Just War and Pacifism: A Truce

Just War & Pacifism: A Truce, by Austin Fischer

SMcK: One of the great testing grounds for one’s approach to Christian ethics is war: How should Christians participate? Should Christians participate? It is a sad reality that many American Christians don’t bother to think about such a topic and as a result think military actions are entirely justifiable because the nation-state has decided so. But where does Christian thinking come into play in instinctive nationalism or patriotism? Are Jesus and Caesar the same? In this post Austin Fischer, who blogs here occasionally and is the author of Young, Restless, and No Longer Reformed, explores the two major options — just war and pacifism — and finds more in common than many think.

“Pacifism and just war are more like allies seeking to correct what usually happens. They both reject the uncritical acceptance of violence.”[1]John Howard Yoder

We live in polarized times. There are many reasons for this. We are forced to process infinite piles of information, most of which are unfiltered and of dubious legitimacy. And as we breathlessly process the infinite pile of infinite information, we do not have time for subtlety. Something works or it doesn’t work. Something is right or it’s wrong. We make quick, decisive judgments or we will drown.

But perhaps drastic times call for subtle measures, so I have borrowed a subtle proposal that might help Christians become a more peaceable people. This proposal is borrowed from the famous and infamous John Howard Yoder. In his last book, The War of the Lamb, Yoder has a short chapter called “Just War and Nonviolence” and in this short chapter Yoder makes a simple and powerful argument.

Put briefly (and as charitably as possible), it is deranged for Christians to allow just war and pacifism to be perceived as diametrically opposed opposites. And yet, for the most part, they are. Without fail, when just war and pacifism are discussed, their differences are relentlessly accentuated and all that is remembered is that the just warrior thinks it is permissible to kill under certain circumstances and the pacifist does not.

But what if just warriors and pacifists accentuated their agreement that faithfulness to Christ entails a fundamental stance against violence?

For even the most committed Christian just warrior can agree that the very nature of just war rationale presupposes that nonviolence is the ideal to which violence can be an exception, but only with strict justification under certain circumstances. In other words, the truly just warrior has much more in common with the pacifist than he does the overwhelming majority of folks who are willing to justify any violence so long as it serves the best interests of their tribe or nation. The Christian just warrior and pacifist both proclaim a story that proclaims the ontological and eschatological peace of God. They are allies, not enemies!

As Yoder outlines it, just war and pacifism share three very important beliefs.

  1. A moral presumption against violence (though they differ on whether that presumption may be overridden).
  2. A stake in rejecting total war, and therefore making common cause politically against unacceptable national policies.
  3. Support for maximizing the potential of nonmilitary means of pursuing just social objectives, including national defense.[2]

And yet, most just warriors do not seem to realize this, and pacifists are at least partly to blame. So instead of raking just warriors over the coals, pacifists should hold just warriors’ feet to the fire and remind them of their abiding agreement that violence is to be avoided at almost all costs. This is common ground from which we can do remarkable work. It reminds the just warrior how easily the just war tradition has been and continues to be hijacked by greed and nationalism. It reminds the pacifist that insufferable, idealistic, sanctimonious disdain is not a fruit for the healing of the nations. As Yoder says it, nonviolence can help make just war thought more honest, and just war thinking can help make nonviolence more disciplined.[3]

In a world at war, increasingly capable of a total war where all life is exterminated, those who reject an uncritical acceptance of violence are a peculiar people, and we ought to make a truce instead of another war.

[1] John Howard Yoder, The War of the Lamb, 89.

[2] Ibid., 87.

[3] Ibid., 86.

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