Having to Kill vs. Getting to Kill

Having to Kill vs. Getting to Kill December 8, 2014

One of the perennial questions that arises in discussion of the morality of violence is “If war is so bad, why do we have saints like Joan of Arc?”  In a curiously related way, questions like “How can torture be that bad?  After all, killing is worse than torture, but we get to kill in war, so why shouldn’t we get to torture?”

To get our brains started right, ponder this.

We sense something wrong here, but what is it exactly?  After all, we hear constantly from Christians that war is noble and Christian and good.  So why not depict Jesus blowing away bad guys?

Chesterton remarks:

We have all heard people say a hundred times over, for they seem never to tire of saying it, that the Jesus of the New Testament is indeed a most merciful and humane lover of humanity, but that the Church has bidden this human character in repellent dogmas and stiffened it with ecclesiastical terrors till it has taken on an inhuman character. This is, I venture to repeat, very nearly the reverse of the truth. The truth is that it is the image of Christ in the churches that is almost entirely mild and merciful. It is the image of Christ in the Gospels that is a good many other things as well. The figure in the Gospels does indeed utter in words of almost heartbreaking beauty his pity for our broken hearts. But they are very far from being the only sort of words that he utters. Nevertheless they are almost the only kind of words that the Church in its popular imagery ever represents him as uttering. That popular imagery is inspired by a perfectly sound popular instinct. The mass of the poor are broken, and the mass of the people are poor, and for the mass of mankind the main thing is to carry the conviction of the incredible compassion of God. But nobody with his eyes open can doubt that it is chiefly this idea of compassion that the popular machinery of the Church does seek to carry. The popular imagery carries a great deal to excess the sentiment of ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.’ It is the first thing that the outsider feels and criticizes in a Pieta or a shrine of the Sacred Heart.

As I say, while the art may be insufficient, I am not sure that the instinct is unsound. In any case there is something appalling, something that makes the blood run cold, in the idea of having a statue Christ in wrath. There is something insupportable even to imagination in the idea of turning the corner of a street or coming out into the spaces of a market-place, to meet petrifying petrifaction of that figure as it turned upon a generation of vipers, or that face as it looked at the face of a hypocrite. The Church can reasonably be justified therefore if she turns the most merciful face or aspect towards men; it is certainly the most merciful aspect that she does turn.

Meanwhile, C.S. Lewis, in the Four Loves comments on Jesus’ strange command to hate mother, father, sister and brother:

For most of us the true rivalry lies between the self and the human Other, not yet between the human Other and God.  It is dangerous to press upon a man the duty of getting beyond earthly love when his real difficulty lies in getting so far.  And it is no doubt easy enough to love the fellow-creature less and to imagine that this is happening because we are learning to love god more, when the real reason may be quite different.  We may be only ‘mistaking the decays of nature for the increase of Grace’.  Many people do not find it really difficult to hate their wives or mothers.  M. Mauriac, in a fine scene, pictures the other disciples stunned and bewildered by this strange command, but not Judas.  He laps it up easily. </>

The problem with the Christian who mistakes the worship of Mars for the worship of Christ is that he is making the good the enemy of the perfect.  The saint who sacrifices comfort, health, happiness and life to defend the home he loves is acting out of love in the midst a fallen and damaged world to the best of his ability.  But he never–for Christ never–sees killing or harming as something he “gets” to do.  The soldier in war kills as an onerous necessity, not as a privilege (and Pope Benedict has already voiced the perfectly legitimate suggestion that “today we should be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a ‘just war’.”).  And for that very reason, the instant an enemy is in his power is the instant a Catholic warrior abandons any thought of trying to harm him and, as the Church commands, seeks to treat him humanely.  If your goal is to treat a prisoner humanely, you are not trying to figure out how much pain or terror you can inflict on him.  Briefly summed up, the Catholic teaching on war is this:  If phasers existed, troops would be absolutely morally obliged set them on “stun” and would sin if they set them on “kill”, since the goal is to stop, not kill, the aggressor.  Unfortunately, no phasers exist, and so in our fallen world we must sometimes kill in battle.  But the moment the enemy ceases to be the enemy and become our prisoner, we owe it to him to treat him with dignity.

