In Defence of War: A Reflection

In Defence of War is thoroughly researched, clearly and elegantly written, and masterfully argued.  The task I have been given of responding is therefore harder than it might seem: as I find Professor Biggar’s account persuasive, perhaps because his contrarian instincts match my own, my most natural impulse is to offer my plaudits and be done.  In Defence of War is, in my opinion, a definitive account of the subject that will be read for a long time to come.  Instead, however, I take my remarks below in the opposite direction and consider whether in his defense of war Professor Biggar has been as pervasively theological in his account as he might has been otherwise.

In the introductory comments to his book, Professor Biggar lays claim to a “realist” tradition of politics that acknowledges the ‘fact of intractable human vice on the international stage.’  Some people, he contends, simply “do not want peace,” or do not want it enough, or only want it on their own terms, a view that he adopts not a priori but “on historical experience.” (10)  Yet he contends such a ‘realism’ is not Hobbesian, but Christian and Barthian. It affirms a God “who is capable of incarnation real death, and bodily resurrection” and so is “stronger on eschatological hope” than Reinhold Niebuhr’s. in defence of war biggar

Biggar sets this “realism” against the “virus of wishful thinking,” or the notion that there “always has to be an available pacific solution.” Yet such a pacifism, which Biggar contends is motivated by an “optimistic anthropology” that works “by faith in the natural goodness of human beings”, is not the only anti-violence outlook that he opposes.  There is also the theological variety, which is motivated by the example of Jesus, and so “by faith in the supernatural power of God to purge the world of the human vices that foster war.”

Framing theological pacifists this way, though, borders on reducing the argument to whichever view is more effective, which the theologically-minded pacifists are to reject. If the claim that abstaining from violence is more ‘effective’ at eliminating violence and warfare, then the question can only be determined by an empirical judgment, in which case the pacifist may simply modify Chesterton’s maxim about Christianity and say that it is not so much that pacifism has been tried and found wanting, but that it has been found difficult and so left untried. Or at least untried enough in either domestic or international conflicts to form a reasonable comparison set with the just war position.

Where theological pacifism and Biggar’s own Augustinian willingness to pursue a limited retribution through warfare part ways is not on whether and who must finally purge evil from the world, but rather the obligations and possibilities Christians face in the meantime as they pursue evil’s mitigation, not its final undoing.  On Biggar’s view, an “Augustinian modesty” demands that we pursue justice, but not too much justice, lest by our perfectionism we commit additional evils. (77)  The political order war leaves behind must be one that is “at least sufficiently just and stable not to return to the old ways.” But there is no reason a pacifist, theological or otherwise, would have to be committed to pursuing or expecting anything more than that either:  the pacifist constraint that Christians stringently hold forth the possibility of a non-violent resolution by refusing to take up arms does not commit them (necessarily) to the proposition that in every case peace will prevail, or even that resolution will be found in most cases. The theological pacifist may immanentize the eschaton, so to speak, and claim that God is purging the world of the vices that foster war through their non-violence. But there is no theological reason why they must.  Biggar’s claim that theological pacifists must take their stance “because they view the unilateral renunciation of violence as optimally beneficial in the (very) long run”, in fact, puts both the just war theorist and the theological pacifists in the same boat.  As he writes, neither can “demonstrate  that their chosen response to grave injustice will be less costly and more beneficial than the alternative.” (330)

I mention this not to object to Biggar’s account, but rather to raise questions about the role history and contingency plays in determining our responsibilities theologically. Biggar’s critique of the theological pacifists decisively demonstrates (in my opinion) that the New Testament is at the very least ambiguous about the legitimate use of violence. Yet in answering why we might choose just war over pacifism, the main reason Biggar gives is that “human experience teaches that wickedness, unpunished, tends to wax.” (330)  Fair enough. But wax for how long, and with what sort of unforeseen consequences?  It is incumbent upon the Christian ethicist to determine not simply the peace we ought let go of in our pursuit of retribution, but the terrors and evils we ought patiently endure. Biggar thinks that there are some cases where war is the only option before us, and so repudiates the ‘wishful thinking’ that there ‘must be a better way.’ But what is the force of this necessity in the sphere of human action? Attempting to meet an intractable vice with the unstoppable means of a more powerful coercive violence seems more like a tragically determinist account of history and its forces than a Christian view of providence and history.

To put the point a different way:  while the cross may be construed in ways other than the unqualified obligation to nonviolence, what role does the resurrection play in a just war theory? Such a moment seems to demand a qualification to the claims of history, and potentially demands of Christians a constant and unending obligation to remain open to the possibility that the tragic circumstances we find ourselves in are a momentary illusion, and that the violence is a cheat that obscures—but cannot defeat—the possibility of renewal. Biggar relays the pacifists claim that their stance “is right regardless of its efficacy,” and bluntly retorts:  “That makes no sense,” enjoining the Christian theologian to care about “the outcome of what he says.”  Yet it is just such claims of ‘efficacy’ that the resurrection seems to problematize for Christian theologians by shifting the terms of judgment away from empirical results on to another plane.

However, Biggar’s own theological account of just war does more than simply make room for it biblically as a legitimate mode of Christian reflection, before turning toward ‘natural reasons’ for sorting out when it applies.  His defense of love in war attempts to integrate forgiveness with certain kinds of resentment and retribution to demonstrate how Christian love qualifies coercion, and how that might structure the activities of soldiers on the battlefield.  Yet the account here is limited to justice in warfare, rather than clarifying how love might structure the reasons to go to war.  In that case, Biggar allows “plausibility” to define the ethical terrain in a way that potentially overly-naturalizes and historicizes our theological judgment.  He contends his account enables “us to discern how forgiveness could find fitting political expression in circumstances where simple absolution would be breathtakingly naive and inappropriate,” such as the United States’s reaction to the attacks of September 11th.  As he puts it, “If such absolution were the sum of forgiveness, then it could have had no plausible place in America’s reaction.”  Biggar is unquestionably right:  but to construe the decision to forgive slightly differently, it is not absolution that America might have offered in refusing to take up the cause of a retribution that has been chastened by compassion, but rather a judgment deferred toward another and potentially delayed until the eschaton. The American response may have been substantively identical regardless of whether it was ordered toward peace or vindictiveness. But it is not clear why, theologically, what is ‘plausible’ ought be the criterion by which these matters are decided, especially in light of the history-disrupting, deeply implausible moment of the resurrection.  In bracketing the eschatological peace that the resurrection signifies to avoid an overly stringent perfectionism, Biggar raises a real question about what need we have for it in deliberation about war at all—other than as the sort of thing we shouldn’t aim at.

