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In the First Things editorial “In a Time of War” (December 2001), the Editors argued that pacifists have no legitimate part in the discussion about whether the U.S. is engaging in a just war against terrorism. It seemed “frivolous” to the Editors that people who believe war is ruled out in principle, as pacifists do, still want a say in how it is conducted. Pacifist theologian Stanley Hauerwas took exception to that claim and many others made by the Editors (Correspondence, February 2002). Of course, that a pacifist would want to discuss any war at all may seem strange, but many pacifists believe that they have a useful contribution to make to just war thinking despite their opposition to all war in principle, and many American church leaders”especially in the Catholic Church and Protestant mainline denominations”have sought to exercise a pacifist or neo-pacifist influence.

Pacifism comes in many shapes and forms, but I am primarily concerned with the sort of pacifism espoused by John Howard Yoder and Hauerwas: the pacifism of the “Messianic Community.” Messianic pacifism is so pervasive today because it builds on the liberal-humanistic pacifism that is already widespread. However, unlike liberal-humanistic pacifism, messianic pacifism offers no strategy for making the world more peaceful; instead, as faithful followers of Jesus Christ, such pacifists cannot “imagine being other than nonviolent.” Messianic pacifists thus cannot imagine using force against a nation no matter what that nation has done, is doing, or will do to another nation.

There are two ways for Christians to look at the just war doctrine. One is to treat just war as a limited exception to general pacifism, which would allow the pacifist a meaningful voice, since the pacifist represents the authentically Christian way of life from which we make an exception in deciding to fight a war. This way of looking at the just war doctrine was unheard of before the twentieth century. The second way for believers to conceive of just war is to view it as an attempt to control the way wars are entered into and fought based on the sad fact that Christians are always going to have to use violence. Such a view of war hearkens back to Ambrose’s idea that Christians are responsible to their neighbors and therefore must be willing to use force to protect them. If we hold this view, then pacifists are going to have a hard time convincing traditional just war defenders that they have anything meaningful to say about just war.

Christian pacifists, of course, think that just war theory developed precisely because early Christians had to figure out a way to harmonize their nonviolent assumptions with the desire to aid their neighbors with acts of force. This is factually wrong. Pacifists cannot point to a single Church Father who helped develop the Christian just war doctrine out of “nonviolent assumptions.” On the contrary, just war theory arose out of assumptions of justice and the virtue of charity. Assumptions of nonviolence had nothing to do with the genesis of Christian just war theory.

The main obstacle for Christian pacifists who wish to contribute something uniquely pacifist to just war thinking is that it is hard to find a complementary relationship between classical Christian just war theory and pacifism apart from the insistence by both that we never do evil that good might come. In other words, just warriors and pacifists are one in denying that we should ever get our hands dirty in a just cause. But the complementary relationship ends here. Just warriors hold that we can use force justly and well in a good cause and that such acts bear no stain of evil. Pacifists, on the other hand, hold that there is something inherently wrong in using force. For pacifists, this is enough to preclude any act of force, but for the pacifist-influenced, this only means that such evil acts (sometimes called “prima facie” evils) have to pass a test (the just war criteria) that will tell them if they are permissible.

Classical just war advocates (those who rely upon the tradition as formulated by the likes of Ambrose, Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin) deny that the just war criteria allow us to do evil—even prima facie evil—that good might come. They hold in fact that the just war criteria rule out evil altogether and help us determine when we must refrain from certain proposed acts of force. Just warriors refuse to restrain evil with evil. If we cannot prevent an evil without doing evil ourselves, then we throw ourselves on God’s mercy and trust in His will for us, even if it means dying; for such dying is a noble death, and noble dying always beats ignoble living.

The idea that Christians ought to play the lesser-evil game is the product of Christian Realism. Reinhold Niebuhr is the most famous and compelling of the Christian realists and is often referred to as the “father” of the movement. Christian messianic pacifists such as Yoder and Hauerwas have rightly attacked Niebuhr for transforming Jesus’ teaching into an “otherworldly” ethic. By contrast, the sort of theology we see at work in figures such as Aquinas and Calvin insists that Jesus’ ethic be harmonized with God’s “this-worldly” ethic as revealed in the Old Testament. Those adhering to classical just war doctrine should, I suggest, make common cause with Hauerwas and Yoder in rejecting Niebuhr’s position. But they part company on how to remedy the mistake.

