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The Elusive Spirit of Just War: A Review Essay

 

Books reviewed:

Jean Bethke Elshtain, Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World. New York: Basic Books, 2003. 250 pages.

Edward Leroy Long Jr., Facing Terrorism: Responding As Christians. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004. 117 Pages.

Oliver O'Donovan, The Just War Revisited. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Books reviewed:

Jean Bethke Elshtain, Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World. New York: Basic Books, 2003. 250 pages.

Edward Leroy Long Jr., Facing Terrorism: Responding As Christians. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004. 117 Pages.

Oliver O’Donovan, The Just War Revisited. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
 

Since Jesus commanded his followers to love their enemies, Christians have agonized over war. The first Christians courageously refused to use violence, even to defend their own lives. But as their social influence grew, Christians were faced with the ambiguities of exercising power on behalf of others in a sinful world. In the waning days of the Roman Empire, Augustine explored the paradoxical possibility of Christians wielding the sword in love. Sometimes, he argued, when human beings are at one another’s throats, Christian rulers face a terrible choice. Either they refuse to help a child of God in mortal need or they shed the blood of the attacker, another child of God. In such a circumstance, Augustine claimed a Christian ruler ought reluctantly, repentantly, and with the greatest possible restraint to take up the sword.

Ever since, this has been the prevailing sensibility among Christians, motivating centuries of disciplined moral and theological reflection that have come to be called the just war tradition. It has never stood alone, however, because the spirit of Christian just war is inherently unstable, paradoxical, even contradictory–is it possible to kill lovingly? So there have always been Christians who embrace pacifism as the only faithful witness to God’s love. And there have often been those for whom the tragic necessity of violence against God’s creatures slips into self-righteous holy war against the enemies of God. This agonized debate has continued among each generation of Christians without theological resolution, because it is not finally an intellectual problem to be solved but a spiritual discipline that follows from Jesus’ command to love our enemies.

Today, we live in an increasingly interconnected world with a single dominant power at its center, the United States. With the advantages of globalism, liabilities also arise, among them international terrorism. As American citizens and as Christians, we must agonize over war in our own context. Today, the language and principles of the just war tradition are on the lips not only of pastors and theologians, but also politicians and soldiers. This is a sign of the moral seriousness of the current debates about the, so called, “war on terror.” Yet, a reading of the three volumes reviewed here reveals two things: first, the principles of jus ad bellum (just cause, legitimate authority, right intention, last resort, proportionality, and reasonable chance of success) and jus in bello (noncombatant immunity and use of proportionate means) are broad enough to justify a variety of policy proposals; and second, while the rules of the just war tradition are everywhere around us, its spirit is elusive. One of America’s leading thinkers, Jean Bethke Elshtain, contributes to the current debate through her book Just War Against Terror: The Burdens of American Power in a Violent World. It is a timely volume that puts her views concerning the appropriate American response to terrorism in print before they are irrelevant to practical foreign policy decisions. It embodies the active civic engagement that more intellectuals ought to embrace. Elshtain makes a number of important points in the book. First, as the only remaining superpower, America has a special responsibility to help sustain an orderly peace in the world so that human community may flourish. Second, in dangerous times, we must have the courage to make moral distinctions. Some people and ideas are worth defending, even with violence, others need to be opposed, sometimes with the sword. In this light, she defends the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq by means of just war criteria.

Elshtain’s effort is finally disappointing, however. It is more of a polemical attack on the foreign and domestic opponents of American foreign policy than an agonized moral deliberation about Christian faithfulness in a fallen world. Even more troubling, she falls prey to a dualism of good versus evil that is inimical to the spirit of the just war tradition and is all too prevalent in the current rhetoric of the “war on terror.” Her impassioned defense of the American people and American values is incautious, raising us above criticism, while her righteous anger at them threatens to dehumanize Islamic Fundamentalists and delegitimize their values– just what we accuse them of doing to us. While it is necessary to make moral distinctions, Elshtain’s are too black-and-white, straying into the territory of holy war against the enemies of God. The moral principles may derive from the just war tradition, but its spirit has eluded her.

