MandM header image 2

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 because we do not have the authority to, only God does. However, in the next verse, Paul tells us that God has delegated this authority to governments. Hence, the instruction he gives to Christians in virtue of their status as individuals for refraining from such actions does not apply to the State. Christians who accept that the State can, on occasion, use force, violence and even kill to uphold justice are not, as Maher contends, “just ignoring” and “lawyering the Bible”, they are, in fact, reading it in context.

Comedians like Bill Maher should stick to comedy because instructing in moral theology (or even understanding it) is clearly not their forté.

I write a monthly column for Investigate Magazine entitled “Contra Mundum.” This blog post was published in the July 2011 issue and is reproduced here with permission. Contra Mundum is Latin for ‘against the world;’ the phrase is usually attributed to Athanasius who was exiled for defending Christian orthodoxy.

Letters to the editor should be sent to:
editorial@investigatemagazine.DELETE.com

RELATED POSTS:
Contra Mundum: Religion and Violence
Contra Mundum: Stoning Adulterers
Contra Mundum: Why Does God Allow Suffering?
Contra Mundum: “Till Death do us Part” Christ’s Teachings on Abuse, Divorce and Remarriage
Contra Mundum: Is God a 21st Century Western Liberal?
Contra Mundum: In Defence of Santa
Contra Mundum: The Number of the Beast
Contra Mundum: Pluralism and Being Right
Contra Mundum: Abraham and Isaac and the Killing of Innocents
Contra Mundum: Selling Atheism
Contra Mundum: Did God Command Genocide in the Old Testament?
Contra Mundum: Fairies, Leprechauns, Golden Tea Cups & Spaghetti Monsters
Contra Mundum: Secularism and Public Life
Contra Mundum: Richard Dawkins and Open Mindedness
Contra Mundum: Slavery and the Old Testament

Contra Mundum: Secular Smoke Screens and Plato’s Euthyphro

Contra Mundum: What’s Wrong with Imposing your Beliefs onto Others?
Contra Mundum: God, Proof and Faith
Contra Mundum: “Bigoted Fundamentalist” as Orwellian Double-Speak
Contra Mundum: The Flat-Earth Myth
Contra Mundum: Confessions of an Anti-Choice Fanatic
Contra Mundum: The Judgmental Jesus

Tags:   · · · · · 25 Comments

Leave a Comment


+ one = 8


25 responses so far ↓

  • Did you not realize this was a comedy segment? Anyway… Bill was criticizing the followers of Jesus for not doing what Jesus said, or acting in the way Jesus wanted them to act. You seem to be backing this Paul guy?

  • Matt,

    Paul the Apostle was just clarifying the role of the government’s punitive responsibility to its own domestic citzenry and NOT internationally.

    What you got there is Aquinas philosophy, which is extra-biblical in and of itself. christian’s don’t ought to follow a just-war philosophy on foreign policy perspective, they can or cannot is simply a matter of circumstance

  • “Paul tells us that God has delegated this authority to governments. Hence, the instruction he gives to Christians in virtue of their status as individuals for refraining from such actions does not apply to the State.”

    the government is a representative of the people since it was elected by them, not by God, you know. so if individuals are to refrain from such actions so is the government. after all, it’s individuals that fight on the battle field or launch missles, not the “government”

    another failed attempt to make sense of the contradictions in the Bible :))

    but hey, don’t sweat it, your God doesn’t exist anyway

  • he he. Matt, I think that, taken in context (in the USA), his comments hold allot of water. There has been plenty action taken abroad that would struggle to fit more than a few of the conditions you hold up for a just war. Considering that most US leaders would call themselves christian, these comments don’t seem quite as miss-placed to me as you seem to think they are.
    I don’t think Bill was attacking your faith or position – besides all good comedy has a target – I reckon we should just laugh along with him and accept the cautions.

  • What you got there is Aquinas philosophy, which is extra-biblical in and of itself. christian’s don’t ought to follow a just-war philosophy on foreign policy perspective, they can or cannot is simply a matter of Did you not realize this was a comedy segment? Anyway… Bill was criticizing the followers of Jesus for not doing what Jesus said, or acting in the way Jesus wanted them to act. You seem to be backing this Paul guy?

  • And there is an open debate as to whether Paul thought the government wielding the sword, as it were, was a GOOD thing. He acknowledged that this was reality, sure, and that this reality was the will of God, sure… but so was the destruction of the temple… There are many times where the enemies of faith are used by God to in some way further his idiosyncratic goals. Read the OT and it is full of them… you have made far too many assumptions in your desire to once again justify war…

  • I mean… “It is the will of God that the people of Jerusalem be enslaved” does NOT imply that Christians are called to go out and enslave the people of Jerusalem!

  • Max, I’ll remember that next time I hear outrage at a racist or antisemitic joke. Its all just comedy and so content does not matter.

  • John, I don’t assume uncritically the narrative that people state about the US or US Christian’s. I take what the media tells me about those thinks with a huge amount of salt. When I read the writings of both liberals and conservatives and look at there reasons as opposed to what the NZ media say there reasons are the picture is very different. Have you for example read the literature on the ethics of war? Have you read the arguments for and against say the invasion of Iraq by credible ethicists? Most people who tell me the story you just did have not.

