Collect for the Seventh Sunday after Trinity

Lord of all power and might, who art the author and giver of all good things: graft in our hearts the love of thy Name; increase in us true religion, nourish us with all goodness, and of thy great mercy keep us in the same; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Pacifisticuffs, Part Two: The Sword

There have been wars and rumors of wars throughout the world for all of recorded history, and there is no reason to suppose prehistory was any different. One of the first events of Genesis is a fratricide; that human beings kill one another is, ironically, a fact of life.

Nor is the Christian tradition a stranger to war. Since St. Augustine formulated a baptized theory of just war, as Christendom was beginning in the twilight of the Roman Empire, there have been wars tolerated, approved, and even encouraged by the Christian world. There has also always been a dissentient tradition within the Church -- not, or not always, repudiating Just War Theory, but always calling for peace and forsaking violence of every kind. For every St. Louis who was a willing soldier against the infidel, there was always a St. Francis who would sooner be killed than kill. Since the fracture of the Occident during the Reformation, there have been not only movements but entire denominations who incorporated strict pacifism into their practice and even their doctrine, notably the cruelly persecuted Anabaptists and the Quakers.

I accept Just War Theory in principle, as do most people -- in the sense that most people think wars can be justified, though of course there are unjust ones. However, as I mentioned in my last post, I mean to register as a conscientious objector (notwithstanding my profound respect for those who are or have been in the armed forces, including my father and one of my brothers-in-law) if the draft is ever resurrected.

But if wars can be just, why be a conscientious objector? One important reason is that I have exactly no confidence that our government, or most governments, will lead their country into just wars -- whether considered according to their cause or according to the way they are waged. And why not? Because, throughout her history and including our most recent conflicts in the Middle East and central Asia, the US has exhibited a distinct disregard for the criteria of just war; less, maybe, than other nations, and that is something to be profoundly grateful for, but injustice remains injustice also when other people are worse than we are.

But why am I saying that America has disregarded the criteria of just war at all? Plenty of people, including plenty of Christians, would bristle at such an accusation, as a mark of impenitent flower-childishness. Well, I have to admit I am from California originally, so any mud thrown from the well of hippiedom will likely stick. But let's consider just a few of the criteria for just war -- the criteria generally accepted by theorists on the subject.

One is the criterion of right intention, connected with the need for a just cause to go to war. Self-defense, or the defense of innocent populations who are unable to protect themselves, is such a cause; but maintaining an economy is not, whether through the economic activity of war, or through seizing the resources of another nation (either outright, or through establishing a satellite regime that will favor one's own nation in trade).

Another is that, in the conduct of a war, no means evil in themselves can be used to subjugate an enemy. This would include tactics such as forcing prisoners of war to cooperate in efforts against their own side, or using weapons whose effects are uncontrollable, such as nuclear weapons.

A third is that a distinction must be observed between combatants and non-combatants. Deliberately killing civilians is out of the question. Strikes, of whatever kind, that involve destroying civilian lives or property at a scale disproportionate to the direct, military advantage to be gained, are ruled out.

Now, this or that specific war or particular act of war can be debated on these grounds, or on others. But I at any rate cannot look at these things and fail to see my own nation staring back at me. And I cannot commit myself to obeying as a soldier a government which is capable of commanding such things, especially since the lives of fellow soldiers could easily depend upon my actions.

I have often heard these requirements of just war dismissed in conversation as an unattainable ideal. Wars simply aren't fought that way. Maybe, but that is scarcely the point. The ideal of a perfectly hygienic child is equally unattainable. Arguably more so, since non-combatants in a war generally do wish to live, whereas few children wish to be hygienic; yet I never heard of a mother who saw that as grounds to excuse her children from washing. Likewise in every pursuit of justice, whether we are discussing war or politics or any other thing. It is only in pursuing possibly unattainable ideals that anything ever gets done; only the idealist can be really pragmatic. And, especially from a Christian perspective cognizant of the four last things -- death; judgment; Heaven; hell -- the lesson could be drawn that the inevitable injustices of war are a lesson about the wrongness of war, not the wrongness of justice.

But there is, for me, another and in some ways a deeper reason for being pacifistic. One of the ideas at the core of the Christian religion is that all human life is sacred, that every human being is an image of God, sacrosanct. To reverence the image of God in man is therefore a holy thing. Now, there may well be reasons to disregard the sanctity of the image; it is not, on a typical Christian view, wrong to do violence and even to kill in self-defense. But to choose, as a vocation, not to take up arms and not to do violence, even when we are ourselves wronged, threatened, endangered -- not only is this also not wrong, it has been historically required of priests. It is a symbolic affirmation of the sanctity of the human person, which persists, despite any actions taken by the individual.

Is this vocation obligatory? Certainly not. That is what distinguishes a vocation from the moral law as such. But I think our culture -- what Blessed John Paul II called a "culture of death" -- is badly in need of such symbolic affirmations of life. The Lord Himself would have been justified in avoiding His death. But -- "Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish by the sword. Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be?" It was a lesson the great St. Paul absorbed well: "With all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain."

Nothing can convert a culture of death except a culture of life, and there can be no culture of life without a conviction of the sanctity of life. And as long as Christians are compromising and tolerant with regard to war, our professions of the sacredness of every human being are going to ring hollow.

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