CultureWatch

Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

A review of Between Pacifism and Jihad. By J. Daryl Charles.

Aug 10, 2005

InterVarsity Press, 2005.

Over 20 years ago Christian social commentator Michael Novak wrote a book entitled Moral Clarity in the Nuclear Age. In it he urged us to think clearly and with moral discernment about the issues of nuclear deterrence, justice and warfare. This volume serves a similar function, except in the context of the modern dilemma of international terrorism.

The main focus of the book however is to provide a thorough description and defence of classic just war theory. Written by a Christian ethicist mainly for the Christian community, the author lays out the various options relating to issues of war and peace. Of course the two major options throughout church history have been pacifism and just war doctrine. The former, while always a minority opinion, has had many champions throughout the ages.

The latter position, just war theory, has had a long and honourable heritage, both in religious and non-religious circles. The position holds, in brief, that there are some occasions in which a war may be fought with moral justification. It stipulates some of the reasons why it may be just to enter into such a conflict (jus ad bellum) and how such a war may be justly waged (jus in bello).

The tradition argues that there is such a thing as the morally legitimate use of coercive force, and at the same time argues that such use must be limited. The requirements of just war theory are always only approximate, and never absolute. Thus careful thinking and moral reflection is required on the part of nations, their leaders, and their citizens, as they contemplate taking up arms against other nations. And there will be disagreements amongst believers as to how the requirements of just war thought are to be applied, indeed, if they are to be applied at all.

Charles traces the development of this doctrine through Christian history, and seeks to defend it in the face of numerous objections. Like Novak before him, he especially seeks to sharpen our moral clarity concerning the difficult questions raised in the debate, and equip believers to think deeply and critically about how their faith intersects with such contentious social and political issues.

And like Novak, he is unhappy with the sloppy thinking and muddied moral waters that often occur in these debates. Just as Novak could object to the foolish notion of moral equivalence prominent during the Cold War era (which sought to show that there was no moral difference between the free and democratic West and the oppressive Marxist regimes), so Charles rejects the glib claims that actions to resist international terrorism are no better morally than the terrorist act themselves.

If Novak had to deal with moral myopia and intellectual vandalism at the time of the Cold War debates, the matters have only gotten worse. As Charles points out, our post-modern climate has only exasperated the problem. Not only are we no longer thinking with moral clarity and vigour, but we have abandoned the very notion of a moral framework in which to make ethical judgments. Indeed, post-modernism discourages us from making moral judgements at all.

Thus the need to once again state the case for just war theory, to show its historical and intellectual roots, and to demonstrate how it is an important tool by which we assess armed conflict and geo-political conflict. The urgency of the terrorist threat requires some hard thinking, moral realism, and theological discernment.

As such a number of issues are canvassed. For example, does the biblical injunction against vengeance preclude the right of nations (and individuals for that matter) to defend themselves? Charles rightly reminds us that retribution is not the moral equivalent of revenge. Retributive justice does not equal vindictive revenge. Societies have an obligation to maintain peace with justice, to defend the innocent, and to actively work against injustice and exploitation.

Moreover, the biblical concern for forgiveness is not nullified by the biblical injunction to retributive or punitive justice. Indeed, while individuals are required to forgive (but are not denied the right to self-defence), nations are not so required. Nation states have a God-given obligation to protect their citizens and preserve justice.

In sum, love, mercy and justice can (and do) peacefully coexist in the biblical worldview. There is no final conflict between showing love and compassion, and upholding the standards of justice.

Other crucial questions are considered. What about pre-emptive strikes? Are they ever morally justified? What about the use of coercive force in peace-keeping missions? Is that an oxymoron? All of these specific questions need to be debated within a larger theological and ethical matrix. And Charles argues that a thoroughly biblical understanding of important concepts such as peace, justice and the right use of force clearly lead to a doctrine of just warfare.

The particulars of any individual case will of course be open to discussion and debate. But in an age in which no one is now safe from the deadly hands of terrorist bombers, it is vital that Western nations in general and people of the faith community in particular do some sober and profound thinking about these issues. This volume is a very helpful tool in such an endeavour.

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