The End of Violence, Part II: Jesus and Just War

Jesus is pretty clear about violence, it seems. We are to “turn the other cheek” to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us” and to “love our neighbors.”

The “sheepdog” community (those tactically-trained civilians who see it as their duty to protect the unarmed masses from threats—we’ll talk more about this later) often likes to refer to Luke 22:36, where Jesus tells the disciples, “And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one…” as justification for the carrying of weapons and use of defensive force. This, I think, takes the comment out of context. Just two lines later (Luke 22:38), the disciples bring Jesus two swords and he says “that is enough.” Something non-literal, something symbolic is taking place here.

Some theologians point to the passage as Jesus ensuring that a prophecy is fulfilled, without any real intention that the disciples take up arms. Indeed, Jesus has up to this point defied the expectations of those awaiting the Messiah and avoided leading an armed rebellion against Roman overlords.

The authors of the New Bible Commentary: Revised Third Edition go even further, comparing the statement with previous times Jesus has sent the disciples out with nothing—especially not swords—and they had been provided for without fail. The statement “That is enough,” is Jesus ending a conversation the disciples have failed to understand rather than commenting on the number of swords he has been brought.

This jibes well with the events in the garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus rebukes Peter for cutting the ear off of one of the men who comes to arrest Jesus, healing the man and warning that “they who take the sword shall perish by the sword”—violence begets violence (Matthew 26:52).

The entire thrust of Jesus’ ministry makes clear that Jesus would have us love, and that his conception of love does not brook violence, right?

I think that we can definitely say that Jesus tells us (and experience bears this out) that violence is never a good solution to a problem. But does that mean that the Christian should never use violence as a last resort?

An example of the other side of the coin can be found in Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, where the main character’s civics teacher, a military veteran himself, retorts to a student who complains that “violence never solves anything” to “tell that to the Carthaginians!” (During the Punic Wars the Romans completely devastated the Carthaginians so that they could never again be a competing world power against the Republic.)

It is true; violence does solve problems. A person you’ve beaten into submission or killed is no longer someone you have to argue with (at least not directly). But that doesn’t mean that violence is ever a good solution. Still, the exchange in Starship Troopers does, I think, lay bare the purpose of violence—to end a conflict that cannot be ended through peace, agreement and reason. Let’s explore whether that end can ever be legitimate in light of Jesus’ example.

I’d like to talk about Just War Theory or Doctrine. Just War Theory (within Christianity) has two primary concerns: when it is just to go to war (or to use violence) and how war must be ethically conducted (how violence may permissibly be used). In essence, this is the same inquiry I’m making in these posts, but I’d like to point out some places where I disagree with the commonly propounded aspects of the doctrine.

Both Augustine and Aquinas believed that war could only be justified by a proper governmental institution. To them, this was a safeguard that the aim of a war complied with the greater good of the people. Unfortunately, I think there is a greater tendency for violence authorized by the state to be unjust than to be just. In many cases, the desire for the highest degree of national security and the desire to act ethically are diametrically opposed. To make the state the arbiter of when war is just or not implies that the actor contributes to the righteousness of the thing at least as much as intention.

I also disagree with doctrines of Just War that assert that the punishment of a guilty party is sufficient cause for war (see below) or that a preventative war might be permissible as just. One of the conclusions that I’ll ultimately arrive at is that violence must be used only to prevent an immediate threat. A peremptory strike may obviate the possibility of attempts at peaceful resolutions.

Regarding the conduct of war, experience shows that no war is just in its conduct. Even in the best of circumstances and the noblest of intents, there is death, suffering, exploitation, humiliation, fear and a whole host of other undesirable ripple effects. These are things that may be necessary, but should never be called just. Can war be conducted ethically? Yes, particularly on the individual level. In the greater scheme of things, I’m not so sure.

On the subject of justice, my reading of history seems to indicate that most wars simply set things up for the reasoning of the next war. Consider the American Revolution and the War of 1812, the first World War and the second, with the Treaty of Versailles placing Germany in such a position as to allow the rise of one like Hitler. Shouldn’t a just war result in lasting peace? I’m not sure that there’s ever been such a thing.

That said, I don’t want to say that wars are never necessary or that they never accomplish some good. Certainly, Hitler and the Third Reich needed to be stopped because greater suffering would have resulted from their victory than from fighting them, steep as the cost was. Even less do I want to say that soldiers are evil, or even necessarily wrong, in the professional practice of violence. I hope that this will become clear as these posts continue.

So, point and counterpoint—Jesus tells us to avoid violence, but World War II gives us a seeming example of when violence proved necessary. And here’s the crux of this whole issue: we Christians want (or at least ought to want) to love as fully and deeply as Jesus did and to avoid violence, but sometimes violence seems like the best of alternatives. How do we resolve that discrepancy?

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