Saturday, July 4, 2009

Christians & War: A Personal Statement

Happy 4th of July! This may be controversial with some but given the celebration of the patriotic Independence Day holiday and in keeping with the democratic tradition that dissent is patriotism in a genuinely "free" society, I have elected to moderately revise and re-publish my post from last month (and delete from June) regarding "Christians and War." I have also re-posted from June "Church & State: The Bible is not a Political Manifesto" of which this post on war is a necessary follow-up, the two should probably be read together.

"He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree."

- From The Magnificat of Mary the Mother of Christ

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God."

- Jesus of Nazareth

I should probably begin this by making it very clear, for reasons already argued at length, that I remain firmly committed to both the separation of Church and State, and to the principle that a Christians status as a member of the Church does not abrogate his/her biblical mandate (see Rom. 13; 1 Pet. 2) to submit to the authority of the civil state and the rule of law it provides. However, as has also been argued, the Apostle Peter's remarks recorded in Acts 5: 29 - that "we ought to obey God rather then men" - when taken in their proper context, remind us that there do arise conditions and circumstances that legitimate peaceable Christian civil disobedience to the State. It was suggested in this argument that where a clear "conflict of interest" exists between the requirements of one's faith, and the obligations of state-citizenship, that one's faith must then take priority. Acknowledging that the experience of others has perhaps been different, in my personal experience as a citizen of this American republic, no serious conflict of interest in this regard has ever arisen - except with regard to this question of war and participation in war.

The difficulty is that even in a liberal republic like the United States, the relationship between "citizenship" and participation in warfare, or support for such participation, is no small question. There are many who would argue that one cannot rightfully assume the rights and privileges of citizenship in a State or a Republic, without also being willing to participate in, or at least actively endorse, its military defense. Even some in my own family or among my closest friends, would strenuously defend this point of view (in fact my best friend, also an ew blog member, is a former U.S. Marine - there are no "ex-Marines" - enough said). Some historians of the early Church have noted that a major cause of the persecutions early Christians suffered at the hands of the Roman Empire were directly the result of the widespread refusal of Christian males - even those who were themselves citus romanus "citizen of Rome" at that time a privilege given only to a select class - to serve in Caesar's legions.

The classical, indeed practically canonical, position of the Church on this question has historically been the "just war" tradition attributed to the teaching of St. Augustine. For those who may be unfamiliar with Church history, Augustine was a fourth century Bishop and Church Father whose interpretation of Scripture and Church tradition has had a profound influence on Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, down to the present day. The Augustinian tradition does permit Christian participation in war or military service, but only under very rigidly and narrowly defined conditions. In order for a war to be regarded as "just" it must be strictly one fought in defense against invasion by an aggressive enemy - wars of conquest, "preventive" warfare, or wars fought to protect so-called national "interests" are therefore absolutely excluded from this category of a "just" war. Such a war may only be waged as a last resort when all other diplomatic options available have been exhausted, or when it seems quite clear that such options would be of no avail to forestall enemy aggression. A Christian warrior or knight who participates in such a conflict may engage only enemy combatants and must take as much care as possible to avoid civilian casualties. Moreover, rapine or pillage among the non-combatant population is absolutely proscribed.

There is of course also a pacifist or "non-resistance" tradition that has also been very influential, and has its roots primarily in the 16th century Anabaptist movement. This tradition takes several Gospel passages classically interpreted as relating to personal retribution very literally and expands their application to any and all use of force. On the opposite side of the question - with the rise of nationalism within the absolute monarchies of medieval and renaissance Europe there emerged a "Church-militant" tradition that distorted the older Augustinian just war tests and actually supported aggressive militarism on behalf of "God and King." A modern republican "made-in-America" variant of this latter tradition can be discerned among many adherents of the evangelical Religious Right, which attempts to establish nationalistic patriotism as virtually synonomous with Christian discipleship.

