A couple of weeks back, Robert George delivered a First Thoughts post exhorting Catholics to take more seriously the moral hazards involved in the use of drones in war. Nicholas Hahn of Real Clear Religion has taken him up on that and, in the process, to task.
George and Hahn are serious people, and readers can draw their own conclusions about their respective arguments. But, in reading them you may agree that very quickly, and necessarily, the question of drones leads to a more fundamental claim—one invoked by, of all people, Barack Obama, in of all contexts, his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize.
On that occasion the president appealed to the concept of bellum iustum—the “just war”—presumably, to defend the two operations being waged concurrently under his command and to brush back charges the Nobel Committee was using him as a prop in that political theater whose repertoire consists of a tired farce in which the U.S plays the villainous lead.
Just War theories, of secular as well as religious provenance, have come in a variety of shapes and sizes, including those that either reject the notion or place it low on the ladder of realpolitik priorities. As part of a Christian lexicon, though, it can understandably seem a contradiction in terms. Indeed, Christian apologists treating the topic tend to begin by acknowledging that the very effort is self-indicting—a function of our sinful condition—and thus, a concession.
Please understand: I do not count Dr. George and Mr. Hahn among those I’m about to describe. I am, however, troubled by Christians who can ascertain divine warrant for say, capital punishment (an issue that, aside from his own death by such means, Jesus addressed at best obliquely), yet find ambiguity in such daunting Gospel moments as “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.”
In the last century, Mohandas Gandhi waged a different kind of war. Through it he made a compelling case for the radically nonviolent activism of ahimsa, and demonstrated its potential as a lever for seismic social change. Born as it was, from the union of religious reverence and political pragmatism, his pugnacious brand of pacifism accomplished the seemingly impossible. It also caught the attention of Christians who wondered if the mahatma was on to something Christ himself might prefer to some of the alternatives expounded in his name.
Yet, throughout his campaign, Gandhi remained keenly aware of the profound challenges posed by ahimsa, and the total commitment it required. In his eyes, if one could not manage it, it would be better to fight tooth and claw than default to inert pacifism.
Gandhi’s example had a documented influence on the formerly pistol-packing Martin Luther King, Jr. In turn, King’s exercise of Christian nonviolence has assumed its rightful its place as one of the noblest chapters in American history.
Human beings do unspeakably vicious things—are doing so as I write and you read this. Christians are commissioned to witness to the love that is the antidote to that eruptive darkness, the unconditional love that is the true nature of things.
While it is no small feat to turn the other cheek, it is another thing when the cheek being struck is not one’s own but that of a loved one—or an innocent stranger. I like to imagine I could rise to the challenge of Gandhi and King’s model with respect to my own hide. I am decidedly less sure when met with hypotheticals, like whether my killing a dictator would spare millions suffering and death.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer confronted that proposition and concluded he had the paradoxical obligation to violate the sixth commandment—in order to be faithful to its author. The cost of his discipleship was death—hanged two weeks before American troops liberated the concentration camp in which he had been held.
In the course of history there have been countless wars, short and long. For over a decade now the U.S. has been engaged in military conflicts that, in the views of the present pope and his predecessor, could and ought to have been avoided with a more rigorous application of just war doctrine. Unfortunately, in the words of Bill Vallicella, “Philosophy is magnificent in aspiration, but miserable in execution.”