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The Shock of Incomprehension
Analysis of Attitudes Towards War
Critical Examination of Two Contemporary Rival Traditions
The Tradition of Moral Reasoning

War is hell. Those of us who don't know this from first-hand experience have a pretty good idea of it from recent Hollywood fare like "Black Hawk Down" and "We Were Soldiers." The idea of making endless academic distinctions about the theoretical justifiability of war within the safety of magazine pages in articles composed from the comfort of an office computer with a mug of coffee at hand, may strike some of us as a trifle perverse. What kind of reasoning about war, we may want to ask, could possibly be moral, especially once we've agreed with General Sherman that war is hell!

I would like to do something a bit different, as others before me have delved into the details of Aquinas and Luther, as well as Augustine and others on just war theory. I think that we stand at such a vast emotional distance today from the kind of thinking involved in just war reasoning, that I would like to try to work backwards, starting from where I think many of us are today, and delve back into the conditions that led us here. My hope is that this may open the way to a clearer understanding of what is involved in the kind of moral reasoning that we find in what we call the just war tradition, a tradition of moral reasoning largely in eclipse today, except, perhaps, as James Turner Johnson recently pointed out to me, in our various military collages, where it is still very much alive.

By "moral reasoning," I mean something quite simple and obvious. For starters, we can probably all agree, as long as we're talking about war, that one fought in self-defense is probably not as bad as a war of aggression; that a limited war (like the Gulf War) is not as bad as total war (like the two World Wars); that a war that achieves a just and lasting peace is not as bad as one that doesn't; or that a war in which prisoners are taken alive is better than one in which they are indiscriminately killed; or that one in which prisoners are treated humanely is better than one in which they are treated like animals; or that one in which civilians are not deliberately targeted is better than one in which they are, and so on. This kind of analysis, as well as the thinking about the principles underlying it, is what I mean by moral reasoning; and it's the kind of reasoning involved in thinking about justifiable aspects of war.

I. The Shock of Incomprehension

But we may wonder: What does any of this have to do with Christianity? Isn't Christianity about beating swords into plowshares, about loving our enemies, about the peace of Christ and the Kingdom of God? What has the Gospel of God's grace to do with the analysis of things like the "discriminate use of lethal force" and "collateral damage" in warfare?

Something strikes us as bizarre about this juxtaposition. And probably nothing highlights so well the vast distance between just war reasoning and the outlook of many Christians today as the utter shock often felt when confronted by a sampling of such reasoning. Augustine and Aquinas, for example, suggested not only that war may be justified under certain conditions, such as the defense of a country's citizens from invasion, but that waging such a war may be a duty to one's neighbor, even a form of charity and love of God. (Significantly, Aquinas's treatment of war is found within a larger treatise on charity; and the same is true of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, where war is discussed within a larger treatment of love of neighbor.) More recently, John Langan, professor at Georgetown University, wrote about developing "an understanding and a practice of warfare that is in accord with the sanctity of life." (Langan, 7) But probably the most jarring remarks are those of the well-known and beloved author, C.S. Lewis:

What I cannot understand is [the] sort of semipacifism you get nowadays which gives people the idea that though you have to fight, you ought to do it with a long face and as if you were ashamed of it. It is that feeling that robs lots of magnificent young Christians in the Services of something they have a right to, something which is the natural accompaniment of courage--a kind of gaity and wholeheartedness.

I have often thought to myself how it would have been if, when I served in the first world war, I and some young German had killed each other simultaneously and found ourselves together a moment after death. I cannot imagine that either of us would have felt any resentment or even any embarrassment. I think we might have laughed over it. (Mere Christianity, 107)

Then, in what is nearly a paraphrase of Aquinas's words in Summa Theologiae II-II, Q. 40, art. 1, reply 2, C.S. Lewis writes:

. . . Even while we kill and punish we must try to feel about the enemy as we feel about ourselves--to wish that he were not bad, to hope that he may, in this world or another, be cured: in fact, to wish his good. That is what is meant in the Bible by loving him: wishing his good, not feeling fond of him nor saying he is nice when he is not. (Mere Christianity, 108.)

Such sentiments are generally so far removed from those that prevail in our own day as to leave many of us scandalized by them and uncomprehending of a moral reasoning that could lead to such statements. Can such sentiments be sane? God help us!

