Eighty years ago, the University of Pennsylvania sociologist Ray H. Abrams published Preachers Present Arms, a critique of the American Christian clergy’s enthusiasm for U.S. military intervention in World War I. The book appeared at a time when religious opposition to war was on the rise, and the book helped push it almost to pacifist levels. But the opposition melted away with the news of Pearl Harbor.
In the sequel, American Christianity continued to blow as the spirit listed on matters of war and peace. Mainline Protestant leaders reacted negatively to the dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but adopted the Christian realist position of Reinhold Niebuhr and company once the Cold War settled in. Religious opposition to the Korean War was restricted to the peace churches.
In 1965, a faith-based movement against the war in Vietnam got off the ground with the founding of Clergy Concerned (later, Clergy and Laity Concerned), headlined by Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and (then) Lutheran pastor Richard John Neuhaus. But many Catholics and most evangelicals, strenuous anti-Communists that they were, remained well outside the antiwar fold.
And American Christianity remained a divided house until this year, when, in a remarkable show of unanimity, there was neither mainliner nor evangelical, neither Catholic nor Orthodox, but all were one (with the exception of the odd neoconservative) in opposing President Obama’s desire to send bombers to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for using chemical weapons against his own people.
Leading the way was Pope Francis, who after just a few months in the See of Peter had established himself as a kind of living saint. “War never again! Never again war!” he tweeted, and proceeded to lead a prayer vigil in St. Peter’s Square where he pronounced, “Never has the use of violence brought peace in its wake. War begets war, violence begets violence.” Dutifully, the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops sent letters to every member of Congress urging them not to support the president’s proposed strike.
The United Methodists likewise urged their members to contact their members of Congress to express their displeasure, citing their church’s Social Principles: “We believe war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ. We therefore reject war as an instrument of national foreign policy.” Similar thumbs down came from the Congregationalists and the Lutherans.
Less expectedly, the National Association of Evangelicals reported that nearly two-thirds of evangelical leaders did not support direct U.S. military intervention. Russell Moore, the new president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, judged that, according to the theory of just war, there were “principles missing here, both to justify action morally and to justify it prudentially.”
First developed out of the Roman philosophical tradition by Augustine of Hippo, and elaborated by Thomas Aquinas, just war theory remains the principal means by which Christians in the West evaluate the legitimacy of war. Reduced to formulaic terms (in paragraph 2309 of the 1983 Catholic Catechism), it holds that:
• the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
• all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
• there must be serious prospects of success;
• the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power as well as the precision of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
Whether President Obama’s proposed strike met those criteria was, like many proposed acts of war, open to debate. In the event, it was the credible threat of military action—something not contemplated in just war theory—that brought about at least a possible amelioration of the conflict in Syria.
The value of just war theory is that it provides a way for Christians to acknowledge what the millennarian side of their tradition cannot—that there is evidence to suggest that violence can indeed bring peace in its wake.
Would the Bosnians be better off today had NATO not intervened militarily in the 1990s to stop the genocidal behavior of the Serbs? Would Malians be better off had French troops not intervened in their country this year?
On the other hand, just war theory is designed to be able to give war makers a clean bill of moral health—and that not only runs up against Christianity’s pacifist soul, it also opens the door to a triumphalism that does no one any good.
But there is, in the Christian tradition, another approach —that of Eastern Orthodoxy. Basil the Great, the fourth century Church Father who presided over a diocese in Asia Minor, recognized that taking up arms might be necessary even as it remained morally problematic: “Our fathers did not consider killings committed in the course of wars to be classifiable as murders at all, on the score, it seems to me, of allowing a pardon to men fighting in defense of sobriety and piety,” he wrote. “Perhaps, though, it might be advisable to refuse them communion for three years, on the ground that their hands are not clean.”
The Columbia church historian (and Orthodox priest) John McGuckin sees in this passage a fine expression of “the tension in the basic Christian message that there is an unresolvable shortfall between the ideal and the real in an apocalyptically charged religion. What this Basilian canon does most effectively is to set a No Entry sign to any potential theory of Just War within Christian theology, and should set up a decided refusal of post-war church-sponsored self-congratulations for victory.”
Just warriors as well as anti-warriors, non-Christian and Christian alike, would do well to ponder this lesson.