It’s Slow-Down Time

It’s time to sit down. Talk slowly — with long pauses. We can even grab a coffee and tip our hats to fourth and fifth-century Christian theologians, who tried to restrain would-be warriors even as they abandoned strict pacifism.  

Their wisdom is apropos in light of recent events: President Donald Trump ordered a hit on an Iranian leader responsible for American deaths and managing his nation’s proxy wars; the slain leader’s government vowed vengeance and then, it seems, directed its military to aim badly when firing rockets at Iraqi bases housing US military personnel. The world sighed in relief – until news struck of a crashed Ukrainian airline in Tehran, which Iran’s Revolutionary Guard mistook for a cruise missile and shot down. All 176 passengers died. Many Iranians are protesting. 

Such deadly twists show why those theologians deliberated and why their present-day heirs still refine their theories.  

Pacifism — defined by Peter Brock and Thomas Paul Socknat as “an unconditional rejection of all forms of warfare,” including self-defense — was Christianity’s reflexive stance when it was an outlaw religion in its first centuries: We worship a Prince of Peace who told us to turn the other cheek; ergo, we don’t kill human beings. Ever. But the Roman Emperors introduced knotty nuance once they blessed the faith and invited Christians into high government positions. Believers were now obliged to guard citizens in an era of marauding Goths and Visigoths, culminating in Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410. The theologians’ dilemma: What’s the duty of a state official when faced with sociopathic tyrants? Such bullies thank their enemies for the olive branches and then brandish them as whips. Think of Nero, Genghis Kahn, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic, Slobodan Milosevic, and Charles Taylor (the former Liberian president and convicted war criminal). 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 (354-480), 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. Subsequent 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.  

A pacifist heart beats within modern Just War thinkers (that unfortunate label has stuck). Blood-letting makes their skin crawl. Didn’t Jesus order Peter to drop his sword? Given pacifism’s historic precedence, doesn’t any theology permitting violence – however well-intended – bear the overwhelming burden of proof? Remember war’s dark allure: the adrenaline-laced saber rattling, the feel of raw dominance, the malevolent pleasure of revenge. Even conscientious leaders might hijack the theology as they fall prey to war’s pernicious glamour: All wars become just (remember Catholic neoconservative lobbying at the Vatican in 2003; they justified the US invasion of Iraq). That’s why Pope Leo XIII called war a “scourge” and 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 cases, determined by the moral principles of the just war tradition.” John Paul II replied to the neoconservatives in a speech before the Vatican diplomatic corps: “War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity. International law, honest dialogue, solidarity between States, the noble exercise of diplomacy: these are methods worthy of individuals and nations in resolving their differences.” 

But what about those Mafia-don leaders? The ghosts of the Rwandan genocide want to know. Maybe they even resent pacifism’s platitudes and finger-wagging deflections: “We didn’t negotiate enough … we’re just as guilty … We’re for peace; you’re for war …” 

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.  

Strict pacifism’s weaknesses gleam when we review a bygone era that ran on different 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 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 Munich conference of 1938, 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 totally fair, but D.S. Savage, General Secretary of the Anglican Pacifist 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.” 

No wonder why Orwell accused Savage of “intellectual cowardice.” 

He was kinder to Mohandas Gandhi in 1949. 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 credits 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.  

It seems pacifists are not immune to their own clichés and false equivalencies, as Savage showed. The phrase, “war is not the answer,” makes for a great bumper sticker, but doesn’t help leaders losing sleep over heart-wrenching choices.  

Still, we must remember: The Just War theory isn’t intended to justify war. It’s meant to halt the guns before they fire and, when that fails, silence them as soon as possible. Its genuine advocates see war’s growing dangers in an era of quasi-macho, nationalistic leaders lusting for cluster bombs. The theologians cry: “Coffee break!” and urge us veer off the path leading to weeping mothers, collateral damage, and the deaths of 176 innocent airline passengers. 

The gap between traditional pacifists and modified pacifists is closing. The two groups now have more affinities than differences.  And that’s good.

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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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