Why is there such a disconnection, a chasm, between just war reasoning and the outlook of our own times? There are probably many reasons, both religious and secular, but I would start by talking about the aftermath of WWII, the Cold War and Vietnam. Especially Vietnam. Vietnam was more than a war. It changed us as a culture and a people. We lost our innocence. It represented a shift in consciousness, a loss of certainty in ourselves, in our increasingly confused national cause, even in the possibility of our ever being right at all. The trajectory of this shift can be traced by comparing films about WWII, like "The Longest Day," or early movies about Vietnam, like "The Green Beret," starring John Wayne, in which there are clear good guys and bad guys, with films near the end of the war in Vietnam, like "Apocalypse Now," "Platoon," "Full Metal Jacket," in which such distinctions look naïve amidst the harsh realities of war in which there are no winners, let alone good guys. It was a time of assassinations -- the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, Jr.; and betrayals -- like the Watergate scandal and cover-up under the Nixon administration, and the national guard shootings of student protesters at Kent State. It was a time of moral anarchy, reckless free love, Height Ashbury, Timothy Leary, and death by drug overdose (Janice Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, Ginger Baker, John Belushi, Jim Morrison). It was a time of extreme and radical ideas, from Hunter S. Thompson, Abbey Hoffman, and Allan Ginsburg, to Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver, Angela Davis, Huey Newton & the Black Panthers. Then, like a parting eulogy to the decades that gave us the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan, there was John Lennon's wistful ballad "Imagine," and "all we are saying . . . is give peace a chance." Remember?

In short, the Vietnam era made us doubtful, which made us humble. But it was a new sort of humility. To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton: "The old humility was a spur that prevented us from stopping; not a nail in our boot that prevented us from going on. For the old humility made us doubtful about our efforts, which might make us work harder. But the new humility made us doubtful about our aims, which makes us stop working altogether." (Orthodoxy, ch. 3) In other words, we seemed to be collectively confused and lost.

A lot of this rubbed off on the churches, of course; and not least the Catholic Church, which concluded the Second Vatican Council in the middle of all this in 1965, provoking a great deal of unintended silliness that left observers wondering whether American Catholics were going through some sort of New World adolescence. There were stories of priests elevating pizzas at the consecration during Mass. Nuns and monks fled their religious orders in droves, and seminaries looked like they would be emptied. Novelty was in; tradition was out. Dorothy Day proclaimed a vision of apocalyptic nonviolent anarchism. Thomas Merton recommended Ghandian nonviolence and turned to Zen Buddhism. The Jesuit Berrigan brothers dismissed the Catholic just war tradition as worthless, broke into government offices, poured blood on draft files, climbed over fences of defense facilities and smashed the nose cones of missiles. Prophetic drama and posturing were in; carefully reasoned policy recommendations were out.

Among the more telling stories I've heard is one related by George Weigel about a Peace & Justice retreat he attended in 1982 in Seattle:

It was a wet, cold morning in January 1982 as about one hundred of us crossed Puget Sound on a Washington State ferry to attend a day-long retreat at the Ground Zero Center, just beside the Trident submarine base in Bangor, Washington. We had been invited to participate by the Justice and Peace Center of the archdiocese of Seattle. Our retreat would be led by Jim and Shelly Douglass, founders of the Ground Zero Center. On arriving at Ground Zero, we trudged through ankle-deep mud to a semifinished wooden geodesic dome, under which the retreat would be conducted. Once inside the dome, after our eyes adjusted to the dim light provided by a creaking electric generator outside the door, we could see a gigantic golden Buddha, before whom was laid a basket of oranges, and in whose honor joss sticks burned, adding to the dimness and fragrance of our surround[ings]. We were led in an opening prayer by the archbishop of Seattle, and then told by the Douglasses that the purpose of our time together was not to think analytically about the arms race, or the varieties of Catholic moral responses to it, but, rather, to "get in touch with our feelings." (Weigel, 170)

Feelings were in; moral reasoning was out. These sorts of changes in attitude-- particularly the abandonment of moral reasoning about war-- almost all took place during two critical decades from 1965 to 1985. The rapidity of this shift is staggering. In 1965 Commonweal columnist William V. Shannon defended the idea of "preemptive use of military force to preclude the People's Republic of China from gaining a nuclear capability." (Ibid., 193) But just sixteen years later, no "progressive" Catholic would have been caught dead defending such an interventionist position when Israel made a preemptive strike against the Osirak nuclear reactor being built in Baghdad by a notoriously hostile regime. These changes in attitude found their way into diocesan programs, like those in Seattle, into seminaries (where the just war reasoning, along with Aquinas, vanished from curricula), and even into the statements of US Catholic bishops, such as the 1983 document, "The Challenge of Peace," in which hardly a trace can be found of the of fertile tradition of Catholic moral reasoning so evident in thinkers of just a generation ago, like John Courtney Murray. Bishop William Sullivan of Richmond described just war theory as "an excuse to go to war, mental gymnastics, casuistry of the worst sort" (Ibid., 249). Other bishops called for unilateral nuclear disarmament; and when it was pointed out that this would have the unintended effect of making war more likely, their only response was the deus ex machina suggestion that, in the words of Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen, "God would make up for our folly." (Ibid., 247) Here we see a pacifist ethic of pure intentions, in which no responsibility is assumed for consequences, edging out a traditional ethic of political judgment, in which consequences were taken quite seriously.

