War, Christianity & the Divine Order
by Louis R. Tarsitano
I hesitate to mention the “works” of Sylvester Stallone, but back in 1993, in the days when many historians were discussing “the end of history” and the “inevitable triumph” of democracy, he made a movie called Demolition Man. The movie was rather funny, in a crude sort of way, since it told the story of a future, pacifistic, academically designed society suddenly faced with a mad-dog killer. In order to save itself, this politically correct Utopia had to thaw out a brutish, violent policeman from cryogenic storage, on the strength of the theory that it takes a ruthless killer to stop a ruthless killer.
As of September 11, 2001, the end of history appears to have been indefinitely postponed. Jokes about political correctness have also lost their charm, as clergyman after clergyman (not to mention the new breed of clergypersons) has climbed into the pulpit to caution us that we must avoid violence, understand our enemies’ anger, turn the other cheek, and think pleasant thoughts about the redistribution of wealth until the war goes away.
This sort of thing did not happen in my own parish, by the way. First of all, I don’t agree with it. Second of all, my parishioners are sensible people, and I would have been lynched. I am ashamed to admit, however, that most of the clerical leaders of Western Christianity lined up to invite Western civilization to schedule its own wake and funeral. Their gormless inability to interact with reality has even revived the Demolition Man scenario, if in a slightly more sophisticated way.
A Pagan Ethos?
In January, Robert D. Kaplan, a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, published his answer to our cultural weakness, a book entitled Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos. I don’t disagree with Kaplan that the clergy or their academic and political equivalents have been childish and basically immoral in their failure to comprehend the necessity of force to preserve Western civilization in a hostile world. Nor can I disagree with him that human nature is corrupt and violent. As a Christian who believes in Original Sin, I could hardly believe anything else.
But there’s the rub. Because I am a Christian, I also cannot accept his analysis that it is biblical Judaism and biblical Christianity that have left the West morally flabby, or that a return to paganism is the cure. Edward Gibbon made much the same case for Christianity’s manhood-sapping effect in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the most beautifully written book with which I have ever had to disagree, but in the two centuries since Gibbon wrote, the Enlightenment jettison of biblical Christianity as a basis for our civilization has neither led to a revival of the Classical component of our culture nor produced a sturdier civic virtue.
On the contrary, romantic paganism and the Enlightenment are the problem—the sources of our intellectual and moral debility today. It is a fine thing to study Classical authors, whom every educated person ought to have read, but it is foolishness to forget that we possess them today only because Christian monks read them, appreciated them, and copied them. One needn’t be a pagan to learn from Livy, Caesar, or Tacitus about the conduct of war. Nor are the ten centuries between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the Renaissance silent about civic duty or the intelligent use of force. Half an education, whether encouraged by neo-pagans or by Christians ignorant of their own traditions, is not enough either to understand or to defend Western culture.
Meanwhile, the Enlightenment insistence on inevitable progress and on the mind of man as the measure of all things has undercut any sort of instruction by the past, pagan or Christian. Furthermore, the Enlightenment focus on the mind inclines toward a contempt, or at least a lack of concern, for the physical world and its duties. The human body itself becomes a mere instrument of amoral pleasure, to be protected from pain or societal obligations.
A Newfangled Peace
St. Anselm’s “I believe that I may understand” (d. 1109) becomes Descartes’s “I think, therefore I am” (d. 1650). Without a reference outside himself, deracinated “modern man” produces a newfangled definition of “peace”: “an absence of war, achieved by the rational efforts of mankind.” It follows from this definition that if nobody fights, or fights back when attacked, there will be no war, and mankind will have established “peace” on earth, and all without the need of the Prince of Peace. The homiletic capitulation of the clergy to “peace as the absence of war” may make them modern men, but it also leaves them no kind of Christians.
I recognize the harshness of this accusation, as well as the existence of a heroic tradition of Christian pacifism. But pacifism has always been a fringe movement in Christianity, and true pacifists, willing to die without defending themselves or their families, have been somewhat rare. (Few of today’s self-styled pacifists would pass this test—withhold their paychecks and see what they do next.)
