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IJanuary 30, 1991

Dear Richard,

Your column in the Wall Street Journal (January 23, 1991), “Just War and This War,” came just in time for me. I have been thinking hard, as you can imagine, about what a pacifist does in war. The article—well done as usual—has provoked me to put my reflections on paper.

In particular I want to respond to your suggestion that pacifists cannot speak against a particular war in a discriminating way. I take it the argument is that since pacifists believe all wars are wrong, they cannot say anything in particular about specific wars. So when the Catholic pacifist bishops condemn this war they in fact are not playing by the rules.

That set of assumptions must be strongly challenged, for such assumptions presume a continuing Niebuhrian characterization of pacifism. Reinhold Niebuhr wanted his pacifists to be vocational pacifists who believed that war was some kind of terrible mistake. As you know, I certainly do not represent that kind of pacifism. My pacifism, which is based upon Christological presuppositions, does not look on our disavowal of war as a strategy to make the world less violent. Indeed, my own view is that Christians are called to nonviolence not because our nonviolence promises to make the world free of war, but because in a world of war we, as faithful followers of Jesus, cannot imagine being other than nonviolent.

I think that it would not be useful in this context to get into a debate about pacifism versus just war theory in terms of faithfulness to the gospel. However, I do think that there is a fundamental issue that needs to be made explicit if we are to conduct an honest debate. The question is what produces just war categories in the first place. From one perspective just war theory can be seen as an attempt by Christians to develop carefully controlled exceptions to the church’s general pacifist position. In that respect just war is dependent upon the practice of the Christian community being fundamentally nonviolent. In other words, just war presupposes that those who would use violence bear the burden of proof. The just war criteria are a series of checks to help keep Christians honest in their thinking about the possible legitimate use of violence. In that case, I see no reason why pacifists cannot as easily as just war advocates enter into the kind of concrete judgments that might inform Christian conscience about this or that particular war.

Another account of just war theory, however, presupposes that just war is not a theory of exceptions but rather an attempt to control the logic of war given the assumption that Christians are always going to need to use violence. That is the reason that Paul Ramsey, of blessed memory, always argued that just wars should never be fought for peace. Rather, just wars are fought for limited political objectives that attempt only to secure just order in an essentially disordered world. Hence, this latter view of just war theory presumes that the first Christian stance is not nonviolence, but rather the ordered use of violence.

If this latter position is taken, the problem becomes how you generate just war criteria in the first place. If you accept, as Ramsey did, a basically “realist” account of international relations, then it is not clear that you can sustain the just war presumption that you would rather lose the war than have to resort, for example, to direct attacks upon noncombatants.

I do not raise this issue to try to defeat the just war position in principle. Rather, I raise it to indicate that the kind of justifications you give for just war theory make a difference for how you understand the relationship between the pacifist and just war judgments about particular wars. Being a Christian pacifist does not in principle prohibit me from trying to be a good citizen. Such citizenship demands, however, that I require whoever is running the state to determine policy on just war grounds. Accordingly, I do not see why in principle I am prohibited from making the kinds of judgments that might contribute to my fellow just war citizens’ perception of whether or not a particular war might be averted.

Crucial to this set of issues is the question of who is doing the judging about justifiable war. Here I am afraid we have a deep difference. You continue to presume that Christian ethics is to be written in a manner that makes it accessible to those in power, or at least to the readers of the Wall Street Journal. (In that context I think your attack on Christian criticism of the war cannot help but reinforce, in spite of your own attempt to support just war categories, the secular view that religious leaders are hopelessly idealist since they fail to see that war is finally not open to moral control.) In contrast, I assume that Christian ethics is to be written first and foremost for Christians in the church, some of whom may find themselves in political office.

You assume that just war theory is a general ethic that should and can be used by anyone—in particular, leaders of states. Such an assumption accepts the transformation by Grotius and others of just war theory into an aspect of international law applicable to the emerging nation-state system. In other words, your account of just war is ahistorical, since you want just war to appear as an abstract and universal set of criteria that seems to come from nowhere. Missing is any account of the difference it makes who is using the criteria, from what position, and for what purpose. Consider, for example, the difference between your application of the theory and its use to inform penitential practice by Christians for the examination of conscience. The latter use requires the presumption that when Christians kill their souls are in jeopardy. In contrast, your use of the theory does not presume that salvation is at stake or that the church exists as part of that salvation. All you assume is the nation-state in a system of nation-states.

