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.


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.

  • There’s three thoughts that occur to me as I read this post, though I’ve not yet read Hauerwas’ essay:

    a) I think the growth of media and the realism of war movies has changed the way we view war. So we no longer have to fight in a war to appreciate how horrifying it can be. (I’m not saying a civilian who has seen Saving Private Ryan has the same understanding as a soldier who has fought in Afghanistan. I’m just saying that whereas in the past, if you weren’t an eye witness to war, you may not have appreciated exactly how awful it was. But now the forms of media we use have closed that gap a little bit. Also, I think it’d be a mistake to say that Lewis and Tolkien weren’t horrified by war. They might have seen war as necessary, but you can’t read Tolkien’s description of the dead marshes (likely influenced by his time at the Somme) and tell me that Tolkien didn’t find war horrifying as well.

    b) Don’t you think part of the issue is also – at least with WW2 – the enemy we’re fighting? The Taliban and Hussein regimes were/are really horrifying, but they haven’t killed eight to ten million innocents, which if memory services, is the estimated number of innocents killed by the Nazis. So the enemy seemed much more worth fighting in WW2 than in either Iraq war.

    c) At the same time, I think there was also a greater sense about the basic justness of “our” side in those wars. When we talk about my grandparents being part of the “greatest generation” we generally don’t mean “the generation that firebombed Tokyo,” though that is who we’re talking about. Basically, I think there’s just a drastically reduced confidence in the good vs. evil dichotomy that is behind just war theory. Put another way, for a war to be just, you need a just side and an unjust side. But I wonder how equipped our generation is to think in those terms.

    Part of that relativistic mentality needs to be rebutted, of course. If you think both sides in the Cold War were equally bad, you need to be argued with and proven wrong. But at the same time, just war theorists need to be the most honest, most forthright people out there when discussing real atrocities committed by the just side in a just war. WW2 was a just war, but firebombing Tokyo was never just, etc.

    • Jake,

      Great thoughts. I didn’t mean to suggest that Tolkien/Lewis weren’t horrified by war. I know that they were–only that their horror was combined with a sense of its unavoidability in many cases.

      The CNN effect is obviously a massive issue here and has been extensively studied (how social media and Twitter are changing that is also in play). And it’s something that I think plays into all this but I’m honestly not sure how. The growth in “realism” in the movies and on TV has corresponded to a more widespread experience of pseudo-warfare in videogaming, which I sometimes think actually mitigates some of the effect. (Also, let’s remember that the nature of warfare is changing–hand-to-hand combat and even the terrors of naval battles are less frequent, it seems, while drones, missiles, and the like are more the norm).

      As to (b), my understanding is that the West largely turned a blind eye to the concentration camps until after the war was over. We didn’t know the extent of Russia’s destruction of human life until after. And the nature of the Taliban is a totally different animal–had they not been disrupted, their entire goal was to introduce horror into otherwise peaceful states through terrorism. The number of bodies may not have been as large, but the disruptive effect would have been.

      As to this: “Basically, I think there’s just a drastically reduced confidence in the good vs. evil dichotomy that is behind just war theory. Put another way, for a war to be just, you need a just side and an unjust side. But I wonder how equipped our generation is to think in those terms.”

      Yes, completely. Very good insight. And I agree with your final paragraph about just war theorists, etc. The question of just war is not quite the same as doing justice *in* war. Both are subject to moral consideration, a fact that professionals have never forgotten but that sometimes gets lost in popular considerations of the issues.


  • This is an excellently worded piece. At 38 I do remember much more than bits and pieces of the Cold War. While we were raised under the continual threat of war, that is in no way to be compared with being raised with the brutal realities of war. Great piece.

  • Hauerwas has also written fairly frequently to assert that squeamishness is not a good enough reason to refuse violence. I don’t remember which collection has his essay on nuclear war, but he even goes up to that edge and says that, if all we can say is, “That’s scary, and I want none of it,” we’ve not gotten the point of the Gospel.

    • Nate,

      Yeah, I think he points that out in the linked essay. I didn’t mean to implicate Hauerwas in my inquiry–just the contemporary younger evangelical crowd, most of whose objections don’t rise to Hauerwas’s level.


  • You’ll forgive me for being predictable, but I’ve noticed a similar pattern with Calvinism. As a general rule (and this is entirely anecdotal), the more difficult one’s life and the greater amount of suffering they’ve experienced, the higher their view of God’s sovereignty. Some are surprised by this, thinking that those who suffer would not want to “blame” God, but they usually haven’t experienced much suffering themselves, so they’re speaking about the problem of evil the way our generation speaks of war. The alternative (to give the all too easy answer) is that it is comforting to think that there is purpose behind evil when you’ve had to endure it yourself.

    • Dave, that’s an interesting corresponding relationship. Thanks for pointing that out. I’m really trying to get behind the relationship between experience and our theorizing, as I think it plays out in all sorts of interesting ways. This is a good one.


  • James M.

    Advocates of Christian non-violence have not made the case to my satisfaction that a dis-connect exists between the role of government as keeper of domestic security (IE policing criminals) as compared to protection from foreign incursion. And, one will have a hard time making a convincing argument that, say, it is immoral to desist interfering while watching a rapist do his bidding to one’s sister (something I take Hauerwas would agree with), yet when Nazis do the same on a national scale (both figuratively and literally), such inaction is justifiable. I am obviously aware of the distinctions that one might make between those cases, but the ethical justification is based on the same idea, that protection of the innocent is right. I think it is fair to posit a resistance to civil authority when his decision to go to war is clearly flawed, ethically. And certainly one cannot know each circumstance involved leading to such a decision. This, to me, seems a reasonable basis for the decision not to participate, but does not strike to the heart of the ethical basis for war that Hauerwas makes.