Again, this shift was related to the aftermath of the Cold War and Vietnam. It may be that the anti-establishment, anti-traditional attitudes associated with the counter culture and protests against Vietnam helped to foster a culture of mutiny against unquestioning acceptance of the classic Catholic authorities (like Aquinas) and traditions (like the just war theory). It may be that hostility toward our Vietnam policies helped gain a new hearing for the views of the "historic peace churches" (Mennonite, Brethren, Quakers) and their pacifism. It may be also that the historically uncritical manner in which many Catholics undertook to implement Vatican II's call for a renewed focus on Scripture opened the door to naively simplistic views about the way in which Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount about loving one's enemies and turning the other cheek were taken to be directly applicable to foreign policy. But there also had to be some "trickle down" effect from the general erosion of confidence stemming from the loss of foundational certainties in science and philosophy, culminating in Stanford University Professor, Richard Rorty's definition of "truth" as "that which your peers let you get away with saying."

Such were the changes that were overtaking us everywhere, of course, and not merely in the Catholic Church. I found it significant that Time magazine named Stanley Hauerwas "America's best theologian" two days before the terrorists struck on 9/11/01, which in itself may be a commentary on the ambivalence of the responses emanating from the various Christian communities in the weeks and months that followed. In 1970, Hauerwas, who was then teaching at Notre Dame in Southbend, IN, discovered the writings of Mennonite pacifist theologian, John Howard Yoder, who was then teaching at the Mennonite seminary in Elkhart. They met, Hauerwas became a confirmed pacifist, and the rest is history. That same year, Hauerwas was asked to represent Notre Dame and present a paper at a colloquium with the theology department at Valparaiso University. Hauerwas introduced his remarks by saying that here he was, "a Methodist of doubtful theological background (Methodists by definition have a doubtful theological background), representing a Catholic department of theology speaking to a bunch of Lutherans to say that the Mennonites had been right all along" ("When the Politics of Jesus Makes a Difference," 6). This is almost as telling, in my opinion, as the subsequent appointment of John Howard Yoder to the theology faculty at Notre Dame. Was Yoder the revenge of the 16th century Anabaptist peasants upon their Lutheran and Catholic oppressors? It looked like Mennonite pacifism was getting the upper hand against classic just war reasoning.

All of this collectively signals the vast distance at which we now stand, as a culture, from the Catholic tradition of just war reasoning after only a few, short decades. The tradition of moral reasoning by Christians about the justifiable use of force as part of an overall framework of public and international policy has largely been forgotten. This is what I mean by the "eclipse of moral reasoning." One is more apt to hear that war cannot be reasoned about morally at all, today, than the kind of nuanced analyses found in Catholic tradition about the civil duty involved in decisions about the use of lethal force by police, the death penalty (one thinks of Supreme Court Justice Scalia's recent defense of the death penalty), and justifiable war. Paul Ramsey warned us about all this. (Weigel, 89-92)

A friend of mine recently emailed me a joke, about that well-known nation in the news lately, notoriously armed with weapons of mass destruction, which threatens the world with the terror of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, led by an irrational maniac named George Bush. The remarkable thing about this joke is that, even if we may not like it, its humor is readily accessible to us. No vast distance separates our outlook from the set of assumptions animating it. The sentiment is similar to that of the oft-quoted remark: "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." Or the comment of Duke University's Stanley Fish on the events of 9/11--that "there can be no independent standard for determining which of many rival interpretations of an event is the true one." (Bennett, 57)

What these statements all have in common is the outlook of postmodern skepticism and relativism, which, according to Allan Bloom, is the most predictable fact about university and college students across our nation today--an outlook he characterized significantly, in the words of his erstwhile bestseller, as The Closing of the American Mind (1988). Considered on its own terms philosophically, it is an embarrassingly weak position, and no different from the relativism rebutted by Plato and rejected by almost every serious thinker since. Not only is such relativism self-refuting (for if nothing is certain, then neither is relativism); it is blind-sighted about the most elementary steps in moral reasoning. As William Bennett recently observed: "Last time I looked, there was a crystal-clear distinction between a terrorist and a freedom fighter, and it had to do with the morality of means: a freedom fighter doesn't massacre innocent civilians in pursuit of his ends." (Bennett, 46)

II. Analysis of Attitudes Toward War

Having examined the history behind what I have called the "eclipse of moral reasoning," now I would like to briefly situate the alternative positions on war within a larger historical framework, then critically examine the underlying assumptions of those that constitute the greatest challenge to the just war tradition.

From a bird's eye view of history, the basic attitudes of people toward war fall into three large groups: the view that war is (1) normal, (2) abnormal, or (3) fallen.

The view that war is a normal fact of life found widespread acceptance among the ancient Greeks, for whom Ares, the god of war, was a major God, while Irene, the goddess of peace, played only a minor role. One finds it also in Heraclitus' view that war is "the father of all things," and in Plato's view that the republic must be prepared to defend itself (it is noteworthy that he distinguishes between war against fellow Greeks and against non-Greeks, setting restrictions on the former). It can be found in the cynical "realism" of Machiavelli; Thomas Hobbes's notion that the "state of nature" is the state of "war of all against all"; G.W.F. Hegel's view of war as a principle of national regeneration (fight or stagnate!); Friedrich Nietzsche's romanticized cult of war ("a good war hallows every cause") and cynical rejection of Judeo-Christian ethics as weak and feminine; Heinrich von Treitschke's militant Aryanism ("war is the remedy for an ailing nation"); Friedrich von Bernhardi's "survival of the fittest" ethic, which drew on Karl von Clausewitz; and Naziism.

