Is war — or any coercive force — ever justifiable?
This ethically charged question applies not just to matters of war and peace but also to criminal justice. J. Daryl Charles recently visited Southeastern Seminary to address this question (and more) in a lecture for the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture.
In the lecture, he highlights challenges to understanding notions of just war and outlines three possible logical positions to understanding warfare. He offers a balanced critique of the pacifist position and points to a better way.
J. Daryl Charles, Ph.D., is the Acton Institute Affiliated Scholar in Theology & Ethics, a contributing editor to the journal Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy, and an affiliate scholar of the John Jay Institute. He is author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of eighteen books.
Watch his lecture above, or read a handful of key excerpts below.
Two presuppositions behind the lecture.
“My argument tonight is going to presuppose something very important. It will presuppose the importance of being in continuity with the wider historic Christian tradition in order that we not be held captive by various social, political or theological currents. We need to think with the wider tradition….
“What’s more, I want to presuppose that the business of ethics may not be severed from theology proper. Ethics is wholly dependent on theological foundations, and where ethics is severed from theology proper and serious theological reflection, inevitably it degenerates into social activism. I’m not ancient ancient of days; I’m old. But I’m old enough to see that tendency. Brothers and sisters, we have enough of the social justice warriors in the culture today. But ethics needs to be rooted in theological foundations.”
Justice is not fluid.
“The canons of justice cannot be fluid. If justice is truly just, it will not be fluid. It will be universal.”
Three positions on the question of war and coercive force.
- War is always justifiable.
“War and coercive force are always justifiable morally or legally. Resort to violence, whether in its secular form (we’ll call that political realism… or simply put, militarism) or in its religious expression (call it jihad, holy war, even God and country way of thinking) requires no moral justification. No moral restraints beyond political expediency or the command of God need be applied.”
- Ideological Pacifism
“At the opposite end of the spectrum… stand the ideological pacifist for whom war and coercive force are always unjust and can never serve just or moral purposes.”
- Justified War
“On this side of the eschaton, we pursue justice imperfectly. But just because our efforts are imperfect doesn’t mean we give up working for justice, does it? In the words of political ethicist Jean Elshtain, ‘Just war is a way of thinking that refuses to separate politics and ethics.’ In the words of Ramsey, the tradition of just war is ‘an understanding of political responsibility that is rooted in neighbor-regarding love.’ And I intentionally refer to the tradition of just war, and not just war theory.
Ghandi’s failure on pacifism.
“Ghandi had no solution for the extermination of 6 million European Jews by the Nazis in the Second World War…. All Ghandi could do was suggest that European Jews commit suicide and thereby awaken the conscience of the nations to their plight. Ladies and gentlemen, that solution is neither just nor loving, nor is it remotely Christian.”
Pacifism makes the world unsafe.
“Exactly how pacifism is able to counter or negate totalitarianism has never really been demonstrated, as Michael Waltzer has forcefully argued. Coercive force will always be necessary this side of the eschaton for the simple reason that in the fallen world the very goods of human flourishing need protecting. As moral philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe… observed, pacifism makes the world unsafe for everybody.”
Pacifism and sacred-secular divide.
“Pacifism creates a non-existent divide or dichotomy between the sacred and the secular…. between monk and magistrate, between church and society through its emphasis on abstaining from worldly involvement. Consequently, whether its witting or unwitting, pacifism contributes to Christians’ withdrawal from the world.”