, which push for human destruction.  Evil is real and human rationality alone has not proven itself capable of overcoming the destructiveness of evil – even that which is born of malevolent human will, let alone the evil which opposes God.