The view that war is abnormal (and eradicable) found support among the ancient Stoics who regarded themselves as citizens of the world; others argued for a particular European peace, such as William Penn and abbé Saint-Pierre; and, still others argued for the international abolition of war, like the Enlightenment thinkers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant, and, later, Jeremy Bentham, J.S. Mill, John Dewey, and Bertrand Russell; others argued for a single world government, like Emeric Cruce. (Those, like Pierre Dubois and George of Podebrad, king of Bohemia, who wanted to unite European nations for common defense against the Turks in the 17th century probably don't count here.)

A third view was taken by those who regarded war as neither "normal" nor "abnormal," but as fallen, in the sense of resulting from our fallen or sinful nature, as Christians have generally believed. "We are mistaken," wrote C.S. Lewis, "when we compare war with ‘normal life.' Life has never been normal." ("Learning in Wartime," 22) And that is because life itself, even at its most tranquil, is fallen. This is why "war creates no absolutely new situation; it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself." (Ibid., 21) In view of eternity, Lewis could even suggest that the questions raised by war are "relatively unimportant." (Ibid.)

This view of war as fallen, subdivides again into two subsidiary views: the view (1) that warfare, though an effect of sin, may, under certain conditions, be practiced in a manner that is sinless (in the sense of involving no actual, as opposed to original, sin), and (2) that warfare itself is always and everywhere inherently sinful.

The first of these views, of course, is the position taken by classic just war reasoning, such as found in Catholics like Ambrose, Augustine, Aquinas, and developed more systematically by Francisco de Vitoria and Francisco Suarez in the 16th and 17th centuries; and Protestants such as Martin Luther (with qualifications), John Calvin, Hugo Grotius, Jeremy Taylor and Richard Baxter. But it is also the view found in varieties of just war pacificism that object to unjust wars but see nothing wrong about engaging in wars that are just.

The second view, that war is inherently sinful, again subdivides into two more views--(a) that war, though sinful, must sometimes be accepted as the only responsible alternative in a fallen world, and (b) that war must always and everywhere be utterly renounced. The first of these is a view found among many mainline Christian groups, but comes to particularly clear expression in the work of Reinhold Niebuhr and the mainline Lutheran tradition, and finds some antecedent support in various remarks by Luther (particularly in reference to his view of the "two kingdoms"). The second view, that war must be utterly renounced, represents the position of "absolute pacifism" found classically in the writings of Anabaptists (Mennonites, Brethren, etc.) such as Guy F. Hershberger, John C. Wenger, and, preeminently, John Howard Yoder; as well as various contemporary variations, such as the late Cardinal Bernadin's "seamless" or "consistent" life ethic (opposing abortion, euthanasia, death penalty, and all war), and Dorothy Day's and the Catholic Worker's indiscriminate condemnation and renunciation of all killing, even in defense of oneself or others.

The greatest challenge to the tradition of just war reasoning historically came from the side of Machiavellian realism, which views war as natural and subject to no moral constraints. In recent decades, however, the primary challenge has come from the other views -- on the secular front, from the view that war is abnormal and eradicable, and on the religious front (which we are focusing on here), the view that war is fallen and inherently sinful, and must be either renounced completely (the "absolute pacifist" view), or accepted some cases as the only responsible alternative, although unavoidably sinful (the "dirty hands" view). These views have made significant inroads among Catholic thinkers in recent decades, even though they represent a radical break with the mainstream of Catholic tradition. Here I will examine only the last two religious views, which have posed the most serious challenges to just war reasoning, especially the pacifist view.

III. Critical Examination of Two Contemporary Rival Traditions

A. The ‘Absolute Pacifist' Tradition

Classic ‘absolute pacifism' finds its most authentic expression in Mennonite theology, which traces its ancestry to the Anabapatists of the Reformation era, who articulated the position of Christian pacifism in Article 6 of the Schleitheim Articles of 1527. Concerning the power of the "sword" mentioned by Paul in Romans 13, these articles declared that it had been ordained by God "outside the perfection of Christ." The idea was that God might use that sword to accomplish His purposes, just as He may use the wrath of heathen nations like Assyria to visit His judgment upon the Children of Israel when they turn away from Him, but that doesn't mean we'd want to be caught dead fighting in the Assyrian army! Christians, according to the Mennonite tradition, are called to a higher New Testament ethic of love and nonresistance. They are called to work for the establishment of the "Peace of Christ" (Pax Christi), not the "Peace of Rome" (Pax Romana).

By way of historical support, Mennonites suggest that the earliest Christians were pacifists and shunned military service, that certain bishops, like Basil of Caesarea, may have imposed a penance upon soldiers for killing even in a just cause (although these claims are disputed). When the Roman Emperor, Constantine, was converted to Christianity and legalized the Faith, of course, all this changed. Christianity became a state religion, which meant armies were then enlisted to defend a Christian empire. In keeping with the classic Protestant textbook tradition, of course, all this is viewed as part of the corruption and ‘fall' of the Church from its early purity; and the subsequent Catholic tradition is viewed as representing a profoundly corrupted and tainted form of Christianity, not merely with respect to its development of a just war theory.

