Monday, May 10, 2010
The Vexation of Participation
In an article written before President Bush launched the second gulf war, theologian Miroslav Volf argued that on both Christian pacifist and just war theory the war was wrong. The pacifist critic would argue, rather than “turning the other cheek” as Jesus recommended, “President Bush, who claims to be a follower of Jesus says, ‘If you think that Hussein will strike you on one cheek, hit him, along with innocent bystanders.” (“Indefensible War” in Against the Tide, 152-154) For just war theorists, Volf argues, “a preemptive war is unjust for a very simple reason: it cannot be just to condemn masses of people to certain death in order to avert the potential death of an equal or lesser number of people.” Volf goes on to recommend that Christians of all stripes oppose the war in, as it turned out, the vain hope it may be averted. However history judges this war—and historians have to take the long view of things—Volf would judge it from a Christian viewpoint a failure.
Volf’s critique of this particular war does not mean that either for him or for just war theorists there are no wars supportable by Christians. For most Christian theologians throughout the history of Christianity it was deemed perfectly appropriate for Christians to join a war effort as soldiers. Wars in defense of hearth and home may force followers of Christ, perhaps reluctantly, to take up arms. It is tricky, of course. Wars of national aggrandizement were (and are) frequently dressed up as defenses of the fatherland (or motherland). It is wise to peer beneath the fig leaf obscuring the motivations of kings and presidents. All this raises painful questions for a Christian in uniform. What happens when the soldier or sailor considers a particular war unjust? They have sworn an oath to the country, but they have an even more foundational commitment to Jesus Christ. Governments are not normally willing to let women and men in the military choose their wars. They are to obey orders, not make judgments about the justness of the cause. In the Vietnam era there were people who were not pacifists and were perfectly willing to fight a defensive war, but unwilling to participate in what they thought was an unjust war in Vietnam. Their arguments were rejected. For government and military officials letting soldiers decide whether or not to fight on the basis of the justness of a conflict or the appropriateness of its leadership seemed a road to chaos, as a recent officer critical of President Obama has discovered.
Following World War II many interrogators and judges asked German officials and soldiers why they did not refuse to carry out clearly illegal orders and immoral actions in the prosecution of the war. Repeatedly they heard the accused argue that they had no choice. They were simply obeying orders. Both then and now such an answer seems an evasion. The logic of refusing to obey unjust orders, however, is the same as the logic of refusing to fight in a particularly unjust war. The interrogators were quite right to critique those soldiers for not refusing to murder innocents. Even a secular state must recognize there is a” higher law” than the “law of the land.” If a soldier is ordered to rape a woman in Bosnia or butcher a civilian in Rwanda, people throughout the world, whether Christian or not, recognize this is an evil command and should be resisted regardless of the outcome.
Now I understand soldiers in the United States Armed Forces are not required to obey an illegal order. I also understand that it would take an enormous amount of character, courage and discernment to refuse a direct order considered evil. The military women and men I am most familiar with are chaplains. I am quite sure that most if not all of these impressive people would stand against evil acts at the risk of their careers and even lives. Having said all this, I would suggest that Christian’s in the military are not the only ones who face hard choices. They are not the only ones subject to peer pressure and threats to life and health. In fact, every Christian lives uneasily in this society. Every Christian faces seriously ambiguous moral choices. At the beginning of the book of Revelation is a series of letters addressed to the churches of Asia Minor. These letters are largely concerned with the question of the place of Christians in the Greco-Roman society. For John the crucial issues are not raised by Caesar’s military policy, but by everyday life in the cities addressed.
In the letter to Thyatira he blasts a prophetess he calls Jezebel who “misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols.” Without entering a long discussion, I would suggest at issue here is participation in the commercial and social life of the city. John is a rigorist who argues against Christian participation in the various guilds and social groups that made the commercial life of Thyatira possible. On the other side, perhaps, is the more tolerant Apostle Paul who would permit eating meat offered to idols in certain circumstances and thus a certain level of participation in pagan society. John clearly believes there are some parts of pagan society Christians should shun regardless of the economic and social consequences. Paul would agree, but would also insist that Christians must be permitted to live in the real world for the sake of the gospel.
Christians today live between John and Paul—between a rigorist critique of cooperation with the “world” and an insistence that our place is in the midst of this world. As I have said to students, we live between Romans 13 and Revelation 13—between “the powers that be are ordained by God” and “the beast and false prophet.” We must live with this tension. Both Paul and John are right. We must resist and we must participate. We must say no and we must say yes. It will require a great deal of discernment and prayer. And this is why we have the Church, the Scriptures, and the Christian tradition to aid us in seeking answers to such painful and difficult questions.
John E. Phelan, Jr.