The question of how we judge history in light of the cross and resurrection may have a more general practical application as well.  In the question of the Iraq War’s legitimacy, Biggar argues that the fact “that Saddam Hussein was not actually engaged in the process of perpetrating mass atrocity removes just cause from the invasion of 2003,” as the “regime of Saddam Hussein had not changed its spots.” His argument rests on the eminently practical principle that absent a change in heart or leadership, “there would be reason” to “expect the future to run along historical lines.” (256)  Given that there were no signs of internal unrest in 2003, Biggar concludes that regime change may have been possible, but clearly was not likely at the time (298), and so the invasion was a matter of last resort in that respect.  All that is fair enough.

Yet with respect to Michael Northcott’s arguments that America was motivated by imperial ambitions in light of his case that America has had at least 35 years of imperial activity, Biggar suggests that even if Northcott is right “we should still judge each case on its own merits” and “examine the most directly relevant evidence, and give priority over what our reading of historical precedent has led us to expect.”  At the least, this principle applied to Iraq would seem to eviscerate the claim that the past activities of Saddam’s regime justified intervention simply because there had been no regime change.  Whether moral atrocities by wicked dictators have a statute of limitations I am not qualified to judge.  But there is, at least, a serious question here about whether and how we use history in moral analysis.

I would note again, however, my appreciation for the book and my widespread agreement.  I offer the above noting that my own construals are questionable, at least, and instead submit them as a foundation for a healthy and lively conversation.*

*Disclosure: Professor Biggar is currently my M.Phil. advisor.  I hope it’s clear that had no bearing on the above. 

Tolkien and Violence

There’s a further Tolkien-related question that needs to be discussed after last week’s comments by George RR Martin, concerning the role of violence in Tolkien’s legendarium. Martin asked in the interview if Aragorn hunted down and killed all the orcs after his ascent to the throne, “even the little baby orcs in their orc cradles?”

As it happens, this is a terrible way of raising an interesting point. We need to talk about violence in Tolkien if we are to talk intelligently about his politics, but talking about the orcs is the wrong way of doing that. Tolkien is fairly dodgy about the origins of the orc, but the best hints we have are that orcs were originally elves who joined with Morgoth, the original Dark Lord for whom Sauron was a mere lieutenant. Due to their allegiance to Morgoth, the orcs were, by definition, evil to their core and were incapable of redemption. So the only thing left was to fight them and attempt to eradicate them. You can find ambiguity in Tolkien’s work regarding violence, but if you go looking for it in his treatment of the orcs you’re looking in the wrong place.

Martin’s comment about “little orc babies” is especially telling as it betrays a surprising ignorance of Tolkien’s world—it’s far from clear that there ever were such things as baby orcs. Tolkien never describes how exactly an individual orc comes to be, but there’s some reason to suspect that Peter Jackson’s view that orcs were made rather than born is correct. Indeed, if one reflects on the fact of Tolkien’s Catholicism it’s not hard to imagine him thinking that orcs, by virtue of their essential selfishness and lack of even the most basic form of affection or love, would be incapable of having sex and giving birth in the same way as the free peoples of Middle Earth. The simple act of sex, as Tolkien understood it, would have been the least orc-ish thing one could possibly do. (It is perhaps unsurprising that a man who writes sex in the way that Martin does would fail to pick up on this point.) So while it may seem an obvious place to go in thinking about violence in Tolkien’s work, the orcs are not the best place to begin.

Continue reading

Preferential Treatment for Syria’s Christians: A Discussion

As our nation deliberated about the merits of intervening in Syria–a deliberation that has presumably come to a close with the announcement of the agreement between Russia and the United States–many American Christians argued that intervention should be avoided in part because of the potentially horrific repercussions to Syrian Christians.

Whatever we make of the overall case against intervention, deploying these sorts of special moral obligations raises interesting questions for foreign policy.  Here, Jake Meador, Jon Askonas, Brad Littlejohn, and I take some of those questions up as a dialogue. Please feel free to chime in with your thoughts in the comments.

MLA:  It’s my party and I get to kick it off:  What role should potentially grave harms to Syrian’s Christians play in a North American Christian’s deliberation about intervention?

Mosaic depiction of Mary holding an Arabic tex...

Mosaic depiction of Mary holding an Arabic text, Convent of Our Lady, Greek Orthodox Church, Sednaya, Syria. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jake Meador: Let me lay out a few of the facts. In the 2.5 years since the civil war began, 110,000 people have died, 40,000 of whom are civilians. That alone may be enough to justify intervention on grounds of protecting the common good which, it should be remembered, is concerned with the flourishing of all people, not just Christians. Indeed, one could argue that attempting to only protect Christians is a Christianized form of utilitarianism–pursuing the greatest good for the greatest number of Christians. A good rule of thumb in political ethics is that any time your political views can be linked with Jeremy Bentham’s, you should be concerned.