Yoder does not see this New Testament ethic as apolitical (his magnum opus is significantly entitled The Politics of Jesus). In fact, he chides the just war tradition for de-politicizing the Gospel, by which he means interpreting the ethic of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount as socially inapplicable or politically irrelevant. Yet the fact remains that when proponents of this sort of pacifism are called upon to articulate their response to events such as those of 9/11 or the war against terrorism, they often come off sounding implausible. Accordingly, Stanley Hauerwas worries that pacifists, such as he, get sidelined because they look like they just "have nothing to say." Pacifists are just "not going to have an immediate policy response," he concedes. "So that means that we must go on, as [Karl] Barth said in 1933, as if nothing has happened." ("Interview," 1) On the other hand, the temptation to be politically relevant keeps tugging in the direction of suggesting policy recommendations. But to the degree that they remain faithful to their pacifism, their policy recommendations come off sounding silly. For example, Hauerwas asks about the possibility of apprehending terrorists nonviolently, or of an international police force that would never have to kill anyone. He quotes Jean Vanier who said in a Catholic Worker column in response to 9/11: "Let us give our hand to all those around the world who suffer, who cry out and are fearful. . . . Let us remember that the smallest gesture of beauty and tenderness done with humility and confidence will bring unity to the world and break the chain of violence." (Ibid., 2). In an interview with Jim Wallis in Sojourners, Hauerwas agonized over the palpable impotence of the pacifist position, finally suggesting that ground troops in Afghanistan would be better than bombing, in order to avoid civilian deaths. But at that point he was no longer reasoning as a pacifist, but engaging in classical just war reasoning. Even Yoder himself, apparently, was not immune to this temptation, and was speculating about the possibility of a global police force near the end of his life.

H. Richard Niebuhr, in his book, Christ and Culture, characterized the Anabaptist position as a "Christ against Culture" stance, pitting the Church against the world, in a posture of prophetic witness. Despite Yoder's claims to the contrary, this characterization seems to accurately define the Mennonite position. It is even echoed in the title of one of Yoder's own books, The Christian Witness to the State. Note: the Christian stands outside of and over against the state as witness to the state concerning the demands of the Gospel of love and peace. There is no question of the state's being "Christian" in any sense of the word, or conforming to the New Testament demands of Christ's ethic.

A problem here is with the way in which Christ's ethic of love is assumed to apply directly to foreign policy and the exigencies of warfare. What did Jesus mean by his command to "turn the other check"? The absolute pacifist assumption is that Jesus here imposes a duty of nonresistance on everyone in every circumstance. Yet without in the least minimizing the demand Jesus places on his hearers to mortify their anger and shun revenge, one can ask whether the statement does not imply a reservation in favor of obviously exceptional cases. Accordingly, C.S. Lewis asks:

Does anyone suppose that Our Lord's hearers understood Him to mean that if a homicidal maniac, attempting to murder a third party, tried to knock me out of the way, I must stand aside and let him get his victim? I at any rate think it impossible they could have so understood Him. I think it equally impossible that they supposed Him to mean that the best way of bringing up a child was to let it hit its parents whenever it was in a temper, or, when it had grabbed at the jam, to give it the honey also? I think the meaning of the words is perfectly clear -- "Insofar as you are simply an angry man who has been hurt, mortify your anger and do not hit back." ("Why I Am Not a Pacifist," 49f.)

John Courtney Murray was once asked by a puzzled friend what foreign policy had to do with the Sermon on the Mount. He answered, "What makes you think that morality is identical with the Sermon on the Mount?" Moral reasoning, Murray insisted, was not simply a matter of quoting Scripture. But to understand this, he said, it was first necessary to recognize the shortcomings of the moralistic outlook that has dominated American thinking about morality down to our own day. He described it thus:

It's style was voluntarist. It sought the constitution of the moral order in the will of God. The good is good because God commands it; the evil is evil because God forbids it. The notion that certain acts are intrinsically evil or good, and therefore forbidden or commanded by God, was rejected. Rejected too was the older intellectualist tradition of ethics and its equation of morality with right reason. Reason is the dupe of interest and passion. . . . In the search for moral principles and solutions reason can have no place. . . .

In its sources the older morality was scriptural in a fundamentalist sense. In order to find the will of God for man it went directly to the Bible. There alone the divine precepts and prohibitions are stated. They are stated in so many words, and the words are to be taken at their immediate face value without further exegetical ado. . . .

In its mood the old morality was subjectivist. Technically it would be called a "morality of intention." It set primary and controlling value on a sincerity of interior motive; what matters is not what you do but why you do it. And it was strong on the point that an act is moral only when its motive is altruistic -- concretely, when the motive is love. If any element of self-interest creeps in, the act is corrupt and sinful.

