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The Problem of War by Darrell Cole

The Problem of War

C. S. Lewis on Pacifism, War & the Christian Warrior

by Darrell Cole

Christians in the West, and in America particularly, are once again thinking a great deal about the moral problems of war. The terrorist attacks on America, the ensuing war in Afghanistan, and the likelihood of war in Iraq have driven Christians to consider what their tradition has to say about Christian involvement in state-sanctioned violence.

Traditional Christians have a rich heritage of Christian just-war reflection to draw upon to provide moral guidance. Lutherans and Calvinists, too, have a body of reflection by their founding fathers. The early Fathers (Augustine in particular), Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin—to mention the largest figures—all have many useful things to teach us about deciding on the morality of warfare. A worthy modern disciple of traditional Christian thought on war is the Anglican apologist C. S. Lewis.

Lewis is an excellent resource for contemporary Christians who are trying to decide about the morality of warfare. He was in a unique position to champion what the Christian tradition has always referred to as just-war doctrine. To begin with, Lewis was a medievalist at heart and in mind. Like the great medieval thinkers that preceded him, he was a shrewd synthesizer of the best thought of his intellectual forebears. In this respect, he was following his main two theological teachers: Thomas Aquinas and Richard Hooker. As a scholar who thought like Aquinas and Hooker, Lewis was immune to the liberal-humanism that has tarnished so much recent thinking about war in modern Christianity, both Protestant and Roman Catholic. Too, Lewis had been a soldier, so he knew what it was like to experience that essential nature of all battle, so aptly summarized by Homer as “men killed and killing.”

Thus, Lewis possessed the mind of someone at home with just-war doctrine, and he had the experience to know its applicability to modern warfare. Indeed, his battle experience consisted of enduring the rigors of the trenches in the First World War, arguably the most horrible kind of warfare the world has ever witnessed. If there ever was a type of warfare designed to turn the most hardened veteran into a pacifist, surely it was the kind of warfare seen at the Somme in 1916. Yet Lewis was never a pacifist, and, in fact, he argued vigorously against pacifism on a number of occasions.

The Failure of Pacifism

Lewis wrote a letter on the eve of the Second World War to the editor of the journal Theology,1 pointing out that Christianity has made two efforts to deal with the moral problems of war: pacifism and chivalry. Pacifism, he argued, is both a theological mistake (though an honest one) and a practical disaster. He was right on both counts. Human beings cannot be expected to survive in a political system meant for angels, nor is there any biblical warrant for them to attempt such a system. This was not the last time that Lewis would have an opportunity to express his thoughts on war.

Lewis gave a paper to a pacifist society in 1941, stating fully the reasons why he was not a pacifist.2 According to Lewis, pacifism fails to persuade on every level of moral judgment: facts, intuition, reasoning, and authority. For many modern Christians, there are two pertinent facts: War is evil, and war is necessary. Thus, such Christians are persuaded by the “facts” that they must do necessary evil. Lewis is too careful a thinker to fall into such a trap. For him, war is certainly disagreeable, but it is not necessarily evil.

Christian pacifists go further than most modern Christians, and argue that war does no good at all. As Lewis rightly points out, such a claim involves asserting that the historical changes that would have ensued had wars not been fought would have made the world no worse or even better than it is now, after all our wars. In other words, the world would be no worse off today—and might even be better—had Britain and her allies in World War II simply let Hitler do what he wished in Europe (and the rest of the world for that matter). Of course, this is patent nonsense, and Lewis is right to point it out when he sees it. History is full of both useful and useless wars.

Intuition provides a stronger case for pacifism. We seem to feel very strongly that love and helping are good, while hate and harming are bad. What this intuition fails to tell us, however, is how we are to love and help the innocent who are being treated unjustly by the wicked without using force on the wicked. So intuition in this case leads us astray because it does not see (not immediately at least) what reason sees: that you can love and use force at the same time. Lewis deals with this point explicitly in the chapter on forgiveness in Mere Christianity:

[F]or loving myself does not mean that I ought not to subject myself to punishment—even to death. If one had committed a murder, the right Christian thing to do would be to give yourself up to the police and be hanged. It is therefore perfectly right for a Christian judge to sentence a man to death or a Christian to kill an enemy.