That said, I’m still leery of taking action that will almost certainly harm Christians in the region. Perhaps this question can clarify why: Is it possible for Christians to speak coherently about the common good without the presence of the church? Put another way, are we really promoting a nation’s common good if we’re taking actions that will reduce the number of Christians in the nation from 10% of the population down to less than 1%? If so, doesn’t that imply that we’re defining “the common good” in purely materialistic–and implicitly non-Christian–terms? (That less than 1% figure assumes that a new Islamist government in Syria will do to Syrian Christians what the new government in Iraq did to Iraqi Christians–most of whom are now in Syria, it’s worth noting.)

Jon Askonas: Jake, I think the problem of moral particularism really comes into play for Christian policymakers, and not for Christian citizens. As voters in a democracy, Christians have every right to allow their sense of morality and view of the world to influence their advocacy. But a policymaker isn’t simply responsible to his own conscience; he has a special warrant to pursue the national interest of the United States, and he has to articulate any policy in more or less secular terms. I think he has two avenues to do so.

1) By making the general argument that the people who could potentially defeat Assad are not going to act in the American interest. Here, the value of Christian communities in Syria is not simply that they’re co-religionists but rather that they are not radical islamists, and that they likely share at least some core values with America.

2) By making the argument that the US should defend religious freedom abroad as a matter of course. What infuriates me about this White House is that, even though this is the stated policy of the United States, and even though the world’s Christians have gone through a violent couple of years, the present administration has made this policy a far lower priority than nebulous attempts to win political points at home by enforcing “gay rights” in the Third world.

So I think Jake’s right on the “common good” as far as how most American Christians should think about Syria, but things get more complicated when that Christian is also a policymaker with governmental obligations.

Jake Meador: Jon, I agree with your point so far as it goes, but I suppose I want to step back a little and think about the underlying theology that drives how we think about public policy and how we arrive at policy decisions. I’m reading both Oliver O’Donovan and Peter Leithart right now and one point both of them hit pretty hard is that a Christian’s political identity doesn’t begin with their national citizenship, but with their place at the Lord’s Supper.

So I understand the pragmatic reasons for a policy maker to think in secular terms and express their argument in secular terms. But there’s the debate itself and then there’s the way the debate is framed–and I want to be sure we’ve got the framing right before moving on to the particular questions. So I think all of your points are right about how it’s more complex for policy makers. I’m just not sure I want to proceed to the public policy questions quite so quickly.

Brad Littlejohn:  Jake, it certainly sounds nice to talk about a Christian’s political identity being tied to the Eucharist—but what, really, does this mean? I’m pretty familiar with Leithart’s remarks on this score in Between Babel and Beast (though where does O’Donovan make this claim?), and there, it really does seem to mean that Christians should never fight other Christians, and perhaps (though Leithart never quite says this), should always take the side of other Christians in conflicts. But followed consistently, this would make us no better than jihadists. Fact is, the church is almost as imperfect a polity as any nation-state, full of people who sometimes start unjust wars, or take the side of oppressors. If we accept just war criteria, it seems that we should apply them impartially, whether Christians turn out to be the bad guys or the good guys.

So if it were the case that the rebels were innocent freedom fighters, and there were otherwise a good case for aiding them, we might lament that Christians would suffer, but it shouldn’t affect our view of the justice of the cause. To be sure, it’s not nearly so open-and-shut a case. The rebels are bad guys too, and we might deem, all parties being equally bad in the present, that the Christians are likely to be better in the long run than the Islamists. From this standpoint, your original argument about promoting the nation’s common good has some relevance. But I don’t see how talk of eucharistic political solidarity helps this argument.

Jon Askonas: Jake, the problem I have with operationalizing the Christian identity question is how you fit it in with other vital layers of Christian theology, including our theology of state power, of Christian citizenship, of war, of justice, of charity, and of persecution. And I think this kind of intersectionality absolutely has to define how we frame the policy discussion. For example, if we leave out any question of violence, our engagement with Syria becomes about how we prioritize the material needs of Christians vs non-Christians and how we witness Christ in the midst of terrible violence and sorrow. If we leave out how Christians have to deal with Syria in their roles as secular law-makers and only focus on Christians as private citizens, we avoid tough questions about gray areas and murky thresholds between private and public duties.

Laying aside normative questions about policy, even analyzing the situation is fraught with difficulty. There have been clear instances of martyrdom that Christians everywhere should witness. But Syria is also a civil war in a region in which Christianity has important ethnic meanings: Coptic Christians are not simply Christ-followers who happen to be Copts. Many of these Coptic communities have made understandable political choices to support the regime and, now that a war over that regime has broken out, are understandably subject to (and presumably generators of) violence. Isn’t it a little disingenuous to purport that they are being attacked for their identification with Christ?

MLA:  Jon’s last point about the complexity of the Syrian Christian’s entanglements is worth camping out on for a moment, as I think it underscores what is so interesting to me about North American Christians’ response to this. I don’t think anyone is being disingenuous in suggesting they are being attacked because of their Christian identity. (They may be, after all.) But they may be analyzing the situation with an unreflective ability to pull apart  the Christian life from other forms of identity in ways that others who haven’t been formed with liberal intuitions may be able to.

I would be interested, though, to hear thoughts about the moral case for preferring Christians and whether it flies–if it can be abstracted from the other considerations, that is. Dreher argues for it by way of analogy here, only while I agree with his conclusions about those cases I’m not sure they’re actually analogous. For one, none of his examples are set within a political context, which introduces many of the additional considerations that we have been discussing.

But I am also interested in knowing how this should work out: should I prefer a fellow Christian’s life in Syria to that of my atheist friend’s here, because of the nature of our ties? In the distribution of charitable goods in famine situations, should we distribute at the churches first so the Christians are fed before everyone else? I’m on board with some sort of moral particularity, and Galatians 6:10 lends itself to some sort of prioritization of believers. But nor do I think it solves the questions I’m raising here.

Jake Meador: Going into this I was of two minds on that particular question. On the one hand, there’s a lot of good biblical warrant for Christians giving preference to Christians. Galatians 6:10 is the most apparent. But you can also look at what Jesus says about Christian unity in John 13 and 17. Those verses about Christian unity make me very nervous about any policy my home nation might pursue that directly or indirectly harms other Christians. Can I say I am loving my brothers and sisters if I’m encouraging my nation to act against their interests?

