The gospel and just war

Another topic O’Donovan has written at length on is war, and more specifically on a non-pacifist Christian view of the just war tradition grounded in scripture. Below I cite a few pages from his book The Just War Revisited where he explains the difference between ancient (and contemporary) pagan attitudes toward war and the Christian understanding of it.

If I have one qualification to make, it is that I think O’Donovan slightly overstates his case when he says that the idea of subordinating war to judgment/justice is a new one brought by the gospel. I agree with him that the gospel implies it, but that is because I think the gospel both affirms the OT distinction between holy/Yhwh-wars and regular war (the latter of which was regulated by just war prinicples), and natural law (which evidently some pagans detected taught just war ethics, as evidenced by Cicero). The gospel proclaims a ius gentium which is taught in scripture and in nature, and this law, post-fall, teaches certain things about how war ought to be ordered in the interests of justice.

From Achilles to Patton, war offers its rich and varied crop of military heroes, for whom the destruction of enemies has been the stuff of outstanding performance, whether in brutal hand-to-hand assault or in elegant tactical ingenuity. But the satisfaction of disposing of an enemy is not confined to the hero himself, nor even to those who fight alongside him and aspire to imitate him. The hero is, in fact, never as solitary as the songs that celebrate him make him seem. His combat is a moment in the building of society; his enterprise furthers the life of a community of men, women and children, for whom the warrior’s deeds are a common point of reference, a ‘transcendental representation’, and who reinforce with passionate self-censure the narrowed moral perspectives which pave the way for heroic virtues. The unbridled excess of war, the ritual mutilation of corpses, the slaughter of non-combatants, the rape of women, the destruction of property, every kind of violent display, in fact, are all indivisibly of a piece with its constructive, culture-building and virtue-perfecting aspects. They are the rituals through which the mortal conflict of a few becomes the common object of love within a political society.

Furthermore, the access of heroic courage is surrounded by a wealth of disciplines and restraints. The practical traditions of the warrior classes, found in many cultures, develop virtues of self-mastery, decisive action and contempt for death, creation and élite to which the combatant rôle is confined. . . . In ancient traditions, then, antagonistic praxis is separated off. It is treated as a special and occasional eventuality, a crisis in which the ordinary rules of social recognition are dissolved in mutual bloodshed, but which in turn is decisively set aside, so that ordinary rules of social recognition may reassert themselves.

This entwining of the pursuit of war with the growth of civilisation directs us to the moment of truth in the old assertion that self-defence was a natural right. The praxis of mortal combat is not destructive to human sociality as such; it is simply a moment at which human sociality regroups and renews itself. The rejection of war, then, is no demand of natural law. It is a distinctively evangelical rejection. Christians refused to go along with this controlled recognition of antagonistic praxis and its associated virtues. They had a message to proclaim about the end of history: the episodic collapse and recovery of sociality was something that God had done away with once for all in the cross and exaltation of Christ. The unification of all rule in his rule, the subordination of all sovereignty under his sovereignty, forbade them to think that sheer unmediated antagonism could, in however carefully defined circumstances, be admitted as a possibility. Since every opposition of hostile parties was subject to the throne of God and of his Christ, there could be no outright duality. Antagonistic praxis was superseded by the climax of salvation-history. To use the phrase of John Milbank, whose framing of the problematic we have to some degree followed, a counter-praxis was demanded, a ‘peaceful transmission of difference’, that would overcome the confrontation of the two with the rule of the one, revealing the unifying order of the kingdom of God.

But what is the shape of this counter-praxis? It cannot be the waging of peace against violence. Christians believe that violence, in the radical ontological sense, ‘is not’; and to oppose violence with peace is to agree that violence ‘is’. The praxis which corresponds to the ontology of peace is not a praxis of peace simply and as such, but a praxis of winning peace out of opposition. ‘Not the simple being of peace,’ as Bernd Wannenwetsch declares, ‘but the service of reconciliation’.

This counter-praxis has more than one theatre. Staged against the supportive backdrop of the community of belief and worship, it takes a pastoral shape as mutual forgiveness, by which enemies who believe the Gospel are made enemies no longer. But it must also be staged missiologically against a backdrop of unbelief and disobedience, and here it assumes the secular form of judgment – not final judgment, but judgment as the interim provision of God’s common grace, promising the dawning of God’s final peace. This, too, is a word (not the first or last word, but an interim word) of evangelical proclamation: God has provided us a saeculum, a time to live, to believe and to hope under a regime of provisional judgment; here, too, it is possible to practise reconciliation, since God’s patience waits, and preserves the world against its own self-destruction.

The practical content of this interim common grace is the political act, the same political act that we encounter in any other political context: government-as-judgment, the exercise of Gospel faith within the theatre of unbelief and disobedience. This may be exercised also in response to the crime of war. The outcome of this act of judgment, when it is successful, is like the outcome of every other successful act of judgment: a law, which regulates relations between the parties and provides the measure for their future peace. The evangelical counter-praxis to war, then, amounts to this: armed conflict can and must be re-conceived as an extraordinary extension of ordinary acts of judgment; it can and must be subject to the limits and disciplines of ordinary acts of judgment. In the face of criminal warmaking, judgment may take effect through armed conflict, but only as armed conflict is conformed to the law-governed and law-generating shape of judgment. [The Just War Revisited, 3-6]