Battling Evil, Part Two: Pacifism and Just War (4/21/02)
University Congregational Church—Wichita, Kansas
Rev. Gary Cox
Last week we began a three-week series on battling evil. I think it would be helpful to take a few moments and go over the main points from last week, so we will be comfortable as we launch into part two.
I explained last week that each of the three weeks of this series would be undertaken from a different perspective. Part one was entitled “Defining the Battle,” and it dealt with evil from a theological and philosophical perspective. Today, in part two, we will straddle the line between the philosophical and the real world by examining the just war theory, and the pacifist response to that theory. And next week, we will conclude the series by planting both feet firmly in the here and now, as we attempt to apply what we’ve discovered in the first two weeks to this rather messy world in which we find ourselves enmeshed.
I think the most important element from last week’s sermon was the recognition that there really is such a thing as evil. We have to be cautious about labeling everything we don’t like as being evil, but the Christian view of creation holds that there is something wrong. God is good, and things don’t always seem to happen the way a good and loving God would want them to happen. That means there is some other power at work.
We talked about how Christians have wrestled with this problem of evil throughout the entire history of the church, and how it is still a colossal headache for anyone who dares to take the subject seriously. The one thing the church has finally agreed upon is that there is not a second, evil god. There is only one God, and within God there is no evil. Which left us with a very difficult question: Why would a God of goodness create a world in which there is so much evil?
After breaking out several bottles of aspirin, we looked at one of the logical arguments that answers this question—the answer that I have found personally satisfactory—and the simplified version of that three step argument goes like this:
Number one: Love is the only reason the universe exists;
Number two: Love cannot exist except in freedom;
Number three: the same freedom that allows love to exist necessarily allows for the possibility of evil. Simply put, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to do what is right—to love—unless we also had the opportunity to do what is wrong—to act in ways that are contrary to God’s will.
Well, enough of this overly philosophical approach to the problem of evil. There’s no point in going over ground we’ve already covered, and besides, the church’s annual budget for aspirin was expended last week.
So today we move on to part two, having accepted the reality of evil, and saying it is not an eternal power, but rather a necessary evil, literally, in a creation built upon a foundation of freedom. After accepting that there really is something called evil, we have to determine how to respond to it, or in our particular case, to determine the proper Christian response to evil. Now, I must mention one more thing about last week’s sermon, because it lays the groundwork for today’s reflections. We concluded last week’s message by looking closely at the admonition of Jesus to turn the other cheek. That sounds at first blush like a pretty straightforward commandment. But then we read the text again. Listen closely, because everything that follows today is based on this interpretation of Jesus’ words.
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In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Scholars point out that the gospel writers did not throw in words for no reason, and the fact that this saying says to turn the other cheek if you are struck on the right cheek is highly significant. In the patriarchal world of the first century, women held a low status. When a man struck another man, he hit him with his fist, and because most people are right handed, that means the person was struck on the left cheek. When a man struck a woman, which was not all that uncommon, he backhanded her, meaning she was struck on the right cheek.
The ultimate insult one man could pay another was to backhand him like a woman. That is why the saying says if you are struck on the right cheek, turn also the other. It doesn’t say to hit back. But neither does it say to cower down and take a beating. It says to stand against that evil and demand respect.
Well, suddenly we have a little wiggle room. We are not told to lie down and let evil run us over; we are told to stand against it. But how? How do we stand against evil without fighting back. Is it possible to fight back and still claim we are Christians?
At this point, I fear I may have mislead you a bit when I said we no longer needed any aspirin. When I was in seminary, I loved every class I took, but there was only one that actually kept me awake at night: ethics. I thoroughly enjoyed those classes that most people hated: the systematic theology type classes where we wrestled with concepts like the Trinity, the relationship between God and creation, the nature of Jesus Christ. For me, that was fun. What wasn’t fun was trying to determine right from wrong. Ethics! It’s a theological nightmare. And nowhere is that nightmare more tangible than in our response to evil. To put is bluntly, When is it okay to kill people?
Early on the Christian faith divided into two camps over this subject: those who believe in pacifism, and those who believe that it is possible to wage a just war. The tension between those two ideals will occupy the rest of this morning’s message. And just let me say right up front how thrilled I am at this point to be a Congregationalist, in an intelligent and open minded church, where head and heart are equal partners in faith, and where you do not look to me for pat answers on such subjects. All I can do with a subject such as this is stand here as a reflection of each of you and wrestle with the issues publicly, on your behalf, respecting any conclusions you draw and loving you through any decisions you make.
