Proponents of Just War Theory don’t need to go into their seven principles to justify that wars must sometimes be waged. Instead, they need only appeal to one: the reality of sin. Christian Realists acknowledge sin as a perennial reality that threatens justice, and that peace and injustice cannot coexist. Idealists and pacifists argue that this sin-informed anthropology is the Christian Realist stumbling block, yet they cannot substantiate the means to excise the category of sin from human affairs. So, in less than one hundred words, Christian Realists win the argument that war cannot always be avoided.
Would that such debates were so easily settled. What can Christian Pacifists do to dismiss the reality of sin and the necessity of preparing for war? There are certainly many scriptural highlights to which they may refer: to love one’s enemies, to bless those that curse you, to turn the other cheek (Luke 6: 27 to 36). We are told to forgive those who trespass against us (Matthew 6: 14-15), and that at times we must forgive not even seven times, but seventy times seven (Matthew 21-22). Jesus further said: “Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52) Jesus reminds us that the highest command is to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself, and that this goes to the heart of the law (Mark 12: 29 to 31). But certainly, those who love God and their neighbor must also love justice and keeping God’s commandments. Can we offer peaceful terms, and blissful coexistence with the unjust? How can the Christian Pacifist reply?
No doubt, Christian scripture is loaded with quite a bit that backs a loving, non-violent pursuit. In his book Gandhi and Jesus, Terence Rynne argues that Jesus was the true founder of non-violent civil disobedience, long before it was employed by the Mahatma or Martin Luther King Jr. Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian writer and Christian Pacifist insisted that a Christian could not take up arms. It was against a Christian conscience, according to Tolstoy, to take up arms in the defense of the nation. Repulsed by church prayers and blessings for those fighting in times of war, Tolstoy insisted in his oft-neglected treatise on Christian Pacifism The Kingdom of God is Within You that “therefore we consider it the duty of every man who thinks war inconsistent with Christianity, meekly but firmly to refuse to serve in the army.”
How is the Christian Realist to respond? First, one contends that Christ came to teach us to strengthen our better selves, the ideal parts of our moral nature, because those are often weak and in need of bolstering. Christ did not need to come to teach armed force, because we were already too well acquainted with that. Jesus, however, if he was both God and man, was a touchstone for recognizing sin and a tower of righteousness which the sinful self cannot fully ascend. His example, the realist will contend, is an ideal we must try to approximate as much as we can in history, but that the sinful human self cannot do it in sufficient, and repeatable measure. Even Peter, one of his most faithful, denies Christ three times, and that is a lesson of our own limitations. Christ said to put away the sword, but he did not compel soldiers to desert.
For if the Christian Pacifist were to be granted an absolute bar against using force, that sin as it pertains to violence should not sometimes be met by force to protect against injustice, and that armies should therefore be abolished, further absurdities will follow. We should then abolish the police force, thinking that criminals will not enter our homes, rob, steal, or kill, and that traffic will regulate itself without violation. That auditors are never needed to keep track of financial records, to thwart embezzlement or corporate theft, or indeed that men are such angels that no government is any longer required, as James Madison reminded us. Sin is a perennial reality that creeps into every aspect of our lives, and laws and force are needed to thwart its proliferation, just as Christ’s good teachings above are needed to try to stifle the source.
But this brings us back to the very sober reality. We cannot extinguish the source of sin by our own power. Laws backed by force or punishment will always be necessary to guard against the insidious spread of sin, or at least contain it. Another modern pacifist, Albert Einstein contended that you “cannot simultaneously prevent and prepare for war,” but even Einstein made a pragmatic exception for the Nazis. They had to be defeated. The ancient Chinese wisdom of Mo Tzu seems here to me more compelling, that being prepared for war, and able and willing to wage it if needs be, is a greater deterrent to those with swords and an inclination to use them wickedly. In many ways, our request of the soldier, in reply to Tolstoy, is that we must ask them to be prepared for a job we sincerely hope they do not have to do.
Every bit of measure of love, imagination, and resolve of Christian idealism which embraces non-violence must be welcomed and explored, to honor the higher commitments of love which Jesus gave us. The realist fails when he too readily picks up the sword and plunges into the use of force, just as the idealist fails when not recognizing that sin is a stubborn and perennial human reality; we often do not listen to love or wisdom’s call. This is where the permanent tension in Christian Realism exists: the Christian element elevates us to an ideal we know we cannot temporally maintain because of the sober realization of our failures and limitations as humans; in short, sin. True religion must call us to a higher moral plateau, without shirking the responsibility for holding that high ground against injustice. Christian Realists therefore prove the argument that the use of force cannot be abolished from human societies and are willing to use force to protect peace and justice. Pacifism is always the subtle and welcome reminder, however, not to be too complaisant in wielding arms, to keep the higher ground safe, whenever possible, by non-violent means. If we were to re-paraphrase Niebuhr’s serenity prayer: “God give me the courage to use force only when it must be used to protect justice, to prevent and avoid the use of force wherever it is abused, and above all the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” We must never be eager or joyful at the prospect of using force, it must always be a grim reality we try to avoid. But as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and to make peace with evil is to indulge in sin and forsake the very just behavior Jesus wishes us to uphold.