  • “Many a true word spoken in jest!!!”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ET1-_PeExMs

    Enjoy!

  • Good Matt – it may help you be a little more relaxed!

    But since you make this silly comparison… I would find it equally odd if a Jewish writer upon hearing an antisemitic joke wrote an essay to debunk it… or if a feminist upon hearing a blonde joke rather than shrugging it off sat down and wrote a “learned” response. Besides which – it was not the same as an antisemitic or racist joke. It was laughing at the beliefs of Christians not a slur on them as a group as a whole… in fact I have seen comedians saying similar things about Jewish beliefs (often Jewish comedians…) I just think protestants lack a sense of humor. Too much time spent with Paul I say ;)

  • @ Matt
    “Max, I’ll remember that next time I hear outrage at a racist or antisemitic joke. Its all just comedy and so content does not matter.”

    Well I didn’t see that attempted theme association coming.

    Matt, that’s one to remember. :-)

  • Matt, I do try to read widely about these types of things. Also, I am pro the Iraq war while having issues about it’s execution – please don’t think that because that I think that the us is/has been involved in unjust practices means that I think everything they do is wrong. However, when a president claims to be a Christian and acting as such they raise the bar for themselves considerably

  • [...] – Matt Flannigan addresses Bill Mahr’s criticism of Christians regarding just war. [...]

  • … “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”

    this clearly gives any and every government the ability to say that it was established by god… what are the consequences of this?

    i think one of the consequences is that your 6 requirements are rendered null and void. the one and only justification available for government A to go to war against government B would be proof that the government B was no longer carrying out the purpose for which god had established it, and were now evildoers. at the very least this would be a 7th requirement: as the opposing government was established by god, we must first receive permission from god to enter into war against them.

    i think tim wikiriwhi summed it up well in another post when he pointed out that there was never any intention of a christian government. the teachings of paul and jesus were aimed at us as individuals, and this would explain the lack of biblical guidance for governments. you will also find it hard to show that a foreign government is no longer fulfilling gods purpose and committing evil if neither of these are clearly defined in relation to governments.

    and if there was no intention for governments actions to be guided by their teachings (acknowledging government authority only shows they weren’t anarchists), then you can never imply that any political discussion is also a theological one.

    because that’s all this article is, a political opinion piece. and i don’t have any problem with that, but don’t try to paint jesus as a republican hawk to support your views.

  • This is a very interesting disjunction (I think) in Paul’s ideas. That the state should have the authority to violate the revealed ethos of pacifism seems like a clear contradiction to me, but I’ve never been a fan of the argument that any government has a divine right to rule.

    The same type of contradiction seems evident in neo-con thinking about just war theory. I just posted something on this yesterday, so I’m glad I found your blog. Your insights are so helpful to me in understanding Christian thought on these issues. So thanks!

  • Val: please don’t think that this post represents mainstream Christian thought on this issue!

  • Oh, of course not! Christian ideas on war and the relationship of the state to God and/or the church is quite diverse. However, since I’m not exactly a scholar of religion, the connections you made between Paul and just war theory were interesting to me.

  • I think Matthew is talking out his…. hat… with this one. Paul was writing to an oppressed minority trying to survive as such with a powerful government persecuting them. He was answering this groups question: how do we relate to the government – should we rebel? His answer was no – trust in God. To take this passage written to people in an entirely different context and claim that it has something to say to a super power with nuclear weapons who is in no way the minority is … how can I put this… a little bit of a stretch. And Matt is reliant not on the Bible but on later philosophers to come up with his stance. Paul had some issues… but I don’t think he was a warmonger.

  • thanks M, well put.

  • http://www.huffingtonpost.com/scott-atran/libya-war-obama_b_842298.html

    good look at war by an anthropologist for whoever is interested.

    “most societies have “sacred rules” for which their people would fight and risk serious loss and even die rather than compromise. If people perceive one such rule to have been violated, they may feel morally obliged to retaliate against the wrongdoers — even if the retaliation does more harm than good… In the hostage situation, the abductors were threatening to violate the sacred rule against killing innocent people. That rule was so strong for the participants that they felt morally obliged to meet violence with violence, regardless of the outcome. This is little different from Mr. Obama’s seemingly heartfelt sentiment that ‘as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action.’”

    like i’ve said before, matt is simply a product of his society and neurology, who then conveniently creates a god in his own image.

  • Matt’s only response was to try to divert the issue by comparing me to an antisemite ( a pretty cheap tactic if ever I saw one) – would have been good to have seen a more solid response.

  • Again I must apologize my Son (in fact all three of my children) has autism and he has been copying posts and re-posting on blogs.

  • [...] POSTS: Contra Mundum: Pacifism and Just Wars Contra Mundum: Religion and Violence Contra Mundum: Stoning Adulterers Contra Mundum: Why Does God [...]

  • [...] POSTS: Contra Mundum: Separating Church and State Contra Mundum: Consenting Adults and Harm Contra Mundum: Pacifism and Just Wars Contra Mundum: Religion and Violence Contra Mundum: Stoning Adulterers Contra Mundum: Why Does God [...]