Finally, in its whole spirit the old morality was individualistic. Not only did it reject the idea of a moral authority external to the individual conscience. It also set its single focus on the individual existence and on the moral problems that arise in interpersonal relationships. As for society, it believed in a direct transference of personal values into social life. . . . Its highest assertion was there would be no moral problems in society, if only all men loved their neighbor. (Murray, p. 263f.; emphasis added)

To put the matter in contemporary terms, this view asks: "What would Jesus do?" The problem with this is that there are some basic ways in which we can't take Jesus as our example, because He came to do for us what we could not for ourselves, namely to die for our sins. The real question, rather, is "What would Jesus have us do?" And He tells us to love our neighbor, and leaves it to us to think through what that means. Moralism provides no resources for moral judgment amidst the complexities of world affairs, because it denigrates the peace of a rightly ordered political community as something sub-Christian and unworthy of the Christian calling to a higher peace, the Shalom of the eschatological Kingdom. There is also a similar confusion here involving the concept of "love." The diverse demands of love in the manifold relationships of temporal existence -- love of parents, children, spouse, community, co-workers, church, country, each with its unique and particular demands -- are eclipsed by the unconditional and absolute meaning of love expressed in the command of Christ to love God with your whole heart and your neighbor as yourself. This is what the Dutch Calvinist philosopher, Herman Dooyeweerd, calls the "Cape Horn" of Christian ethics (II, 149, 154; cf. 141), because it represents the temptation of the Christian ethicist to displace the irreducible temporal modes of love demanded by moral reasoning in favor of the transcendent fullness of Christian love in which there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female, but all are one in Christ (Gal. 3:28). But the fact is that our world remains full of such distinctions, as evidence by Paul's own letter to the slave owner, Philemon. This, in fact, is the confusion represented in Third of the Twelve Articles of the Swabian peasants whom Luther addressed in his Admonition to Peace, by their assumption that fraternal oneness in Christ entailed an automatic abrogation of their legal status as serfs (Admonition, 12).

B. The ‘Dirty Hands' Tradition

The ‘dirty hands' tradition finds its clearest expression in classic Lutheranism, which, according to H. Richard Niebuhr, represents a "Christ and culture in paradox" view. This position is clearly expressed in Reinhold Niebuhr's significant title Moral Man and Immoral Society. The Christian stands simultaneously as a member of two kingdoms, the Kingdom of Christ, in which he stands under the high demands of Christ's Sermon on the Mount, and the Kingdom of this World, in which he stands under the demands of civic responsibility, which inevitably fall short of those high demands. Again, in a letter to a pacifist who was reluctant to favor the Allied war effort against Hitler, Niebuhr wrote: "Your difficulty is that you want to live in history without sinning . . . our effort to set up the Kingdom of God on earth ends in a perverse preference for tyranny, simply because the peace of tyranny means, at least, the absence of war." (Love and Justice)

Antecedents to this view can be found in Luther, although he was by no means a systematic or consistent writer -- particularly in the contrast between his Treatise on Christian Liberty and his pamphlet, Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants. As H. Richard Niebuhr notes, "it is a far cry from Luther's celebration of the faith that works by love, suffering all things in serving the neighbor [in the former], to his injunction to the rulers to ‘stab, smite, slay, whoever can [in the latter]." (H.R. Niebuhr, 170f.) In the former, he talks about a Christ-like joyful love of neighbor that "takes no account of gratitude or ingratitude, of praise or blame, of gain or loss," just as the Father causes His sun "to shine upon the good and upon the evil." But in his pamphlet against the peasants, we read that "a prince or lord must remember in this case that he is God's minister and the servant of his wrath to whom the sword is committed for use upon such fellows. . . . Here there is no time for sleeping; no place for patience or mercy. It is the time of the sword, not the day of grace." (Ibid., 171) "There are two kingdoms," writes Luther, "one the kingdom of God, the other the kingdom of the world. . . . God's kingdom is a kingdom of grace and mercy . . . but the kingdom of the world is a kingdom of wrath and severity. . . . Now he who would confuse these two kingdoms -- as our false fanatics do -- would put wrath into God's kingdom and mercy into the world's kingdom; and that is the same as putting the devil in heaven and God in hell." (Ibid., 171f.) But it is the single individual, according to Luther, who lives simultaneously in both kingdoms, much as it is the same individual who is simultaneously justified and sinner, simul justus et peccator. As Niebuhr observes: "So far as a person is responsible only for himself and his goods, faith makes possible what the law of Christ demands, that he do not defend himself against thieves or borrowers, against tyrants or foes. But where he has been entrusted with the care of others, as father or governor, there in obedience to God he must use force to defend his neighbors against force. The greater sin here is to want to be holy or to exercise mercy where mercy is destructive." (Ibid., p. 178, citing Luther's "Secular Authority"; emphasis added)

