Friday, September 22, 2006

Just War?

Rev. Sam wrestles with the idea of war. Please join him in doing so.

He quotes Bonhoeffer:

"The knowledge of good and evil seems to be the aim of all ethical reflection. The first task of Christian ethics is to invalidate this knowledge."
I would interpret this quote a bit differently than Rev. Sam does (although I do not know the context). Christian ethics moves beyond knowledge about good and evil, that is, to the ethics that is known in the heart. When we discuss ethical choices as he does in his post, what you really do is not so much trying to arrive at an ethical position, but trying to understand the ethical position you already have taken in your heart.

And that's just the thing with war: One just can't accept it unless one does some kind of violence on oneself by introducing arguments about the higher good, by trying to turn ethics into logics. It is fully possible to talk oneself into a position which accepts war, but one does so only by ignoring one's inherent moral position.

So the question is more about if we believe ethics should be the guiding principle in society or not. And we do, right?


Rev Sam said...

Ah, I think our disagreement is a profound one, not one that could be
pursued through a comments thread! I think Bonhoeffer's point (it's
his opening statement at the beginning of his ethics) is precisely that ethics should not be the guiding principle, that all such
societies are in the realm of Law not Grace, and that if we are to be
truly Christian then we must move away from those sorts of

I could have misunderstood him, of course, but even if I have, that
is in fact my position. It requires rather a large amount of
unpacking though.

Have a look at *C's comment on my essay, as it is the angle he is
coming from also.

The other thing is - though I quite like your description of seeking
to come to know the position already held in my heart - my heart is
violent, and my heart's desire is for war. It is my heart that needs
to be more fully redeemed. As Hauerwas puts it 'I'm a pacifist
because I'm a violent son of a bitch.'

Patrik said...

I think I and Bonhoeffer uses the word ethics differently then, because for me to live according to the kind of ethics I describe, the kind that is already there, before reflection, is exactly to live in the realm of grace.

I wonder why you narrate your heart violent. To that Isaac of Nineveh would perhaps say: Surely not, God would not make his image violent. But maybe we are using the word heart differently too?

Rev Sam said...

Hmm. That's a very helpful thing for Isaac of Nineveh to say.

Weekend Fisher said...

So, Patrik, are you saying you think it is impossible for engaging in war to be just, i.e. that there is no such thing as a just war? Just want to be clear on your position.

D.W. Congdon said...


I agree with both you and "Rev. Sam" -- you in the sense that justifying war does require violence, but Rev. Sam on Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer, like Barth, would place ethics as the study of our human moral action and response to what is theologically grounded in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Ethics is not the center, only because we are not at the center; Christ is.

That said, I think the problem with any account of our "heart" is that we are fallen, sinful creatures. Interestingly enough, this is what I think divides Schleiermacher and Tillich from Barth and Bonhoeffer. The latter have a strong sense of our human fallenness, so that to speak of God from the perspective of human experience (our 'feeling' or the 'ground of being') is to skip over sin prematurely. We have to pass through the cross, that is, through Christ. In other words, it is not "my heart" that conditions my ethics, but my dogmatic conviction in the radical love and self-sacrifice of God in Jesus the Christ.

Aric Clark said...

DW is right here, and Isaac of Ninevah has too optimistic a view of our own possession of the imago dei. God certainly would not create her image violent, but we are no longer a true representation of God's image. Our basic nature is fundamentally changed by sin so that the image is distorted and Yes - our Heart's desire is actually for war. This is precisely why ethics are insufficient, because they rely on our own will to be effective and our will is traitorous.

Patrik said...

What I'm saying is that we essentially can't agree with any war. No human being in his or her right mind would look at the realities of war and say, well it's worth it.

The concept of a just war is based on a person disregarding the realities of war, reducing them to something which is not moral, such as numbers of human lives involved or economical cost, and than calculates if that loss is worth it for the objective at hand. In other words you have to consider the number of people dead or suffering in hundreds or thousands, not in terms of single human beings. The latter is the normal way we make ethical choices, by engaging in human relationships, the latter is something else. In the former there is no such thing as a just war, in the latter there is, but it is not a moral category.

Aric, the imago dei cannot be destroyed, it is still there within you. Sin can only cloud and distort it.

Weekend Fisher said...

See, I'd disagree that just war necessitates that kind of thing, and bring an example: Hitler's attack on various countries in Europe (I know, I know, U.S.S.R. extended into Asia). What were the countries of Europe supposed to do? Was "justice" considering the Nazi peoples' survival more important than her own peoples' survival?

