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. 

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.