In November, more than 400 Christians gathered in New Orleans for the Centennial Gathering of the National Council of Churches (NCC). One focus of their work was to grapple with a paper on "Christian Understanding of War in an Age of Terror(ism)." The issue is how to reconcile allegiance to the teachings of Jesus Christ with serving in the military, especially when ordered to engage in military actions that are believed to be inconsistent with Jesus' message.
This is not a new dilemma. The teachings of Jesus have perplexed those engaged in military action and war from the time of Constantine the Great (circa 280 -"337 CE), the first the first Roman Emperor to become a Christian. As the emperor, he used his armies as his means to sustain control of the Roman Empire. As a Christian ruler unwilling to give up his armies, he needed to reconcile the teachings of Christ with militarism. This is what the Just War Doctrine purports to do.
The inception of the Just War Doctrine as church law is traced to the theologian Augustine in the fifth century, although he drew upon established Roman practices and the tradition of punitive justice that extended back to well before the time of Moses. While probably the original intent was to limit war, or control the conditions of war, in so doing, it has had the significant effect of condoning war.
The doctrine holds that war is moral if it is executed in accordance with certain tests that Augustine defined as follows: right authority, a just cause, right intent, the prospect of success, proportionality of good to evil done, and that war is a last resort. The problem with these tests is this: any aggressor, by his own measure, can claim to have met them all.
The test of right authority is easily met if the aggressor is a state. A just cause, from the aggressor's perspective, is a given. The prospect of success is often pure speculation for which little objective evidence is likely to exist. Proportionality of good to evil done is a matter of perspective based upon what interests are at stake. That war is a last resort has been claimed even when the enemy is not planning an attack, as in the Iraq War. Each test being subjective, the Just War Doctrine provides a form, without substance, for justifying war.
The fact that the Just War Doctrine does not include the question, are you doing unto others as you would have them do unto you? is not an oversight--it is a test that war cannot pass. As a result, rather than providing a safe haven for the oppressed, the church has too often accommodated the state by permitting church doctrine to serve the aggressor.
But it seems like there might be a shift occurring, with more Christians questioning this doctrine than in the past. Section 4 of the NCC report on understanding war, a section entitled "Tending to the Injury of War and Supporting Christian Discernment and Conscience," urges Christian churches to "much more vigorously stand with their members in the military who seek to follow church teaching. Churches should energetically support their members in uniform who face disciplinary measures for refusing to work with certain weapons systems or participate in particular military campaigns."
The report encourages churches to appeal to the US government to establish selective conscientious objector status. "Without such status Christians may be assigned to work with nuclear weapons or be pressed to perform other duties that violate their conscience."
The report states that churches should provide clear teaching about the moral danger of participating in military actions that are deemed to be unjust. "Given the immense tension and contradictions of trying to both follow the One who died on the cross for his enemies and being an active participant in the largest military enterprise in world history, some churches may join their voices with the churches of former East Germany and counsel their members to choose conscientious objection as 'the clearer witness' of God's call to peacemaking."
For 2,000 years many Christians have resolved the conflict between Christ's teachings and war in favor of war. We know what the world looks like when that has been the choice. Imagine what the world might look like if Christians actually took Jesus at his word.
Posted on GenuineJustice.com on 11-24-10.