Pacifism verses just war theory. I once said that I was a minister because this was about the only position in our society where a person was permitted, even expected, to be idealistic. Still, the shine wore off of my halo a long time ago, and it would be extremely hypocritical for me to stand here like some sort of angel and say, “There is no circumstance in which I would take a human life.” Even for those of us who think we may be able to allow harm to ourselves before we would kill another person, our love gets in the way of allowing innocent people to fall victim to evil, especially when those innocent people are our spouses or our children.
If we see some person attacking and preparing to kill one of our loved ones, we’re going to do more than drop to our knees and pray they change their mind. We’re going to intervene. We certainly hope we could do this without causing their death, but in the heat of the moment I doubt if their safety would be a very high priority in our minds.
One day when we were discussing this in the Adult Sunday School Class, Ernie Crow made a great comment. He was raised as a Quaker, which is one of the pacifist denominations. He said the way some of his Quaker friends said they would handle such a situation would be to point a gun wherever the perpetrator was standing and say, “I’m going to shoot right there in three seconds.”
I like that response, but of course, life is seldom that neat and clean. I mean, how do we point a gun at Saddam Hussein and say, “We’re going to shoot there in three seconds,” without starting World War Three? And when our so-called “gun” is weaponry with the power to annihilate the human race, we’d better be very careful about pulling it out of the holster. As any policeman will tell you, you never draw your gun unless you are willing to use it.
When is it okay to kill? The early church, by all accounts, really was a pacifist group, but by the end of the second century there is evidence that some Christians were serving in the military. And then, in the year 312, the Emperor Constantine, as legend has it, dreamed just prior to a great battle that the Christian God promised him victory. It is difficult to know where legend and fact intersect, but one thing is certain. Constantine proclaimed Christianity as an acceptable (some would say official) religion of the Roman Empire. From that point on, Christians have served in the military.
The argument about whether or not war can be morally justified has raged within the church ever since. It was Saint Augustine who first established the rules for a just war sometime early in the fifth century, and after centuries of argument and modification, we have today a clear set of rules which form the foundation of the modern just war theory. There are ten elements in the just war theory—ten conditions that must be met before a war meets the standards of the just war theory.
I don’t want my words to turn into an academic lecture, but this is important stuff, and I know of no other way to present the just war theory than to spell out its ten principles. They are:
Number one: The war must be declared by a legitimate authority. In other words, no matter how mad the people of University Congregational Church get at some other church, organization or nation, and no matter how justifiable our rage is at what that group has done, we are not justified in declaring war against them. We simply do not have that authority.
Number two: The war must be fought for a just cause. This gets a little messy, doesn’t it! But at the heart of the matter is a simple fact. We cannot justly wage war against another nation simply because we don’t like the way they dress; or because that other nation has some natural resources that we would like to have; or because we don’t like the type of economic system they prefer. What does constitute a “just cause” may be difficult to determine, but one thing is certain: as Christians, we set the bar for a just cause pretty high.
Number three: The war must meet the standard of proportionality, meaning the response must be proper and proportional to the evil which it confronts. This one tries to take our anger out of the equation. Remember the case several months ago where the father of a young hockey player thought his son was getting some bad treatment by another father, who was serving as an official in a game. He ended up beating that man to death. That is an example of a violation of the law of proportionality. Likewise, if some nation takes a group of Americans hostage, it may call for a response; but the response should be something less that the annihilation of every man, woman and child in that country.
Number four: The war must have a morally good or neutral principle. This is similar to the just cause standard, although it is a bit more philosophical. Basically, the war cannot be fought out of pure self-interest. There has to be a higher principle than “it will be good for our nation,” in light of the fact that war, in all cases, does harm to somebody.
Number five: The war must have a good effect that is derived as soon as the bad effect. Obviously, bad things happen when nations go to war. There has to be something good that will come out of it immediately. It’s not enough to say, “If we kill all the leaders of that country, maybe the people will put somebody better in charge. You have to know the good result in advance, and know that it will happen.
Number six: The war must have a moral agenda that INTENDS good and only ACCEPTS bad. Again bad things happen during times of war, but at no point can one revel in the evils of war. At all times, the moral reason for the war must be the motivating factor, and any bad that results from the war can be accepted, but never intended.
