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Is the concept of just war still valid?

The memoirs of theologian Stanley Hauerwas make me think I could be a pacifist

By on Tuesday, 17 August 2010

People pray silently during a ceremony to mark the 65th anniversary of the atomic bombing at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima (Kyodo)

People pray silently during a ceremony to mark the 65th anniversary of the atomic bombing at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima (Kyodo)

TS Eliot wrote that April is the cruellest month. For the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including those who survived the atomic bomb, August is crueller. Looking at the faces of elderly Japanese weeping during the recent 65th anniversary reminds one what a dreadful event it was. Those who argued for the dropping of the atomic bomb, including the late Leonard Cheshire VC, must contend with all those, such as the former priest Bruce Kent, who have always argued passionately against nuclear warfare of any kind.

Nuclear war is one thing; but what about conventional warfare? The firebombing of Tokyo during the Second World War by General Curtis LeMay killed over 100,000 ordinary people – as many as who died at Hiroshima. Reading the newly published memoirs of the American (Protestant) theologian, Stanley Hauerwas, has made me think again about the Christian idea of the “just war”. Indeed, is the concept valid anymore? The late pope, John Paul II, was certain, at least, that the war against Iraq was completely wrong; “War never again!” was his deep and abiding conviction.

Hauerwas was a Christian believer in the theory of the just war – until he met a fellow academic who argued him into Christian pacifism. Like the late great Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker, he has incurred unpopularity among his fellows Americans for his anti-war stand, particularly since 9/11.

In his memoirs he writes: “To read September 11, 2001, in the light of AD 33 entailed a quite demanding alternative politics.” Asked to compose a prayer for the victims and their families, he wrote: “We pray that You will teach us to pray as a cruciform people, capable of resisting the attraction and beauty of evil…” I think by this he meant that we must not resist acts of terrorism by retaliatory terror.

Hauerwas adds the comment: “War is impatience. Christians believe that through the cross and Resurrection we have been given the time to be patient in a world of impatience.” He would have agreed with the conscientious objection of Franz Jagerstatter, the Austrian farmer who was executed for refusing to fight in Hitler’s army, against the advice of his parish priest and his bishop.

I have the feeling that if I were in a room with Hauerwas, after half an hour’s persuasive conversation I would leave it a convinced pacifist. By this of course, I don’t mean “passivist”; I mean the vigorous advocacy of peace. But how does one do this in a society committed to a “war against terror”? Any ideas?

  • http://feraltheology.wordpress.com/ Logan Mehl-Laituri

    “Retaliatory terror” is a descriptive word, very provocative. It is also interesting to think, in terms of Just War, whether the call to decry the Holocaust compels the same kind of prophetic energy to decry Hiroshima…

  • http://twitter.com/RCYouthWorker Jack Regan

    While I think that most wars probably aren't justifiable, there will always be some that are. Hitler wasn't going to stop because we asked politely (Chamberlain tried). Neither were Milosevic or many others. They stopped because we turned up with guns and bombs and made them stop, and in stopping they spared thousands of lives – far more than were cost by the conflicts. Just imagine if Hitler had completed his extermination of the Jews!?

    And then you have the examples of those who were never stopped. A million died in Rwanda in 1994 because the international community failed to act. Once again, asking nicely didn't cut it. Ditto Sudan, Zimbabwe, Cambodia, Chile, Burma and many, many more. There are people in our world bent on violence and control. Sadly, a bit of violence on our part is often the only way to stop them.

  • David Lindsay

    The persecution of the Jews had nothing to do with why we went to war in 1939, and if that was the reason for the War, then the War was a spectacular failure. (So, by the way, was the real War, to safeguard the independence and the territorial integrity of Poland, dismembered and handed over to Stalin by Churchill.)

    A fascinating piece on Saturday’s From Our Own Correspondent, setting the scene for this week's Crossing Continents. The way in was Medjugorje, of which the less said, the better. But the real story was that, of the numerous flags flying there, none is that of the state in which it is located. Truly, there can be no one on earth more rueful than the Croats of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the land that Izetbegovic and Ganic built.

    There were two genocides in Rwanda. “Genocide” is a slipperier concept than you might think. In 1993, the former Bolivian President, García Meza Tejada, was convicted of “genocide” for the deaths of fully eight people. Those may or may not have been the only people whom he killed. But they were the only victims of his “genocide”.

    And so to Rwanda. Or, rather, to a kangaroo court in Tanzania, set up by a UN Security Council resolution with no authority to do so, and specifically empowered – again, on no proper authority whatever – to try only members of the former, devoutly Catholic regime, and not of that which overthrew it, namely a direct extension, by means of a Ugandan invasion of Rwanda in 1990, of the only-too-successful Maoist insurrection in Uganda. Thank God that no one is now to be sent from this country, historic refuge of the oppressed, to appear before that kangaroo court.

