A Response to Daniel M. Bell, Jr.
This post has been several months in the making. Not that it has been in my queue for a while but ever since fellow biblioblogger Craig Falvo and I have had back and forth conversations about pacifism/nonviolence and just war theory, Craig has continued to encourage to pick up Daniel M. Bell Jr.’s Just War as Christian Discipleship: Recentering the Tradition in the Church rather than the State. Yesterday, I took him up on his offer.
The objections I raise to the Just War tradition are crucial ones that I hope someday Just War theorists will address; these are questions I do not know if they have been publicly asked or not, but I shall make my inquiries known in these 2 posts. I am aware that Bell may in fact be a proponent of pacifism, but that is not the scope of this series.
Today, I will focus on his Introduction through Chapter 3.
In Christian theology and studies pertaining to ethics, it has become mildly popular (well, that’s more of an understatement) for scholars to advance concepts of community as being counter-cultural to the rugged individualism so endemic in the United States. Bell’s text is no different. Bell’s problem, and I concur with him, is that so many people just invoke the Just War tradition but they are unable to name the terms by which we are to engage in just wars (page 13). In chapters 1 & 2, Bell goes through a brief history of just war theory as it has been proposed by various Christian thinkers, from Augustine to Hugo Grotius. Bell points to Grotius as one of the culprits that leads to the loss of the Just War tradition; because of his focus on international law and relations as such, he wanted to promote the minimum amount of rules as it were that both Westerners and non-Westerners could follow (56-57). Whereas the dictates of the JWT were examined by early Christian apologists according to the Gospel, Grotius made moves that gave special preferences to notions of natural law. HG focuses mostly on the JWT’s concept of just cause, and in his arguments, he even makes room for preemptive strikes (57). Grotian JWT meant a rejection of the Just War Theories of the Middle Ages, along with chivalry and its ethos.
The 19th century sees the birth of a new kind of war: that of “total war” with generals such as Napoleon from France, and Ulysses S. Grants in the United States permitting their soldiers to live off the land, to both destroy and usurp resources of the enemy (60). War had devolved from a church-inspired kenosis to a secular hedonism.
Bell goes on to differentiate between Just War (Christian Discipleship) and Just War (Public Policy Checklist). JW(CD) is “as a form of Christian discipleship, […] connected with Christian convictions and community” (75). JW (PPC), on the other hand, relies on primarily secular sources (76). Secular JWT is more oriented towards law, and more compatible with deontological ethics. The indiviudal person, whether it be citizen or soldier or politician, both knows and does the right thing and “gathers the willpower” to accomplish the task (79). It is about knowing and obeying the rules.
On the other hand, Christian JWT is about forming virtuous persons; in this case, just warriors working for Christian justice. Failure to apply JWT(CD) is a matter of unfaithfulness to the tradition (81). The Church dedicated to JWT(CD) will discipline a people “to love and seek justice for their neighbors as if such a disposition were a second nature (83). JWT(CD), in this light, is NOT about choosing the lesser among evils, but about waging a power of love in confronting the unjust (88).
A Gentile Critique
Through the first three chapter + Introductions, my criticisms that I have held against Just War Theory for a while do not go answered. First, in the discussion of Augustine, Bell does not talk about Augustine arguing that since it was okay for the Hebrews to go to war, it’s okay for Christians. Lisa Sowle Cahill does in Love Your Enemies: Discipleship, Pacifism, and Just War Theory. I think this is a tremendous leap and quite fundamental to the problem of Augustine’s (and subsequently every Christian after that) Just War Theorizing (see Cahill, Chapter 4 & Augustine, CITY OF GOD, book 19 as well as Contra Faustus the Manichean book 22, chapter 74). The problem with Augustine’s early Christian character ethics in his reading of the Old Testament is that Christians take the place of the Israelites, and ipso facto, we can go to war at the directive of YHWH.
I do not know if anyone has objected to this hermeneutic, but from my reading of the work of Duke theologians J. Kameron Carter and Willie Jennings, I must wonder just how much supersessionism plays into theories of Just War, and for that matter, Natural Law theories, which have Christian ideals at their foundation. What Grotius is working with is a Christian concept of Natural Law. What I am objecting to is the use of NLT all together, especially as it is right now, separated from the Gentile narrative within the story of Israel. Augustine’s mistake is that Israel just not just obey any g*d in general, but YHWH in particular, for YHWH’s specific purposes. In fact, what often gets mentioned when the Hebrew Bible is given as an example of persons of faith going to war is the idea that YHWH is actively involved, here on earth, in military struggles.
YHWH gets replaced, dethroned if you will, by human agents, like the Church or the state in Just War Theory. It is the YHWH of Armies whom the Davids, the Gideons, the Elijahs etc., depend upon for their protection. I do not see any mention of Jewish prophets and judges leading the way for JWT(CD). This point leads me into the second part of my critique, of David Bell’s Radical Orthodoxy theological biases. RO, postliberals, and postconservative narrative theologians tend to over-emphasize the agency of The Church. In fact, Bell states multiple times, but especially in Chapter 3, “that our primary political idenity is root not in governments and nations but in Christ’s body, the church”(96). In fact, Bell is remorseful in the notion that “The Church” has become “apolitical” by “surrendering its moral authority” (97).
Of course this brand of mourning calls for an interpretation of history that relies on the idea that “things were much better when the Church was in charge.” That would require a birth, death, and re-birth narrative–Augustine, Grotius, and now a “recovery of the JWT(CD). But two questions within this one inquiry: 1, what if a person does not share this fall narrative of the church? and 2, what if a person realizes that there was more going on with the state than just the preachers and bishops running things prior to Grotius? Would these facts make a difference?
Honestly, I think they would. Bell suggests (a guilt by association) that the same consequentialist logic that led the Union army to wreak havoc against the South is the same logic used to atomically bomb Japan during World War II (60-61). I find this interpretation misguided. Bell is also ignoring the history of violence perpetrated against black bodies prior to the Civil War. The contexts in which both wars took play are entirely different. The Civil War in the U.S. was a battle for the rights to the bodies of people of African descent. World War I and II were caused by pissing contests among European nations which wanted to see which nation could get the most people of color under their regimes (colonialism). Bloodshed begets bloodshed.
If one looks at the history of the slave revolutions, the Hebrew Bible was quite influential for leaders like Nat Turner, who relied on passages in Ezekiel of all places. Turner claims that he had an encounter with God, and in that encounter, he was told to go to war– a prophet leading God’s people into battle, consistent with the Hebrew Bible. There was no need for a JWT (CD) or JWT (PPC) when it comes to revolution as self-defense. The problem with JWT(CD) & JWT (PPC) is that it is not Christ’s suffering body on the cross that is disciplining human communities, rather it is an arrogant Gentile legalism. Virtue ethics can become a form of legalism in itself. You depend on the stories of people, who follow the ideal rules and personify the kind of game that you would like your community to follow. Character ethics, in other words, transforms human beings into a law themselves rather than the recipients of the Law.
Lastly, just as others have asked of Hauerwas and Milbank, I must ask Bell, which church are you talking about? And when you talk about this church, what will be required for persons of different races, genders, economic backgrounds, and demoninations, to join hands?
- Mark Tooley of @TheIRD Gets Hauerwas & Pacifism Completely Wrong (politicaljesus.com)