I am in agreement with many Christian thinkers who wholeheartedly reject this latter "Christian nation" perspective as heretically false to classical Christian teaching as it conflates the Church directly with the secular Nation-State. Christians are commanded to submit to and obey the civil government and its laws, we are however strictly prohibited from what amounts to deification of the State. It is for this reason some Christians refuse to say the pledge of allegiance to the flag, or are opposed, as am I, to the American flag being displayed on a Church alter or for that matter even within the nave or sanctuary of a church or chapel. Personally, I will stand for the cross when it is carried in processional, for it represents the Monarchy of Christ, but I will generally refuse to do so for the flag if it is also so carried. In my view, disciples of Christ should stand opposed to any importation of the idolatry of nationalism and the heresy of civil religion into the sacred precincts of the Church.

Quite a few contemporary Christian thinkers - most notably the late Thomas Merton (d.1968) - have reached the conclusion that the nature and character of modern warfare is such that the just war tradition, while perhaps valid in the past, is no longer viable for Christians, and pacifism the only remaining option. For myself, I do find this argument compelling and persuasive, but as yet remain morally unresolved concerning it. For instance, I am less than convinced that the Nazis could have been stopped with anything other than military force. Even the widely revered German minister and theologian Deitrich Bonhoeffer, a convinced pacifist, felt it necessary to play a participatory role in the "Valkyrie" assassination conspiracy against Adolph Hitler - and died in a concentration camp in consequence thereof.

What does seem clear is that, for the possible exception of World War II, even the most cursory review of the conflicts that the United States has engaged in over the course of the past century, indicate that not one of them has even remotely satisfied the just war standard. Certainly not the Vietnam conflict, nor the current mess in Iraq, could be said to be consistent with the Augustinian criteria. [See my post from June "The Ghost of Quagmires Past" which offers some comparison/contrast of these conflicts] In neither case was the American homeland under imminent threat of invasion, and in both cases so-called "collateral damage" to civilian non-combatants (including children) was normative and regarded as an acceptable risk by U.S. government policy-makers. Indeed, independent of the religious standards of the Christian faithful, it is worth noting that a case could be made that both conflicts were waged unlawfully in that our own Constitution requires a formal declaration of war by Congress before engaging in hostilities. The last time an American President actually asked Congress for such a declaration was in December, 1941 - after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor brought the United States into the Second World War. Every conflict since then has been waged largely by executive order and Congressional rubber stamping of war-spending resolutions in the absence of any formal declaration.

Notwithstanding my arguments elsewhere that Christian religious standards of belief and practice have no direct part in civil state policy, it does remain a question as to whether an individual Christian can in good conscience cooperate with the State in this area of participation of non-just wars. I would argue that here is a clear case where the Christian is in fact obligated to resist the State and engage in the peaceable civil disobedience sanctioned in Acts 5. Naturally, such resistance must be conducted in a manner that is respectful of the rule of law by accepting the legal consequences often inherent in acts against the civil authority. It must also be non-violent in character, thereby carrying moral authority and bearing a faithful witness against the unlawful violence of the State

Now I am compelled to add that in spite of the above statement of personal conviction in this area - I have for some years now largely parted company from the local and national anti-war movement in which I was once quite active. My reasons were in large part due to the fact that the secular "peace" movement does not in fact seem to function as authentically advancing the cause of peace. In my experience, contemporary "anti-war" organizations and movements have become far too co-opted by ideological agendas that are inimical to the standards of authentic Christian discipleship. Far too often for example, a march or rally presumably against war, becomes instead a march or rally covertly in favor of some foreign nationalistic agenda. Others of these protest events turn into anarchist diatribes against the State, or even advocacy of so-called "anti-imperialist" revolutionary militancy. This kind of peace movement I have no interest in or use for (nor does this sort of protest rally approach strike me as particularly effective - it didn't really work in the 60's when it was new and novel and the media covered it, it certainly doesn't work today), although I have watched some of my activist friends get taken in by it.

It would seem that Christian open witness against war is best practiced by personal civil disobedience, if and when such becomes necessary due to extraordinary circumstances. An example would be registration as a conscientious objector, or simple refusal of military service if called upon to serve - and as alluded to above, patient acceptance of the legal consequences that may come with this refusal. Naturally this would be most effective if the Church as a whole would line up behind such a one's refusal creating an unassailable "community of resistance" but the present state of things in the American Church would seem to make this a utopian expectation.

Another example would be far simpler, and yet more difficult: The daily practice and discipline of following Christ's injunction to actually "love your enemies... and pray for those who despitefully use you."