The catalyst for this brief rumination is a tweet from Bruxy Cavey:
"One cannot be aware both of the history of Christian war and the contents of the Gospels without feeling that something is amiss. One may feel that in the name of honesty, Christians ought either to quit fighting or quit calling themselves Christian."
– Wendell Berry
— Bruxy Cavey (@Bruxy) April 15, 2018
Here’s my tweeted reply: “I’m deeply sympathetic with the pacifistic impulse. That said, I can’t accept the claim that those who participate in battle are always engaged in actions fundamentally inimical to their Christian commitment. Pacifists and just war theorists sharpen one another.”
In the remainder of this article, I’ll unpack these comments.
First, my sympathy with pacifism. There is an old saying that truth is the first casualty of war. Truer words have rarely been spoken. War does not welcome nuance and subtlety and it most certainly does not reward those who invest time in humanizing the enemy and contextualizing their struggle. Rather, victory in war encourages the dehumanization and objectification of the enemy. It also requires an unwavering commitment to the rightness of one’s cause. As one of the characters in Clint Eastwood’s film Flags of our Fathers (about the propagandistic usage of the Iwo Jima flag-raising photo in WW2) observes, “We need simple truths and damn few words.”
That’s the problem with war in a nutshell. Before you know it, you’re justifying atrocities like the firebombing of Dresden to beat the Nazis or the firebombing of Tokyo and nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to beat the Japanese. And that’s why we need pacifists who act as prophetic witnesses to challenge the insatiable drumbeat of war.
But while war has these deeply disturbing tendencies toward dehumanization of the other, I cannot accept the claim that Christians who fight ought to “quit calling themselves Christian.” Consider, for example, a case like the genocide that unfolded in Rwanda between April-July 1994. In a matter of three months, close to 800,000 civilians were massacred while UNAMIR (the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda) could do little to stop it. And it could have been stopped if western nations had sent in military forces.
The Rwandan genocide is an extreme instance, but it is also to my mind a clear instance where a Christian could fight in a war. And all we need is one clear instance to challenge Berry’s sweeping claim.
And this brings me to my final point: idealistic pacifists and realistic just war theorists need one another. They keep one another honest as the Christian lives in the difficult space of the already and not yet, seeking Christian faithfulness in a way that maximizes love, minimizes harm, and furthers God’s kingdom.