Then again, Christians worship a God who triumphed over evil, in part, by dying (although it’s worth remembering that without the resurrection, the crucifixion is just a tragedy). And that act of God breaking himself for the nations is something that sits at the center of our worship. It’s not foreign to Christianity to suggest that one person can die so that others may live. So can the argument be made that Christians, in this case Syrian Christians, should be willing to literally forfeit their lives in a political conflict in order to save their neighbors? Perhaps. (I suppose what I’m saying is that we need to think a great deal about the meaning and significance of martyrdom.)

That said, I still lean strongly toward option one, which means opposing any plans that will have the effect of harming the church. If anything has changed in my thinking in the past few years, it’s that the church has grown larger and larger in my mind and heart. So I’m exceedingly uncomfortable supporting a course of action that will almost certainly harm the church.

Jon Askonas:  Jake, I don’t think loving fellow believers is the only (or even the primary) consideration in play here. Justice, peace, and the lives of millions in the region are also at stake. Galatians 6:10 tells us to do good to believers when we can, but it’s the optimistic capstone on an argument Paul concludes in Galatians 6:7 – God is not mocked, what a man sows he will also reap. There have been innumerable cases of Christians justly engaging in armed conflict with each other. Obviously, any breach of peace is ultimately rooted in some sort of sin. But while there may be other reasons to oppose them, surely you would not suggest that the Revolutionary War or the Civil War were bad wars simply because Christians engaged in violence against each other?

While I don’t think intervening in Syria is the right move right now due to other policy considerations, I don’t think the fate of Syrian Christians should be a determining factor in how American Christians think about the kind of military intervention that is being discussed now. Jake, I think you, Rod Dreher, and others have raised legitimate concerns about the US inclination to support the rebel opposition in light of Christian unity, but I think you are theologizing and abstracting Christian brotherhood in general away from the particular entanglements of Syrian Christians. For pretty good reasons (including, perhaps, 1 Peter principles of obeying political authorities), Syrian Christians have supported the Assad regime. Now what was sown is being reaped; their protector is engaging in behaviors that are wicked and unjust, not to mention in violation of important international norms which protect civilians in armed conflicts. Can America justly intervene to damage the Assad regime’s chemical weapons capabilities, even if this results in greater violence against Syrian Christians in the end if the regime falls?

The principle of double effect would suggest that America would be justified. First, “punishing evildoers” is a responsibility of government, and, ceteris paribus, this kind of strike would be justified. Second, America would intend no harm against Christians either directly or as a means to the end. The only question remaining is whether the bad outcomes of a strike are outweighed by the good to come of it. On this last point, I’m convinced that present circumstances do not justify military action. But were those circumstances to change, the plight of Syrian Christians could not be the sole consideration. We can mourn our martyrs and actively seek to assist Syrian Christians, but their plight does not change the responsibility of political leaders (not only in America) to seek peace and justice in Syria.

As an aside, I do think a theology of Christian unity should complicate our otherwise stalwart support for democracies around the world and the Middle East in particular. It has reliably been the case that Christians have a much harder time in Islamist countries, whether they are democratic or not, and our foreign policy should reflect these concerns. Unfortunately, religious freedom has been a complete non-priority for the Obama administration.

MLA:  I think Jon’s last word is a good one.  However, I also think the case of Christians fighting against each other in (say) the Civil War doesn’t quite do justice to this particular argument.  The possibility of Christians going into combat against one another was–if I can put it this way–accidental to the nature of the conflict:  while there were doubtlessly theological differences at work in how each of the respective sides represented worked out their understanding of slavery, any one soldier would not know whether the other soldier he was shooting at was himself a Christian or not.

Here, the argument is that the intervention would affect Christians as a class of people, an aggregate, which means the parallel doesn’t seem to work.  That doesn’t mean the argument for preferential considerations for Syrian Christians works, but it does mean that as we think about the limits of the preference that Paul mentions in Galatians we have to recognize that it is fundamentally a social reality that is under consideration, not simply the relationship between individual Christians per se.  (So Paul is extending the argument even from Galatians 5, where the fruit of the Spirit are “embodied” in particular persons but take shape within the social life of the church.)

One last observation, by way of closing down this interesting discussion:  American Christians have spent a good deal of time wrestling with the fundamental tension between our Christian identity and our American heritage.  The Neuhausian formula that I will meet God as an American is (I think) close to the right one, but the conflicts over gay marriage are potentially in danger of creating a sense of alienation among conservative Christians from our government.  In this case, none of those internal changes stopped many American Christians from potentially instrumentalizing American foreign policy for specifically Christian purposes (even if not American Christian purposes).  But I for one am interested to see how whether these cultural transitions among American Christians play out in foreign policy.

Is the Use of Drones Morally Permissible?

Rand Paul’s dramatic filibuster before the Senate generated a great deal of public debate in recent weeks, and for good reason. Paul has drawn attention to an egregious expansion of the drone program rationale to include targeting of American citizens on American soil, which believed to stretch the already wildly stretched parameters of the Patriot Act. The current policy circumvents the normal rules of judicial arraignment, thinks Paul. His concern corresponds to a wider public worry over the terrific escalation of the drone program, an anxiety that has not been at all assuaged by the Attorney General’s repeated demand for freedom to strike any “immanent threat,” even if domestic. The report of a new base to support drone activities in North Africa is but another telling indicator of the program’s ambition.