    • James,

      Smart thoughts here and I agree entirely. Thanks for the comment.


  • Jeffry Butter

    Matt, I have served in the Marine Corps for most of my life, and am a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan (for whatever that perspective is worth). I think I understand a lot about pacifism, although I am not a pacifist. Regarding your comment “a world without war has become imaginable to a younger generation”: war is everywhere all the time — even today. Young American adults may be untouched by war, but not Albanians, or Chechnyans, or Sudanese, or Columbians, or Mexicans, or North Koreans, or many others. War will be an everyday part of human existence until the end of time — pacifists can not change this. Thanks for what you’re doing! I’m really enjoying the perspective from The Kilns!

    • Jeffry,

      Thanks for the kind words, but moreso for your service. It’s folks like you who make work like mine possible. I’m a middle-class fellow whose been given the privileges of an elite life because of our country’s relative stability the past 50 years and I am grateful for it.

      That said, I do agree that war is always around us. My focus was largely on the younger evangelicals in America, who are often not so in tune with issues in those areas. They just feel more remote than the pervasiveness that Lewis would have known in WW! and WWII.

      But still, the point is a good one. The narrowness of my vision on the world often gets in the way of speaking truth about it!



  • Robert F

    I’m not a young evangelical, but I’d like to comment anyway. I think a big part of it has to do with the fact that the culture(s) of younger people(s) in the America (and in a different way in Europe) since the 1960s has led to a different attitude about the right of the authorities to wage war and to command our individual consciences. The expansion of a certain kind of “progressive” education (both higher and general education) among larger numbers of people in Europe and the U.S. has led more of the population to adopt positions that were formerly mostly held by portions of the intelligentsia (not counting unusual exceptions like the Quakers and Mennonites) regarding the authority of government and the rights of the individual conscience.
    One other comment: we must remember that the relative peace that Americans experience in this country is because of the Pax Americana (referring to our domestic situation) which, like the Pax Romana, is the result of a powerful and dominant military. If that military were to disappear, or become ineffective (as it partly did on 9/11), the “peace” would disappear like a mist, and the thoughts of those younger evangelicals (and other younger Americans) would turn to war (as they did on 9/11). This is not the peace that Jesus commended to us, nor the peace of those Christians through history who honorably refused to make war even at the cost of their own lives. The peace of Jesus is the peace that goes by the way of the cross.

  • Echoing Robert F, my anecdotal understanding of religious pacifism of previous generations allowed for the right of the state to engage in war but made allowances for the individual conscience to abstain. I remember hearing stories of mennonites in our community who had been conscientious objectors during WW2, but who had served in shipyards building warships. While I understand young evangelicals longing to end conflict, I simply don’t understand how that is a realistic approach given human depravity.

  • Andrew Murray

    I really appreciate the thoughts and comment thread here. The role of a follower of Christ in war, peace, and politics has been a point of discussion and conflict for me and many of those I know. I would also like to submit here Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His Cost of Discipleship has reawakened my pacifist leanings (which I trace to the Mennonite curriculum I was raised on from Rod & Staff Publishing). I believe that his expounding on the Sermon on the Mount is the best, at least that I have read. Yet, Bonhoeffer, like Lewis and Tolkien (and even more so) was tested by the brutal realities and despicable evils of World War II. Here is an interesting blog post on the subject:
    and another:

  • I have found as a member of the younger generation mentioned that virtually the only sensation or capacity for understanding young people retain on a popular level is the capacity to understand cruelty. This, combined with a sort of quasi Hindu general feel left over from the Sixties and a severe distaste and rebellion towards authority figures who are seen as war mongering and elitist, creates a fake Pacifism that is more a rebellion towards cruelty or overbearing figures than any actual, cogent pacifist philosophy.

    I also believe this generation to be basically inured to struggle on any kind of real scale due to upbringing, except in generally poorer, non-white venues, such as First Nations, African American, or Hispanic. Speaking generically, white kids are too rich and insulated, and the concept of struggle is as foreign as a doctor’s office to a healthy person.

  • Okay, I will admit that I didn’t read the whole essay Hauerwas in a careful way. I skimmed it for his solution to WWII. All I saw was vague assurances that there must have been a way. How do you non-violently resist bombers dropping bombs? Have you seen Coventry cathedral. I had this same conversation when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan forever ago. I asked the so-called pacifist if he was willing to lie down in front of the Soviet tanks. He was incredulous that I would even ask that question. The soviets, he told me, would doubtless drive their tanks right over him(a sad commentary on his attitude toward his fellow man). He told me he was a pacifist because there was nothing important enough for him to die for. Boing!!!! Wrong answer. A real pacifist (and I have personally only met one) says there is nothing important enough for him to kill for. I have had this conversation again tonight. Nobody has yet come up with the answer to non-violent resistance to people whose main desire is to wipe out you and yours and enslave those who are not willing to die for what they believe. The willingness of the Nazi Germans to kill 12 million people in mass killings is suffient to call into question whether there were any non-violent solutions. Hannah Arendt, no pacifist, is the only person I know who has suggested a non-violent approach that might have worked. Basically she said that all of the jews should have simply refused to get on the trains. They should have forced the Germans to kill them where they stood. She operated on the premise that the mere public health necessity of disposing all of those bodies would have at least slowed down the Nazis. When someone has a gun to your head it is not enough for some high minded intellectual to suggest that there must be a better way. So long as pacifism is simply an unwillingness to die for what you believe in it deserves to fail and it is only masquerading as Christianity and all the intellectualisms in the world cannot change that fact.