In your article you rightly stress that there is no way to avoid prudential judgments about these matters. I think that you are also correct that at least at a very general level the Iraqi war is arguably within just war constraints. But what your argument lacks is any account of how Christian convictions might inform the kind of prudential judgment you rightly indicate must be made. Here again the crucial issue is who is doing the judgment and for what end. I must admit I find your willingness to defer to “expertise in the fields” unusual in one who in good Niebuhrian fashion usually challenges those who would mask self-interest in the language of objectivity. Surely you do not think international relations a “science.” Moreover, to defer to “expertise” would seem to evacuate just war of the kind of prudence it is meant to form—that is, wise judgments about contingent matters in which “facts” and “values” cannot be separated. Those are precisely the kinds of judgments most “experts” in international relations dismiss in the name of “realism.”

On specific just war grounds, for example, it is not at all clear to me that this war has met the criteria of last resort. You can praise George Bush all you want for the five months that he gave Saddam Hussein to withdraw from Kuwait, but I think that is to take a very narrow reading of what has been going on. Do not we as Christians need to ask why George Bush decided in the beginning to make this an issue of international politics? Why could the invasion of Kuwait not be seen as an inter-Arab problem that the Arabs would need to resolve among themselves?

The answer given is that we must respond to naked aggression. But again the issue here is who is the “we”? Even if we assume the “we” is something called the United States of America, it can certainly be questioned whether the “respond to aggression” argument is persuasive. We did not respond to Saddam Hussein’s aggression against Iran. We did not respond when Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds. We have not responded to aggressions in Chad and Timor. We did not respond to China’s invasion of Tibet, nor did we try to stop China from brutalizing its own people. Why now this aggression?

This is not to argue that the “respond to aggression” argument has no power, but rather to point out that it is inadequate. Surely the situation involves further considerations—such as our need for oil. Now I would not want to deny that an appropriate reason for war on just war grounds is a nation’s economic survival. It might even be the case that it is not our oil that we are most worried about, but oil for the Third World. If this were the case, the war could be seen as an extraordinarily charitable act on our part to ensure that developing nations continue to have the resources necessary for their development. One might develop some cynicism about that view of things given Japan’s economic strengths, but I am willing to overlook that at this point.

But once such considerations are introduced, surely Christian conviction must begin to make a difference. Would it not have been appropriate for George Bush to have addressed the American people, many of whom are Christian, and to have said, “In order to avoid a war in the Persian Gulf we are going to have to change our consumption habits concerning oil. Indeed, for weaker nations to be able to have the resources they need, we may be required to devote billions of dollars in aid to sustain them.” If this war is going to cost $80 billion, why could we not have invested that in sustaining the kind of economic development the threat to which made this war seem so compelling?

What I have in mind here are those wonderful examples Paul Ramsey gives in Who Speaks for the Church? concerning how we, as Christians, might be the kind of people who could make the necessities of policy less matters of necessity. In other words, if as Christians we were more determined in our habits of nonviolence, would it not encourage George Bush to address us in this way: “Part of my problem is that I am a leader of an extraordinarily rich nation with rich Christians. You have gotten used to being rich and you do not want to lose your wealth. However, I cannot see how we can pursue a just foreign policy that avoids war unless we examine our own habits as a people. That is what I must call upon us to do if we are to be a nation capable of fighting more nearly justifiable wars.”

I am aware that the response to such a proposal is that it is politically unrealistic. George Bush could not be elected president if he said that. But in that case I must ask how Christians are to view the claim that this is a justifiable war in that it is absolutely a last resort.

For those who think the argument too theoretical, let me make it more concrete. Assume first of all that we were engaged in the blockade in a manner that was not an attack on a noncombatant. After five months of waiting in the Saudi desert. President Bush might find it necessary to address the American people thus: “We haven’t gotten the kind of response we want. But we do not want to go to war unless it is absolutely the last resort. Delaying longer may mean that if we go to war we will lose more troops than we would if we went to war now. However, I know that you are a peaceable people and would do anything to avoid unnecessary death, either of Iraqis or our own soldiers. So I am going to ask you to be patient and wait longer so that we might use every means at our disposal to avoid the necessity of war.”