The president relented to demands from senators to disclose 11 classified legal memos in which his administration argues that it has the authority to use drone strikes to kill terror suspects who are US citizens Photo: REUTERS

The president relented to demands from senators to disclose 11 classified legal memos in which his administration argues that it has the authority to use drone strikes to kill terror suspects who are US citizens; Photo: REUTERS

Important as Paul’s argument is for public debate, it grasps the moral problems surrounding the drone program only partially. In truth the entire drone program, including its foreign activities, is premised on the acceptance of distinct moral compromises.  We are told that unmanned drone tactics present two new opportunities in the war on terror, both desirable and without precedent: reduced risk of pilot casualties and increased targeting precision. On the face of it, admittedly, these opportunities appear attractive. But their attractiveness ought not distract the opportunistic character of these ends. So far, all rationale offered by officials have appealed to superior outcomes achievable through unmanned drone targeting when compared to traditional means of war.  Appeals to demonstrable “results” of the targeting program are meant to reassure the public that any moral concerns we might have not real. Only the self-deceived argue with results!

This particular mode of practical reasoning about war tactics is morally insufficient. To better interrogate the moral shape of the drone program I propose holding the actual practice of using unmanned aerial vehicles to target terror suspects up to a few traditional principles of just war. The long and informative tradition of just-war theory is a distinctly Christian arrangement of rules for ordering martial affairs toward rightful ends. These rules are intended to govern the planning and activities of war. The Obama administration’s frantic attempt to devise ad-hoc rules for drone targeting in the days leading up to last year’s election reveals that the traditional rules of war were either unknown or entirely overlooked.

In what follows we’ll consider only one of the rules, discrimination, and ask whether the current configuration of the drone program successfully upholds it.  Continue reading

Pacifism, C.S. Lewis, and Growing up during Wartime

Stanley Hauerwas’ long essay critiquing C.S. Lewis’ views on war is worth sitting down and reading.  Hauerwas is unquestionably America’s foremost pacifist voices, and easily one of its most influential theologians.  And while I don’t agree with everything, this is an essay that deserves serious consideration.

I may have more substantive thoughts on Hauerwas’ argument later (though I am interested in hearing reader opinions now), but this bit from the beginning caught my eye:

Lewis fought in World War I and endured World War II. It never occurred to him that there was an alternative to war. War was simply a fact of life. Moreover, for Lewis the claim that war is a fact of life is not only an empirical generalization, but a claim about the way things necessarily are. For Lewis war is a fact of life we must accept if we are to be rational.


C.S. Lewis

Cover of C.S. Lewis

It’s interesting that for the vast majority of younger writers–and I speak of those in the 20-40 age range–war has rarely been a “fact of life we must accept.”  In fact, I don’t think it’s ever been that.  40 year olds would remember bits and pieces, no doubt, of the Cold War.  And in my lifetime, we have been involved in two major operations in Iraq, along with smaller battles elsewhere.  But while the tragedy of those events can’t be overestimated, and the loss of life disrupted individual families in countless ways, they can’t be compared to the massive social and cultural challenges that the World Wars of the early and mid 20th century wrought.

Allow me, like Augustine notes in Confessions, to investigate here for a second and not assert.  Why is it that two of the most influential Christian writers of the twentieth century experienced a form of warfare firsthand and yet maintained their instincts around just war, yet many of younger Christian writers who have never set foot on the battlefield (like me) can write breezily about its horrors and advocate for pacifism?  It’s fascinating to me, really, as I would think that if pacifist sentiments arose at any point, they would come in response to the global terrors of the World Wars.  I can’t avoid the comparative claim, but mustard gas and the atom bomb strike me as two of the most horrific human creations ever.

In short, our new normal of distant wars seems to have made pacifism more plausible, not less.  Perhaps thats because a world without war has become imaginable to a younger generation in a way that it wouldn’t have been to Lewis.  But if that is true, then I also wonder whether the grounds of most of our pacifist imagining actually goes as deep as Hauerwas’–into the core of the Gospel and the witness of Jesus on the cross.

So much for tonight.  All I wanted to do was signal a new, possible line of inquiry and solicit help among those who are interested in taking it up.*

*I always feel a little wrong writing about war in this way, in part because I haven’t experienced it firsthand and so am concerned about trivializing it even in my speech.  An acknowledgment doesn’t right the wrong done, but if you have been in war and find the above distasteful for it, please let me know.


Political Correctness…, I mean Religious Correctness

[This post is lengthy; be forewarned]

As I expected would happen, the readers of Mere-O have responded both with class, sensitivity, and elegance to my original post, in which I provoked conversation about the Mosque Controversy in New York City. In this post, I want to offer a perspective that I’ve been giving thought to on this issue. I would love to hear everyone’s thoughts, disagreements, etc. But, of course, let’s be civil.

What are the fundamental issues sparking this contentious debate?

1) Religious Freedom/Religious Liberty. Proponents for building the Mosque believe the Constitution protects any religion’s right to build anywhere without government prohibition.

2) Progress. Proponents also believe that building a mosque on such sensitive and sacred ground as Ground Zero allows for peaceful bridge-building; that is, in allowing a Mosque to be built, we’ll overcome our apparent (and latent) prejudices against Muslims and become better acquainted with a moderate, and supposedly peaceful form of Islam. In all, this position claims that America will better appreciate its own religious heritage by being in tune with it.

3) Respect and Decency. Opponents of the Mosque believe that building such a towering and imposing edifice is in blatant disrespect to the victims and families of 9/11. In this camp, religious liberty advocates still uphold the right to build a Mosque but calls on the Mosque’s builders to delicately consider whether America has been appropriately healed from a disastrous attack perpetrated by a particularly virulent strand of Islam or, in a different vein, whether Islam has fully satisfied the demands of Americans who wish that peaceful Muslims would unequivocally denounce the form of Islam which precipitated 9/11.