When we use force in a just cause, we do to others as we would have others do to us. We admit that, if we do evil, then we hope there will be someone who is able to stop us from doing it—even if he has to use force to stop us. Thus, we are led by logic to admit that, if we see evil being done by others, we need to stop them if we are able, even if it means using force.

Authority, too, is against the pacifist. Every human society has said that some wars are good and that every citizen benefits from some wars (most obviously, wars of self-defense). The Christian tradition since the fourth century has declared that some wars are good.

Yes, opinion was divided in the first two centuries, but not nearly as much as popular opinion would have us believe. The first Christians were held in suspicion by the Roman authorities, and, to make matters worse, participation in the Roman army meant engaging in pagan rites such as emperor-worship. But we find little evidence of the earliest Christians rejecting military service on account of a moral aversion to bloodshed. Most of the early church fathers who speak on the subject of just war speak with approval.

In fact, the “pros” clearly have it over the “cons.” Clement of Alexandria, Origen (who was unique in limiting Christian support to prayer for the troops to succeed), Eusebius, Basil, Ambrose, Chrysostom, and Augustine all admit to the goodness and usefulness of just wars. Only Tertullian can be listed on the pacifist side. The great early Reformers, such as Tyndale, Luther, and Calvin, were all proponents of the just war. Only the radical reformers rejected the notion of a just war.3

Reason is clearly against the pacifist on all fronts, except, perhaps, one: the teaching of Jesus that one should “turn the other cheek” (Matt. 5:39). Lewis readily admits that it is hard to deal with people who base their entire theology on a few verses—this in itself seems to go against reason—but he does have a response. If we are going to take all of Jesus’ commands at face value, then pacifists should also sell all their goods and give them to the poor. They should also quit burying their loved ones (“leave the dead to bury the dead,” Matt. 8:22).

Fortunately, we have the Apostle Paul to help us here. When Jesus tells us to turn our cheeks when struck, he means that we should not retaliate out of vengeance. We leave vengeance to God, who works his vengeance on the evildoer through the State’s use of the sword. Christians are called upon to support the State, which has been ordained by God just for the purpose of using the sword to establish and maintain justice (Rom. 12–13). This better accords with the rest of the New Testament—not to mention the Old Testament, where God commands killing on quite a number of occasions! Pacifist logic leads us to say that Paul, Peter, and the writer of Hebrews (who, in the eleventh chapter, commends to Christians as people worthy of imitation those Old Testament warriors who waged war for justice) all misunderstood the teachings of Jesus.

Liberal Humanism

Lewis once remarked that he could understand the honest pacifist, though he considered him “entirely mistaken.” What he could not understand was “this sort of semipacifism you get nowadays which gives people the idea that though you have to fight, you ought to do it with a long face and as if you were ashamed of it.”4 The reason Lewis could understand (though disagree with) honest pacifism is that people who believe that all acts of force are displeasing to God—and live accordingly—are people who make a genuinely Christian mistake. Mennonites and Quakers may be mistaken in their beliefs, but their mistake is a Christian one, born of a theology that over-emphasizes a few passages from the Gospels at the expense of a common-sense reading of the rest of the Christian Bible. The reason Lewis could not understand semipacifism is that it is a thoroughly un-Christian belief, born of a liberal-humanism that has nothing to do with Christianity.

Let’s be clear about our terms. The word liberalism can mean a host of things both good and bad, but “liberal-humanism” is, as the distinguished historian Michael Howard puts it, “a belief that the world is other than it should be and that humans have the power (in reason and action) to change the world so that the inner potential of all human beings can be more fully realized.”5 The story of liberal-humanism, then, is the story of human beings who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps to make the world a better place for realizing the potential of all human beings. Warfare, that state of things in which human beings kill and injure each other at ever more alarming rates, is viewed as irrational and abnormal.