So I would say that beginning a war is rarely just (having trouble thinking of any examples where it's clearly just), but defending yourself in a war already begun is in a different category. Because as stated, you're basically denying that it was just to stop Hitler.

Patrik said...

See, that's exactly my point. If you deal with abstract things like countries and people and ideologies, then war may be considered. But to answer the moral question you have to stoop down to the level where a 19 year old German boy is shot in the face by a 19 year old French boy. This is the level where moral comes into action. My point is that discussion about morals happens on a completely different plane than actual moral choices.

For that particular French boy to be able to fire his gun into the face of that particular German boy, he has to do violence on his own moral sensibility by either trying to not see the German boy as a human person or by giving up his own humanity. And there is no justice in that.

D.W. Congdon said...

Patrik, the imago Dei cannot be destroyed because it is located in God (in Jesus the Christ) and not in us. Sin effectively destroys it from our end, only because the relation between us and God is broken. Grace restores the relation, and thus also the imago Dei.

Patrik said...

Well, I do think this is not something we will solve in this comment thread, bu no, the image exists in us, although it is obscured by sin. By grace we are slowly remade into the likeness of God, that is we by grace we become what we really are, the image of God.

In short, Calvin is wrong. ;) Now, go read Irenaeus.

Weekend Fisher said...

I can't imagine what it's like for the pair of 19-year-olds in question. But I can imagine if war were to come to my town and threaten my children. Would I put the life of an attacker over the lives of my children? Nope. I might possibly put not killing above my own life, providing that the day had come when my children were grown and out of harm's way themselves. But I would not fault someone who defended themselves from an attacker. Actually, I would fault someone who failed to defend their family from an attacker ... I'm curious what your view is on responsibility to defend when someone else's life is at stake?

I won't take up your comments thread forever, but picture this:

A) 10 people are stranded on an island. 9 are pacifists. 1 is a serial killer. End result: 9 dead pacifists.

B) 10 people are stranded on an island. 8 are pacifists. 1 is a serial killer. 1 is a willing defender if the stakes are high enough. There are several possible outcomes but among the most likely, statistically, is 1 dead pacifist, 1 dead serial killer, and 8 people still alive at the end. But do the 7 living pacifists think they're morally superior to the fellow who saved their lives and prevented another 8 deaths? Do the 7 pacifists make a distinction between the agressor and the defender, given that both killed someone? Is it actually morally equivalent?

The point is: at what point does it become morally blameworthy to allow a killer to continue?

If you're up for a read, I did a cover of this a few weeks ago. You know where my blog is so if you're interested, there's a multi-part series, covers turning the other cheek and why it's such a good idea and why most things called "turning the other cheek" don't really count as such, covers just war and unjust war, things like that.

Take care & God bless

Patrik said...

I accept you wanting to defend your family. That's a valid point. I'd probably do the same, although I doubt I'd do much good at it.

But your examples are yet another example of the kind of "ethical" reasoning I'm criticizing. The moral choice is not hypothetical. The only people who could actually answer that kind of question Are the people on that island. It's their moral dilemma, not mine.

The problem with this kind of reasoning is that it threatens to distort the sense of morals. What if there were there were one serial killer and nine terrorists? What if there was one serial killer, but he was trying to improve?

The point is that if you do morals by calculation like this you end up in a scenario were dropping the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima becomes morally good. It can never be. It did stop the war, but we will never know what would have happened if the US had not dropped it.

My point is that the only real moral choices are done face to face with another human being. That is the only area where morals is really a factor. If you remove yourself from this situation, your choices are sort of immoral by default, because you are denying the other person his or her humanity.

Weekend Fisher said...

I'm not sure I buy the argument that hypothetical conversations about evil are morally wrong. Otherwise, how are laws and policies and even general stances to be developed?

And he point about the body count pm the hypothetical island was not strictly "morals by calculation". The calculations are a graphic demonstration that one person's violence was self-limited (plenty of people would never be on the targets list), and the other person's violence was limited only when he/she ran out of fodder.

I don't think body count is a wrong way to look at it but (as in the case of Hiroshima) for a Christian it can't be the only way to look at it. As Christians, we can't take a strictly utilitarian view where that alone matters; but that doesn't make utility meaningless, just secondary (or tertiary ...).

Take care & God bless