Right now we are commemorating the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The network of concentration camps set up by the Nazis in occupied Poland saw the death of over one million prisoners – most of them Jewish – in just under 3 1/2 years. This horrible situation came to an end when Russian forces arrived at the end of January 1945.
It needs to be pointed out that here, as in Germany and elsewhere, it wasn’t nonviolence and nonparticipation that liberated various concentration camps such as Dachau and Buchenwald, but Allied tanks, aircraft and military personal. Well meaning but naive pacifists and peaceniks did not save the Jewish prisoners and other victims in the camps, but soldiers who risked everything.
This tells us something about the morality of warfare. Sometimes there are morally justified wars, of which the attempt to combat Hitler and free Europe was a prime example. Sometimes great injustice and inhumanity has to be resisted, and sometimes recourse to war is our only option.
There is of course a minority tradition in Christian thought which espouses pacifism and renounces all war and use of force. They have their place in Christian social ethics, although I happen to disagree with them. The effectiveness of nonviolent resistance and so on against great evil and injustice is in fact rather limited.
It is not my intent here to make the case for just war or to make the case against ideological pacifism. Not only has this been done quite capably and quite often by others, but it is the stuff of entire libraries. Here I simply want to highlight a few basic truths, and offer a few helpful quotes along the way.
Peace is often misunderstood – even by Christians – as simply the absence of conflict. But peace – in the biblical understanding (consider for example the Hebrew word shalom) – has to do with right ordered political and social concord; tranquillitas ordinis, as Augustine put it.
Peace with justice, in other words, is vital. Just as there is just war, so there can be unjust peace. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “While a good peace is better than a good war, even a good war is better than a bad peace.” When evil on a mass scale exists, as under the Nazis, Christian social teaching has always emphasised the right to fight for just order and to resist tyranny.
The preservation of peace at any cost is not the highest good, but seeking a just peace. When the innocent are oppressed and tyrannised, a case can be made for the just use of force. Real peace can only exist because some men are willing to fight for it. Said George Orwell: “People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”
Two essays penned at the beginning of WWII spoke strongly to this. C. S. Lewis gave a talk to a group of pacifists in 1940 titled “Why I am Not a Pacifist”. It has been reprinted in various collections of his essays. In it he said this:
The doctrine that war is always a greater evil seems to imply a materialist ethic, a belief that death and pain are the greatest evils. But I do not think they are. I think the suppression of a higher religion by a lower, or even a higher secular culture by a lower, a much greater evil. … Of course war is a very great evil. But that is not the question. The question is whether war is the greatest evil in the world, so that any state of affairs which might result from submission is certainly preferable. And I do not see any really cogent arguments for that view.
And in the same year Reinhold Niebuhr wrote “Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist.” He stated that he was not a pacifist because for him “pacifism either tempts us to make no judgements at all, or to give an undue preference to tyranny”.
While pacifists may speak about love of neighbour as part of the rationale for what they do, it seems this does not go far enough. They may not kill others, but they are not doing much to alleviate the oppression and suffering of others either. More recently Dennis Prager put it this way:
Slogan: “War is not the answer.”
“War is not the answer” if the question is, let us say, “What is the square root of eleven?” But if the question is, “How do we stop enormous evils in the world?” the answer is, unfortunately, quite frequently, “War.” Nazi and Japanese racist genocide were ended by soldiers shooting people, and by bombers bombing people, not by people who believed “war is not the answer.”
As has been said, “Pacifism is made possible by the sacrifices of those who are not pacifists.” Some may have genuine convictions not to fight, but it is the willingness of those who will fight which secures our freedoms and make possible a world where various tyrannies and injustices are at least kept in check to some extent.
In a fallen world we never have a perfect set of choices. Often we must choose between various evils. That is often unavoidable. As Frank Turek wrote:
One thing is for certain: Christians contradict scripture and common sense when they say no war or use of force can ever be justified. As terrible as it is, war is sometimes the least bad choice available. In other words, it’s not that Christians are for war; it’s that we’re against the alternative – the oppression and death of the innocent. And in a fallen world like this, sometimes the use of force is necessary to protect the innocent. Without it, we wouldn’t even be able to love our friends.
Entire libraries of course have been written on all this, and the just war tradition not only has two thousand years of Christian support, but even precedes this. Plenty of volumes could be mentioned here, but let me just highlight a new book on just war theory by Nigel Biggar.
Called In Defence of War (Oxford, 2013), he offers what he calls a Christian realist approach to this issue. In nearly 400 pages he makes a strong case against pacifism, and for just war thinking. Just one brief quote can here be offered, but I strongly recommend you pick up his important volume:
As I believe in the fact of gross and intractable wickedness, so I believe that punishment is necessary and that it has a basic, broadly retributive dimension. . . . Retribution is important because wrongdoing needs to be contradicted, fended off, and reversed. Not to contradict it and fend it off and try to reverse it is to imply that it does not matter, and, therefore, that its victims do not matter. Just war is an extreme form of retributive punishment.
As I said, this short article is by no means intended to make the case for or against just war thought. An entire PhD thesis would be needed to do that properly. So those pacifists wishing to start a war here (pun intended) might control themselves just a bit. Much more needs to be said on all this before proper debate can ensue.
But let me close with a thought which helps to elaborate where I am coming from. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers we find Faramir explaining his position with these words: “War must be, while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would devour all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend.”
Love of neighbour may sometimes mean resisting – even by force – those bent on destroying them or greatly harming them. The personal ethic of Matthew 5 in other words needs to be balanced by the social ethic of Romans 13. But for more on that, you may need to peruse the 64 other articles I have so far penned on this topic: https://billmuehlenberg.com/category/war-and-peace/