The Path To War

I have known no war. That is to say that war has had no direct effect on me. I have lived under a kind of peace my entire life. The perception of war from citizens that have always known peace, like myself, is rooted in the teachings of history. From an early age, I have heard stories from my grandparents about their involvement in war. I saw pictures of them in uniform and heard heroic stories. That is exactly how they remained in my mind…stories. No event in my lifetime has transformed such stories into a tangible reality for me. In light of recent events, it seems that this is about to change.

My analysis of war could not help but be biased; my experience is narrow. However, there is hope for my generation. Many have gone before us and left a legacy of ideas. It is in these ideas that I have tried to formulate my beliefs about war. We can revisit the wisdom of thinkers like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas (among others). As I draw from their words and the experience of those near me, my thoughts on war progress from perception and thoughtless reaction to reality and reasoned response.

War is inevitable. The unavoidable nature of war has almost always been assumed. Four thousand years ago the world was a determinedly small place. “There was nothing on a great scale either in war or in other matters” (Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War). Whether or not one was in favor of war, it was assumed that it would occur. This conviction carried on for thousands of years. The 20th century, in contrast to all of human history, changed this assumption with the advent of world war. A new horror was born. The notion of the worldwide war is precisely the reason that the inevitability of war has been questioned. Worldwide war could actually lead to worldwide destruction. It is for this reason that we live in a decidedly unique and perilous time in history. It is for this reason that we as Christians must formulate and stand upon a reasoned analysis of war.

It is to our benefit that Christendom has a formidable lineage of thinkers that have left us with a strong foundation upon which to build. It is to these heroic minds that we now turn. We will examine the grounds for war, both good and bad. Let’s begin with the observation of two evil motives for war. Augustine said, “It is displeasing to good men to fight with the most wicked unrighteousness, and provoke with voluntary war neighbors who are peaceable and do no wrong, in order to enlarge a kingdom” (City of God, IV, 15). Our first evil motive for war is the simple lust for land. To attack a peaceful neighbor with no other reason than the expansion of borders is not justifiable.

Stepping back in time, it can be said that the first war was between Lucifer and God. John Milton portrayed this conflict in his epic, Paradise Lost. The demon Molech uttered these words in relation to the grand and timeless battle. “We feel Our power sufficient to disturb his heaven, / And with perpetual inroads to alarm, / Though inaccessible, his fatal throne: / Which if not victory is yet revenge” (Book II, 100). This demon knew that there was no hope to overcome God, but he also knew they could find a kind of solace in revenge. Revenge, then, is the second evil motivation for war. Revenge clouds the thoughts of men as well as demons. The just and righteous state will not go to war solely for revenge because revenge does not bring true solace or true peace.

In the following statement, Augustine summed up a few other evil motivations that we lack the time to investigate here. “The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power, and such things, all these are rightly condemned in war” (Contra Faust, XXII). War may be described as a necessary evil, but if it is waged in these ways it becomes an unnecessary and unjustifiable thing. We must be clever enough to spot such motivations for war in our present climate. If Christians cannot recognize and fight against misguided intentions we will fall victim to supporting and propagating evil in our world. Fighting purposeful battles is necessary in war as in every other part of our lives.

We now turn to the honorable grounds for war. Recently, much has been said regarding the motivation of good men for war. It has popularly been referred to as the doctrine of “just war.” (Note well: the word “just” used here is meant to describe war as a sense of justifiable or honorable action. It is not meant to describe war in the way that we would say that a person is “just” a friend or that a certain author is “just” a novice.) With that said, we will begin our examination of Aquinas’ view of war in part one of his Summa Theologica called a Treatise on Faith, Hope, and Charity. In Question 40 (“Of War”), Aquinas used the writings of Augustine and the Bible to flesh out guidelines for waging war.

First, Aquinas submitted that the waging of war “is not the business of a private person…The care of the common weal is committed to those who are in authority.” Aquinas used Romans 13:4, “He beareth not the sword in vain,” to give authority to the one in power for warring against the domestic conflicts and internal enemies of a nation. He then used Psalm 81:4, “Rescue the poor: and deliver the needy out of the hand of the sinner,” to give authority to the leader for warring against external enemies. Wherever evil may arise, Aquinas suggested that the “sovereign,” or the man with the highest authority, must be the one to wage war.

Secondly, Aquinas said “just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault.” He then used this quote from Augustine to bolster his point. “A just war is usually described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly” (Quaest. In Hept., VI). Aquinas added little else on this point. If we hadn’t already examined evil motivations for war, this point would seem to be too obvious to mention. But as we have seen, wars are often fought for very misguided reasons.

The last point of Aquinas’ explication on war was that “the belligerents (the country starting the war) should have a right intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil.” He again quoted Augustine who said, “True religion does not look upon as sinful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good” (City of God, XIX, 12). A state could wage a war that fulfils the first two points, that is, a war could be waged by the rightful authority and have just cause, but be started with the wrong intentions (revenge and blood-lust are a few examples). War must be waged with an honorable, good, and true aim.

What are the implications for Christians in view of the current world theater and impending war with Iraq? To answer that question we must look at the recent history of war in the United States. In the last 25 years (my lifetime) no war has occurred that involved the entire world in the way that WWI and WWII did. In that time period America has not been idle (1982-84 Lebanon, 1983 Grenada, 1989 Panama, 1991 Persian Gulf, 1992-94 Somalia, 1994-95 Bosnia [NATO], 1994 Haiti, 1999 Kosovo [NATO]). The American public, however, has been insulated from direct affronts on our peace. This secure sentiment existed until Sept. 11, 2001. Our confidence and security was shaken. The Twin Towers fell more than 500 days ago. I wonder if some of us have fallen back into the complacency of the recent past. Complacency will not be an option very soon.

On the other hand, the church culture at large is not complacent; the possibility of war in Iraq evokes concern. The problem is not a lack of concern, but the lack of a unified response by Christians. I recently read an article that expressed the views of numerous Christian writers. Their views ranged from pacifism to mild support of war in Iraq. I did not see any direct support of President Bush or statements that maintained that war was the best option. It seems that holding a pro-war view is unpopular. It certainly doesn’t sound religious. What was the general response of these writers? Keep doing ministry. As long as we keep telling people about Jesus and take part in “acts of peace” then we will be doing our duty as Christians in regards to war.

Our duty as Christians requires much more than a passive response, however. We must tell people about Jesus and keep doing ministry. That is unquestionable. We must also fight for such ideals as liberty and justice…things that have been fought for throughout Christian and American history. We must take a stand against what we believe to be an affront to our lives in America. We must support just war. Diplomatic negotiations didn’t work with Hitler before WWII. Saddam Hussein isn’t going to be any more cooperative.

To better illustrate this point, I’d like to share the following excerpt from an article by Chuck Colson in the December 2002 issue of Christianity Today. This piece is among a very small number of Christian articles that I could find in favor of war in Iraq. “For 12 years, Saddam Hussein has mocked the United Nations and the world. If he is, as the U.S. and British believe, stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and acting in concert with terrorists, he forfeits claims of sovereign immunity…Out of love of neighbor, then, Christians can and should support a preemptive strike, if ordered by the appropriate magistrate to prevent an imminent attack.” If we believe in the doctrines of just war as explicated above, then we must stand confidently in the fact that we are justified in being at war with Iraq. Now is not the time for unreasoned, reactionary answers. It is time to take an intelligent stand in a dangerous world.

I was asked recently what was stronger, prayer or a nuclear bomb. My resounding answer was and is prayer. But prayer does not work in a vacuum; God does his work through humans. This is precisely why we must take action and give feet to our prayers and ideals. We will not avoid future pain by holding onto peace. It will be in a strong, prayerful, Christian support of war in Iraq that we will attain true peace and avert the possibility of nuclear holocaust. The path to war is not easy to tread upon, but the path of God seldom is.

See Also

RELATED LINKS:

RESPONSES TO WAR

PEACE AND RIGHTEOUSNESS

IN THE EVENT OF WAR, PART 1

IN THE EVENT OF WAR, PART 2

IN THE EVENT OF WAR, PART 3

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