Sunday, August 12, 2012

Pacifism and Just War: Finding Common Ground

I recently checked out The Ethics of War and Peace from a local library primarily interested in reading Theodore J. Koontz's article, "Christian Nonviolence: An Interpretation." Like most people, I typically enjoy reading authors who I already agree with. There's nothing quite so satisfying as spending an hour reading someone say what you'd like to say if you had the clout to find your thoughts in print. Unfortunately, I found very little in Koontz's thought that impressed and instead found myself drawn to the critical response of Michael G. Cartwright to Koontz in "Conflicting Interpretations of Christian Pacifism."

Cartwright offers a number of probing critiques of Koontz, as well as an interesting engagement with the ethical dualism often inherent to Christian anarchism (which I will treat later), but what struck me most of all was his re-drawing of the lines of conflict. Cartwright admits that there is substantial disagreement between the way Christian pacifists and just war theorists approach the problem of war and the ideal of peace, but suggests, compellingly, that by marking the primary distinction as one between Christians who live in "the house of love" and those that live in the "house of fear" (to borrow Koontz's terms for describing pacifists and just war theorists), Christians necessarily mute what could be a common, if narrow, witness about war to the rest of the world.

If the conversation is framed as one between just war thinking and Christian pacifism, it is likely to proceed with advocates for just war focusing attention on Christian pacifists--as if they were the problem--while neglecting the challenge posed by other kinds of thinking about war and peace, such as "holy war" thinking, political realism, and Rambo-style militarism.

Borrowing Koontz's imagery, Cartwright later suggests,

It may be true that "fearful questions never lead to love-filled answers," but there are many kind of "fearful questions," and not all such questions are necessarily prompted by the same kinds of fear. To refine the image of the two houses, then, we might agree that not all the rooms in the house of fear are equally well-furnished, morally speaking.

More important than making allowances for a moral continuum, however, Cartwright stresses that the commonalities between the pacifists and just war theorists have something to offer as a witness to the global community, a message both parties are interested in propagating. He offers two specific examples. First, both, in contrast with realpolitik, agree that the burden of proof for justification is for those who choose war. Both ideologies represent a voice in the world, when they aren't too busy with internecine squabbling, that insists on "why go to war" as the dominant question rather than "why not?" Additionally, both ideologies reject consequentialist reasoning as primary in making personal or political decisions. The ends, in other words, do not necessarily justify the means for either group, and this is particularly true where war is concerned. Cartwright hints at other areas of potential common witness throughout, but these suffice to point out some of the deep ideological commonalities between the two groups.

Unfortunately, the possibility of a shared witness is, as is so often the case, destroyed precisely because of this common ground. As has been seen in countless times and in countless circumstances--for example the denominational struggles between the Baptists and the Restorationists in the 19th century South--it is when groups are most alike that their differences seem most important. Pacifists, and I am no exception, spend an inordinate amount of time assaulting just war thought. Even more incomprehensibly, just war advocates spend a disgusting amount energy trying to undermine pacifism, as if the real problem were Christians who do not go to war rather than Christians who go for sinister reasons to commit unspeakable atrocities.

This is not to say that debate should not continue or that--as Cartwright, with his professional ecumenical bent would seem to suggest--both positions are legitimate expressions of a common set of truths in Christ. It merely admits that war is evil, both in an absolute moral sense and in a utilitarian sense, and that as Christians we have a common duty to "speak the truth to power" against these evils. Where the alliance between Christians modes of thinking is possible it should be embraced rather than rejected because it is incomplete. At the end of the day, a just war theorist and I can sit down and lament the dropping of the bomb and, with any luck, convince the world that the consequentialist logic Harry Truman used and defended throughout his life fails to live up to the highest impulses of our created nature and, more importantly, with the divine expectations God expressed for us in Christ.

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