Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In their editorial “In a Time of War” (December 2001), the Editors of First Things declare: “One matter that has been muddied in recent decades should now be clarified: those who in principle oppose the use of military force have no legitimate part in the discussion about how military force should be used.” Silenced. I have been silenced and I find it tempting to accept being silenced. September 11, 2001, and its aftermath have filled me with a saddened silence. Every thought I have about that terrible day seems to suggest a certainty I do not possess.

However, the editorial has made it impossible for me to remain silent. The gross and distorted characterization of pacifism, as well as the defense of the American response to September 11, requires a response. Given my identification with First Things , for me to remain silent cannot help but suggest I accept the position taken in “In a Time of War,” when the exact opposite is the case.

I find it almost beyond belief that the Editors resort to the Niebuhrian distinction between nonviolent resistance and non-resistance in order to silence the pacifist voice. Of course, they may respond that they say pacifists only have to be silent about the use of military force. But that presupposes that a strong distinction can be drawn between politics and war”a distinction that would force pacifists into the kind of gnosticism they condemn. Indeed, the suggestion that nonviolence is, like celibacy and poverty, a form of monasticism is meant to rob Christian nonviolence of any political significance. I believe there are significant similarities between nonviolence, celibacy, and poverty, but I do not think those similarities mean that those who embody them must lose their moral and political voice. I feel sure that the Editors would not underwrite the oft-made complaint that celibate priests have nothing to say about marriage.

John Howard Yoder spent a lifetime trying to convince Mennonites that they should not accept the Niebuhrian “compliment”-i.e., absolute pacifists are to be admired as long as they acknowledge that they are politically irresponsible. In essay after essay and book after book, Yoder patiently developed a Christological account of Christian nonviolence that refused the Niebuhrian distinction-a distinction that has no exegetical basis-between nonviolent resistance and non-resistance. Yoder’s title, The Politics of Jesus , is a refusal of the Niebuhrian attempt to make Jesus’ “ethic” nonpolitical. In the Epilogue to Paul Ramsey’s Speak Up for Just War and Pacifism , I challenged Ramsey’s contention that Niebuhr’s distinction was simply a given needing no justification.

Of course, the Editors may respond that they are unpersuaded by Yoder’s criticism of the Niebuhrian distinction, but at the very least they owe us some account of why they are unpersuaded. They may respond that you can only do so much in an editorial, but if a pacifist so crudely characterized just war theories, I suspect the Editors would object. In Nevertheless , Yoder distinguished nineteen different forms of pacifism. In When War Is Unjust , Yoder provided one of the most thorough analyses of the varieties of just war reflection we have. One might at least hope that advocates of just war, even in an editorial, might return the favor by acknowledging that their account of pacifism is contested.

Moreover, the Editors owe us an account of how they can use Niebuhr’s distinction between nonviolent resistance and non-resistance without also accepting Niebuhr’s Christology (or lack of a Christology) as well as his understanding of politics. Niebuhr was quite clear: Jesus was an advocate of non-resistance. That is why Christians must leave Jesus behind when they come to the political realm. They must do so because politics names the order of disguised violence. The most one seeks in the realm of politics is the most equitable balance of power. At best Jesus’ ethic of love stands as a judgment on every accomplishment of justice. But any attempt to realize the disinterested love symbolized by the cross in politics indulges in utopianism that only makes politics more violent.

For the Editors to relegate these serious Christological issues to the fatuous question “What would Jesus do?” is either stupid or dishonest. They know well that the pacifism I and John Howard Yoder represent is at least as critical of liberal pacifism as was Niebuhr. They know, moreover, that the real question is not “What would Jesus have us do?” The real question is how we should live given what God has done through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I do not believe that pacifist and just war advocates must necessarily answer that question differently. Christian advocates of nonviolence and of just war believe that, through the cross and resurrection, we have been given the time, the patience, faithfully to follow Christ by refusing to use violent means in the name of a good cause.

