Wisdom In An Age of Nuclear Bluster

nuclear war tweetHear the sound of stomachs falling at a thunderous rate. Perhaps Donald Trump was bored with peace overtures between the two Koreas on January 2nd, so he fired off yet another infamous tweet: “North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.’ Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

Where’s the exit ramp off this playground for 70-year-old chest thumpers? Bring us back to those marbled halls, where dust filters through the sunbeams and aged theologians curb their testosterone. They’ve been struggling over restricting war for millennia. Their debates pit theological and ethical verities against a real world of sociopathic bullies who’d slaughter unarmed noncombatants. What to do?

Ronald Sider ably demonstrates that the first Christians ran with the implicit thrust of Christ’s teaching and refused to join armies. His book, The Early Church on Killing, tells us why: Armies kill, maim and destroy. Believers were against human killing in all its forms: Abortion, homicide, armed conflict, and the death penalty.

Ronald Sider

Ronald Sider

But things get complicated for national leaders obliged to protect their citizens against hegemonic tyrants. That’s why Eastern European countries hustled in their NATO applications after the Berlin Wall tumbled: Mother Russia is a brooding matriarch coveting the children she once kidnapped, and Vladimir Putin stands in the tsarist lineage of thuggish, self-appointed successors of the Byzantine Caesars. He stole the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and threw in a 97 percent vote in homage to yesteryear’s Soviet elections, then hid behind a who-me look while infiltrating Eastern Ukraine.  South of him lay the brutal Islamic State. Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, said he was bent on spreading his Caliphate across Europe.  The Ottomans only reached Vienna in 1529 under Suleiman the Magnificent; he’d finish the task – minus the sultan’s relative religious tolerance.

The war mongers maneuver on idiosyncratic assumptions, spawning alien reasoning

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi

and rendering genuine dialogue almost impossible.  Putin couples “might” with “right” and views deception as a useful tool.  Evidently, ISIS soldiers think coordinated suicide bombings are righteous.  Slaughtering the infidel is good; trafficking Yazidi teens is virtuous; beheading non-combatant journalists is upright.  It’s all God’s will.

How do we negotiate with those who are convinced we’re the Devil?  ISIS knows our peace-offerings are unholy lures and our questions are Satan’s probes.  Exploding a dynamite-laden vest sends them to paradise and us to Hell, so go for it.

Ancient Guides for the I-Phone era  

Enter the ancient theologians and their modern interpreters, of whom President Barack Obama was aware as he weighed the prospects of war on ISIS (just read his 2009 lecture in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize).  They reluctantly abandoned their Church’s three-century stance on strict pacifism, which Peter Brock and Thomas Socknat define as “unconditional rejection of all forms of warfare,” including self-defense.  Goths and Visigoths marauded, culminating in Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410. Christians, once persecuted, now held high governmental positions with obligations to guard their citizens. Their moral dilemma: How do we handle sociopathic tyrants? Such bullies thank their enemies for the olive branches and then brandish them as whips. Putin and al-Baghdadi are the gallery’s latest installments.  Line them up with Nero, Genghis Kahn, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic, Slobodan Milosevic, and Charles Taylor. Think of Ted Bundy with an army.

Milan’s bishop, Ambrose (337-392 CE), borrowed Cicero’s “Just War” approach, which mandates a just cause, a formal declaration, and just conduct. His more famous pupil, Augustine (354-430), agreed in his classic, City of God, which also carved a notch for conscientious objectors. He contrasted God’s eternal, peaceful city with the temporal and ill-fated City of Man. The two cities now mingle, with Christ’s wayfaring pilgrims duty-bound to both. Twentieth-century thinkers molded the theory into what might better be called “modified pacifism:” A war must be waged for a just cause, with the right intention, as a last resort, by a lawful authority, and with a reasonable chance of success. It must be selective in its weaponry, adhere to international conventions, and avoid deliberate civilian assaults.

Such standards would halt NATO from reckless attacks on Russia, since success is doubtful.  At the very least, they would have frozen UN troops at the 38th parallel when they drove back North Korean invaders in 1950 and prevented America’s involvement in Vietnam.  No coalition force would have invaded Iraq in 2003.

And no president would fire Twitter blusters hinting at nuclear holocaust. The idea is to stem the tide of war, not ratchet up the odds.