Let us, therefore, be very clear. The Christian religion, as taught by the Scriptures, the church fathers, the medieval Schoolmen, and the Reformation divines, is not a species of pacifism. On the contrary, Christian morality is a system of obligations owed both to God and to man, imposed and abetted by the grace of God. One of these obligations, in particular, is the duty to make war, when warfare is necessary and unavoidable.
The Duty of War
A simple summary of this consistent Christian doctrine regarding war may be found in the Articles of Religion of the Church of England, adopted in their present form in 1571: “It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons and serve in the wars.” Behind this summary lies the whole history of what is called “the just war doctrine.”
Some, of course, will protest that the Bible teaches “Thou shalt not kill” and think that they have put an end to the matter. But the Scripture doesn’t say this at all, even though the Sixth Commandment (the Fifth, in the Roman reckoning) is mistranslated in most English versions of the Bible, including the Authorized Version. The original Hebrew says, as the traditional Book of Common Prayer renders it correctly, “Thou shalt do no murder.” The Hebrew word at issue is ratsach, and it means “murder”—to kill another human being for malice, personal gain, or perverse pleasure.
Someone else might counter that a different, higher standard applies in the New Testament, where “all is love.” The same God governs both Testaments, however, which form together a single, inspired expression of his will. It is the New Testament, moreover, that establishes the Christian doctrine of the just war. St. Paul writes to the Romans, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God” (Rom. 13:1). He goes on to add about the king/magistrate: “For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake” (Rom. 13:4–5).
St. Peter expresses the same doctrine of the divine appointment of earthly governments to do justice and to punish evil: “Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well” (1 Pet. 2:13–14).
From a Christian perspective, therefore, war is not the mere multiplication of private enmities and strifes, as so many seem to believe in our overly personalized and self-centered age. War is a positive duty of nations, administered by those who have received the divine calling to govern, for the purpose of correcting and punishing evil.
Such a great calling is obviously open to abuse, and it needs to be said that the apostles were not endorsing the so-called divine right of kings, but declaring the Christian obligation to respect the authority of rulers, including the power of the sword, whether those rulers are Christians or not. The king, however is God’s servant, and not his equal, and the subordination of kings to God and God’s law is the necessary context for understanding Christ’s pronouncement, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matt. 22:21). The ancient martyrs died, not because they would not obey Caesar’s laws, but because they would not worship him as a god.
A Christian conscience is certainly not a blank check rendered to the state. Over the centuries, great theologians, most notably Augustine of Hippo (354–430) and Thomas Aquinas (c.1225–1274), worked to define the requirements and limits of a just war. The key elements are these: (1) the declaration of war by the proper governing authorities; (2) a just cause, namely some clear and objective evil to be corrected or averted; and (3) a rightful intention on the part of those who fight, “so that they intend to advancement of good or the avoidance of evil.”1
Under these rules, a Christian nation or a Christian soldier is waging war only to wage peace. Augustine explains this apparent contradiction:
Just war is fought as much for the benefit of the opponent as for the benefit of one’s own nation, since to be ruled by evil men and to be engaged in doing evil at their command is the worst condition possible on earth. Thus, Augustine writes:
Peace with God
To reduce two thousand years of thought to a few lines, Christians have traditionally held that “peace” is a right relation to God the Father, in and through Jesus Christ, by the grace of the Holy Ghost. St. Augustine put the matter poetically in the opening prayer of his Confessions, where he wrote “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” Aquinas put it analytically, when he defined true peace as a freedom from outward distractions in the love and enjoyment of God, who is the sole and perfect object of our love.3
Peace, therefore, is not an achievable human goal, but a divine gift of grace, to be perfected at the Second Coming, when all the distractions of sin (and the human weakness that gives them power over us) will be done away (cf. Rom. 8). Under such a definition, moreover, “an absence of war” is not necessarily peace at all. A failure by nations to fight when the weak and the helpless are harmed is actually war against God, who is Justice, Mercy, and Love.