4) Conflict over Values. Opponents of the Mosque see much deeper elements brewing under the surface: a political show-of-arms. Islam is a religion ripe with political symbolism, indeed, Islam is a political ideology. According to this breed, the towering nature of the proposed Mosque is the equivalent of engaging in political symbolism, the Mosque representing the totalizing tendency of Islam to usurp the authority of its indigenous habitat, wherever that may be. At a more deeper, fundamental issue, is the debate between Islamic and Western values. Westerners, of course, believing that Islamic nation-states represent some of the most authoritarian, restrictive states in the world simultaneously standing in stark contrast to the liberties upheld by Western democracies. Consider Andrew McCarthy’s words from National Review:

The Ground Zero mosque project is not about religious tolerance. We permit thousands of mosques in our country, and Islam is not a religion. Islam is an ideology that has some spiritual elements, but strives for authoritarian control of every aspect of human life — social, political, and economic. The Ground Zero mosque project is a stealth step in the “Grand Jihad,” the term used by the Muslim Brotherhood and its confederates for what they describe as a “civilizational” battle to destroy the U.S. and the West from within, by sabotage.

Now, I don’t believe McCarthy is channeling the conspiracist mindset of Glenn Beck to say what he says. In fact, I tend to agree. And moreover, McCarthy is writing from the most respected mouth-piece of American conservatism, ensuring that the majority of conservatives feel at least some similar attitude.When viewed properly, as one commenter noted, the supposed overlap of religious liberty and Western values cracks. The issue becomes one of upholding Western values, not arbitrarily denouncing a religion because we disagree with its religious concepts.

Before I offer my own thoughts, I would like to include a few excellent quotes from the readers of Mere-O who so generously discussed this issue in the comment thread.

From Sean Rice:

In seeking the welfare of our city, we should seek to bring it in line with the good principles of God’s Word, and should recognize that our current setting is not a perfect place and is deserving of criticism and needing of change; this prevents us from exalting our culture and falling into tribalism.

From Dave Strunk:

Two principles overlap in concentric circles: religious liberty and Western Christian values […] The fact that Muslims want to practice Sharia law in parts of the West is a utilization of our own principles against us (I’m going beyond the WTC debate for a second). We want freedom of speech and religion, and so naively allow Sharia law to be practiced in some places (i.e., in some parts of the UK). BUT, Sharia law doesn’t want freedom of speech and religion, and so doesn’t allow it. Whether we call these a clash of Islamic and Christian values, or Islamic and Western values, doesn’t make much of a difference. In one way or another, Islam is clashing with common sense human rights everywhere, and it ought to be stopped in whatever avenue is possible.

Bravo to the readers of Mere-O. If I may generalize, based upon the comments section of my post, it looks as though the readers of Mere-O are in opposition to the Mosque being built on the grounds of a perceived conflict over values.

Now, if you’ll permit me, I’ll throw in my two cents. This has never been an issue of religious liberty. Heck, I’m a Baptist. It’s in my blood to permit anyone of any creed the freedom to worship. So, while I too am in opposition of the Mosque being built, I would defend it on principle on the basis of a purely pragmatic, Constitutional right.

Perhaps, though, the Constitutional aspect of this debate ought to be enlarged by placing the safeguards of the Constitution next to the intent of Islam. When done, revealed in the outcome is the instability of the Constitution to protect itself from staving off attack by the very means it seeks to uphold. What am I saying? I’m saying we’ve caught ourselves in a mess.

Yet, the pragmatic, constitutional concern I harbor does not override much deeper political concerns I have over the building of this Mosque. One, as columnists for the Weekly Standard and National Review have pointed out, the funding for the Mosque is suspect. There are links that the builders of the Mosque have both political and monetary backing from radical strands within Islam. But, on another level, I freely admit that I hold the motives surrounding the building of this Mosque in tension: It is no surprise that history has often been wedged between the values of imposing empires.

How ought Americans see Islamic encroachment? First, we must beg for transparency on the financing and connections associated with the Mosque. Secondly, we must ardently denounce the attempts by some extremists in Western European countries to enforce Sharia law within the confines of the European nation-state. The presence of such law is a direct attack on a nation’s sovereignty and its own rule of law.

We must ask, though, how ought American Christians respond to Islamic encroachment? As we’re instructed to do in Scripture: Love our neighbor. It is important to recognize that the perceived enemy of the State is not the enemy of the Christian. Yes, the Christian recognizes the authority of the state to distribute justice equitably, but the Christian also recognizes that the State is ordered to protect itself and its citizens. The bulk of this debate lies with the State and Christians portending despair ought to look upward. If there is any regret to be expressed in the building of this Mosque, it is in the sadness wrought by seeing individuals being eternally deceived by following a false god. The towering symbol of this particular Mosque communicates the commitments of its adherents. A large Mosque means a larger following—translating into a larger net effect of individuals separated from Christ.

On one level, the pain of this debate is great, for it provokes sacred first principles upon which our nation was founded. Americans, for the first time, are experiencing the birthing pains of a nation dedicated to religious liberty. But, for Christians, the pains of seeing individuals deceived ought to provoke even sharper pains of anguish.

Individuals still wishing to address the tumult surrounding the building of the mosque in terms simply of religious freedom have fallen prey to the limits of political discourse. Individuals keen to the inner-chamber of the debate now recognize that this has nothing to do with religion, per se. Individuals opposing the construction of the mosque recognize the political significance and symbolism of such a towering architecture. A Mosque no less threatens individuals within Western countries as does Islam, with its proclivity toward cultural monism and totalitarian regimes.

As critics are sure to denounce the opponents of the Mosque as nativists and bigots, it is the Mosque’s proponents who I believe represent a naive and elusive commitment to religious pluralism. This type of politick inevitably relativizes the uniqueness and virtue of civilizations by simultaneously trying to uphold neutrality towards all others. And some socio-religious implications are not only impossible to be neutral towards, but must be opposed for the sake of safety.

To be for something, the State may need to be against something. But, this may result in forming an opinion unfavorable to the culture at large. Such is the burden experienced by those willing to value the virtues of a free nation. With time, if Islam can prove itself a catalyst towards Democratic freedom, then its case will have been naturally made in the public square. Until then, it has a lot of work to do in distancing itself from Islamic extremism. Peaceful Islam, if it exists, must pay for the sins of a few.