Indeed, I hope that advocates of just war are as offended by the characterization of just war in “In a Time of War” as I am at the Editors’ understanding of pacifism. The Editors seem to assume that some neorealist account of international conflict is compatible with the just war position. Whether that is the case is at least open to serious doubt. In his The Just War , Ramsey struggled to show that his account of just war was not only compatible with but presumed a world described by Niebuhr’s realist account of the politics between nations. I think there are serious reasons to think Ramsey was not successful. But at least Ramsey struggled. The Editors of First Things , captured as they are by their enthusiasm for destroying what they consider an unambiguous evil, are sublimely untroubled.

For example, the Editors acknowledge that the U.S. may have to make alliances with “repugnant tyrannies” but do not explain why that does not entail a form of consequentialism they normally find “repugnant.” They say that war is hell, that some injustices may happen, but for some reason that does not force them to consider whether the description of this war as just needs to be called into question. (For a war to be just, do all the criteria need to be met?) Rather, it seems all we need to do is make sure we know that if such acts occur, they be acknowledged as wrong. The Editors also suggest that the Bush administration will at some time in the future need to say what the purpose of the war is, as well as what constitutes a “terminal point.” But if a war is to be just, the purpose”which is necessary so your enemy will know the conditions for surrender”must be stated at the beginning. Asking the Taliban to turn over Osama bin Laden comes close to naming such a purpose. A war on terrorism does not.

I fear the Editors continue a habit they demonstrated in their support of the Gulf War. They assume the just war criteria are a checklist for evaluating whether a conflict can be described as just. But as Ramsey insisted, just war is not a set of rules to be applied but an institutionalized set of practices to determine whether a conflict is appropriately described as war. A conflict that is not just must be described in some other way than with the honorific description “war.” At the very least, the Editors owe us an account of when we might have to contemplate surrendering because a conflict could not be fought justly.

Any answer to this challenge must begin by identifying who the “we” is who would be making such a judgment. I fear the “we” of “In a Time of War” is the American “we.” The Editors quote President Bush’s statement that “the inescapable fact is that they are our enemies” with approval. Indeed, they even suggest that anyone who might question the Christian and American “we” is a “gnostic” seeking to flee time and space. The refusal to recognize that Christians are Americans, they imply, is an attempt to avoid our duty. Of course they quote the Letter to Diognetus to suggest appropriate humility in ever getting right what Christians owe to Caesar, but they fail to indicate any concrete political position Christians must take that would give expression to such humility.

I simply cannot comprehend the Editors’ celebration of the new patriotism occasioned by September 11. Even if they think the bombing strategy in Afghanistan respects the just war commitment to begin with the least violent response, surely it is the case that the appropriate mood of the American people should be remorse. What a horror it would be if the nation is morally to be renewed by war. Surely a nation capable of fighting a just war must be one that does not need to find its moral substance through war. Is the American response to September 11 a confirmation of Hegel’s suggestion that bourgeois states periodically need to be renewed through war?

It is hard not to respond to September 11 without using the event to confirm one’s prior judgments about what is wrong or right about America or, more globally, “the world.” I continue to worry that those who have criticized the war”and I count myself among them”have engaged in responses meant to confirm our views held prior to September 11 about what is wrong with America. No doubt much criticism or praise of American foreign policy that provides a context meant to help us understand “what happened” can be helpful. Yet I think it wise to refrain from “explaining” what happened. We are too close. To suggest as the Editors do that we are facing the beginning skirmishes in a war of civilizations is to say more than we know. That is particularly the case when they accept the liberal story of the wars of religion as the legitimating narrative for the nation-state. There is, moreover, a certain irony in the Editors’ use of September 11 to attack multiculturalism and the way of life associated with that “style of life” just to the extent that the “terrorists” share those judgments.

My criticism of the “we” of “In a Time of War” will be dismissed as but another example of my anti-Constantinian rant. I am quite willing to acknowledge that “In a Time of War” is as clear an example as I could wish of the kind of Constantinianism I have often criticized. But I am quite aware that Constantinianism comes in many shapes and sizes, some with which I have great sympathy. The issue, as has often been pointed out to me in defense of Constantinianism, is whether Christian support of the neighbor compromises the Church. At the very least, “In a Time of War” fails to suggest how the Church can maintain its independence. After all, the rebirth of “religion” in public life is not in and of itself a “good thing””at least it is not a good thing if you have learned to distrust the apologetic strategies of Protestant liberalism.

