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Christians have historically responded to the question of war and violence in two ways. One way is the historic Just War tradition. The other option is pacifism. Often modern church ethicists imply that the Just War tradition is not merely ancient, but irreparably flawed in its ties to Christianity's Fall from Eden -- Constantinianism. Or they might suggest that modern warfare has made it obsolete. Even if they want to leave room for the occasional just resort to violence, they will wax eloquent about the noble non-violent witness of the pacifists.
Church leaders have rushed to make statements in response to the 9-11 attacks on the United States and the subsequent war on terror. Many of these statements seem to treat all kinds of violence as morally equivalent. Some argue that any U.S. military response is immoral. Others seem to equivocate and wring their hands while offering vague and muddled moralisms. Some simplistically ask, "What would Jesus do?" The clear implication is that, since we know of no cases in which Jesus employed violence against persons, we must never do so either.
Meanwhile, in parishes like mine across the country, we pray for our sons and daughters who are off fighting a war. But what are we telling them about their duty as Christian soldiers? Are they second-class believers, engaged in counterproductive acts of evil?
I respect pacifists, even while I consider pacifism wrong. Historic pacifism has its roots in the separatist, Anabaptist traditions. This tradition sees strong divergence between the ways of the world and the church. Followers of Christ are not only "not of the world," but also just barely in it. The church is an outsider organization, hardly a shaper of culture or society. Political power is spurned, not sought as a method of achieving justice. Such pacifists might be able to acknowledge, with the Apostle Paul, the responsibility of governing authorities to wield the sword of justice, while also holding that Christians must not bear the sword. The apparent contradiction is resolved if Christians cannot hold responsibility in government.
As an Anglican, I view such separatist Christians as I do those who deny baptism to children, refuse to ordain women or venerate icons. I respect them as fellow Christians, but I think they are wrong.
The Just War tradition, the view held by the majority of Christendom, was developed to wrestle with the difficult moral issues that war presents. Before the fourth century, few Christians participated in what had been a thoroughly pagan Roman army. But when Christians achieved political power and responsibility, it became necessary to elucidate moral guidelines for the use of force.
Just War requires the correct use of force by a legitimate authority in order to bring justice and peace. War must be a last resort, and for a just cause. In its methods it must discriminate between combatants and innocent civilians. It must have a reasonable chance of success. It must be proportional in response. These principles reflect the cardinal virtues of justice, prudence, courage and temperance.
This is what we should be teaching Episcopalians, whether they are soldiers, sailors, chaplains, policy makers or simply citizens and voters. This is the rich moral resource that ought to be made available during national crisis, not neglected or dismissed as the province of the seminary-trained.
Recently, I've learned that Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, placed his treatment of Just War under the heading of Charity. It is the love of neighbor that compels the Christian soldier to seek to protect that neighbor from the threat of violence and evil. While we may decline violent means to protect our individual selves, if we deny that protection to others we are denying neighborly love. Just wars are inherently defensive, and so reflect our commitment to love and peace. A soldier, then, is one who lovingly risks sacrificing his or her own life to preserve the life of another. And that does sound like something a follower of Jesus would do.
Diane Knippers, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy
in Washington, D.C., worships at a parish in Virginia.