A pacifist heart beats within modern just war thinkers (that unfortunate label has stuck). Blood-letting makes their skin crawl. Didn’t Jesus, the Prince of Peace, order Peter to drop his sword? Didn’t pacifism reign during Christianity’s formation? They worry about war’s dark allure: the adrenaline-laced saber rattling, the feel of raw dominance, the malevolent pleasure of revenge. Pope Leo XIII called war a “scourge;” Pope Paul VI pleaded to the United Nations: “Never again war, war never again!” The US National Conference of Bishops wrote in 1983: “Catholic teaching begins in every case with a presumption against war and for peaceful settlement of disputes,” with force permitted in “exceptional circumstances.” John Paul II, who refused to support President George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion, said war “is always a defeat for humanity.”

Roman Catholic thinkers still lift much of Just War’s intellectual heft under the banner of Natural Law, a system of moral reasoning supposedly available to all people of good will. Kristopher Norris has studied the theory’s evolution in that church and says it now shares a “common starting point” with pacifism: War, at the very least, signals moral failure.  For example, Paul Griffiths of Duke University wrote in 2002: “The Catholic tradition is in fact abundantly clear about where the burden of proof lies when the possible use of lethal military force by a nation is concerned.  It lies with those who would endorse or advocate it.”

All of which worries George Weigel, whom Damon Linker ranks as one of the most influential “theocons” (imagine former Vice President Dick Cheney with a rosary and other neocons attending daily mass): “The new Catholic ‘default position’ is more accurately described as a functional pacifism that mistakenly imagines itself an authentic development of the just war tradition.”

In other words, the Quakers have snuck into the Vatican.

Weigel has a point.  Griffiths said America didn’t meet the burden of proof for attacking the Taliban because all the information came from untrustworthy governmental officials and a “jingoistic and blinkered” national and international media.  No one can meet such standards of evidence.  But Norris says Weigel is “misguided.”  Griffiths himself admits that he and his kin do not have the last word.  His own bishop supported the coalition attack, and most prelates still ask the lingering questions:  What about those Mafia-don leaders?  What about mob mentalities engulfing entire nations?

The ghosts of the Rwandan genocide want to know.

An Inadequate Rejoinder

I’ve talked with Sider, who told me he respects Just War thinkers and will work with them. He sees the complexity.

But many pacifists don’t. They almost invariably reply with platitudes and finger-wagging deflections: “We didn’t negotiate enough … we’re just as guilty … We’re for peace; you’re for war …”  Kaeley Pruitt-Hamm, the Advocacy Coordinator at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, showed this proclivity in the wake of President Obama’s speech on September 10th, 2014, when he articulated a four-pronged strategy to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State. She responded with a blog-entry tagged “war is not the answer.”  She said: “As evidenced by negotiations with Iran, it is possible that diplomacy can work, certainly better than meeting violence with violence.”

Really? Does total non-violence invariably lead to genuine, holistic peace? Remember the hopeless diplomacy of Cyrus Vance and David Owen in their efforts to end the Bosnian War. The Serbs only negotiated after NATO bombings.  And, incidentally, few claim war is “the answer.”  Remember Bosnia: The NATO jets flew to push the Serbs into negotiations, which led to the (imperfect) Dayton Peace Accords. Remember Obama’s third and fourth prongs: Cut-off ISIL funding and provide humanitarian assistance. Pacifist bromides – given by sincere people who play constructive peace-building roles – often fail to address the point.

Strict pacifism’s weaknesses glare when we review a bygone era that ran on different


Reinhold Niebuhr

assumptions: The fascist threat rendered the political Left less dovish in the 1930s. Reinhold Niebuhr, a social democrat and arguably America’s greatest twentieth-century Protestant theologian, debated in 1932 with his brother, Richard, on the pages of The Christian Century. Japan had attacked China late the previous year. Reinhold said war is sometimes necessary while Richard suggested the U.S. should pray, repent, remain inactive, and plunge into “an American self-analysis.” Our inaction would be “of those who do not judge their neighbors because they cannot fool themselves into a sense of superior righteousness.”

A question: How would our doleful self-analysis have helped up to 200,000 Nanjing civilians in 1937, victims of the Imperial Army’s orgiastic rampage? Does our guilt for past sins excuse present-day neglect?

More weaknesses reared in 1936, when the Nazis re-militarized the Rhineland. The British and French remembered the Great War’s slaughter and did nothing. Hitler, who ordered his troops to retreat if attacked, took heart: The allies were soft. He bullied them into ceding Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland at the 1938 Munich conference, after which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain proclaimed “peace in our time” to the applause of his countrymen (we forget the applause). Hitler invaded Poland the next year.

Incredibly, British pacifists still wagged their fingers in 1942 while the air raid sirens howled. George Orwell – again, a socialist – said pacifism served the pro-fascist cause: “If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other.” That’s why the Nazis encouraged allied pacifists while rounding them up in the Fatherland. “Lying on one’s back” in attempts to halt German troops betrays “ignorance of the way in which things actually happen.”

