Drones, Just War, Obama and Pacifism

On Memorial Day I took our youth group to help feed the hungry in downtown Seattle. Bread of Life, a Christian non-profit, sponsored the picnic—their goal was to feed homeless veterans. We served over 500, though the majority were not veterans. Nonetheless, Bread of Life put on a short worship service, a former beauty queen sang “America the Beautiful,” “The Star Spangled Banner,” and Lee Greenwood’s song, “God Bless the U.S.A,” with the line, “… at least I know I’m free.” It’s Seattle so during this worship and picnic, it rained. As I looked at those faces of the homeless, I wondered, “Can they relate to that line, ‘at least I know I’m free’”—they looked to me neither proud nor free, but bound by hunger, desperation and loneliness. Our group did the best we could to salve their wounds.

I wanted to follow up on my last post where I considered Obama’s recent speech on the “War on Terror” (See Andrew Bacevich’s brilliant piece on naming America’s war(s) of empire: http://www.juancole.com/2013/05/forever-speak-bacevich.html). I suggested that he was trying to lay out a careful justification, based on a theory of just war, that despite the civilian causalities, drone warfare was not only just but effective. And I suggested that Niebuhr’s “proximate justice” was an implicit theoretical background for this form of war. At the same time, I argued that Obama follows in the line of a type of Social Gospel extending from the early 20th century through to the neoconservative movement embodied most potently in George W. Bush. I argued that this is an Evangelical Civic Gospel nicely represented in the worship that I experienced at Bread of Life: God, country, duty and patriotism, all celebrated in a robust civil religion.

In a recent reflection on Obama’s speech by Glenn Greenwald, in which he quotes Ross Douthat http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/05/27-5, Obama’s speech is called by Douthat, “preening pageantry,” and by Greenwald, “heavy on feel good rhetoric” hiding policies with little real difference from his predecessor, George W. Bush. Bush’s policy of “preemption,” may have sounded high-minded, but is, in essence, a form of “crusade.” That is, an attack by a state that is not made in defense but preemptively to kill an enemy before they attack you. There is nothing in Augustine or Aquinas that justifies this kind of war. Both Bush and Obama, in this sense, are tied to a primitive form of retribution that has no relation to the Jesus that they both profess to follow.

As I mentioned in my last post, John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas represent a contemporary incarnation of the pacifist position. They argue that neither just war nor preemption reflect the spirit of Jesus. They argue that just war and preemption are loyal first to state power and are always and only interested in that power; any claim to justice, by definition, is a mere rationalization for power. By definition then, a Christian cannot simultaneously be loyal to the state and to Christ, and so citizens must choose—Christ or Caesar.

In the early centuries of the Christian Church, as Christianity became more identified with state power, the distinction of church and state disappeared. And by Augustine, in the 4th century, with his construction of Just War Theory, Christians cozied up to the state rationalizing their participation in the cover of its violence. And since then, few Christians walk the lonely path of pacifism.

As I mentioned, Quakers and some Mennonites still identify as pacifists today; others do as well, but it’s never been a majority position and, by definition, at least sociologically, it tends to be sectarian—no state could or would find a reason to adopt it.

Strikingly, recent examples of megachurch pastors have taken hard lines against war, Greg Boyd, Rob Bell and even Bill Hybels. Hybels preached a sermon before the Iraq War, defining the options—realism, just war and pacifism, and then came out for pacifism. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/28/magazine/28Evangelicals-t.html?pagewanted=6&n=Top/Reference/Times%20Topics/Organizations/L/Los%20Angeles%20Philharmonic&_r=1&. Each of these three pastors paid a price—the loss of members from their congregations—the worse thing that can happen to a megachurch pastor.

It puts a whole different shine on that Memorial Day service we attended on Monday. I’m sure the Bread of Life organization has fine intentions, but at what price does it pay for its loyalty to the state relative to its service to the poor? The Pentecostal Army Chaplain who led the service said, “Soldiers hate war.” And I thought, “Then why do they go?” Reinhold Niebuhr would argue, “Stopping evil and limiting death saves lives.” But doesn’t that eventually lead one to justify war, or more pointedly, preemptive war as a way to police one’s empire? And the answer seems to be it does, at least in the United States. Yoder and Hauerwas would argue that Niebuhr sacrifices his soul for the porridge of state status. No matter which option one chooses, it seems to me, Christians (and people of good conscience everywhere) should have an uneasy conscience when it comes to these matters—I know I do.

