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Contra Mundum: Pacifism and Just Wars

July 5th, 2011 by Matt

Comedian Bill Maher recently berated Christians for being hypocrites for supporting military action against terrorists in his “New Rules” segment on the U.S. TV show Real Time (transcript here). Jesus, Maher contended, was a pacifist; “Jesus lays on that hippie stuff pretty thick. He has lines like, “do not repay evil with evil,” and “do not take revenge on someone who wrongs you.” Here Maher was citing from Romans 12, where Paul formulated Christ’s teaching about loving one’s enemies. In this passage Paul commanded people to “bless those who persecute them,” they are forbidden to “repay evil for evil” and are commanded to “not take revenge” but to “leave room for God’s wrath. For it is written, ‘Vengeance belongs to me. I will pay them back’.”

Maher scathingly contended that this support contradicted Christ’s clear teaching; he said, “nonviolence was kind of Jesus’ trademark. Kind of his big thing. To not follow that part of it is like joining Greenpeace and hating whales.”

After saying this Maher quipped, “the next line isn’t ‘and if that doesn’t work, send a titanium fanged dog to rip his nuts off.’” The irony is that it Maher clearly had not bothered to actually read the next line; Romans 13 states that the “governing authorities” are “established by God”; one is morally bound to submit to rulers because “rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to execute vengeance upon evil doers”.

The Greek words for evil, wrath, and vengeance are the same in both Romans 12 and 13. Paul is stating that the very things Christians are forbidden to do with regard to not repaying evil for evil, are precisely what the State has been given the legitimate authority and right to do.

Paul here elaborates the basic premise that moral theologians appeal to to reject pacifism and to support the claim that war can be just under certain circumstances. The premise is that a government has the right and duty to use force to uphold within the geographical area over which it has jurisdiction. A just war is simply an extension of a government’s power to pass laws and create police powers.

If a criminal attempts to rape or kill people within the geographical realm over which a government has authority then the government can justifiably use force to prevent this. And it can also use force to try and punish anyone who does these things; hence, the existence of a legislature, police force, courts and prisons. Just War theorists simply note that there seems no reason why this would not extend to when the person committing the offence is a soldier from another country as opposed to a domestic criminal.

These theorists argue that for a war to be just it must meet 6 requirements;

  1. It must be fought for a just cause and aim;
  2. It must be prosecuted by someone with the lawful authority to do so;
  3. It must be a last resort;
  4. There must be a reasonable chance of success in prosecuting the aims;
  5. The cost incurred by going to war must not be greater than the evil being opposed;
  6. The force used in prosecuting the war must be both proportionate and discriminate (force must be aimed at combatants and not non-combatants)

These criteria are based on reflection on the circumstances in which governments are permitted to us force to uphold justice in general. The first two criteria read together, it must be fought for a just cause by someone with the lawful authority to do so, reflects the notion that private citizens do not have a right to pass laws binding on all New Zealand citizens and back these up with force – only the government can do this. It is only morally permissible for the government to do this when it does so to uphold justice — to protect people living within its boarders from injustice and to punish those guilty of crimes. Governments do not have the right to take people’s life, liberty or property at whim.

The idea of war being a “last resort” in criteria 3) is simply an extension of principles of normal governance. The police generally do not use force unless arrest is resisted.If they are dealing with a hostage situation, they try to negotiate with the hostage taker first. However, in the world we live in, hostage takers sometimes start shooting, people refuse to come quietly and threaten the police or the safety of the local population; force then becomes regrettably necessary and justified.

We see the criteria in 4) in normal governance contexts; the government should not authorise force, even to prosecute a just cause, unless it believes there is a reasonable chance of success in doing so. It is unjust to ask someone to sacrifice their property, resources, freedom or themselves in vain for an end that cannot actually be achieved.

The same is true with criteria 5); the cost incurred by going to war must not be greater than the evil being opposed. There are plenty of unjust actions that governments do not criminalise or aggressively prosecute precisely because the evils of doing so are greater than simply tolerating the offence. It is unjust to be lied to. It is unjust for people to give insults. It does not follow that the government should invest time and resources trying to prevent this through legislation and enforcement. Police often refuse to prosecute offences they consider trivial or not worth police time and resources; they limit their focus to what is serious. We do not expect the police to do anything about liars but we do for serial killers and rapists because the evil being done by the latter outweighs these concerns. War is not in a special category here.

Finally we reach 6), the idea that any violence used must be proportionate and discriminate. If a state uses violence justly then the force used will be proportionate to the injustice being rectified. A just government imposes more severe coercive penalties on a premeditated killer than they do against a teenager who smashes windows. While someone smashing my windows is engaging in unjust aggression against my property, the force used to stop this should be more measured than that employed against a hostage situation where the criminal has started killing hostages.

In the same way the state has the right to use force against criminals and not innocent people, Paul’s contention was that the government “are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer”. When functioning as God’s servant, “rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong”. Governments can justly use force against people engaging in aggression against citizens but not against third parties who are not complicit in this aggression.

Of course, no war ever meets these criteria perfectly but neither does any court system, legislature or police force. Even in a relatively just society courts make mistakes and innocent people go to jail; sometimes armed police mistakenly shoot the wrong person. Even in a relatively just society there are corrupt police and judges. However, none of this inclines us to reject the idea that a government has the right and duty to use force to uphold justice within the geographical area over which it has jurisdiction. We accept that people are fallible. We expect that governments should take reasonable precautions to avoid such errors and that rules governing investigation, evidence, corruption and so on will be put in place and honest attempts will be made to enforce them. We know that, despite this, the system will still fail on occasion and innocent people will be harmed and we accept this as collateral damage. We don’t demand an end to courts, police or legislation; we should take the same approach to war.

What then of Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemies” and on “turning the other cheek”? What about what Paul said? “Bless those who persecute you”, “do not repay evil for evil”, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone”, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” and “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” Are we to reject these?

Let’s look closer. Paul juxtaposed these passages side by side with passages that state the “rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to execute vengeance upon evil doers”. He used the same phrases in each, which suggests he meant to make a distinction between the duty of the private citizen and the duty of the State.

Outside the discussion of war this distinction is common place. It would be wrong and criminal for a private citizen to take another person’s property by force — even if they believed the money was going to a worthy cause. However, Governments do this all the time when they impose taxes. It would be wrong for me to lay down laws for my neighbour to obey and then deprive her of her liberty if she fails to comply; this would constitute blackmail and kidnapping. Yet governments lay down laws for others and incarcerate criminals who do not comply with them. Governments hold a monopoly on certain uses of force, and hence, have rights to use force that private citizens do not. The fact that citizens have duties to refrain from certain forms of violence, force and retribution does not mean that the government has the same duty.

When Paul summarised Christ’s teachings and told his followers to not get revenge he provided a reason. He stated, “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay.” We are not to use force and violence to seek justice be