I take it that the analogy would not be unlike what would have been necessary to justify the invasion of Japan rather than the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I am sure you would agree with me that those bombings, as well as the earlier bombings of Tokyo, were clearly immoral. (Though George Will in a recent column declared the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki “morally correct” since it saved “more than a million lives.”) What was morally necessary was for the American people to face more deaths by both Japanese and American soldiers on the beaches of Japan rather than countenance those terrible immoral actions. The natural response, of course, is that the American people would not have stood for that.

But then I must ask: do we have a population trained well enough in the habits of sacrifice to make just war possible? Pacifists are often condemned for being Utopian and idealist. But I take it that the habits of the population necessary to conduct justifiable war require great drafts of courage and sacrifice not unlike that of nonviolence. Where do we see that in the current situation? Is one any less an idealist for believing that such habits are necessary?

I am aware, of course, that there are further aspects of the situation that need to be discussed, such as the place of Israel. Indeed, I suspect the war is not merely about aggression and/or oil, but is also very much about Israel. God knows, given the Christian persecution of the Jews through the centuries, it is not easy for Christians to ask Jews to take more risks. But surely the long-term safety of Israel is as much threatened by creating even more Arab hatred toward Israel. Indeed, on geopolitical grounds it seems to me that this war is a mammoth distraction from other critical issues of international relations. As Zbigniew Brzezinski and others have pointed out, the greater danger to world peace currently is the turmoil in the Soviet Union. The situation there may be extremely critical in terms of long-term geopolitical considerations of how we ensure a world order less likely to be engaged in war.

I think that way of approaching the matter of a new world order is extremely important. I certainly hope that you shudder with me at the way George Bush talks of a new world order. I must admit that all I could think of as he spoke of it was Augustine’s City of God. Surely the order Bush was talking about was the order that is based upon war and violence. That is not the city of our God, nor is it the kind of peace we have been offered as Christians. I am well aware that Augustine’s two cities have been used to underwrite realist accounts of the world that justify our engagement in violence a la Reinhold Niebuhr. However, I am quite sure that this is a strong misreading of Augustine that does not take account of Augustine’s never-failing sense that the church must always stand independent and peaceful against the world. I do not see how the narrative you imbedded in your article helps us to do that. But again the crucial question is: who is the “us”? Your rhetoric mixes “we Christians” with “we Americans” in a way that I think compromises our ability as Christians to be a people with habits necessary to help our non-Christian fellow citizens realize that the story of righteousness they associate with being American is deeply problematic.

I think that you are right that some of the antiwar response by the World Council of Churches and the National Council of Churches is simply endemic anti-Americanism. I certainly would not want to identify with that attitude. But while I do not think that America is the source of all the evil in the world, neither do I think it is the source of all good or the beacon of hope for all nations in the world.

In that respect, Richard, I must say I think you dismiss the National Council of Churches’ criticism of Columbus Day far too easily. Surely Columbus Day is deeply problematic for Christians, as Columbus represents the fusing of economic and military power with the witness to the gospel. That Columbus is part of our story as Christians cannot be denied, but that story surely must be told in a way far different from the way it is celebrated by the United States of America. All history is a history of injustice as our civilizations are built on innocent blood, but as Christians we must resist turning those narratives into histories of righteousness.

Surely sin has something to do with all this, and I must admit I miss it in your account of just war. For example, even on Niebuhrian grounds, might you not counsel George Bush to look twice at his assumed justification for this war? Surely Niebuhr would have said that such justifications reek of sin, which consideration should make us pause before we engage in armed hostilities. Again the issue is: how do your Christian convictions really enter into the kind of prudential judgments you say must be made? Who are you allowing to write the narrative that justifies this war? As your pacifist brother, I simply will not allow myself to be shunted, in Niebuhrian fashion, into “a necessary reminder” for those who must engage in a politically responsible way given the realities of the world. I have a responsibility as a Christian to challenge those narratives that have so tragically captured our imagination that they seem to make war inevitable.