Perhaps Orwell wasn’t fair, but D.S. Savage, General Secretary of the Anglican Pacifist

george orwell

George Orwell

Fellowship, reeled in near-drunken moral equivalency: “War demands totalitarian organization of society. Germany organized itself on that basis prior to embarking on war. Britain now finds herself compelled to take the same measures after involvement in war. Germans call it National Socialism. We call it democracy. The result is the same.”  His credulity knew no bounds: “Who is to say that a British victory will be less disastrous than a German one?” … “Hitler requires, not condemnation, but understanding.”

No wonder why Orwell accused Savage of “intellectual cowardice.”  As Paul Berman writes, British thinkers “gazed across the Rhine and simply refused to believe that millions of upstanding Germans had enlisted in a political movement whose animating principles were paranoid conspiracy theories, blood-curdling hatreds, medieval superstitions and the lure of murder.”

Much like the Islamic State.

Orwell was kinder to Mohandas Gandhi in 1949, after the Mahatma’s death. The Indian leader’s Satyagraha philosophy was “a sort-of non-violent warfare, a way of defeating the enemy without hurting him and without feeling an arousing hatred.” He commended Gandhi’s rejection of “the sterile and dishonest line” that all sides are equally evil, and even credited him for intellectual consistency in his calls for sacrifice. But “it is difficult to see how Gandhi’s methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again.” The British raj would arrest Gandhi with great publicity; Stalin would have had him shot and his family laboring in Gulag mines, with Pravda somberly rejoicing over its fictional statistics on escalating pig-iron output. No one would have known his fate and, in a land crowded with NKVD moles, no one would have asked.

Which circles us back to Putin and al-Baghdadi: Modified pacifism is our only reasonable choice as long as former KGB agents and fanatics reign and itch for those halcyon days of empire and Caliphates.

It’s not a tool for saber rattlers – especially for presidents of nuclear superpowers.

Further Reading:

Bergen, Peter, “Warrior in Chief,” The New York Times, April 28, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/opinion/sunday/president-obama-warrior-in-chief.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Bloodworth, James, “Why Does ISIS Hate Us So Much,” http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/why-does-isis-hate-us-so-much-9664506.html

Christriansen, Drew, S.J., “Whither The Just War,” America: The National Catholic Review, March 24, 2003.  http://americamagazine.org/issue/427/article/whither-just-war

Griffiths, Paul; Weigel, George, “Just War: An Exchange,” First Things: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2002/04/just-war-an-exchange

Juergensmeyer, Mark, “Is ISIS Islamic?  Is It A State?” Religion Dispatches, September 17, 2014, http://religiondispatches.org/is-isis-islamic-is-it-a-state/

National Conference of Catholic Bishops, “The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promises and Our Response,” May 3, 1983, http://www.usccb.org/upload/challenge-peace-gods-promise-our-response-1983.pdf

Norris, Kristopher, “Never Again War,” Journal of Religious Ethics, JRE 42:108-136, 2014, January, 2014, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jore.12046/full

Niebuhr, Reinhold, “Must We Do Nothing?,” The Christian Century, March 30, 1932, http://www.ucc.org/beliefs/theology/must-we-do-nothing.html

Niebuhr, H. Richard, “The Grace of Doing Nothing,” The Christian Century, March 23, 1932, http://www.ucc.org/beliefs/theology/the-grace-of-doing-nothing.html

Orwell, George, “Pacifism and the War – A Controversy” first published in the Partisan Review, August-September, 1942, http://www.orwell.ru/library/articles/pacifism/english/e_patw

________________, “Reflections on Gandhi,” first published in the Partisan Review, January, 1949, http://www.orwell.ru/library/reviews/gandhi/english/e_gandhi

Pruitt-Hamm, Kaeley “Anything Can Happen: 13 Years After 9/11,” FCNL Staff Blogg, http://fcnl.org/blog/2c/anything_can_happen_13_years_after_911/

Salih, Mohammed A., “I am a 14-year-old Yazidi girl given as a gift to an ISIS commander. Here’s how I escaped,” Washington Post, September 10, http://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2014/09/10/i-am-a-14-year-old-yazidi-girl-given-as-a-gift-to-an-isis-commander-heres-how-i-escaped/

Savage, DS, “Pacifism and the War – A Controversy,” first Published in the Partisan Review, August-September, 1942, http://mister-fish.net/library/cat/world%20war%202/1942%20-%20Partisan%20Review%20-%20Orwell,%20Woodcock,%20Comfort.pdf

Weigel, George, “Just War Revisited and Revitalized,” First Things, March 12, 2014, http://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2014/03/just-war-revisited-and-revitalized







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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern


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