If the liberal-humanistic story is right, warfare will disappear in an ordered world. Nevertheless, and this is where the tension occurs, the liberal-humanistic story is full of wars—the most cruel and barbarous wars imaginable. Yet those wars, as seen as an experience of the liberal-humanistic story, are wars for liberal-humanistic causes, e.g., wars to end all wars, or to make the world safe for democracy, and so forth. War is hateful and senseless to the liberal mind, yet a cruel necessity, or, as the arch liberal-humanistic interpreter of war Paul Fussell once put it, “sadistic and humanitarian, horrible and welcome.”6

The Good of War

The Christian view of war defended by Lewis is at fundamental odds with the liberal-humanist view, which insists that war is positively inhuman. All wars are a misfortune because they always cause human suffering. But not all wars are inhuman. Christian just-war doctrine exists to distinguish just wars from inhuman (or unjust) wars. One of the unifying themes of Lewis’s scholarly output (and one of the many themes he shares with early and medieval Christian teachers both East and West) is his insistence that all our acts work to shape us into something more or less human. The more good acts we do, the more human we become. The more evil acts we do, the more inhuman we become. Wars fought without proper authority, without a just cause, or without a good intention are inhuman wars strictly speaking, for they are wars whose prosecution makes us something less than human. Just (and human) wars are wars whose failure to prosecute makes us less than human. Put differently, we fail to be all that we are intended by God to be as human beings when we refuse to fight just wars.

The battles fought in any war will issue in unfortunate acts, for it is essential to injure and kill the enemy if one side is to impose its will on another, and all acts that harm or injure are unfortunate. But unfortunate acts—acts that bring about misfortune—need not be inhuman or evil. We say, for example, that it is unfortunate that the police sometimes have to harm or kill evildoers in the line of duty, but we do not say that such acts, if necessary, are evil and inhuman. To the contrary, we praise the courage and ability of such police officers and hold that it would be positively inhuman and evil for the police to stand by while evildoers took advantage of innocent citizens.

Moreover, just as we put strictures on how the police may use force in a just cause, so do we put strictures on how soldiers may use force in a just war. We may not resort to violence when we know that the harm it would cause will outweigh the expected good. We may not intentionally attack innocent people. To attack the innocent directly is especially looked down upon in the Christian just-war doctrine, which justifies Christian participation in war largely on the grounds of protecting the innocent.

The simple fact of the matter is, according to Lewis, that those who refuse to support their nation in a just war have the easy way out, which should put us on our guard when we find ourselves moving toward the pacifist position. Fallen human beings are naturally prone to justify their unwillingness to suffer hardships. A pacifist’s career is not put on hold in wartime. He suffers none of the hardships of the soldiers who have given up their security and peaceful way of life for the good of others.

The Demands of Chivalry

None of this should imply that soldiering is such a noble occupation that one is ennobled simply by putting on the uniform and fighting. No, noble soldiering takes a great deal more than proper clothing, equipment, and opportunity for killing. Noble soldiering takes virtue, and this is what chivalry was and is all about.

Lewis’s essay on chivalry is an exemplary argument about Christian just war-making.7 Lewis saw what few of our contemporaries do: that just war requires just people to wage it. Chivalry is, properly speaking, the character that enables human beings to be “fierce to the nth degree and meek to the nth degree.” Thus, the medieval ideal brings together two things that do not grow together naturally in a human being: fierceness and meekness. To acquire such a character is no easy matter. As Lewis reminds us, the knight is a work of art, not nature. Those who are naturally fitted to war-like pursuits will have to acquire the virtues of humility and mercy to supplement their inherent fierceness. Those who are naturally meek will have to acquire the virtues of courage and valor to supplement their natural humility and mildness. Truly such a “double demand on human nature,” as Lewis calls it, requires the grace of God.

Nations who wish to fight just wars must produce just commanders and soldiers to fight them. If we cannot produce chivalrous persons, then we end up with people who are useful in battle but useless in peace, or who are useful in peace but useless in battle. Lewis identified the two camps that champion one side to the exclusion of the other: the liberal-humanist camp, which regards the combative side of the chivalrous character as evil; and the “neo-heroic” (Fascists and Communists) camp, which sees the meek side of the chivalrous character as weakness. Our society is dominated by the former, and they have done all they can to belittle the martial virtues that were once the pride of a particular class. In a classless society such as ours, we can no longer depend upon a certain segment of the population to naturally develop a chivalrous character. The days of the warrior class are over. If the chivalrous character is not espoused by the Church and acquired in the military, it will likely not be acquired at all, and if there are no chivalrous soldiers, then no war—however just its cause—can be fought justly.