As your Methodist brother in Christ, I ask you to take your Catholic brothers and sisters more seriously. John Paul II is not just the leader of Catholics in America, he is the spiritual guide for Catholics in Egypt, Iran, and Iraq. How can the world know that the peace made ours in Christ is true if Christians kill Christians in the name of national boundaries? I am well aware of the quote from Pius XII that other nations have an obligation “not to abandon a nation that is attacked,” but I would challenge the assumption that the only alternative to abandonment is war.

I know that the deepest agony about this war has little to do with arguments about the viability of just war and/or pacifism. All that I have said cannot help but appear as Monday-morning quarterbacking. It is just too late. If that is true, however, it is also too late for just war justifications that too often seem to make what “our” nation does a moral necessity: a nice reversal of the Kantian claim that “ought” requires a “can.” We simply seem caught in a “lesser of two evils” choice—a situation that it is precisely the intent of just war theory to avoid. The import of my remarks is that as Christians we must find a way to resist such necessity by forcing our imagination to envision alternatives not possible for those whose narratives are not formed by the cross of Jesus.

Of course there remains the terrible problem of how to stand for peace while “our” men and women are risking everything in battle. There is a horrible logic that compels us to attribute righteousness to war exactly because of the sacrifice made by those who prosecute war. War becomes its own justification simply because it is so terrible. As a pacifist, I pass no judgment against those who will do the actual killing and dying in this war. (I do not think most are there “voluntarily”—though I think that finding themselves there they will want to think they are doing their duty.) Rather I am overcome with regret that I have done so little to help make clear that there is an alternative to war. I pray most of all that as the soldiers kill they will do so sorrowfully, recognizing that this cannot be what God has called us to be. I know as an advocate of just war you will join me in that prayer as we must now prepare to oppose all celebration of “victory.”




February 7, 1991

Dear Stan,

My essay in the Wall Street Journal was written during the first week of the allied military response to Saddam Hussein’s aggression of August 2, 1990, and your letter to me shortly thereafter. By the time this appears in print, the war will in all probability be over. As you know, I am not sure about the wisdom of a public exchange, but perhaps you are right. Certainly you do raise some questions of perennial importance, and there may well be interest in how two Christians attempted to engage one another during a time of war.

As to whether pacifists can address the justice of particular wars, I wrote: “An oddity in the Catholic situation is that bishops who insist that all military action is morally impermissible in principle are influentially involved in deliberations about whether a specific military action is morally permissible.” I admit that it is possible, at least in theory, that a pacifist could, by a remarkable act of self-denying discipline, abstract himself from his convictions. As a “rational and disinterested observer,” he could then contribute to deliberating whether a specific war is morally right, even though he knows that this war, like all wars, is morally wrong.

I note, however, that the bishops who are declared pacifists do not exhibit such discipline in their arguments and agitations, and it is therefore indeed an “oddity” that, on questions of war and peace, they are so influential in the bishops conference. Second, it seems odd that I should be reminding you that your entire project as a Christian ethicist has been directed against the idea that moral deliberation can or should be done by what you insist is the myth of the rational and disinterested observer. (A point on which we are, for the most part, in agreement.) Third, you are fond of quoting John Howard Yoder’s maxim that Christians have no business doing ethics for Caesar. It is odd in the extreme, but I wonder if that is not exactly what you are doing in your letter, even to the point of writing speeches for Caesar.

You touch on so many matters, Stan, that I am forced to be rather eclectic in my response. You say, “Christians are called to nonviolence . . . because in a world of war we, as faithful followers of Jesus, cannot imagine being other than nonviolent.” I do not understand why God’s call should be limited by our imagination. More to the immediate point, from at least the second century, millions upon millions of Christians have thought (imagined?) it to be their moral duty to engage in warfare. Many of them have been esteemed by the church as exemplars of Christian virtue, and some have been canonized as saints.

If you cannot “imagine” this to be the case, is it possible that the problem is with your imagination? Or maybe you are saying that they and those who approve of them are not “faithful followers of Jesus.” Or perhaps you are really saying that they are not Christians, in which case you would seem to be excommunicating the overwhelming majority of those who, past and present, thought themselves to be Christians. I know that you now disown the title “sectarian,” but it does seem that sectarian is the right word for those who affirm a church that has slight relationship to the empirical reality that is the church through time.