Check out Greg Boyd’s The Myth of a Christian Nation: How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church; Rob Bell and Don Golden’s Jesus Wants to Save Christians: Learning to Read a Dangerous Book.



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  • Jerry Lynch

    It is funny that after so many years I still find the fact that the vast majority of Christians are not pacifists surprising; it is truly perplexing. I feel the same about their involvement in politics. Very strange. Thank you for the voice crying in the wilderness.

    • https://www.facebook.com/JamesKWellman James Wellman

      Thank you… poignant words… I must say… but as someone who studies religion and does religion, I guess I’m not that surprised… we are human beings after all… just listening to Rene Girard on scapegoating–as he says, “religion is the placenta for scapegoating…” now that’s a mouthful…but its true in the sense that scapegoating is how humans’ solve conflict, and thus killing Christ makes utter sense, although, as Girard would say it didn’t work or at least not in the way its supposed to, that is, Christ’s innocence reveals rather than fulfills the scapegoating process, and that is the point, Jesus said, “I will reveal what has been hidden from the beginning of time… “

  • Joshua Jeffery

    Thanks for pointing out this second article. I totally agree.

    I may just be hung up on just war, so take my comment for what its worth, but It is striking to me that out of all the just war criteria, that we only meet two: probability of success and malum in se. We violate every other piece of criteria of the doctrine, yet dare to attempt to call our cause just. I for one am glad that my church has historically been both pacifist and non-participatory in government. We’ve largely lost both, but this unjust war is creating a resurgence I believe, across denominational lines, in Christian pacifism.

    • https://www.facebook.com/JamesKWellman James Wellman

      Yes, Obama is expert at coming off as innocent.

  • http://peaceegalitarianism.blogspot.com/ Brian Bowman

    The Mennonite Church, save for some rural traditional congregations, many who are distancing themselves from and leaving the conference, have pledged loyal to the State. They are now, as I call them: pacifist-aggressives, heavily supporting left-wing political enForcement.

    A 2010 American Spectator article entitled “Mennonite Takeover” observes that these loyal-to-the-State Mennonites “increasingly offer their own fairly aggressive politics aligned with the Democratic Party, in a way that should trouble traditional Mennonites” and “now demand a greatly expanded and more coercive state.”

    Apparently they’ve forgotten a lesson my long-bearded Anabaptist grandfather taught me decades ago, that “non-resistance” and State-level politics, even “progressive” politics, are mutually exclusive, which was also noted by Max Weber:

    “For while it is a consequence of the unworldy ethic of love to say, ‘resist not evil with force,’ the politician is governed by the contrary maxim…” [source: Weber: Political Writings: Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought, p. 358]

    • https://www.facebook.com/JamesKWellman James Wellman

      Well defined, sorry to hear. I’m tending to think that Girard has it right, “normal” politics in the human community involves sacrifice, and death, the Jesus way on non-resistance, literally, disturbs “normal” culture…. and many, can’t live without sacrifice, it’s what we’ve always done! Obama just makes go down much easier.

  • james douglas ulrich

    there is a difference between choosing whether violence is the lesser of some other evil and taking sides in a conflict between rival systems both of which resort to some violence. To me ethical pacifism has to be a third way of active resistance which may risk participation in violent conflict. As a moral absolute it merely serves to protect a useless guise of purity. The third way is not endorsing state sponsored violence. It means risking the possibility of self-defense.

    • https://www.facebook.com/JamesKWellman James Wellman

      Well put, thanks.

  • http://jkhtse.wordpress.com/ jkhtse

    Jim, these are fantastic comments, and the Girardian angle you’ve taken here in the comment section is one worth pursuing. I suppose a further question for reflection might revolve around what the import of a Girardian lens might be to questions of American religion (that is, going beyond Hauerwas, Yoder, and the megachurch pastors you’ve discussed in this post) and in relation to Niebuhr’s proximate justice.

  • Mike Graef

    Stumbled on this disturbing but undeniably insightful comment from Proust. Is he saying that basically the State (no matter who is President, no difference whether Turkey or the USA is the study) takes its direction from its reptilian brain? Our efforts to influence the State morally should at least account for what we’re really dealing with.
    “The criminal type furnishes more striking examples. But M. as Norpois and the German Prince, if criminals and their ways were unknown to them, had been accustomed to living on the same plane as nations, which are also, despite their greatness, creatures of selfishness and cunning, kept in order only by force, by consideration of their material interests which may drive them to murder, a murder that is often symbolic also, since its mere hesitation or refusal to fight may spell for a nation the word ‘Perish’.”
    Proust, “The Guermantes Way”