The Virtue of War
"Renunciation of violence can never be the calling of all"
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The theologian Stanley Hauerwas often refers to the poster he hung on his door at Duke Divinity School for many years. From the Mennonite Central Committee, the poster showed an anguished embrace in a war zone and read, “A Modest Proposal for Peace: Let the Christians of the World Agree That They Will Not Kill Each Other.” It’s hard to argue with the conviction that fellow followers of the Prince of Peace should practice reconciliation with one another and ought refrain from taking up arms against each other. The way of Jesus is not the way of Mars; the empty tomb testifies conclusively that the grain of the universe runs with those who bear crosses and not with those who build them. Nevertheless, it’s also equally difficult to construe Russia’s unprovoked invasion into Ukraine as anything other than a Christian war in that the aggressors and their victims are all largely baptized believers.
What then is the witness Christians owe their Lord when fellow Christians have determined to wreak havoc against them?
In critiquing the Cold War realism of Reinhold Niebuhr, Stanley Hauerwas notes that his objection to the just war tradition is not to the conditions of the Church’s just theory per se but that too often Christians in America have used them to justify any military action undertaken by America thereby revealing that the true loyalty of Christians in America is not to Christ but to America. If you find that to be a hyperbolic statement I dare you to move the flag from your church’s sanctuary. Try it this Sunday and see how church people react. No war fought by America, Hauerwas argues— and it is an arguable assertion— has been a just war under the parameters of the just war tradition.
Perhaps because it’s been too easy for Christians in America to critique America (on pacifist grounds) or unthinkingly to baptize every American call to arms (see: Evangelicals), it’s halting to witness in real time Christians waging a just war in the face of an altogether unrighteous invasion of their home. Just may be the wrong word for what we’re seeing play out in Ukraine, for what Christian just war theory and Christian nonviolence share in common is the presumption that war is always in every case and situation a moral evil, and I don’t know evil is a coherent way to characterize Ukrainian civilians boldly defending their homes and their democracy.
Only the most monstrous sort of Pharisee could look at the photographs of elderly women climbing out from the rubble of their Russian bombed homes, or the just-graduated-from-college teachers holding rifles against oncoming tanks, and judge that the resistance in Ukraine is somehow in league with rather than against evil or conclude that the God who once heard the cries of his people now demands they acquiesce as mobile crematoriums drive into their cities.
The year long war in Ukraine— again, a war waged by Christians against Christians— is disorienting for it reveals the extent to which war is a neutral instrument capable of being used towards moral or immoral ends. War may be— has been shown to be this past week by Ukrainian Christians— an act of caritas. As my former teacher, David Bentley Hart writes, commenting on the book, The Virtue of War:
“American Christian ethics treat the Christian pacifism of the sort one associates with, say, John Howard Yoder, and the “Christian realism” of Reinhold Niebuhr and his disciples as the only available options for Christian moralists.
And yet pacifism and realism are mere inversions of one another, inasmuch as they share more or less the same view of what warfare is. Both accept the premise that war is by its nature evil, while only peace is an unqualified good. The pacifist may believe that peace (understood simply as the absence of strife) is best achieved by refusing to participate in war, and the realist that peace (understood as a secure and just social order) is best achieved by answering violence with violence, but both then accept that the Christian never has any choice in times of war but to collaborate with evil: He must either allow the violence of an aggressor to prevail or employ inherently wicked methods to assure that it does not.
The bracingly unsentimental argument is that war in fact is not intrinsically evil, however tragic it may be…when it is waged on behalf of justice and by just means, it is a positive good, a work of virtue, and an act of charity.
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