I’ll end with a quote from Craig Carter, who states the terms far more ably than I:

If they [Moderate Muslims] are not willing to admit forthrightly that 9/11 was caused by a group of young Muslim men, mainly from Saudi Arabia, claiming to be inspired by centuries of Islamic aggression against the infidels – then they should not be allowed to build their mosque.

If they are not willing to apologize for the atrocity committed against America by members of their own religion and in the name of that religion, regardless of how misguided they may be regarded as having been, – then they should not be allowed to build their mosque.

If they are not willing to meet with representatives of the victims families and listen to their suggestions of how the design of the building could incorporate a suitable memorial to the victims, a clear repudiation of the ideology that motivated the attackers and a commitment to American principles of separation of church and state and liberal democracy – then they should not be allowed to build their mosque.

Why not? Because if they wish to be at war with the West, the West should treat them as enemies. Religious toleration ends where murder begins. St. Augustine could have told us that.

Carrying the Fallen

Three American flags draped the coffins lying on the cargo floor of my C-17.  It was only three hours earlier that I had received a phone call informing me that my crew was to fly from Europe to America; no word was spoken about the cargo that would be on-board.  I had just bounded up the stairs into the airplane, coffee still in hand, to begin the pre-flight inspections when I was confronted by the coffins.  I stopped short.  All that separated me from the dead bodies of the American soldiers was the fabric of a flag and the steel wall of the coffin.  I was practically in the presence of death and felt a cold shudder work itself through my body as my mind futilely evaded the urgent images of the lifeless bodies hidden behind the flag of our country.  The fabric of a flag and the steel of a coffin are miserable talismans in the presence of death and only barely serve to keep the horror and terror of the future of all men from rising to the surface of the mind and incapacitating the living.  Yet they did their office and enabled me to pass by the coffins and climb the steps to the cockpit to accomplish my pre-flight duties, pushing questions about the histories of the deceased to the corners of my consciousness until they would rise unbidden, no longer enchanted by the magic of the flag and coffin.

Cruising at 30,000 feet above the frigid North Atlantic Ocean in the dead of night and carrying three slain soldiers to their final resting place forces thought upon even the most simple and uncurious mind.  The knowledge that three human beings’ dead bodies rested on the floor of my airplane urged a variety of images and questions upon me: simple questions like what their names were or what they looked like, sober questions like why they died and for what purpose, sad questions like what their families would do without them and who would play with their children as only a father can.  Meanwhile, my aircraft sped on through the night towards its destination to deliver its somber cargo into the safekeeping of American soil.

We touched down a few hours after sunrise on the East Coast and I pushed the thought of the corpses jostling in their steely beds from my mind as I taxied the aircraft onto the parking ramp.  After shutting down the engines, we were met by a small entourage from the military office of mortuary affairs and briefed on our duties.  The coffins were to be moved from the aircraft to a morgue vehicle and transported to the funeral home and then to their final resting place in the warm earth.  As the plans for the ceremonial transfer were explained, I couldn’t stop thinking how odd it was that we were conducting a ceremony for nobody.  Every person present at the ceremony bore no relation to the deceased; none of us knew their names or faces, none of us knew their pasts or their stories.  Nevertheless, a general and other commanding officers would be on hand, taking time out of their busy schedules to stand at attention and then salute as three caskets were carried 30 yards from an airplane to a van.  A chaplain was present and prayed for each of the fallen, though not by name, and asked God’s blessing on their families.  The crew stood at attention behind the line of coffins and simply watched as an honor guard lifted the steel and fabric boxes and moved them slowly to the hearse.

What was the reason for all this pomp and ceremony for nobody?  Why the respect paid, in such painstaking detail, to the lifeless bodies of three unknown soldiers?  A team of mortuary affairs officials first removed and replaced the flags on the coffins, carefully folding and creasing each to lie crisply over the metal box.  A team of pallbearers arrived in sharp military dress, marching, stopping, bending, lifting and marching again in unison.  Hours of practice under-girded their precision.  A chaplain left his morning duties to pray for three men he never knew and for their families and friends.  The master of ceremonies carefully inspected my uniform and the uniforms of the men on my crew and rehearsed our part in the play, “Stand here, no….move a hair to the left, yes, stop.  Okay, you’ll stand here and salute on my command.  It will be a slow salute, taking three seconds to render.  Yes, yes, just like that.  Try it again.  Okay.  Now I need you to move a little bit to your right.  Thank you, yes,” and on and on it went.

As the preparations continued, I wondered why nobody had bothered to tell these officials that the military, with all its ceremony and respect for the dead, was hopelessly antiquated, out of touch—that the great race of Western men had long ago concluded that men are nothing but machines, that we had risen from a causally-determined ancestry of chimps and amoebas and had only our own creative delusions to thank for our sense of dignity and honor, and that our bodies, once devoid of life, were nothing but lumps of molecular waste ready to complete their part in the eternal circle of life and death.  It was humorous, almost, to see the great respect being shown to dead bodies by men whose culture and education taught them that those bodies had no more value or meaning than a discarded candy wrapper or a pebble in the bottom of a stream.

It’s not usual, these days, to honor the military as a repository of truth or culture; we are much more likely to think of our soldiers in terms of the people they kill, the destruction they wreak, and the havoc they cause around the world.  However, standing at the head of the three caskets that I had flown across the sea, it dawned on me that the military is, in this regard at least, a conserving force in our society demanding that we reconsider the conclusions of our scientific materialism.  Perhaps it is better to trust the instincts and conclusions of men who deal in life and death on a daily basis when it comes to the meaning and value of human bodies.  Perhaps, paradoxical though it may seem, it is only those men whose business it is to kill men who can understand something fundamental about the worth and value of human life and its relation to the body.

