Just War as Care for the Neighbor

I’m going to reply to a couple of points Camassia made about just war theory (hereafter JWT) starting with what I thought were two particularly incisive questions of hers that I mentioned here.

Camassia writes:

When I read the people Lee quotes, or the article I linked last week, the arguments remind me of Martin Kelley’s “I’m a Quaker” phenomenon. This is a form of theologizing where the individual says, “I’m a Quaker and I believe X, therefore that’s a Quaker belief!” A lot of the just-war theorizers similarly seem to be thinking, “I’m a Christian, and my God-given moral reasoning leads me to believe this, so this must be Christian!” I mean, look at that First Things article again. Where’s Jesus? Where’s the Bible? The whole thing is built on one line from Paul, and it’s a line that, in isolation, could just as well have come from a pagan.

While I think this is true of some contemporary JWT thinkers, I think it’s important to remember that JWT arose out of Christians’ encounter with the realities of political life in the Roman Empire. People like Ambrose and Augustine were trying to formulate a distinctively Christian approach to the problem of warfare. Now, you can say that in doing so they hopelessly compromised the Christian witness, but that’s another matter.

What I think makes JWT distinctively Christian is that it treats violence as inherently suspect (last resort), it demands that if violence is going to be deployed it can only be in order to defend the innocent neighbor from aggression (just cause), and it insists that violence, when deployed, must be strictly limited (discrimination, proportionality).

All of these characteristics could be subsumed under the rubric of “care for the neighbor.” JWT shifts the emphasis from protecting me and mine (or us and ours) to the needs of the neighbor. That is, I think, its distinctively Christian note (as people like Paul Ramsey have contended). Having been justified by the grace of God, the Christian is freed from concern for his own well-being and self-recognition and can focus on the concrete needs of his neighbor.

Here’s Camassia again:

Jesus does a very interesting thing in that part of the Sermon on the Mount: he takes an ancient theodicy problem and turns it on its head. The good suffer and the wicked prosper, we say, so how can God be good? Jesus flips the question around: forget whether God’s conduct measures up to your standards — does yours measure up to his? If he’s good to the wicked, why aren’t you? […]

So while this doesn’t relate to pacifism per se, I think that most anti-pacifist arguments don’t really work for me because they don’t take that into account. They make it sound like the world is orderly and fair, and we imitate God by rewarding the good and punishing the bad. And yet, Jesus makes clear, we really don’t.

Some versions of JWT do have a punitive aspect (e.g. Aquinas’), but I would contend that it’s not essential. A better way to think about it is that a just war is fundamentally about protecting the innocent by restraining evil.

On this view, the purpose of war is not to dispense God’s judgment, but to maintain such order as there is in the world. This is what Luther referred to as God’s “left-handed” work (his “right-handed,” or proper, work being the redemption wrought through the Gospel) – maintaining the conditions necessary for human society to continue and flourish. Even most pacifists admit that there is a need for some kind of coercive authority for this purpose.

I think there is actually a large overlap between JWT and pacifism in that JWT raises the bar dramatically for when it is permissible to go to war. It’s doubtful that many wars in the modern era would pass the test of JWT, and it could be argued that JWT takes pacifism to be the norm, with JWT providing a way of identifying certain exceptional cases.

(I realize that there are some conservatives who’ve argued that JWT doesn’t have a “presumption against violence,” but that seems clearly wrong to me. What else can the “last resort” criterion possibly mean? If there’s no presumption against violence, why require that non-violent options be explored first?)

And this is not to say that I don’t think pacifism is a legitimate stance. What makes me uneasy is when people like Yoder and Hauerwas seem to set up pacifism as constitutive of the Gospel – threatening to introduce a new law in the guise of a praxis that purports to be an identifying mark of the church. This seems to make the inbreaking of the Kingdom dependent on something we do, which makes me nervous. (Though, let me say that I am less than fully confident in this judgment.)

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2 thoughts on “Just War as Care for the Neighbor

  1. Eric Lee says:

    A better way to think about it is that a just war is fundamentally about protecting the innocent by restraining evil.A couple of questions.

    Many Christians who follow the pacifist tradition have also said the same thing, just using non-violence. Yoder even recommends, or at least mentions the non-violent form of martial arts Aikido in his essay “What would you do if…?”

    Jesus tells us that we shouldn’t resist an evil person (Matthew 5:38-42ish). Is “restraining” an evil person and “resisting” an evil person really that much different?

    For the sake of discussion, let’s assume that my above paragraph is mutually exclusive against my first (so, we aren’t to even actively resist people violently or nonviolently), what do we think is the purpose of Jesus telling us not to resist an evil person? I’m not a very good reader of Scripture sometimes, so I’m genuinely curious as to what you think.

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