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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Whither Just War Theory?

I recently finished reading The Myth of Religious Violence, by William T. Cavanaugh, which looks at the way secular nation states have used a particular historiography of the wars of European wars in the 16th and 17th centuries as a kind of founding or self-justifying myth.  In short the myth is, only the secular nation state can save the world from the tendency to violence inherent in religion.
            Cavanaugh argues that the concept of religion is a social construct, largely used by the nation state to serve itself.  Significantly, he questions the moral claims the secular nation state makes for itself to exercise violence with impunity.  Those claims are rooted in this belief:  Only the secular state can determine whether it is right or not to go to war, or to punish criminals violently, because only it can be trusted to act rationally.
            Cavanaugh’s deconstruction of one of secularism self-serving myths sends my mind in several directions.  One of them is personal, and takes me back to my first encounter with classical Just War Theory, when I was a student in Ralph Beebe’s War and Peace class at George Fox College (now University).  The failure of Just War Theorists to make meaningful and vigorous critiques of the state’s claims to exercise violence with impunity, led me to take seriously the claims by the peace church traditions that the use of violence is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus.  The only people, it seemed to me at the time, who publicly questioned the exclusive right of the state to discern the morality of the use of violence were to be found in the peace churches and among their sympathizers.   So I cast my lot with Quakers and Mennonites, and here I am.
            Just War Theorists have, at times, been effective at reining in state violence.  Perhaps the most dramatic instance of this was in the late fourth century when Saint Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, denied Emperor Theodosius entrance into the Cathedral in the aftermath of a horrific attack on thousands of civilians at an arena in Thessalonica, until the emperor had done adequate penance.  This is such a noteworthy event it has been the subject of several paintings, including one prominently displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago, by Allesandro Megnasco (c. 1700).  Imagine a U.S. president denied entry to the National Cathedral because of a wartime atrocity.
            Here is where I am going with this.  Imagine a vigorous and highly functioning Just War Theory among the Christians of our nation.  As Mennonites, we often find ourselves on the defensive because our theological heritage calls us to question the claims of the secular nation state.  The flap over the national anthem at Goshen College is a recent example.  This often leads to a conversation about pacifism or non-resistance, the impractical nature of our position, and the fact that it is a minority position within church history.  I suspect most Mennonites have been in these sorts of conversations.  But I am interested in a different conversation.  Why have do many Christians abandon their own traditions’ teaching on violence, and instead offer the secular nation state their wholesale allegiance when it comes to exercising violence?  What if Christians actually took seriously the classical teachings of their own denominations and movements when it comes to the use of force?  What if we Mennonites would spend less energy defending our distinct position, and more energy calling our brothers and sisters in other Christian bodies to embrace their own?


thelyniezian said...

Though not a Mennonite, I do often deplore the way in which military action (whether technically war or not- though the difference is academic) is justified, and how some Christians will go along in justifying it. We are told to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and to obey the governing authorities as those put there by God, but not to the extent that they abuse their power. Otherwise how would the early apostles have stood up to the Sanhedrin when ordered not to preach in the name of Jesus?

I do think the just war theory is valid to a point- when used correctly. The difficulty is proving that a greater good comes out of it all. Even, take, Afghanistan- a decade of conflict has not prevented the Taliban from existing, nor al-Quaeda or terrorism at large (though something has been gained to this end- at what cost?) The deaths incurred have probably been far in excess of 9/11, which is not a military act but a criminal one of mass murder, to be dealt with on that basis. How many have been inspired to terrorism as a result?

Or take the intervention in the Libyan uprising. Allegedly, some of the rebels sold captured military hardware (helicopters) from Gaddafhi's forces to Boko Haram in Nigeria. Had the rebellion not been aided by the West, they would have succeeded in very little.

Another thing to point out is that the world's battles are not necessarily those of the Christian- our war is not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual powers and false ideals. Ought we to participate in them or support them?