Ritual Battle

The ideal of the medieval knight conjures up images of battle as tournament—a bloody, dangerous tournament to be sure, but a tournament nevertheless, with all its rules to be observed. This sort of ritual battle has been lost in the modern West, with its notion of winning at any cost and with all speed.

Liberal-humanists and their heirs hate war and all that it stands for (the failure of rational negotiation) but show little tendency to argue for restraint in war once it begins. This is, as we have seen, largely because war is viewed as an activity that is inherently evil and out of step with the moral progress of humanity. Battle in this view is an irrational, bestial activity that needs to be brought to a conclusion by the quickest means possible, even if it means doing things such as using weapons of mass destruction and targeting the innocent (as we did with the saturation bombing of Europe and the atomic bombing of Japan during World War II). The rationale is simple: We are already doing something evil (though necessary) by using force, so let us go ahead and use any force possible in order to win and to end the evil activity as quickly as possible.

Military historian John Keegan has made a persuasive argument that war, if it is to be a rational instrument for good, needs to regain its tournament or ritual aspect.8 In this respect, Keegan echoes the Christian just-war tradition, which insists that the rules of war be maintained, even when obeying them means making it harder to win. The Christian tradition has always followed the Apostle Paul and stood firm that we are never to do evil that good may come. Christians are followers of Christ, not followers of Jeremy Bentham, calculating the greatest good for the greatest number without regard for the means to our “good.”

“War-as-tournament” breeds two things noticeably absent from modern warfare as liberal-humanists would have us fight it: a certain joy in the soldier who does his work well, and a healthy respect for the humanity of enemy soldiers. Liberal-humanists agree that wars are a necessary evil, but, as the World Council of Churches (that ecclesial champion of all things liberal-humanistic) puts it, these wars are not really just and certainly not an opportunity for joy.9 In sharp contrast, we find Lewis remarking, in the chapter on forgiveness in Mere Christianity, that the Christian soldier should feel “a kind of gaity and wholeheartedness” in soldiering justly.

Death in Battle

Also, oddly enough, it is the liberal-humanist view of war that demonizes the enemy, who must, in its eyes, be irrational to cause so inhuman a thing as war. Lewis’s notion of the healthy respect for enemy soldiers that war-as-tournament breeds is illustrated quite well in this controversial passage:

I have often thought to myself how it would have been if, when I served in the First World War, I and some young German had killed each other simultaneously and found ourselves together a moment after death. I cannot imagine that either of us would have felt any resentment or even any embarrassment. I think we might have laughed over it. (Mere Christianity, 107)

Sentiments such as these are something that many modern minds seem unable to comprehend. To noted theologian Oliver O’Donovan, for example, these words “seem somehow heartless” because of a

lack of embarrassment, or of something rather stronger than embarrassment, at the fact of killing. We would expect at least a frisson of horror at the thought that one had killed a man. To have taken a human life, so sacred and serious a thing before God, should make even a spirit feel appalled, and that irrespective of his views on ethics and war.10

Yet Lewis, a man who faced soldiers who tried to kill him and who killed enemy soldiers himself, a man experienced in the tournament of “men killed and killing,” did not experience the frisson of horror that O’Donovan thought necessary. Why? Perhaps the most evident reason is that Lewis realized, along with Ambrose, Augustine, and Aquinas, that to take or lose one’s life in war is not the evil to be avoided—not the thing over which we ought to feel a “frisson of horror,” but the hate and resentment that often accompany taking and losing of life.

Unlike his illustrious predecessors, Lewis knew by experience and not merely by theological conviction that the greatest evil in war is not death, not killing, but killing unjustly. Lewis knew that wartime brings “misery, suffering, cruelty and unchastity, but it is also an opportunity for virtue.” Lewis continues this thought in an extraordinary passage in The Screwtape Letters (Letter V), where he has the diabolical tempter say that, for the purposes of getting a soul into hell, death in the battlefield is not to be preferred to death in a nursing home:

Consider too what undesirable deaths occur in wartime. Men are killed in places where they knew they might be killed and to which they go, if they are at all of the Enemy’s party, prepared. How much better for us if all humans died in costly nursing homes amid doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends who lie, as we have trained them, promising life to the dying, encouraging the belief that sickness excuses every indulgence, and even, if our workers know their job, withholding all suggestion of a priest lest it should betray to the sick man his true condition.