The distance between asking, as the Church does, “How can we avoid harming or killing unless absolutely necessary?” and “When do we get to kill?” is the immense gulf between how the Church thinks about human life and how post-moderns–whether Nancy Pelosi looking for loopholes for abortion or “conservatives” looking for loopholes for unjust war and torture–think.

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  • Dave G.

    I think some good points here. However, there is one danger. That is taking a good point – that there are likely those pining to increase human slaughter – and applying it to people who simply ask questions or ponder or struggle or are curious, or even might not want to increase human slaughter and fear that certain courses of action could lead to just that. Remembering that when it comes to killing, we’re reminded that while we’ve heard thou shalt not kill, turning to raca and fool are seen as no better, and often the beginning of troubles. There’s more than one way to kill a person after all, and at least some of them have to do with physical death.

    • Donna

      BTW, St. Jeanne D’Arc led in battle with her banner . She carried a sword, but never actually killed anyone. However, she was wounded several times.

      • Dave G.

        That’s awesome. I didn’t know that. I just remember reading about her in my agnostic days, in books written by secular academics. She was always a mystery, and even die hard critics admitted her story was a tough nut to crack.

  • Ye Olde Statistician

    Chesterton once suggested that Western civilization was a struggle between the old pagan dictate to take revenge on your enemies and the new Christian dictate to love and forgive your enemies. What they came up with was the chivalric dictate that you may fight your enemies, but fairly.

    • Rob B.

      And try to take him prisoner whenever possible… 🙂

  • Marthe Lépine

    Is the figurine for real? I find it hard to believe that some designer (Christian or not) could have come up with that! (Source, please…to help people boycott whatever business is guilty of that)

    • Stu

      It’s not real. It’s a photoshop (and not a particularly good one).

  • CJ

    Jem’Hadar are invulnerable to stuns and can only be stopped by the lethal setting. Your argument is invalid.

    • Sheila C.

      There is another issue with this — people will rush a stunner because, well, why wouldn’t you? Whereas if they know you’ve got a killing weapon, you can subdue a dozen people fully capable of rushing you, because they will be afraid you will shoot them and they’ll die.

      However. I can only imagine how much better our cops would be if they had stunners instead of guns.

  • Neihan

    I see your Photoshop and raise you another.

    Flippancy aside, it’s a very good post. Thank you for it.

  • KM

    That photo-shopped picture of a warrior Jesus (sans muscles though) reminds me of the SNL spoof called “Djesus Uncrossed.” “Djesus Uncrossed” was disturbing because it showed a Jesus whose Second Coming is a gory butt-kicking Tarantino-style festival of revenge violence. It made me laugh nervously because I think there are some people who would cheer on that earthly kind of justice.

  • KM
  • Stu
    • KM

      I wish I’d had the time to see that when I was in DC. The image (to me anyway) looks stern, not angry.

      “The largest mosaic of Christ in Majesty in the world, it was completed in 1959 and was the gift of an anonymous donor…Modeled in the Byzantine tradition, it depicts Christ in glory and majesty seated upon a rainbow throne, symbolic of pardon and reconciliation. This is the Apocalyptic Christ who comes as the absolute reproving Lord and final judge (raised right brow) and with the love and compassion of the Good Shepherd (relaxed left brow).”


      • Stu

        People all see it differently. I really like it. It’s a good reminder of where we sit in the scheme of things.

        • Rob B.

          I attended CUA for my graduate degree and I remember sitting in the basilica looking at that image. It is indeed a powerful reminder that Christ is not the doe-eyed simpleton that many modern Christians want him to be…

  • Rob B.

    I agree that the bloodthirst of Americans is problematic. Still from time to time, it’s worth reminding people that Christ did whip moneychangers out of the Temple.

    • Dave G.

      Bloodthirst of Americans? In that they repeatedly fail to be better than the rest of the world.

  • Joe

    I personally prefer the Kung Fu Jesus action figure.

  • Jassuz8

    “But the moment the enemy ceases to be the enemy and become our prisoner, we owe it to him to treat him with dignity.”
    I agree, and I’m impressed with everything in this article (except for that awful depiction of Jesus) 🙂

  • Jonk

    How about the difference between “When do we get to use the threat of deadly force to confiscate property and coerce behavior?” and “For what end is it necessary to use the threat of deadly force to confiscate property or to coerce behavior?”