Which finally brings me back to the silence that continues to envelop my life after September 11, 2001. September 11 has made it clear to me that this “nonviolent thing” is not just another idea. I feel much like the uneducated fundamentalist Mississippi preacher who, not knowing any better, accepted African Americans into his church. Beaten by the Klan, he confessed to a friend that he had learned there was a lot more to the “race thing” than just race. I am being taught that there is much more to this nonviolent thing than just nonviolence. My life may be changed. Should I, for example, continue to be identified as a member of the Editorial Board of First Things ? If “In a Time of War” constitutes the perspective of this magazine, should the Editors continue to list me as a member of the board? Surely the position taken in “In a Time of War” comes close to implying that the pacifist refusal to respond violently to injustice makes us complicit with evil and injustice and, therefore, immoral.

These are serious matters that are not just about a magazine but also about friendship. One of the reasons for my silence is the realization that my commitment to Christian nonviolence at this time cannot help but change and perhaps even end friendships. I need all the friends I can get. I have many friends who have criticized me for being associated with First Things . I am obviously not a neoconservative. I am not even a theo-conservative. I have, however, supported First Things because I believe the magazine has been a venue for some of the best theological journalism available. We are in Richard John Neuhaus’ debt for all he has done to make First Things and the seminars associated with the Institute on Religion and Public Life a reality. Moreover, anyone who has attended the board meetings of First Things knows that the Editors of the magazine are generous in their willingness to entertain positions not their own. But that is exactly why I am not sure how I should understand my relation to First Things after “In a Time of War.”

The editorial makes clear that the Editors regard the Christian nonviolence I represent as at best “a reminder” to those who are about “being responsible.” I may be tolerated because of my theological commitments, but my pacifism can only be regarded as an aberration that is best ignored. The arguments Yoder and I have made in an attempt to show how Christian orthodoxy and nonviolence are constitutive of one another are quite simply not taken seriously by the Editors First Things . Or at least they are not taken seriously if “In a Time of War” indicates the best thinking of the Editors of First Things . I did not expect nor do I expect the Editors to take a pacifist stance, but I confess that their lack of any sadness that should accompany the use of violence fills me with sadness.

I have been honored to be claimed as a friend by many associated with First Things . I do not desire to lose such friendship. But “In a Time of War” raises fundamental issues that cannot be ignored. I have no use”nor do I think my friends at First Things have any use”for superficial friendships. “We are in deep disagreements but we are still friends” is a possibility, but may also be an invitation for confusing “friendliness” with friendship. If friendship is an agreement in judgments, then there are clearly times when friends cannot and should not remain friends. I do not yet know if “In a Time of War” constitutes such a time, but I cannot exclude the possibility that this may well be the case. That possibility fills me with sadness . . . and silence.

”Stanley Hauerwas
Duke University
Durham, North Carolina

The Editors reply:

Stanley Hauerwas has for many years been a cherished friend and colleague, and we sincerely hope that will continue to be the case. Before responding to some of the many objections he raises, we should note that there is slight chance of his being silenced. He is the author of dozens of books, as well as articles beyond numbering; interviews with him and discussions about him appear in numerous academic and popular publications, making him probably the most prominent theologian in the country. In its September 17 issue, which may have gone to press before September 11, the editors of Time magazine dubbed him “America’s Best Theologian.” (Without denying the accolade, one wonders how the editors of Time would know.)

As to the specific point on which he believes we have silenced him, we can only ask, Why would a person who in principle believes that it is always wrong to use military force even want to have a public say in how military force should be used?

A number of other items, more or less in order: monasticism is hardly without “political significance.” As Professor Hauerwas has frequently insisted, sometimes the most significant political act is simply to bear witness.

It is true that his arguments for pacifism, and those of John Howard Yoder and others, have not persuaded us. He should be more open to the possibility that arguments may be rejected not because they are not taken seriously but because they are taken seriously and found unconvincing.

