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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