Oddly enough, it is usually Christian pacifists, and not those influenced by such traditional just war thinkers as Aquinas and Calvin, who approach just war thinking through Niebuhr. It is easy to see why: Christian pacifists and Niebuhr look at Jesus in the same way. For both, Jesus provides an ethical standard that Christians cannot follow while remaining “responsible” citizens (with “responsible” meaning involvement with acts of force). Certainly if we follow pacifists and Niebuhr, then we ought to wring our hands every time we use force, for we have done something evil (even if necessary).

But as I have argued above, just warriors do not play the dirty-hands game of morality that Christian pacifists suggest Christians ought to play (and must play) if they are going to commit themselves to practices such as fighting wars. In sharp contrast, according to Aquinas and Calvin, when Christians commit themselves to a just war they do so not out of sin but out of justice and charity. When soldiers kill justly, they may feel sorrow for the fact that they must kill in order to bring justice, but they will not be doing anything evil when they kill justly in a just cause, for they know that God has called fallen human beings to establish justice in this way when no other way is possible.

Roman Catholic theologian Charles Curran, in Directions of Catholic Social Ethics , nevertheless insists that “pacifism and just war are distinct but interdependent methods of evaluating warfare, with each contributing to the full moral vision we need in pursuit of human peace.” Again, from the just warrior’s point of view, this is simply wrong. Pacifism considers all bloodshed as evil, while just warriors consider just bloodshed to be good and unjust bloodshed to be evil. The two are at fundamental moral odds. This does not mean that a pacifist cannot think about just war nor that a just warrior cannot think about pacifism. It only means that each must suspend his moral vision of the world in order to think like the other.

The general inability of pacifists to suspend their moral vision of the world when they get involved in just war debates usually leads them to make some remarkably bad criticisms of just war thinking. One thinks particularly of the common pacifist charge that just war doctrine is ahistorical, as well as the assertion that the show of patriotism following the recent terrorist attacks reveals that Americans (and American Christians) get their moral purpose from war.

To take the first of these, the ahistorical nature of just war doctrine is not necessarily a bad thing. The Decalogue, for example, is God’s moral law for all people at all times, and that can hardly be thought of as a handicap. Just war as a Christian practice has certain permanent elements that define it as a practice, and these elements hold for all people, at all times, and in all places. We call these defining elements the ius ad bellum (proper authority, right intent, just cause). Yet Christians admit that the just war doctrine possesses certain culture-dependent elements that demand a great deal of leeway in interpretation and practice in order to make room for virtuous acts in war-acts in which virtue is tied to a particular place, a particular people, and a particular time. We call these partly culture-dependent elements the ius in bello (discrimination and proportion). To a certain degree, restrictions on combat behavior are universal as well. We may never target innocent people directly, nor may we act in such a way that we expect more evil than good to come from our acts. But what counts as innocence in war, just as what counts as a proportionate act, will tend to vary from place to place and from time to time.

Pacifists also complain that a citizenry educated into thinking that wars may be just will acquire its moral sustenance from war. The recent show of national solidarity in our efforts to root out terrorists in Afghanistan is said to be proof of this phenomenon. I cannot speak for the nation, but it should be obvious that Christians, at least those shaped by classical Christian morality, do not rely on war for a sense of moral purpose and destiny. Instead, Christians rely on the risen Christ, who gives them their history, their moral purpose, and their destiny. Such Christians insist that just use of force is compatible with God’s kingdom in this world, and in fact, is demanded by the work of the risen Christ. Christians tutored by the likes of Aquinas and Calvin do not think that Jesus’ command to “take up your cross and follow me” means that you must become a pacifist. Rather, they interpret these words to mean that we ought to give up our own safety in order to help those who need our help. Thus war, far from being motivated by a desire to be rid of God, can be, for just warriors, engaged in out of a desire to please God. Just war, far from being a way to claim for ourselves the power to determine our own meaning and destiny, is an act of willing obedience to give up one’s own comfortable, peaceful, and protected way of existence in order to play our part in following Christ and replicating God’s moral order for earthly life after the fall. Hence, participating in just war is a manifestation of the love of God and neighbor. It, in some carefully defined circumstances, is what Christians do out of loving obedience to God.