As the warm sunshine filled the cargo hold and bathed the coffins in light, the command came sharp and clear, “Tench-hut.  Present, arms.”  The coffins were carried out and I was filled with a sense of reverence for the bodies I had never seen, lying as they were, behind the protective mask of flag and steel.  But they were there, beneath the surface and they had once housed the “immortal horrors” or the “eternal splendours” of human souls.  It was fitting that I should render them a salute as they moved to their final resting place.  Fallen bodies, like fallen men, are images still of God Himself.

Faction and Revolt: Kyrgyzstan in Light of American Foundations

Kyrgyzstan is in revolt but it is unclear what the revolt will accomplish.  The opposition parties are demanding democracy and equality, fed up with the cronyism of current President, Kurmanbek Bakiev and convinced that the government is working to undermine their rights and silence their dissenting voices.  These claims, however, sound remarkably similar to those of the Tulip Revolution in 2005, which put the current president in power and sent his predecessor into exile on charges of authoritarianism and granting favors and power to close associates and family members.  While the details triggering the revolts differ, the disenfranchisement of the Kyrgyz populace in the face of unyielding government is the thread that ties the two together.

From where I sit, approximately fifteen miles north of the capital city, Bishkek, and the location of today’s riots, it is quiet.  The stability and tranquility I am experiencing at the U.S. air base just miles from the scene of an armed mob attacking the presidential offices is, in many ways, due to the manner in which American government has dealt with factionalism among its citizens and endeavored to deal fairly with the various grievances of the people.

The brilliance of the American Constitution is often seen in contrast with various dark alternatives, alternatives that come into existence due to a faulty analysis of the source of strife within a Union.  James Madison, one author of a number of the Federalist Papers published in support of the ratification of the Constitution of the United States, placed his finger on the issue that must be addressed by any proponent of a popular government:

Among the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction. The friend of popular governments never finds himself so much alarmed for their character and fate, as when he contemplates their propensity to this dangerous vice. Continue reading

Thanksgiving for Things Unseen

October 1863 saw Americans firmly entrenched in the middle of the third calendar year of the Civil War; a war that, perhaps more than any other American war, brought great suffering, pain, turmoil, and strife to American soil and threatened to undo the entire American experiment. However, even during this great American crisis, President Abraham Lincoln had the ability to not only look forward from the midst of American strife to a better future, but was able to make this statement about the present American condition after two years of fighting between father and son, brother and brother:

The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.

It certainly is true that we all too easily take the mundane and continuing blessings of life for granted—the “fruitful fields and healthful skies,” and even the daily rising and setting of the sun. It is no small thing that the planets turn according to certain imperfect laws of motion or that the miracle of life occurs day by day in the fields and greenhouses of American farmers; but besides the provisions of nature, we also can forget the many provisions offered us by the American republic in which we live. It can sound hackneyed perhaps to rehearse once again the blessings of our civil liberties: speech, the press, free thought, peaceful protest, fair trial, equal rights for all men; but even a casual glance at the vast majority of nations outside our borders ought to be sober reminder enough that our liberties are only distant dreams—or in some cases, terrible nightmares—for many of the world population.

Positive progress is always the easiest to see and be thankful for, but we must not forget that things unseen—the terrors escaped and the sins avoided, as well as the opportunities created and future possibilites secured by past actions—are no less worthy of our gratitude. Living in a democractic republic means that we don’t live under a tyrant, secured civil liberties provide us with opportunities to create and flourish…and the rotation of the earth means, among other things, that our feet remain firmly planted on the ground (and just think of the multitudinous opportunities that one simple fact opens before us!).

While many may disagree that the on-going turmoil in Iraq is the one thing that we cannot and should not be thankful for, I suggest that the progress being made in that country—progress measured by decreasing deaths among soldiers and civilian alike, increased involvement of Iraqis in solving Iraq’s problems, the discovery of and effort toward erradication of corruption of and insurgent infilitration in Iraq’s military and police forces, and the still sporadic but slowly increasing decisions by local and regional leaders to cooperate in building a hopeful future in their country—is cause for great rejoicing. We can rejoice for the benefits that are being secured for our fellow man; we can also rejoice that progress in Iraq brings American sacrifice and involvement in the region towards a sooner end.

Regardless of one’s own opinion regarding the wisdom or justifiability of America’s initial action in Iraq, we all can join together in thanks that the country has not fallen into civil war and unbridled sectarian strife. More, America’s enemies have not used the unrest in Iraq, the deep entrenchment of American forces in the region, or the political fragmentation among U.S. citizenry as grounds to launch an offensive against Israel, Iraq, or America and her allies.

On the home front, even while Americans have felt the squeeze of rising oil prices, the falling housing market, and the ravages of tropical storms and ravenouse wild fires, we continue to live our lives at unprecedented levels of comfort, luxury, and personal fulfillment. The younger generations of Americans have yet to experience the true pinch of limited commodities that were a standard part of the Great Depression generation. The lack of great suffering on a national level even while America is embroiled in the middle of an ideological and practical international political and military struggle speaks volumes about the many and great benefits secured for the American people by the wisdom and foresight of the Founding Fathers. Despite the many hardships of 2007, Americans have much to be thankful for.

This Thanksgiving weekend, I think it worthwhile to mirror President Lincoln’s speech and acknowledge not only the blessings of the past, but also to think upon the continued goodness of God shown to us individually and collectively, with an eye to the future and to redeeming the time.

Observations and Questions Regarding “Munich”

Steven Speilburg didn’t win the Oscar for Best Picture of the Year with his wonderful film, Munich, but this latest in his series of tragedies is assuredly a personal best.For those who have not seen it, I give it a qualified recommendation, due to the highly disturbing graphic violence and the uncompromising depiction of the lives of professional killers.

For those who have, I am curious to hear your thoughts, to share a few of mine, and a few questions that stuck out to me as I watched the film for the second time.

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