Edward Leroy Long’s Facing Terrorism: Responding as Christians does not fall prey to this dualism. Without excusing or justifying the immorality of terrorism, he attempts to understand the cultural, political, economic, and religious conditions that underlie it. He does not refuse to make moral distinctions, but neither is he satisfied with Elshtain’s simple nostrum that they hate us because they despise freedom and equality. Long neither dehumanizes the enemy nor absolves us of all responsibility for the animosity that gave rise to the attacks. He fears that American power may easily shift into imperialism, that the strategy America is using to defend its values may serve to undermine them at home and abroad, and that a theological spirit of holy war is abroad in the land.

In response, Long identifies himself with the just peacemaking movement, which seeks to move beyond the divisions between just war and pacifism toward a common commitment to peace and the conditions of justice that promote it. He encourages us to think about strategies other than warfare for dealing with conflict, strategies that promote forgiveness and reconciliation. Overall, this is a fruitful discussion, which reminds us that violence is not always the only, the best, or even the most effective way to respond to aggression. This is consistent with the insights of the just war tradition. War is horrible, tragic, and regrettable, therefore, it always must be the option of last resort. Yet, Long does little to help us better understand when that moment of last resort has arrived. The peacemaking position he articulates strays from the spirit of just war in its excessive optimism that human goodwill can overcome violent aggression. The orbit of sin, brokenness, and death are not so easily evaded. The spirit of just war turns on the fulcrum of love and tragedy.

Long provides a third alternative for dealing with terrorism alongside holy war and just peacemaking–law enforcement– which describes Oliver O’Donovan’s approach in The Just War Revisited.

Refusing to believe that duality is our ultimate condition, and rejecting the right to self-defense, O’Donovan argues that Christian just war is a “praxis of peace” in a world divided by sin, a “provisional witness” to unity in God in the face of human antagonism. Neither an act of self-defense nor of vengeance, it is the reestablishment of a provisional order of justice when it has collapsed, for the sake of all parties. The problem, of course, is that in this act of justice a particular nation-state acts as police, plaintiff, judge and jury, provoking, one would think, overwhelming conflicts of interest. Following the lead of classic just war theorists like Francisco Suarez, O’Donovan, therefore, presses for a strong international order of justice that can mediate such disputes. In the meantime, he seems to believe that a dispassionate objectivity will be the best way to free ourselves from the will-topower that insinuates itself in so many international relations, particularly violent ones.

O’Donovan is closest of these three to embodying the spirit of just war, but it eludes him as well. The distant, almost clinical, spirit of his investigation belies the true nature of war and its consequences.

Toward the end of Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan, there is a scene that incarnates the spirit of Just War. Even though all he wants to do is go home, Captain Miller, played by Tom Hanks, keeps doing his terrible duty–endangering his men and himself, killing his enemies–in a world gone mad. On a brief respite in the midst of the horrifying events of the DDay invasion, he quietly and tearfully confides in his Sergeant, “Every man I kill, I feel farther from home.” All wars, even justified wars like World War II, are tragic. They take their toll not only on the lives of those who are killed but also on the souls of those who wage them. To kill another human being, even if it is necessary, calls into question our own humanity. And to dehumanize a child of God so that it is easier to kill him is to surrender our own identity as God’s children as well. Captain Miller captures the agony of those whose true homes are in heaven, but who live now in the midst of a fallen and violent world. It is this spirit that seems to elude so much of the writing on just war, including those reviewed above.

Yet there is much to learn from these thinkers. Their different perspectives serve to correct and critique one another, pressing us all toward that unstable, paradoxical, even contradictory position know as the Christian just war tradition. And so we chase the spirit this way and that until our agony is finally ended and God calls us all home.

TIMOTHY A. BEACH-VERHEY is Instructor in Religion and Director of the Program for the Theological Exploration of Vocation at Davidson College in Davidson, N.C.


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