Nevertheless, Christian pacifists may yet have something meaningful to contribute to Christian just war thinking, primarily when they point out how hard it is for the just warrior to sustain the presumption in favor of losing rather than doing injustice. As the late Paul Ramsey so often pointed out, Americans have a hard time fighting limited wars. When we think our cause just, our instinct is to obliterate the enemy. As Hauerwas notes, the habits of a people require “great drafts of courage and sacrificý not unlike that of nonviolence” in order to conduct a justifiable war. Exactly. And this brings us back to that small space pacifists and just war defenders share. Pacifists and just war defenders agree that it is better to die than to do evil. This is a point largely lost among modern just war defenders. (Its absence is especially noticeable in Michael Walzer’s ethic of “supreme emergency,” which allows a nation, if threatened with total defeat, to do any evil believed necessary in order to preserve itself.) A crusade mentality and the kind of fighting that goes with it are disturbingly common in the history of American wars. Certainly this was true for the two World Wars, and, to a lesser degree, for the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam.

Americans, we must say, and say gladly, have been demonstrating much better combat behavior of late. The Gulf War and the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan have shown that American soldiers are quite capable of fighting justly (i.e., with discrimination and proportion). Nevertheless, we must caution that what was on display in the Gulf War and Afghanistan may be less a show of virtue than technological and tactical prowess. Our technological superiority in particular has allowed us to overwhelm our enemies in the recent past. Will we be able to demonstrate the same level of self-control when we meet a more formidable foe? This is a question we need to ask. For if President Bush is serious in pursuing terrorists into whatever countries they may hide, we may very well find ourselves in a much more difficult fight before too long. And it takes a lot of blood (along with sweat and tears) to defeat a formidable foe.

Christian pacifists, then, are right to remind Christian just war advocates that Christian just war demands definite, limited goals and a limited, controlled use of force. President Bush tells us that the U.S. is going to aim at destroying “every terrorist group of global reach.” Does he really mean that the U.S. is going to use military force against every significant terrorist group, no matter how marginal their danger to us, and no matter where they are found? President Bush may simply be preparing American citizens for a lengthy struggle by employing dramatic rhetoric. One can only hope, and pray, that this is so. For actual war planning, if it is to be just, must have limited aims. President Bush owes it to the American people to spell out those aims as soon as possible and to the fullest possible degree.

Unlimited war has, in the past, led to unlimited, uncontrolled uses of force. Christians cannot say “yes” to that kind of fighting. What if we reach a time when we have to make a choice between terminating a war and resorting to combat practices that are out of bounds according to just war doctrine, such as intentionally targeting the innocent in order to get to the guilty or using disproportionate force? Surely all Christian just war defenders, at least those who pay any attention to traditional just war doctrine, will say that we must accept defeat, at least for the moment, rather than prosecute a war unjustly. If the just war doctrine is to possess any sort of integrity, it must be able to say “no” to some wars and “no” to some actions in war. This is how the Church maintains its independence from the state even in those times that the Church says “yes” to wars.

The Church can do even better than say “no” to some wars and some acts in war; it can demand penance from its members who participate in unjust wars or do unjust things in war. Penance is the practice that enables the Church to show the world that it takes just war-making seriously. Aquinas and Calvin insist that, at the very least, the Eucharist be withheld from anyone suspected of unjust acts. Thus any ecclesiastical official (bishop, priest, or pastor) who knows or has good reason to believe that someone under his care has done injustice in war should withhold the Eucharist until either the suspicions are allayed or penance imposed. Notorious offenders should of course have to undergo public penance, since the Church must show itself to be a place where sin is not taken lightly. Protestants especially should be wary of ignoring penance as some sort of strange “Roman rite” that they rightly did away with during the Reformation. Calvin was adamant that Christians do penance for unjust acts, as was the Puritan Richard Baxter. Thus penance in wartime serves two purposes: it protects the integrity of the Church (and thus Christ) and restores the soldier and political leader to the body of Christ. Such ecclesial practices should allay any fears that the Church cannot maintain its independence while saying “yes” to particular conflicts.

Darrell Cole is Assistant Professor of Religion at Drew University.

Image by Harris & Ewing, licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.