Tag Archives: just war

Christian pacifism and the “Good War”

Ted Grimsrud—May 30, 2015

Does Christian pacifism make the claim that everyone should be pacifist? Or is pacifism only a calling for those who affirm Jesus as Lord? This issue can—and should—be addressed on a theological and philosophical level. However, it may also be addressed on a more pragmatic level. Are there wars that should have been fought, that could be considered legitimately justifiable wars? If there are no ways that any actual war could be justifiable, is that a basis for claiming that everyone should be pacifist (defining “pacifism” here as the conviction that one should never take part in or support warfare)?

The one certain “just war”?

One way to begin to address the question about how widely we should advocate for pacifism is to look closely at the one war that most Americans, at least, including even many American pacifists, believe was a “just war”—World War II. Robert Brimlow, a Roman Catholic philosopher and committed pacifist, draws such a conclusion: “The war against Hitler, Nazism, and the atrocities they perpetuated certainly satisfies all the requirements for a just war: even if no other war was justifiable, even if every other dispute could have been settled by nonviolent means, that dispute could only have been solved through violence.”[1]

This statement is part of Brimlow’s argument in favor of pacifism—but it’s a pacifism based on a sense of the special calling of followers of Jesus. The kind of nonviolence Brimlow advocates is based on faithfulness, not on the expectation that it might practically be the best way to deal with conflict.

In the same book with Brimlow’s essay, Methodist theologian Stephen Long makes a similar argument. Long also suggests that World War II may be seen as a just war, where it was shown that “violence and war do sometimes work.”[2] Long argues for what he calls “christological pacifism,” an approach that “only makes sense because of the christological convictions we hold about what God has done in Christ. If Jesus is not the unique and definitive expression of God’s economy, of how God redeems the world and engages it politically through the cross, resurrection, and ascension—if he were not bodily raised from the dead—then pacifism makes no sense.”[3]

However, there is no evidence that I know of of any correlation between Long’s kind of christological convictions and the likelihood of one holding those convictions being a pacifist. World War II was perhaps as true a test of pacifist convictions as could be imagined. Because of the widespread popularity of that war, only those with clear pacifist convictions would have chosen to be legal conscientious objectors. If Long is correct about the link between a high christology and pacifism, you would expect people who affirmed that christology to tend toward pacifism even in face of a popular war. As it turned out, about 12,000 young American men took the CO route, and something more than 12,000,000 entered the military. That is, the number of Americans who responded to the War as pacifists was something like 0.01%. The traditions that tended to emphasize doctrine more (e.g., Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and evangelical Protestants) had few if any conscientious objectors.[4]

To respond to a phenomenon such as World War II as a Christian pacifist, it seems to me, requires a broader sense of how this pacifism works than that provided by Brimlow and Long. To affirm pacifism without condemning World War II as an unjust war weakens the case for pacifism significantly. Continue reading

A new book on World War II’s moral legacy

December 3, 2014—Ted Grimsrud

Cascade Books has just published my book, The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: World War II’s Moral Legacy. Here is the home page for the book on my website, with links to other sites where it can be previewed and purchased.9781625641021

This book is, in essence, a pacifist’s attempt to answer the question, “what about Hitler?” or “what about World War II?” using the moral reasoning of the just war tradition and common American values.

How the book is unique, as far as I know, is that it not only interrogates the War itself, it also traces the impact of the War on American national security policy in the generations since—as well as looking closely as the story of the war opponents and their legacy. Continue reading

A pacifist critique of just war thought

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #C.7

[Unpublished paper, May 1986]

[Preface, 2012] This paper was written in the latter days of the Cold War. Hence, it has a context that is quite different from our contemporary setting. As well, it focuses on the generation of just war thinkers that came of age in the midst of the nuclear arms race and Vietnam War—most of whom have passed from the scene (though Michael Walzer and James Turner Johnson are still active).