His presentation of Reinhold Niebuhr’s position strikes us as somewhat unfair, but Prof. Hauerwas has long known from his years of participation in the Institute’s Ramsey Colloquium that we find the late Paul Ramsey’s argument regarding just war and pacifism very persuasive. This is no new disagreement. What is new is a war requiring hard moral judgments.

We agree that the question “What Would Jesus Do?” is fatuous, and said so in the editorial. Nor do we see that the alternative question that we proposed is substantively different from that proposed by Prof. Hauerwas. The question for the Christian is faithfulness to Christ.

Prof. Hauerwas says faithful Christians refuse “to use violent means in the name of a good cause.” The crucial distinction here is between violence and the use of force in the service of justice. Violence is the disordered use of physical force that injures, abuses, and destroys. The use of military force in a just war, such as this one, is ordered to the defense of the innocent and the securing of justice. Violence is inherently disordered”meaning it is random or capricious, or ordered to an evil end. Force is a sometimes necessary means ordered to a good end. The use of such force is the prerogative and duty of legitimate public authority and is clearly distinct from the individual use of force for private purposes, especially if those purposes include revenge or other malicious intent. In the latter instance, force is violence, and faithful Christians must never resort to violence.

Prof. Hauerwas raises the question of what constitutes a “terminal point” in this war, which is precisely the question we raised in the editorial. We believe that a prudential judgment that there is an end to the threat of what President Bush called “every terrorist group of global reach” might constitute such a terminal point. As we also said in the editorial, that stated goal will require refinement in the months and years ahead.

The tactical use of “repugnant tyrannies” in the war against terrorism is no more an instance of moral “consequentialism” than is our approving of the police using a thief to catch a thief. In neither case should there be, nor need there be, complicity in the evil done by others.

Prof. Hauerwas asks who is the “we” in the editorial and suspects that it is the American “we.” He is right. The prior “we””prior in time and allegiance”is the community of discipleship. In accord with the Letter to Diognetus , for faithful disciples in America this is our homeland on the way to our true home in the Kingdom of God.

Prof. Hauerwas says that we “fail to indicate any concrete political position Christians must take” that would indicate our faithfulness to the teaching of the Letter to Diognetus . He well knows that we take many positions challenging the laws, policies, and customs of this country. We also take the concrete political, and moral, position of supporting this just war.

No, the appropriate mood of the American people should not be remorse, at least not remorse understood as self-reproach. We did not start this war. The appropriate mood is sadness that we live in a world where defensive war is sometimes necessary, and of resolve to see that justice prevails. Such resolve may be an instance of renewal closely associated with patriotism, which is closely associated with the “communities of character” about which Prof. Hauerwas has written often and well. We do not as a society “need to be renewed through war,” but the readiness to do our duty in response to great injustice may entail a measure of moral renewal.

Of course, and as we said, we should be cautious in speaking of a war of civilizations. We also said what Prof. Hauerwas omits, namely, that Muslim leaders bear the primary responsibility for saying whether or not it is to be understood as a war of civilizations.

We do not “accept the liberal story of the wars of religion as the legitimating narrative for the nation-state.” We do acknowledge the tragedy of wars of religion, and Christianity’s role in the achievement of democratic pluralism.

It is true, and a truism, that “religion” in public life is not always or necessarily a “good thing.” We don’t know why Prof. Hauerwas feels a need to remind us of a truth so regularly articulated in these pages.

He writes, “At the very least the Editors owe us an account of when we might have to contemplate surrendering because a conflict could not be fought justly.” It is hypothetically possible that our cause may be defeated because we cannot prevail by just means. We hope, pray, and believe that that will not happen. But we owe no such account as Prof. Hauerwas demands because it is morally imperative that we never surrender, or contemplate surrendering, to terrorists or terrorism.

Our disagreement with Prof. Hauerwas on just war and pacifism goes back, as he well knows, many years. He should not be surprised that we mean what we have always said, as we are not surprised that he means what he has always said. The resulting, and conflicting, judgments about what is our moral duty in the present circumstance may put a strain on “friendliness” but will not, we hope, jeopardize friendship.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift