Pacifists always bear the burden of proof. They do so because, as attractive as nonviolence may be, most assume that pacifism just will not work.
You may want to keep a few pacifists around for reminding those burdened with running the world that what they sometimes have to do is a lesser evil, but pacifism simply cannot and should not be, even for Christians, a normative stance.
Nonviolence is assumed to be unworkable, or, to the extent it works at all, it does so only because it is parasitic on more determinative forms of order secured by violence. Those committed to nonviolence, in short, are not realistic.
In contrast to pacifism, it is often assumed that just war reflection is “realistic.” It is by no means clear, however, if advocates of just war have provided an adequate account of what kind of conditions are necessary for just war to be a realistic alternative for the military policy of a nation.
In the Christian tradition, realism is often thought to have begun with Augustine’s account of the two cities, hardened into doctrine with Luther’s two kingdoms, and given its most distinctive formulation in the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr. Thus Augustine is often identified as the Christian theologian who set the stage for the development of just war reflection that enables Christians to use violence in a limited way to secure tolerable order.
It is assumed, therefore, that just war is set within the larger framework of a realist view of the world. With his customary rhetorical brilliance, Luther gave expression to the realist perspective, asking:
“If anyone attempted to rule the world by the gospel and to abolish all temporal law and the sword on the plea that all are baptized and Christian, and that, according to the gospel, there shall be among them no law or sword – or the need for either – pray tell me friend, what would he be doing? He would be loosing the ropes and chains of the savage wild beasts and letting them bite and mangle everyone, meanwhile insisting that they were harmless, tame, and gentle creatures; but I would have the proof in my wounds. Just so would the wicked under the name of Christian abuse evangelical freedom, carry on their rascality, and insist that they were Christians subject neither to law nor sword as some are already raving and ranting.”
Luther is under no illusions. War is a plague, but it is a greater plague that war prevents. Of course, slaying and robbing do not seem the work of love, but, Luther says, “in truth even this is the work of love.” Christians do not fight for themselves, but for their neighbour. So if they see that there is a lack of hangmen, constables, judges, lords, or princes, and find they are qualified they should offer their services and assume these positions. That “small lack of peace called war,” according to Luther, “must set a limit to this universal, worldwide lack of peace which would destroy everyone.”
Reinhold Niebuhr understood himself to stand in this “realist” tradition. In his 1940 “Open Letter (to Richard Roberts),” Niebuhr explains why he left the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He observes that he does not believe that “war is merely an ‘incident’ in history but is a final revelation of the very character of human history.” According to Niebuhr, the Incarnation is not “redemption” from history as conflict because sinful egoism continues to express itself at every level of human life, making it impossible to overcome the contradictions of human history.
Niebuhr, therefore, accuses pacifists of failing to understand the Reformation doctrine of “justification by faith.” From Niebuhr’s perspective, pacifists are captured by a perfectionism that is more “deeply engulfed in illusion about human nature than the Catholic pretensions, against which the Reformation was a protest.”
Paul Ramsey understood his attempt to recover just war as a theory of statecraft – that is, that war is justified because our task is first and foremost to seek justice, to be “an extension within the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr.”
Ramsey saw, however, that there was more to be said about “justice in war than was articulated in Niebuhr’s sense of the ambiguities of politics and his greater/lesser evil doctrine of the use of force.” That “something more” Ramsey took to be the principle of discrimination, which requires that war be subject to political purpose through which war might be limited and conducted justly – that is, that non-combatants be protected.
Yet it is by no means clear if just war reflection can be yoked consistently to Niebuhrian realism. Augustine’s and Luther’s “realism” presupposed there was another city that at least could call into question state powers. For Niebuhr, realism names the development of states and an international nation-state system that cannot be challenged. Niebuhrian realism assumes that war is a permanent reality for the relation between states because no overriding authority exists that might make war analogous to the police function of the state. Therefore each political society has the right to wage war because it is assumed to do so is part of its divinely ordained work of preservation.
“Realism,” therefore, names the reality that at the end of the day, in the world of international relations, the nations with the largest army get to determine what counts for “justice.” To use Augustine or Luther to justify this understanding of “realism” is in effect to turn a description into a recommendation.
In an article entitled “Just War Theory and the Problem of International Politics,” David Baer and Joseph Capizzi admirably try to show how just war requirements as developed by Ramsey can be reconciled with a realistic understanding of international relations. They argue that even though a certain pessimism surrounds a realistic account of international politics, that does not mean such a view of the world is necessarily amoral. To be sure, governments have the right to wage war because of their responsibility to a particular group of neighbours, but that does not mean that governments have a carte blanche to pursue every kind of interest.
“The same conception that permits government to wage war also restricts the conditions of legitimate war making … Because each government is responsible for only a limited set of political goods, it must respect the legitimate jurisdiction of other governments.”
But who is going to enforce the presumption that a government “must respect the legitimate jurisdiction of other governments”? Baer and Capizzi argue that Ramsey’s understanding of just war as the expression of Christian love by a third party in defence of the innocent requires that advocates of just war should favour the establishment of international law and institutions to better regulate the conduct of states in pursuit of their self-interest.
Yet Baer and Capizzi recognize that international agencies cannot be relied on because there is no way that such an agency can judge an individual government’s understanding of just cause: “absent effective international institutions, warring governments are like Augustine’s individual pondering self-defence, moved by the temptation of inordinate self-love.”
Baer and Capizzi argue that a more adequate understanding of just war will combine a realist understanding of international politics with a commitment to international order by emphasizing the importance of just intention. This means that a war can be undertaken only if peace – understood as a concept for a more “embracing and stable order” – be the reason a state gives for going to war. The requirement that the intention for going to war be so understood is an expression of love for the enemy just to the extent that the lasting order be one that encompasses the interests of the enemy.
My first reaction to this suggestion is: And people say that pacifists are unrealistic? The idealism of such realist justifications of just war is nowhere better seen than in these attempts to fit just war considerations into the realist presuppositions that shape the behaviour of state actors.
The likes of Ramsey, Baer and Capizzi are to be commended for trying to recover just war as a theory of statecraft – that is, as an alternative to the use of just war as merely a check list to judge if a particular war satisfies enough of the criteria to be judged just. Yet by doing so, they have made clear the tensions between the institutions necessary for just war to be a reality and the presumptions that shape international affairs. For example:
Those are the kind of questions that advocates of just war must address before they accuse pacifists of being “unrealistic.”
Ultimately, I think the lack of realism about realism by American just war advocates has everything to do with their being American. In particular, American advocates of just war seem to presume that democratic societies place an inherent limit on war that more authoritarian societies are unable to do. While such a view is quite understandable, I would argue that democratic society – at least, the American version – is unable to set limits on war because it is democratic.
Put even more strongly, for Americans war is a necessity to sustain our belief that we are worthy to be recipients of the sacrifices made on our behalf in past wars. Americans are a people born of and in war, and only war can sustain our belief that we are a people set apart.
For Americans war is a necessity for our moral well being. Which means it is by no means clear what it would mean for Americans to have a realistic understanding of war. In his extraordinary book, Upon the Altar of the Nation: A Moral History of the Civil War , Harry Stout tells the story of how the Civil War began as a limited war but ended as total war. He is quite well aware that the language of total war did not exist at the time of the Civil War, but he argues by 1864 the spirit of total war emerged and “prepared Americans for the even more devastating total wars they would pursue in the twentieth century.”
Stout’s story of the transformation of the Civil War from limited to total war is also the story of how America became the nation called America. According to Stout:
“Neither Puritans’ talk of a ‘city upon a hill” or Thomas Jefferson’s invocation of “inalienable rights’ is adequate to create a religious loyalty sufficiently powerful to claim the lives of its adherence. In 1860 no coherent nation commanded the sacred allegiance of all Americans over and against their states and regions. For the citizenry to embrace the idea of a nation-state that must have a messianic destiny and command one’s highest loyalty would require a massive sacrifice – a blood sacrifice … As the war descended into a killing horror, the grounds of justification underwent a transformation from a just defensive war fought out of sheer necessity to preserve home and nation to a moral crusade for ‘freedom’ that would involve nothing less than a national ‘rebirth’, a spiritual ‘revival’. And in that blood and transformation a national religion was born. Only as casualties rose to unimaginable levels did it dawn on some people that something mystical religious was taking place, a sort of massive sacrifice on the national altar.”
The generals on both sides of the Civil War had been trained at West Point, not only to embody American might and power, but they were also taught to be gentlemen. The title of “gentlemen” not only carried with it expectations that the bearers of the title would be honourable, but they would also pursue their profession justly. They “imbibed” the code of limited war which demanded that they protect innocent lives and minimize destructive aspects of war. According to Stout they were even taught by Dennis Mahan, a professor of civil engineering, to use position and manoeuvre of interior lines of operations against armies rather than engaging in crushing overland campaigns that would involve civilian populations.
Stout argues that Abraham Lincoln as early as 1862, prior to his generals, realized that the West Point Code of War would have to be abandoned. After Bull Run and frustrated by McClellan’s timidity, Lincoln understood that if the Union was to be preserved it would require that the war be escalated to be a war against both citizens and soldiers. In response to Unionists in New Orleans who protested Lincoln’s war policy, Lincoln replied:
“What would you do in my position? Would you drop the war where it is? Or would you prosecute it in future with elder-stalk squirts charged with rose water? Would you deal lighter blows than heavier ones? I am in no boastful mood. I shall not do more than I can, and I shall do all I can, to save the government, which is my sworn duty as well as my personal inclination. I shall do nothing in malice.”
Crucial to Lincoln’s strategy for the prosecution of the war against the population of the South was the Emancipation Proclamation which Lincoln signed on 22 September 1862. Lincoln’s primary concern was always the preservation of the Union, but the Emancipation Proclamation made clear to both sides that a way of life was at issue requiring a total war on all fronts. Emancipation blocked any attempt that an accommodation between the North and South could be found because now the war by necessity stood for moral aims which could not be compromised. Stout quotes Massachusetts’s abolitionist senator Charles Sumner who supported the Emancipation Proclamation as a “war measure” in these terms:
“But, fellow-citizens, the war which we wage is not merely for ourselves; it is for all mankind … In ending slavery here we open its gates all over the world, and let the oppressed go free. Nor is this all. In saving the republic we shall save civilization … In such a cause no effort can be too great, no faith can be too determined. To die for country is pleasant and honorable. But all who die for country now die also for humanity. Wherever they lie, in bloody fields, they will be remembered as the heroes through whom the republic was saved and civilization established forever.”
Stout’s book is distinguished from other books on the Civil War by his close attention to what religious figures on both sides were saying about the war. It was ministers of the Gospel that supplied the rhetoric necessary for the war to achieve its mythic status.
To be sure, the South represented a more conservative form of Christianity than the North, as Christianity was recognized as the established religion in the Confederacy’s constitution, but for both sides, as Stout puts it, “Christianity offered the only terms out of which national identity could be constructed and a violent war pursued.” Stout provides ample examples of how Christians narrated the bloody sacrifice of the war, but Horace Bushnell’s contribution is particularly noteworthy for no other reason than his Christianity was liberal.
Early in the war Bushnell suggested that morally and religiously a nation was being created by the bloodshed required by the war. According to Bushnell, through the shed blood of soldiers, soldiers of both sides, a kind of vicarious atonement was being made for the developing Christian nation. Such an atonement was not simply a metaphor, according to Stout, “but quite literally a blood sacrifice required by God for sinners North and South if they were to inherit their providential destiny.”
Shortly after Gettysburg, Bushnell identified those who gave their lives in the war with the martyrs writing: “How far the loyal sentiment reaches and how much it carries with it, or after it, must also be noted. It yields up willingly husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons, consenting to the fearful chance of a home always desolate. It offers body and blood, and life on the altar of devotion. It is a fact, a political worship, offering to seal itself by martyrdom in the field.”
As the toll of the war mounted the most strident voices calling for blood revenge came from the clergy. Thus Robert Dabney, at the funeral of his friend, Lieutenant Carrington, told his listeners that Carrington’s blood “seals upon you the obligation to fill their places in your country’s host, and ‘play the men for your people and the cities of your God,’ to complete the vindication of their rights.”
One Confederate chaplain even prayed, “We should add to the prayer for peace, let this war continue, if we are not yet so humbled and disciplined by its trials, as to be prepared for those glorious moral and spiritual gifts, which Thou deignest it should confer upon us as a people.” Such a prayer makes clear that the war had become for both sides a ritual they had come to need to make sense of their lives.
Stout’s account of the religious character of the Civil War, perhaps, is best illustrated by the most celebrated speech ever given by an American, that is, the Gettysburg Address. Stout observes that something “emerged from Gettysburg that would become forever etched in the American imagination. A sacralization of this particular battlefield would mark it forever after as the preeminent sacred ground of the Civil War – and American wars thereafter.” Stout is surely right, making these words all the more chilling:
“It is for us the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
A nation determined by such words, such elegant and powerful words, simply does not have the capacity to keep war limited. A just war which can only be fought for limited political purposes cannot and should not be understood in terms shaped by the Gettysburg Address. Yet after the Civil War, Americans think they must go to war to insure that those who died in our past wars did not die in vain. Thus American wars are justified as a “war to end all wars” or “to make the world safe for democracy” or for “unconditional surrender” or “freedom.”
Whatever may be the realist presuppositions of those who lead America to war those presuppositions cannot be used as the reasons given to justify the war. To do so would betray the tradition of war established in the Civil War.
Realism is used to dismiss pacifism and to underwrite some version of just war. But it is not at all clear that the conditions for the possibility of just war are compatible with realism. At least, it is not clear that just war considerations can be constitutive of the decision-making processes of governments that must assume that might makes right. Attempts to justify wars begun and fought on realist grounds in the name of just war only serve to hide the reality of war.
Yet war remains a reality. War not only remains a reality, war remains for Americans our most determinative moral reality. How do you get people who are taught they are free to follow their own interests to sacrifice themselves and their children in war?
Democracies by their very nature seem to require that wars be fought in the name of ideals that make war self-justifying. Realists in the State Department and Pentagon may have no illusions about why American self-interest requires a war be fought, but Americans cannot fight a war as cynics. It may be that those who actually have to fight a war will – precisely because they have faced the reality of war – have no illusions about the reality of war. But those who would have them fight justify war using categories that require there be a “next war.”
Pacifists are realists. Indeed, we have no reason to deny that the “realism” associated with Augustine, Luther and Niebuhr has much to teach us about how the world works. But that is why we do not trust those who would have us make sacrifices in the name of preserving a world at war. We believe a sacrifice has been made that has brought an end to the sacrifice of war.
Augustine and Luther thought Christians might go to war because they assumed a church existed that provided an alternative to the sacrificial system war always threatens to become. When Christians no longer believe that Christ’s sacrifice is sufficient for the salvation of the world, we will find other forms of sacrificial behaviours that are as compelling as they are idolatrous. In the process, Christians confuse the sacrifice of war with the sacrifice of Christ.
If a people does not exist that continually makes Christ present in the world, war will always threaten to become a sacrificial system. War is a counter church. War is the most determinative moral experience many people have.
That is why Christian realism requires the disavowal of war. Christians do not disavow war because it is often so horrible, but because war, in spite of its horror – or perhaps because it is so horrible – can be so morally compelling. That is why the church does not have an alternative to war. The church is the alternative to war. When Christians lose that reality – that is, the reality of the church as an alternative to the world’s reality – we abandon the world to the unreality of war.