I wrote: “The presumption of just war theory is against the use of military force. The theory erects an obstacle course of moral testings aimed at preventing the unjust resort to war.” And yes, I agree with Paul Ramsey that the goal is “to secure just order in an essentially disordered world.” The question is not violence vs. nonviolence but legitimate vs. illegitimate uses of force. Violence is better understood as the illegitimate use of force, and just war theory is designed to restrain that as much as possible in a history that will always be marked by violence short of the End Time. As we have discussed at length over the years, especially in connection with your The Peaceable Kingdom, I believe your prohibition of “violence” leaves no room for the legitimate uses of force or coercion, even with respect to domestic policing functions. It is not helpful for you to say that we should not “get into a debate about pacifism versus just war theory in terms of faithfulness to the gospel.” That, it seems to me, is precisely what your letter is into, except when it is doing ethics for Caesar.

You write that it is a just war presumption “that you would rather lose the war than have to resort, for example, to direct attacks upon noncombatants.” This war has been notable, to date, for the relatively few civilian casualties, and no attacks (by the allies) have been directed against noncombatants. As to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Dresden, one might agree that those bombings were immoral, while going on to argue that the allies did not “have to” do what they did. The alternative was not preferring to lose the war. It seems to me that you are confounding the distinction between the justice of the cause and the justice of the means employed (jus ad bellum and jus in bello).Many immoral things are done—although not of necessity—in the prosecution even of a just war. They can (and must) be condemned as immoral without negating the justice of the war. In any event, I do not understand why you think Hiroshima is in any sense an “analogy” with the war in the Gulf. My essay, after all, was titled “Just War and This War” (emphasis added).

You wonder who I mean when I say “we.” In that essay, I meant “we Americans,” very much including we Americans who are Christians. I am, by the grace of God, a member of the City of God with responsibilities for the City of Man. (The discussion of our different readings of Augustine’s great text is for another time.) We Christians are, in the words of the second-century Letter to Diognetus, “alien citizens”—people for whom “any foreign country is a homeland, and any homeland a foreign country.” I do not know that there is a difference between us on this, although I am puzzled by some of your formulations. You say you want to be “a good citizen,” but, when you speak of our nation, you put “our” in quotes. Why is that? Are you suggesting that one can be a citizen without a nation, as you sometimes seem to suggest that one can be a Christian without a church? (I appreciate that most of the time you insist that Christian existence apart from the church is an illusion.)

You say there is a “deep difference” between us because I “presume that Christian ethics is to be written in a manner that makes it accessible to those in power.” And that comes immediately after you have declared it to be your duty to give ethical counsel to “whoever is running the state.” I don’t get it, Stan. Is the ethics in which you would instruct George Bush not “Christian ethics”? If not, what kind of ethics is it? If it is Christian ethics but it is not accessible to George Bush, isn’t it quite futile for you to attempt to be “a good citizen” who would counsel “whoever is running the state”?

There is no doubt a difference between us, but I think it is not the difference you suggest. We both want our nation not to engage in unjust wars. You, as a pacifist, want it to engage in no wars at all. We both believe that the church qua church cannot be a belligerent in temporal conflicts, for it is the prolepsis of the peaceable kingdom of eschatological promise. I believe that Christians are alien citizens whose primary loyalty is to the heavenly polis and whose obedience to Christ the King entails responsibility for the earthly polis. That responsibility may include engaging in war, in narrowly prescribed circumstances which it is the purpose of just war theory to define. Being an alien citizen is a very unsatisfactory thing, fraught with moral ambiguities and the need for conscientious discernment. It is not of our choosing, however, that we live “between the times” of resurrection promise and historical consummation.

Further, I believe—and here, too, I expect there is a difference between us—that the God in whom we trust for the fulfillment of the promise is also the Creator of the universe and Lord of history in a manner that assures a certain correspondence, albeit disordered by sin, between His will and human reason and the laws of nature. As a result, ethics grounded in and thoroughly compatible with Christian faith is “accessible” also to non-Christians. It is, in other words, a public ethic. The Christian tradition provides various ways of describing such an ethic—e.g., natural law, common grace, orders of preservation, the twofold kingdom. This is the ethic that is pertinent to the right ordering of the earthly polis, and Christians are not “compromised” when they employ it. Indeed they have a Christian duty to do so. Why there should be such a public ethic is itself part of the Christian story about the nature of God’s world.