Practically, the "dirty hands" position does not differ from the Catholic tradition insofar as it accepts the responsibility of civic duty. Where it does differ is in its frequent assumption that such responsibility unavoidably involves one in sin ("dirty hands"). Luther himself is ambivalent on this point. But others, like Reinhold Niebuhr, are not. This assumption often plays out in a tension between the competing demands of love and justice, Gospel and Law, internal and external, the private and public. On this view, justice represents something less than love, since the ideal of justice resides in the domain of Law and sin. The root of the problem here, it seems to me, is a failure to see that justice itself is an expression of love. This is preeminently evident in the Cross of Christ in which the fullness of God's love coincides with the fullness of His justice. But what prevents this from being apparent in the justice of a just war, for example, is the same thing that prevents the "absolute pacifist" from seeing that love of a well-ordered political community is not a rival to the love of God and Shalom of His Kingdom, but a distinctively political, temporal expression of God's love a fallen world. It is the problem of the "Cape Horn" of Christian ethics, all over again. As Aristotle shows us, the general concept of justice is refracted as if by a prism into a diversity of particular kinds of justice -- commercial justice, remedial justice, and distributive justice. Each of these has, for the Catholic, its proper place in life -- even the remedial (or retributive) justice that sometimes imposes fines for misdemeanors and severer penalties for severer crimes. The fact that certain forms of remedial justice are made necessary by our fallen nature does not, of itself, make such justice anything less than an expression of divine love and grace.

I am aware that this classic Niebuhrian interpretation of Luther has been called into question by a new Finnish interpretation, which discounts the familiar "paradoxes" and "dialectical tensions" associated with Luther's "two kingdoms," grace and law distinction, etc. (Braaten & Jenson, Union with Christ) But this is a discussion for another venue and does not change the fact that Niebuhr's interpretation accords with what has been the dominant one for the past two centuries, or more.

John Courtney Murray saw this sort of "dirty hands" ethic as suffering from the effects of the same moralism that afflicts "absolute pacifism." In particular, he noted three "pseudo-problems": The first was the alleged gulf between the "personal" and "social" ethics, which supposes that a responsible "social" or "political" ethic demands a violation of one's "personal" ethic. This pseudo-problem did not exist within the natural law tradition of moral reasoning, in which society and the state were "natural" institutions with their own relatively autonomous, public purposes, such as justice, freedom, security, and general welfare. Any effort to bring the organized action of politics under the control of the values that govern personal and familial life would have been seen as inherently fallacious. The second pseudo-problem was national "self-interest," which was thought to involve an unavoidable acceptance of absolute state sovereignty. But the answer to moralism was not an immoral realism, but moral reasoning, properly understood. The tradition of moral reasoning required that national interest, recognized as a valid and constant motive, be given only a relative and limited status as an end of nation action, always balanced by the higher and more ultimate international order to which its national interest must contribute. The third pseudo-problem was "power." It was supposed that power and force, though unavoidably necessary, were inherently tainted by evil. "The traditional [natural law] ethic," says Murray, "starts with the assumption that, as there is no law without force to vindicate it, so there is no politics without power to promote it." That power can be abused is but a testament to the fact of its ordinary and proper use as an agent in promoting good. (Weigel, 124f.)

IV. The Tradition of Moral Reasoning

There is a reason why some early Christians were pacifists. They were not in charge in the world. They represented a minor sect. They were often persecuted. They met for prayer in the catacombs. During most of the period in which the New Testament was composed, they lived in expectation of the imminent return of Christ. This expectation colors much of the outlook of the Gospels. It would be anachronistic, therefore, to expect the New Testament to include a systematic articulation of moral reasoning about problems that emerged only when that expectation of an imminent return of Christ was transformed by the realization that His second coming would not occur in the foreseeable future. The beginnings of this transformation can be seen already in the arguments in the Book of Acts and Paul's Epistles about whether gentile Christians should observe Mosaic laws on circumcision and diet. These arguments, though not about war, reflect an understanding that a detailed set of rules for public Christian life in the interim between the Resurrection and Second Coming are not to be found directly in the sayings of Jesus.

When Constantine dropped the Imperial Roman prescriptions against the Christian religion in the Edict of Milan in AD 313, Christians abruptly found themselves in a very different world -- one where they were no longer marginalized and persecuted, but where their religion was suddenly the state religion of Rome and their emperor himself was a Christian. It was a world where they found themselves having to take responsibility for society, and think -- as Christians -- about questions of political order and foreign policy. Augustine's rejection of early Christian pacifism and his articulation of a theory of justifiable war must be seen as a necessary part of this development in Christian self-understanding, once the decision had been made to leave the catacombs and undertake a transforming mission in the world. This transforming mission involved the development, following Augustine, of a tradition of moral reasoning about political life.

