Stanley Hauerwas takes on C. S. Lewis’  defense of just war at the ABC [Australia] Religion & Ethics site:

I must write critically of Lewis because here I want to examine his views concerning violence and war. I am a pacifist. Lewis was anything but a pacifist. I want to show that his arguments against pacifism are inadequate, but I also that he provides imaginative resources for Christians to imagine a very different form of Christian nonviolence, a form unknown to Lewis, with which I hope he might have had some sympathy . . . .

It is certainly true, Lewis acknowledges, that the lesser violence and harm is to be preferred, but that does not mean that killing X or Y is always wrong or can be avoided. Nor can it be shown that war is always a greater evil. Such a view, Lewis argues, seems to imply a materialistic ethic, that is, the view that death and pain are the greatest evils. But surely Christians cannot believe that. Only people parasitic on liberal societies can afford to be pacifists, believing as they do that the miseries of human suffering can be eliminated if we just find the right cures. But Lewis contends it a mistake to think we can eradicate suffering. Rather we must ”work quietly away at limited objectives such as the abolition of the slave trade, or prison reform, or factory acts, or tuberculosis, not by those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, or peace.”

The standard, effective rejoinder to pacifists (and one I agree with) is that what this ultimately comes down to is a question of eschatology—specifically, where is the ‘New Jerusalem’ to be built, and isn’t it hubristic (not to mention politically foolish) to fully merge anticipation of the world-to-come with things as they are now? Lewis intuits this critique in the passage above, and his answer pretty clearly reflects this attenuated sensibility.

It’s not clear, though, that Hauerwas is comfortable arguing an unvarnished version of the opposite as a foil. He even concedes that “Lewis is quite right  . . . to criticize liberal pacifists for underwriting the presumption that death and pain are the greatest evils we encounter” and acknowledges that pure passivity to serious evil has more in common with a hyper-liberalism than it does with the Christian tradition. But he thinks Lewis got mixed up:

Lewis seems to have assumed that pacifism is rightly identified with liberal forms of pacifism, that is, the view that war is so horrible it has got to be wrong. Liberal pacifists often, as Lewis’s critique presupposes, thought war must be some kind of mistake or the result of a conspiracy, because no right thinking human being can believe war to be a “good thing.” Such a view may seem naive but it was a very common position held by many after World War I. Lewis, therefore, had a far too easy target for his critique of pacifism.

I appreciate Hauerwas’ willingness to critique his own side, and agree that any Christian analysis of war must be grounded in, well, the words and example of Christ, but confess I have a hard time seeing exactly which argument he’s making. We need a new foundation for our thinking, he says, but does this “illiberal pacifism” (to fabricate a term) imply it’s simply the job of the Christian to apply the brakes human societies’ worst tendencies towards war, working and praying that we don’t initiate gratuitous violence or engage in morally problematic conduct once in combat (of these, most Christian just war theorists will readily admit, there is no shortage). Or is he in fact advancing a radical position (in the sense of addressing and attempting to overturn the  radix , the root, of the problem)? The reference to “non-participation” may be a clue to the latter; but even here Hauerwas doesn’t seem to energetically advance it as a moral imperative. But maybe that’s a tactical decision in an essay mainly about Lewis.

On this feast day of St. Augustine, perhaps it’s worth keeping in mind that even the best earthly kingdom, and even “good” individuals or states, may find themselves at odds in this life, regardless of efforts at moral reformism and violence prevention. The origins of the cities of God and man are both marred by fratricide, and it is possible to be “good but not yet perfect:”

The wicked war with the wicked; the good also war with the wicked. But with the good, good men, or at least perfectly good men, cannot war; though, while only going on towards perfection, they war to this extent, that every good man resists others in those points in which he resists himself. And in each individual “the flesh lusteth against the spirit, and the spirit against the flesh.” This spiritual lusting, therefore, can be at war with the carnal lust of another man; or carnal lust may be at war with the spiritual desires of another, in some such way as good and wicked men are at war; or, still more certainly, the carnal lusts of two men, good but not yet perfect, contend together, just as the wicked contend with the wicked, until the health of those who are under the treatment of grace attains final victory.

( City of God,  Book XV, Chapter 5 )


Articles by Matthew Cantirino

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