War as moral relativism

[from the paper archives:  written at the height of the first Iraq war (February 1991), during the presidency of George H. W. Bush]

Debate continues about the rightness or wrongness of the war, and as of today those who favor prosecution of the war point out the apparent mistreatment of American POWs as another justificaiton for pursuing a war which will, it is hoped, ultimately bring Saddam Hussein to justice.  In fact, while debating this issue, it is typical for proponents of the war to use the badness of the actions of the other side as justification for the propriety of doing what is being done from this side.

Certainly stories of atrocities performed by the enemy are a time-honored tradition in warfare as a way of boosting loyalty and inciting the necessary outrage which will ensure support for the war effort.  However, I have a hard time getting away from a simple admonition my mother used to give me when I would try to justify some action with the “he started it” kind of argument.  “Two wrongs,” she would say, reminding me that moral laws do not necessarily follow rules of grammar, “don’t make a right.”

A more sophisticated way of couching this form of argument, I suppose, would involve the Machiavellian question of whether the end justifies the means, or perhaps whether it is necessary in some cases to choose the lesser of two evils.  In point of fact, the argument is usually couched, it seems to me, in terms which accept implicitly that necessity, and are only concerned with questions of which evil is in fact greater or lesser than which other evil.   I think that the highest calling of a Christian at a time like this is to challenge the assumptions of such a debate and insist that it is always possible to choose means which are not evil, in order to accomplish a good end.

Everything around us will virtually scream at the impracticality, the insipid idealism, the hopeless naivité of such a view. It is a view that you can respond to violence nonviolently; that you can even overcome violence peacefully; that to seek peace by peaceful means is a practical alternative to seeking peace by means of war.

I believe that in the emerging atmosphere of 1989-90, when it was said by astonished politicians that “peace was breaking out everywhere,” particularly in eastern Europe, there was indeed a unique historic opportunity for a real new world order, in which peace would be espoused not only as a goal, but as a method.

As a preacher of the gospel I have been saying for years that our methods need to match our message.  I cannot abandon that notion now.  It is true that peaceful means, including nonviolent resistance of the kind espoused by Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, have been effective when tried under the leadership of such men.  It is also true that such an approach, when used, has involved casualties.  It can hardly be argued that the number of casualties such an approach brings about is necessarily greater than the number of casualties brought about by war.  This kind of approach has not, so far as I know, been tried  as a means to resolve conflict on an international scale, between established governments (unless you count India’s emancipation from Britain as an international affair).  This was the opportunity which presented itself, and was missed, in the current situation.

It would be inaccurate to say, however, that such an opportunity no longer exists; merely that the cost of exercising it would be proportionately greater now that hostilities have begun.

My faith tells me that there is never a moment when one has no choice but to do wrong; but one must clearly understand the possible cost and consequence of doing right.  Jesus understood that cost, and accepted it; not only that, he claimed that no one who refused to accept the same cost would be able to be his disciple:

“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.”

This is not some pious spiritual exercise he is talking about; he is talking about the need to recognize that the cost of taking him seriously and living accordingly may very well be our own death.  This is a man who accepted death at the hand of his enemies in order to demonstrate his love for them, and his trust in God to whom he prayed on their behalf.

John writes that whoever declares that Jesus is the son of God lives in union with God, and God with him.  Does he say this because to verbally invoke the name of Jesus as a heavenly spiritual figure has some magical incantational spiritual effect? No!  He says it because the method chosen by Jesus when he gave his own life for his enemies reveals the nature of God’s power and the extent of God’s love.

To declare Jesus as the Son of God is to declare God as revealed in the one who suffers willingly rather than inflict suffering.

We do not flinch at sending soldiers to the risk of death so that they can inflict death on others; indeed we think it honorable to volunteer for such a task.  Why then does it seem cowardly or dishonorable or impractical to suggest that we as individuals or even as a nation could face death with no less resolve by choosing the methods of peace?


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