From the Editor
The Anti-War Choir
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
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
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