According to that story, Christian existence is inescapably dualistic. Short of the End Time, we are surrounded by monistic temptations. There is the monism that separates Christian discipleship from our membership in the earthly polis (sectarianism). There is the monism that would subsume the earthly polis in the rule of the regenerate (theocracy), and the monism that would do the reverse (Erastianism). All are temptations to be resisted. The necessary tension of Christian existence must not be relaxed until it is relieved upon the sounding of the seventh trumpet when “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.” (Revelation 11:15)

It is of more than incidental importance that George Bush is not just “whoever is running the state.” He participates in the same tension in which we find ourselves. You are not doing ethics for a Caesar who is indifferent or hostile to Christian discipleship. George Bush is, unless you know something that I don’t know, our brother in Christ. Had I his ear, I would surely “counsel [him] to look twice at his assumed justification for this war.” But it would be presumptuous for me to do so as though he had not already considered the matter many times more than twice. He sought moral and spiritual counsel from Christian leaders. I have reason to believe that he prayed earnestly over his decision. He explained his decision to the nation with explicit reference to just war criteria. Of course that does not mean that he made the right decision.

In the article to which you take such exception, I framed my conclusion this way: “The military response may yet turn out to be a tragic mistake. God only knows. Certainly mistakes will be made. But, on the basis of just war principles and with reasonable trust in the prudential judgment of our leaders, we may confidently proceed in the belief that our course is just.” Confidence is not absolute certainty. We walk by faith and not by sight, leaving final judgments to God.

There are yet other differences raised by your letter. You suggest, for instance, that the resort to force did not meet the criterion of “last resort.” Of course it is always possible to call another conference or set another deadline. But prudential judgment is about reasonable measures, and I believe the case can be made that every reasonable measure had been exhausted, and that further delay would have compounded the wrong that had to be remedied.

You say, for instance, that there are other aggressions to which we did not respond with military force. Of course. I don’t know why you think that is a pertinent argument, however. Are you suggesting, for instance, that we should intervene militarily to drive China from Tibet, and could do so within the limits of just war criteria? Or are you suggesting that, if we cannot remedy every wrong by the use of force, we should remedy no wrong by the use of force? If that is the point, it would seem to be but another, and quite unconvincing, way of arriving at a pacifist policy, which, I would urge, is no policy at all.

Much of your letter is premised upon your reading of geopolitical, military, and economic matters. It is not the case that I criticized religious leaders who condemned the war for being too “idealistic.” I do criticize them for presenting their prudential judgments as moral arguments, presumably because they are the judgments of citizens who happen to be religious leaders. You know perfectly well that I do not think politics is a “science” best left to the “experts.” But when considering, for instance, the “proportionality” criterion of just war, I did think that George Bush, Colin Powell, and Les Aspin had a better grasp of what military action would mean than did religious leaders with their predictions of apocalyptic destruction.

Finally, Stan, you assume that I will join you in opposing all celebration of “victory” (your quotes). I’m not at all sure of that. I will continue to warn, as I have relentlessly warned, against the temptations of national hubris. I will continue to point out that we are a nation “under God,” which means under transcendent judgment. I will continue to caution that no world order will be free from the radical disorder of sin, and no hope for earthly peace should be confused with the saving peace that is ours in Christ. God willing, there will be something like a “new world order” that will restrain the violence to which politics among nations is prone. To be sure, it will be partial and it will be only for a time, but I would like to think that you join me in prayer that it will be.

I do expect, however, that there will be a victory in the sense that, in this military conflict, one side will win and the other will lose. And because the outcome I expect will be the vindication of a just cause against a great wrong, I will be immensely grateful. Feelings of gratitude will be tempered by grief over the suffering and death on both sides, but it will be gratitude nonetheless.

When I am grateful, I know the need to give thanks. I am sure I will give thanks in the company of other thankful people, and no doubt it will look very much like a celebration. We will gather as Christians and as citizens, uneasy as always about the tension between the two. Despite everything, maybe you will be there, too, and once more we can tell one another the stories of the City of God, in which alone is our peace.

Your brother in Christ,


Stanley Hauerwas , a member of the Editorial Board of First Things , is Professor of Theological Ethics at the Divinity School, Duke University.

Richard John Neuhaus is Editor-in-Chief of First Things .