Number seven: The good that results must outweigh the evil that is accepted. Not only must a warring nation intend good, the bad which happens cannot start outweighing the good. The minute the evils of war start overwhelming the morality of the cause, the war is no longer just.
Number eight: There must be a reasonable belief that the war’s objectives can be met. This one may seem obvious, but when we continue our discussion next week, and try to apply the information from these first two weeks to the world in which we currently find ourselves, we will want to give this condition some serious consideration. For example, most would argue that eliminating Al Qaida from Afghanistan is an achievable objective. But if we were to decide to eliminate evil from the world once and for all, we would want to give that some thought before committing our military to such an operation, at least if we want to meet this standard of the just war theory—the standard of having an achievable objective.
Number nine: The war must be a last resort. This is probably the most obvious of all just war conditions. We don’t go to war until we have exhausted every other possible way to resolve the problem. And yet, history probably tells us that this is the most frequently violated of the just war principles. When a nation’s people are angry—when they feel they have been wrongly attacked—war is usually one of the first options considered.
Number ten: The intentions behind the war must be right. This is sort of a reiteration of all of the other conditions. It is simply driving home the fact that both the reason for the war and the result of the war must be anchored on righteousness. It is not simply a matter of the end justifying the means. The condition of a good result certainly must be met; but the original intention must also be virtuous, or the war cannot be considered just.
That is an overview of the just war theory. Many Christian theologians feel there are times when it is possible to meet those conditions. For example, it was widely held that the war against Nazism in World War Two was a just war. The great Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was implicated in the plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler, and it cost him his life. He was evidently willing to take Hitler’s life in order to put an end to Hitler’s evil.
One can point to the Jews who were herded into the Warsaw ghetto, and then summarily exterminated, as an example of what can happen when people refuse to fight back. But even in World War Two there were many theologians who remained pacifists. Allow me to provide the brief but powerful argument from the pacifist branch of our faith.
These are some of the claims of pacifism—I won’t elaborate on them—I’ll simply let them speak for themselves: Based on the teachings of Jesus, there is no situation which justifies the taking of a human life; therefore a just war is an impossibility. The willingness to kill for one’s country shows that a greater allegiance has been given to country than to God. The Christian call to love one’s enemies is unambiguous. Cultural differences make it easy for one nation to label the actions of others as “evil,” when in reality those actions simply run contrary to the nations interests, and are not truly in and of themselves evil.
And to complete the overview of pacifism, I will provide what many believe is the strongest argument for pacifism from a Christian perspective. For those who believe Jesus Christ was the incarnation—the Son of God—and that he was less deserving of capital punishment than any person who has ever lived, his death was the greatest crime in the history of the world. He did not deserve to be killed. If there was ever a reason to fight against evil, it was when Jesus was arrested and led off to his death. One of the few things on which all four gospels agree is this: one of Jesus’ followers drew his sword to protect Jesus from arrest; and Jesus ordered him to put away his sword. For many, that is the ultimate argument for pacifism. God conquered evil through Jesus Christ not by waging a military war against it, but rather by going right through the heart of it, and by never losing his love in the process.
Well, this is not an easy subject. I admit that I am extremely conflicted over this subject. I was serious when I said that theological ethics was the one and only seminary class that made me lay awake at night. In my heart, I believe Jesus was a pacifist, and I believe God wants me to be a pacifist. At the same time, everything within me says that God does not want us to stand by and watch evil triumph.
Next week, we’ll try to apply some of the things we’ve discussed over these past two weeks to the present world situation. As the Middle East simmers dangerously; as our nation undertakes the development of a new generation of “safer” nuclear weapons; and as the good people of this land seek a proper response to those who seem to hate us so irrationally; we will pray together for God’s will in these matters.
I leave you with a simple thought. The people who believe all the worlds problems have a right answer and a wrong answer are themselves part of the problem. God has not placed us in a black and white world, where right and wrong are as easy to discern as day and night. But we must never forget the gospel. God knows us, and God understands us, and God loves us. And no matter how confused we may get from time to time, and no matter how difficult and painful our struggle to discern right from wrong, as long as we open our hearts to God’s love in the living of our lives, God will love us through every decision we make. Praise God! Amen.