Also, the paper does not, of course, take into account the recent flurry of writing on the just war: see, for example: Daniel M. Bell, Jr., Just War as Christian Discipleship (Brazos, 2009); Mark Allman, Who Would Jesus Kill?(Anselm, 2008); W. Michael Slatterly, Jesus the Warrior? (Marquette University, 2007); A. James Reimer, Christians and War (Fortress, 2010); J. Daryl Charles and Timothy J. Demy, War, Peace, and Christianity (Crossway, 2010); and Andrew Fiala, The Just War Myth (Rowman and Littlefield, 2008).

However, I believe the issues I address here are perennial issues and the perspective I offer remains relevant.

Historical introduction

From the time of Augustine until now, the so-called “just war theory” has been the more-or-less official Christian doctrine regarding involvement in warfare.  I say “more-or-less official” because the just war system does not begin as a system in the strong sense of a group of thoughts that hang together.  It was never adopted by a church council.  It was not until the Reformation in the sixteenth century that it is mentioned in church confessions, and then only in passing.  This is to say that the “just war theory” was the norm in practice for the vast majority of Christians, the assumed position.

Ambrose, the late fourth century church leader, was the first to articulate a Christian “ethics of war”–before him it was always an ethic against war.  He furnished two of the ingredients of the Christian theory of the just war:  that the conduct of the war should be just and that monks and priests should abstain from fighting.

What Ambrose roughly sketched, his student Augustine amplified.  However, he never systematized his thought on warfare.  There was no debate among the church leaders of Augustine’s time about a coherent proposal for a Christian ethic of war that could be either accepted or rejected.  Since this was the case, there was no official acceptance of criteria that could lead to a clear decision as to whether the war was justifiable or not.

Rather, what happened is that the events occurred, wars happened, and the church leaders followed along, responding in an ad hoc fashion.  The acceptance of war and of the just war tradition simply happened.  No individual or group of individuals ever directed it.  There was no debate, no votes taken. Continue reading

A Christian Pacifist Response to World War II

Ted Grimsrud—Peace Essays #C.6

[Presented as Keeney Peace Lecture, Bluffton University, Bluffton, Ohio, October 25, 2011]

World War II was the biggest catastrophe ever to befall humanity. Think of it like this: say a meteorite crashes into my hometown of Harrisonburg, Virginia, and kills everyone, around 40,000 people. This would be incredible news. America’s worst ever natural disaster. But then, imagine that something like this happens every single day for five years. You can’t imagine that? Well, that’s what World War II was—40,000 people killed every single day for five years.

But World War II wasn’t a natural catastrophe—it was something human beings did to each other. These 75 million people didn’t just die due to impersonal nature run amok. They were killed by other people. World War II was an intensely moral event. Human choices. Human values. Human actions.

And World War II has cast a long shadow. We’re still in its shadow. As William Faulkner wrote, “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Just one example. In Barak Obama’s acceptance speech upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, he alluded to the necessity for America to fight in Afghanistan—and cited the war against Hitler as one key rationale. That war was obviously a necessary war, our nation’s “good war,” and it helps us see our current war as necessary as well.

Because World War II was—and is—so big and devastating and epoch shaping, it is a theological issue. But we aren’t getting a lot of theological reflection on it. I am just completing the first phase of a long-term project on responding theologically to this war.

I have not yet actually begun to address one big type of question—what does World War II tell us about God? Where do we see God in this oh-so-big event—and what about the ways in which we don’t see God?

I have begun with another type of question—stated a bit facetiously: What does God tell us about World War II? But I haven’t really gotten to the “God” part. That will be step two, to reflect on this war and its long shadow in light of my explicitly Christian and explicitly pacifist convictions.

Moral values that justified World War II

Step one, though, is to ask the question more in terms of general and, we could say, public, convictions. What do key stated moral values in the United Stated say about World War II? Let’s start with this more general moral theology, which, I believe, gives us enough substance to begin a critical evaluation that could speak to many Americans.

The key moral values were stated famously on two occasions during 1941 by president Franklin D. Roosevelt. These statements were circulated widely and provide us with stable moral criteria for our reflections on the moral legacy of World War II. Continue reading