George Weigel is explicit about seeing this emergent Catholic tradition of moral reasoning as "conversionst" or "transformationalist," that is, in terms of H. Richard Niebuhr's category of "Christ the Transformer of Culture." (Weigel, passim) It was not possible in this ethos for the Church to think of itself as "over against" the world, since it had to be responsible for transforming the world. This is when it became clear to Christians that it was not enough to ask "What would Jesus do?" -- but rather, "What would Jesus have us do?" And over the centuries, Christians concluded that what Jesus wanted them to do was not only to mortify their anger by turning the other cheek, but also to build cathedrals, hospitals, and universities; not only to write commentaries on scripture, but also to compose treatises on medicine, philosophy, law, political and constitutional theory -- like Aquinas, who wrote that a just government required the consent of the governed, and that the role of government is not merely remedial -- to restrain sin -- but a natural good and gift from God. (Copleston, 419, 168f.) Among the other things Christians concluded, over the years, was that they had to ask what Jesus required of them when turning the other cheek would mean failing to defend one's neighbor or capitulating to the "evil peace" of a repressive aggressor. This was the beginning of the tradition of moral reasoning that began the arduous work of formulating the conditions under which war came to be regarded as sometimes justifiable, sometimes even a duty of love to neighbor and God, as a means of defending or restoring the just peace of a rightly ordered political community. The task of establishing and preserving such a peace was understood, not as a sinful undertaking to sully one's hands, but as a vocation eminently worthy of the Christian in the interim between Christ's Resurrection and Second Advent.

I would like to close with a remark by James H. Toner, Professor of International Relations and Military Ethics at the U.S. Air War College. A number of years ago, he said, while teaching in Vermont, he was on a public affairs panel discussing just war issues. He soon discovered that he was the sole supporter of that notion and was feeling considerable hostility from his audience. An elderly man in the rear stood and said that he wanted to support his views on just war, adding that he was a classical musician. Great, thought Toner: there's one person in the room who agrees with me, and he's probably a nut. "I want to tell you," the man continued, "what is the sweetest music I have ever heard." Toner cringed. "Although I have heard wonderful music thousands of times," the man went on, "the most beautiful was the sound of U.S. Army tanks. You see, they were coming to [the death camp where I was being held as a young man], and that sound meant that I would be able to grow up." (First Things, 5/02, 6)

Bibliography of Cited Works:

Bennett, William J. Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism. New York: Doubleday, 2002.

Braaten, Carl E., and Robert W. Jenson, eds. Union With Christ: The New Finnish Interpretation of Luther. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998.

Chesterton, G.K. Orthodoxy. New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1908; New York: Doubleday, 2001.

Copleston, Frederick C. History of Philosophy. Vol. 2. Medieval Philosophy: Augustine to Scotus. Westminster: Newman Press, 1957.

Hauerwas, Stanley. "When the Politics of Jesus Makes a Difference." The Christian Century (October 13, 1993), 982-987. Reproduced online at

Hauerwas, Stanley. "Interview with Stanley Hauerwas." A transcript of the interview conducted by Sojourners editor, Jim Wallis, on November 8, 2001. SojoNet: SojoNews: Current Opinion.

Langan, S.J., John P. "General Sherman, General Schwarzkopf, and the Ethics of War." Annual Jesuit Lecture in Human Values. Milwaukee: The Center for Ethics Studies, Marquette University, 1992).

Lewis, C.S. "Learning in War-Time." In The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. New York: Macmillan, 1949; Collier Books, 1980).

Lewis, C.S. "Why I Am Not a Pacifist." In The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. New York: Macmillan, 1949; Collier Books, 1980).

Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. New York: Macmillan, 1943; 1979).

Luther, Martin. Admonition to Peace: A Reply to the Twelve Articles of the Peasants in Swabia. (1525) Trans. by Charles M. Jacobs. In Luther's Works. Vol. 46. The Christian in Society, III. Ed. By Robert C. Schultz. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967.

Luther, Martin. Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants. (1525) Trans. by Charles M. Jacobs. In Luther's Works. Vol. 46. The Christian in Society, III. Ed. By Robert C. Schultz. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967.

Murray, John Courtney. We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition. Garden City: Doubleday Image Books, 1964).

Niebuhr, H. Richard. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper & Row, 1951.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. Love and Justice. Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1957; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1992.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. Moral Man and Immoral Society. New York: Scribner, 1960; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

Scalia, Antonin. "God's Justice and Ours." First Things (May 2002), 17-21.

Thomas Aquinas, St. Summa Theologica. 5 Vols. Trans. By the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. 1911; New York: Benziger Brothers, 1948.

Toner, James H. "Resisting Evil With Words and Weapons." First Things (May 2002), 6-7.

Weigel, George. Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972.

Yoder, John Howard. The Christian Witness to the State. Institute of Mennonite Studies Series, No. 3. Newton, KS: Faith and Life Press, 1970.


© 2002 Philip Blosser

An earlier version of this article was presented by Dr. Blosser at the Tenth Annual Aquinas/Luther Conference held October 24-26, 2002 at Lenoir-Rhyne College, and reprinted with his kind permission.

Dr. Blosser teaches at at Lenoir-Rhyne College in North Carolina, and is an associate of the Center for Theology. Among Dr. Blosser's published works are Scheler's Critique of Kant's Ethics.

This website was also privileged to reprint his essay ""The Kasper-Ratzinger Debate and the State of the Church"", published in the New Oxford Review (April 2002).

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