Most important of all, to seek peace in relation to God in this way is to aspire to something more than being ruled either by the state or by self-preservation. Peace with God is love, and peace in God is love towards our neighbors, even when they are also our enemies. We helped the people of Germany and Japan when we defeated them in World War II, and we are helping the people of the Middle East now by seeking to defeat their worst enemies, whether they recognize them as enemies or not. And it is for this reason that Aquinas places his entire discussion of just war under the heading of “Charity,” the divine sort of love that St. Paul describes as the greatest of all virtues (cf. 1 Cor. 13:13).
A Ministry for the Good of All
So where does that leave our soldiers today? A Christian soldier is a subordinate minister of God, deriving his authority to make war from the divine appointment of his superiors. In terms of his derived authority to act, he is little different from the Christian priest. The ministerial priest receives his authority to minister to the spiritual needs of God’s people from God the Father, through Jesus Christ, by the grace of the Holy Ghost, and at the hands of his superiors in the ministry. The Christian soldier receives his authority to bear arms in a just cause from God the Father, through Jesus Christ, by the grace of the Holy Ghost, and by the appointment of those earthly governors that God has made his ministers for the restraint of evil.
The spiritual ministry and the temporal ministry also have this in common: They exist for the sake of those they serve, and not as ends in themselves. The medieval system of Estates reflected this reality. The First Estate consisted of those ministers who protected the spiritual welfare of the nation. The Second Estate, second because the kingdom of God is eternal and the kingdoms of this world are temporary, included all those ministers (soldiers, constables, and so forth) who protected their nation’s physical welfare. The Third Estate was the nation itself, the commonwealth, whose people were to be protected as God’s own, and it possessed the highest dignity of all, since the members of the ministerial Estates had been called to sacrifice themselves to serve their people in the Name of God.
The principles of a just war, it must also be said, have value for any human being, and not just for Christians, since they are true whether anyone assents to them or not. These are not principles of piety or political science, but of reality. They can certainly be discovered in the Old Testament alone, and many of them, perhaps most of them, can also be derived from those common or cardinal virtues discovered by Plato and Aristotle in their contemplation of the same reality we all share by virtue of our being human: prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice.
The advantage to the Christian is simply this—a hope that goes beyond the nobility of self-sacrifice in a good cause and a clarity of purpose that comes from submitting to a God who leads from a Cross. A reversion to a pagan ethos to fight our wars will not make us better warriors, and it will make us poorer men. Sixteen centuries ago, when the doom of the Western Roman Empire was clear, Augustine had this to say about war:
The Order of Love & Obedience
And as for my clerical colleagues, I would urge them to speak as emissaries of Jesus Christ and as protectors of the divine order of love, rather than as representatives of their secular education or political parties. The next time they are tempted to use their pulpits to undercut our servicemen at war, burdened with our mutual obligations and engaged in the arduous, just, and sacred duties laid out for them in Scripture and in the Christian tradition, they might want to recall the muscular reality of historic Christianity, as Aquinas summarized it:
I hope that I have done some of my own clerical duty in chronicling these matters. War is a terrible business, and it is right to seek to avoid it. Indeed, the most peaceful men that I have known have been professional soldiers. Such men harbor no illusions about the “glory of war,” and I am grateful to them for curing me of any such fantasies.
A just war is not about glory, except the glory given to God by obedience to him in difficult things. It is not jingoism for a Christian to support the military in the conduct of a war that meets the requirements of justice, and it is certainly not to thirst for blood. Rather, a just war is a humble plea for the beatitude of being filled when the faithful have hungered and thirsted after God’s righteousness.
1. Summa Theologica (ST), P(2b)-Q(40)-A(1).
3. See ST, P(2a)-Q(70)-A(3).
4. ST, P(2b)-Q(40)-A(2)-RO(2).
5. ST, P(2b)-Q(40)-A(2)-RO(3).
Letters Welcome: One of the reasons Touchstone exists is to encourage conversation among Christians, so we welcome letters responding to articles or raising matters of interest to our readers. However, because the space is limited, please keep your letters under 400 words. All letters may be edited for space and clarity when necessary. firstname.lastname@example.org
An introductory subscription (six copies for one year) is only $29.95.