Today is Remembrance Day, and for the occasion, I’ve resurrected the oldest draft post in my arsenal… from back in 2004. I began with an idea jotted down and then thought it would be better left until the whole Iraq thing cooled down… but of course you know how that’s gone. Opening the post up for the first time in (literally) years, I see I hadn’t written as much as I thought I had, but the gist of an idea is there, and it’s percolated for some time now.
I’ve written Remembrance-Day-themed posts each year on this day in the past (see the sidebar on my blog for past posts), but my favorite is still the post from 2005 about our visit to a veteran on Remembrance Day and the followup post, which says, in part: “we didn’t know, couldn’t know at the time that we were spending his last Remembrance Day with him.” I also said in that post, “although I abhor warmongering, I do retain a deep respect for soldiering,” and I want to frame what I say here with that thought. Here I want to reflect on war, pacifism, and the pursuit of justice through military means.
Over the past 20-25 years, I have become more and more settled as a “moderate pacifist.” If anyone else uses that term with a particular meaning, I’m not aware — in my mind I pulled the phrase out of the air and need to explain what I mean. Essentially, I’m a pacifist, but I’ll allow exceptions, and that’s where the problem begins, because inevitably the concept of Just War Theory has to come up, and in general I would agree with how this is described… but the question seems to become less and less clear all the time. In 1993, the US Catholic Conference stated, “Force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic human rights of whole populations.” Based on this definition, it seems clear to me that there are wars going on today which are not just, and wars which should be going on which are not.
I do have my own version of just war, which is that war must always seek justice. True justice is never concerned with who deserves it, so by extension, nobody, no matter how reprehensible, deserves injustice. Too often, people may use the phrase “just war” to promote “justified war.” Whether or not they use the phrase, most war today might be categorized as “justified war” — that is to say, some argument has been used to justify the waging of that war, regardless of whether the offered justification is valid. There is a difference between “justified war” and “Just War.” In my mind, not only must Just War always seek justice, it must also seek true justice without dispensing injustice in the process.
Yes, this latter statement is what specifically tells me that the “war on terror” is not a Just War.
I wasn’t always a pacifist, but I’ve become convinced that it most accurately represents the biblical position and the attitude of Jesus. My moderation in this position is borne of an attempt to resolve the tension that scripture apparently exhibits in this matter and to make specific allowance for the fact that sometimes a degree of violence is necessary to establish justice. I don’t believe that hard-and-fast rules are necessarily possible, and this would probably miss the point. When I ask myself if Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler was appropriate, I am stumped for a while, but eventually land on the position that yes, it was appropriate as a means of seeking justice — or an end to injustice. I don’t think it was an easy question for him at the time, either. The assassination of a lower-ranked official may very well not pass the same test.
In all things, a reasonable response is sought — not a quick jump to the “take him out” response. Is restraint never possible?
Bringing it down to the more personal level, the same considerations hold. I don’t have an issue with guns for collectors, for sport, or for utility purposes in the bush — I do have an issue with guns for “protection,” as once that step is made, there’s not much restraint in the heat of the moment before jumping straight to the “take him out” response. Now, those who promote such things will say, “Wait, you mean to tell me that if some blah blah blah blah your wife and kids, you wouldn’t blah blah blah blah?” The implication is that I must not be a “real” man. I have to say that when push comes to shove, I really don’t know what I’d do, and neither does anyone else in the hypothetical sense. I tend to think that if the threat were real, there’s not much I wouldn’t stop at to ensure their safety — but that’s a practical, human response and not a theological one. It is imperative that these things be kept separate. The reality is that I hope I simply never face the situation.
Today is Remembrance Day, and I honour and remember those who have died for their country. I don’t want to cheapen their sacrifice by saying simply that it was for my freedom — Canada was never really under that kind of direct attack (1812 notwithstanding). In many respects though, those who died in uniform sacrificed for an even higher cause — for justice. And those who sacrifice not for their own justice, or justice in their homeland, have sacrificed for the greatest cause of all: justice for others.
This post is in many respects difficult to write for fear of offending someone. I do have a nephew in Iraq, and having stated my position that the US position in the conflict is not just, I have to ask about his part. In the end, facing another difficult position, I have to say that soldiers in Iraq are serving the will of their country as they are sworn. In this, they must maintain their own personal position of seeking justice without dispensing injustice, and this, I believe, is possible. In the case of my nephew, I know that his moral compass will keep him on such a course. Yes, you can support the troops without supporting the war.
In my mind, I might sum up to say seek peace in all things and at all times, seek justice first. Do not dispense injustice, ever, even in the pursuit of justice. And remember always, the sacrifice of those who for the sake of these principles have laid down their lives. When it comes right down to it, soldiers ultimately die for the cause of the pacifist, the same thing that all of us want: peace. May we have it in our time.
An interesting post. I think the term “moderate pacifist” might well describe someone like Bonhoeffer, though I worry that violence itself may never be an appropriate means of bringing an end to violence. I guess that makes me a less-moderate pacifist!
chad m: I don’t know; it’s hard to generalize that such a situation is hypothetical and then make it into a negative test case. Does the “ouch” sting because the underlying truth is that one should be using some form of force to stop/prevent current violence? The question is really a form of: should force be used to protect the weaker (victim) from the stronger (aggressor)? I think there are circumstances in which the answer needs to be yes.
the “ouch” comes because the context in which this question is generally posed is as a hypothetical when it is in fact a reality – there are women and children [innocents] being attacked right now and we don’t care. when i have conversations about pacifism and this question about defending your family arises, people generally are willing to say they woud use extreme violence to protect their family. however, would they be willing to use extreme violence to protect the family of their enemy?
your question, should frce be used to protect the weak from the strong? you are right, in some circumstances the answer has to be “yes.” but if that is so obvious, why isn’t the church and our government doing more to end genocide in placed like Darfur, Congo, Rwanda, etc.?
chad m: I think in response to your last question, there would be at least a few answers, since church and government are two different bodies. The first body is capable of suggesting a line of action, while the second body is capable of acting on it, at least on the large scale scenarios you present. Canada’s experience in regard to Rwanda is well documented. Why isn’t the church doing more? I’m not sure the church has the ability to defend the weak from the strong in physical terms. Why isn’t the government doing more? There are as many answers to that as there are opinions which decide elections: not enough logistical forces, not enough cash, not enough public support for such missions (which inevitably involve casualties), a lack of support from Christians who in good faith are pacifists, and a general undervaluation of “the weak” in contemporary culture, society, economics and thinking.
On another note, what is the point of the “ouch”? Does it simply serve as an “a-ha, I gotcha!” moment on the part of writer, or does it actually propel a person to act? I think we remove the “ouch” by becoming involved in the defense of one person – just one – who is weak. And then another…