The Witness of Christian Soldiers

As we have seen, the knightly character is something that we must strive for if we ever hope to achieve it by God’s grace. The natural virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control guide Christians to decide when they can make their nation’s war their war. Nevertheless, Christians must realize that they cannot possess the same degree of wisdom on certain aspects of war that a nation’s leaders have (at least we hope our leaders have it). This is especially acute when it comes to determining the criteria for reasonable hope of success. In the previously mentioned letter to the journal Theology, Lewis argued correctly that ordinary citizens often lack sufficient training to decide whether a given war is winnable. Thus, Christians do not have the same duty or right as have their leaders to decide when a war is unjust. Instead of trying to decide if every criterion of the jus ad bellum is met (unless, of course, there is some gross and obvious violation), Christians would better serve themselves and the State (in the capacity of a witness to the nations) by making sure that they act justly in war.

A clear and effective Christian witness to the pagan state is not to be had by protesting involvement in a war whose justice may be in honest doubt, but by protesting with actions in war. This is so because Christians, like all human beings, may be divided over the issue of whether a given war is just or not. This is especially true since most mainline Protestant denominations and not a few American Catholic bishops have fallen under the spell of the liberal-humanistic view of war as something intrinsically evil. So, barring gross and obvious violations of just reasons to go to war, Christians will probably be unable to put up a united witness to the State. To see a group of people standing around holding signs painted with anti-war slogans is more liable to elicit a sigh of pity (that some people never grow up) than a real response from non-Christians.

But sticking to the goals of just-combat behavior is quite a different matter. Lewis’s point is this: If Christians want to be a witness to the State, to get the attention of the non-Christian populace, then why not do something that really matters, such as go to war but refuse, say, to murder prisoners or bomb civilians?

The American military is reportedly filled with Christians. What if those Christians actually paid attention to their tradition’s prohibitions on unjust fighting in war? Imagine the witness to be had if the churches taught their flocks the virtue of fighting justly and demanded strict penance from those who did not. Imagine the witness the churches would give if their members refused to participate in certain bombing missions in, say, Iraq, if innocent people were directly targeted. Imagine the scene of even one Christian soldier standing trial for refusing to bomb citizens or shoot prisoners. Now that would be an effective witness. More than that, it would serve as a real litmus test for Christians trying to decide if their nation is the type of nation that fights just wars.

If Christians live in a nation that feels it must prosecute just soldiers, then it may be time for all Christians to become sectarians like the Mennonites and begin to live as witnesses to a kind of society that does not rely upon swords that shed innocent blood. Christian soldiers, soldiers who risked their lives for love of their neighbors, who suffered hardships to keep evil from triumphing, and who then went on trial for being just soldiers, would speak volumes—many more volumes—than signs with fatuous messages held by people who have risked nothing for no one.  


1. Theology: A Monthly Review, vol. xxxvii, no. 227 (May 1939), 373–374.

2. Reprinted as “Why I Am Not a Pacifist,” in The Weight of Glory, edited by Walter Hooper (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1980), 33–53.

3. For more on this topic, see David G. Hunter, “A Decade of Research on Early Christians and Military Service,” Religious Studies Review 18.2 (April 1992), 87–94; and Louis J. Swift, The Early Fathers on War and Military Service (Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, 1983).

4. Mere Christianity (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 107.

5. Michael Howard, War and the Liberal Conscience (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1978), 11.

6. Paul Fussell, Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays (New York: Summit Books, 1988), 44.

7. Reprinted as “The Necessity of Chivalry” in Present Concerns, edited by Walter Hooper (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1986), 13–16.

8. John Keegan, A History of Warfare (New York: Random House, 1993), 386–392.

9. See their 1958 document, “Christians and the Prevention of War in the Atomic Age.”

10. Oliver O’Donovan, In Pursuit of a Christian View of War (Bramcotte Notts: Grove Books, 1977), 4.

Darrell Cole is Assistant Professor of Religion at Drew University. He is the author of When God Says War Is Right: The Christian’s Perspective on When and How to Fight (Waterbrook Press, 2002).

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.


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