Pacifism and Just War: Finding Common Ground

I recently checked out The Ethics of War and Peace from a local library primarily interested in reading Theodore J. Koontz’s article, “Christian Nonviolence: An Interpretation.” Like most people, I typically enjoy reading authors who I already agree with. There’s nothing quite so satisfying as spending an hour reading someone say what you’d like to say if you had the clout to find your thoughts in print. Unfortunately, I found very little in Koontz’s thought that impressed and instead found myself drawn to the critical response of Michael G. Cartwright to Koontz in “Conflicting Interpretations of Christian Pacifism.”

Cartwright offers a number of probing critiques of Koontz, as well as an interesting engagement with the ethical dualism often inherent to Christian anarchism (which I will treat later), but what struck me most of all was his re-drawing of the lines of conflict. Cartwright admits that there is substantial disagreement between the way Christian pacifists and just war theorists approach the problem of war and the ideal of peace, but suggests, compellingly, that by marking the primary distinction as one between Christians who live in “the house of love” and those that live in the “house of fear” (to borrow Koontz’s terms for describing pacifists and just war theorists), Christians necessarily mute what could be a common, if narrow, witness about war to the rest of the world.

If the conversation is framed as one between just war thinking and Christian pacifism, it is likely to proceed with advocates for just war focusing attention on Christian pacifists–as if they were the problem–while neglecting the challenge posed by other kinds of thinking about war and peace, such as “holy war” thinking, political realism, and Rambo-style militarism.

Borrowing Koontz’s imagery, Cartwright later suggests,

It may be true that “fearful questions never lead to love-filled answers,” but there are many kind of “fearful questions,” and not all such questions are necessarily prompted by the same kinds of fear. To refine the image of the two houses, then, we might agree that not all the rooms in the house of fear are equally well-furnished, morally speaking.

More important than making allowances for a moral continuum, however, Cartwright stresses that the commonalities between the pacifists and just war theorists have something to offer as a witness to the global community, a message both parties are interested in propagating. He offers two specific examples. First, both, in contrast with realpolitik, agree that the burden of proof for justification is for those who choose war. Both ideologies represent a voice in the world, when they aren’t too busy with internecine squabbling, that insists on “why go to war” as the dominant question rather than “why not?” Additionally, both ideologies reject consequentialist reasoning as primary in making personal or political decisions. The ends, in other words, do not necessarily justify the means for either group, and this is particularly true where war is concerned. Cartwright hints at other areas of potential common witness throughout, but these suffice to point out some of the deep ideological commonalities between the two groups.

Unfortunately, the possibility of a shared witness is, as is so often the case, destroyed precisely because of this common ground. As has been seen in countless times and in countless circumstances–for example the denominational struggles between the Baptists and the Restorationists in the 19th century South–it is when groups are most alike that their differences seem most important. Pacifists, and I am no exception, spend an inordinate amount of time assaulting just war thought. Even more incomprehensibly, just war advocates spend a disgusting amount energy trying to undermine pacifism, as if the real problem were Christians who do not go to war rather than Christians who go for sinister reasons to commit unspeakable atrocities.

This is not to say that debate should not continue or that–as Cartwright, with his professional ecumenical bent would seem to suggest–both positions are legitimate expressions of a common set of truths in Christ. It merely admits that war is evil, both in an absolute moral sense and in a utilitarian sense, and that as Christians we have a common duty to “speak the truth to power” against these evils. Where the alliance between Christians modes of thinking is possible it should be embraced rather than rejected because it is incomplete. At the end of the day, a just war theorist and I can sit down and lament the dropping of the bomb and, with any luck, convince the world that the consequentialist logic Harry Truman used and defended throughout his life fails to live up to the highest impulses of our created nature and, more importantly, with the divine expectations God expressed for us in Christ.

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3 thoughts on “Pacifism and Just War: Finding Common Ground

  1. […] As promised, we turn now to Cartwright’s thoughts on an ethical dualism which is characteristic of many, especially popular, expressions of Christian pacifist thought: The bold contrast that Koontz draws between those who have converted to the Christian position and those who have not reflects a broader conception of dualist ethics, one that sharply distinguishes the moral obligations of the Church from those of the (unconverted) world. According to the dualist conception, Koontz argues, those “committed to the way of Christ” are expected to live differently from those in “the world.” The dualist conception therefore leaves open the possibility of a certain “quasi-legitimate” justification for war, provided it is chosen and waged not by Christians but by the state. This view of the “higher responsibility” of Christians has its origins in another ongoing conflict of interpretations within a number of Protestant traditions. As Koontz observes, the conflict arises out of two closely related scriptural passages, St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 12:9-21 and 13:1-7, and is dramatically evident in the 1527 Schleitheim Confession: “The sword is an ordering of God outside the perfection of Christ. It punishes and kills the wicked and protects the Good.” […]

  2. Michael Snow says:

    Not only sit down together and agree about the bomb, but examine what each position ought to mean. For the pacifist, his position is a faithfulness in following Christ, not to be imposed on the state. For the just war advocate, his position allows for the state to ‘not bear the sword in vain, ‘ [as should the pacifist] but should not impose that role on the Christian self.
    ” Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Rom 12:19) See first link on Scripture page here:

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