    Théoneste Bagosora was finally convicted (well, of course he was – this sort of thing never, ever acquits anyone) eighteen months after the prosecution’s final submission, and fully twelve years after his arrest, even though his trial had started almost immediately. That was entirely typical, as is the use of European and American activists as “expert witnesses” even though they witnessed absolutely nothing and were in fact thousands of miles away at the time alleged. As is the heavy reliance on anonymous prosecution witnesses (even though it is in fact six defence witnesses before this “Tribunal” who have been murdered soon after giving evidence), universally known to be paid liars.

    As is the routine holding of session in camera. As is the admission of hearsay evidence. As are the rulings that no corroboration is necessary to convict a man of rape even he has pleaded not guilty, and that it matters not one jot if a prosecution witness’s written statement differs markedly from his testimony in court. As is the astonishing principle that a prosecution witness’s inconsistencies are proof of trauma, and therefore of the guilt of the accused. And as are the farcical translation problems.

    The remit of this “Tribunal” is frankly racist, providing only for the trial of Hutus, the overwhelmingly predominant ethnic group, for crimes against Tutsis, the historically royal and aristocratic minority. Crimes by Hutus against Tutsis undoubtedly happened. But so did crimes by Tutsis against Hutus. Neither Maoist guerrillas nor embittered, dispossessed aristocrats are characteristically restrained in these matters.

    No one knows how many people were killed, often with machetes. The usual figure cited is eight hundred thousand. Perhaps that is correct, perhaps it is not. But what is undoubtedly the case is that not all the perpetrators were Hutus, although many were. What is undoubtedly the case is that not all the victims were Tutsis, although many were. What is undoubtedly the case is that no Tutsi has ever been tried, because none can be: that whole people has been declared innocent in advance, and another whole people declared guilty in advance.

    What is undoubtedly the case is that an invasion of a sovereign state by a larger neighbour at exactly the same time as the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait has been backed up to the hilt by the West in general and the United States, so that the Americans are now where first the Germans and then the Belgians once were: running Rwanda through a tiny clique drawn exclusively from the Tutsi minority.

    And what is undoubtedly the case is that that clique is Maoist, whereas the majority-derived government that it overthrew was headed by a daily communicant, Jean Kambanda, whom it subsequently tortured into confession while illegally detaining him, and whom it denied the lawyer of his choice.

  • http://twitter.com/RCYouthWorker Jack Regan

    You are probably right that the Hutus weren't the only ones at fault (though they were a long, long way form innocent) and you are probably right that many aspects of US policy in the Middle East are a bit dodgy. As for the Special Court, yeah you're probably right about that too. I don't know to be honest. But I do know that during the genocide we knew that mass murder was happening. I am also fairly sure that if we had turned up with a load of heavily armed soldiers, far less people would have died.

    As for the numbers, well okay maybe not a million. I have heard the 800,000 figure too. Let's face it, it won't be far below that. In any case, even one wrongful death is worth fighting.

    In the case of WWII, I'm aware that we didn't get into it to save the Jews. We got into it because there was a sense that Hitler had to be stopped and that all other methods had failed. If we didn't pick up the guns and head over there then we would be fighting him on our own streets before too long. Poland wasn't the grand objective, it was just the last straw.

  • Tobias Winright

    I studied under Hauerwas as well as under the theologian who influenced him to become pacifist, and I am still not a pacifist. Hauerwas was not really a full-fledged adherent of just war prior to his conversion to pacifism; rather, he was a disciple of Reinhold Nieburh and his Christian realism, which as John Howard Yoder (the aforementioned theologian who had such an impact on Hauerwas) would say is a form of just war “without teeth” rather than “with teeth.” As for Jagerstatter, the jury is out on whether he was really a pacifist himself. If you read his letters, he could be viewed as a just war Catholic “with teeth” who believed that Hitler's war was unjustified (jus ad bellum) and unjustly conducted (jus in bello).

  • RidersontheStorm

    ' “Retaliatory terror” is a descriptive word, very provocative.' – Yep, correct on both counts. That is exactly what was inflicted on Afghanistan and Iraq and what Israel metes out ten-fold. Pope John Paul II was 100% right – “War, never again.” War is an abomination. Whatever happened to “Love your enemies”????

    You have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you not to resist evil: but if one strike thee on thy right cheek, turn to him also the other: And if a man will contend with thee in judgment, and take away thy coat, let go thy cloak also unto him.

    And whosoever will force thee one mile, go with him other two, Give to him that asketh of thee and from him that would borrow of thee turn not away. You have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thy enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies: do good to them that hate you: and pray for them that persecute and calumniate you: That you may be the children of your Father who is in heaven, who maketh his sun to rise upon the good, and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust.

    For if you love them that love you, what reward shall you have? do not even the publicans this? And if you salute your brethren only, what do you more? do not also the heathens this? Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect. – Gospel According to Saint Matthew 5:38-48