The Virtue of War

The Virtue of War
by pragerfan

January 13, 2008

The Divine Liturgy opens with the Great Litany, and one of the prayers recited by the Deacon is
And for our Armed Forces everywhere...That He will aid them, and grant them victory over every enemy and adversary, let us pray to the LORD.
I've wanted to read The Virtue of War by Profs. Webster and Cole for quite some time; Light-N-Life publishing happened to have an extra copy when I visited to pick up some books last week.It's certainly not my intent in this post to go over every argument that the book lays out; rather I want to bring to your attention some of the major arguments. So this post will be more like an outline, which you can then fill in with your own research and thoughts. Credit is due to the authors for everything below unless otherwise mentioned. We assume that most people are familiar with the pacifist position. In a nutshell, pacifism says it is always wrong to wage war. The Judeo-Christian tradition argues to the contrary, that it is possible to wage a just or justifiable war. The Orthodox Christian tradition takes this a step further by claiming that a war may not only be just, but also virtuous: instead of simply being a lesser of two evils and a last resort, wars can be morally virtuous and do not prohibit those who fight in them from closeness to God.

The Thesis: As [Orthodox] Christians, God calls us to be holy. We cannot be holy when we allow evil to triumph through our own inaction.

The opposing view: World Council of Churches in 1958 produced a document called Christians and the Prevention of War in an Atomic Age, cited by Profs. Webster and Cole as an example of the liberal Protestant movement to "outlaw" war.

Broadly speaking, here are the major arguments in defense of war as not only a just cause, but in some cases even virtuous cause:

I. Jus ad bellum

Not all wars are evil, wrong, or immoral. How do we decide, as Christians, to go to war? Answer: By the criteria of Jus ad bellum (lit., justice by way of war):

1. Proper authority (legitimate head of state)
2. Just cause (self-defense, defense of a weaker neighbor, stopping a tyrant, etc.)
3. Right intention (e.g. securing the common good)
4. War is the only reasonable means to right the wrong being done
5. Reasonable hope for success

It is important to note that the criterion of "war as a last resort" was unknown to the original framers of the just war tradition (St. Ambrose of Milan et. al.). If these criteria are satisfied, then a war is justified, period.

II. Jus in bello (lit., justice in war) - How should we act in war?

It is difficult to understand the morality of passages such as Deut. 20:10-18; however, exegesis through the rest of the Old Testament reveals a "progressive moral tightening" by the Hebrews. According to St. Ambrose, the ideal is King David: Brave in battle, Patient in adversity, Merciful in victory. David did abuse his powers as a commander (through the incident with Bathsheba and Uriah); however he was fundamentally a just man (2 Samuel 12:13). Just warriors aren't perfect, but they enter battle with a clear conscience, and will exit battle the same way.

III. New Testament

The New Testament has a plethora of texts that seem to reflect an absolute pacifist perspective. However, the military images must not be dismissed too quickly:

  • The king preparing for war (Luke 14:31-33). Why would the Lord use this image if He categorically disapproved of all war and violence on spiritual and/or moral grounds?
  • John the Baptist telling soldiers to be content with their wages (Luke 3:14). "Do violence to no man" does not mean that the soldiers could not continue to be soldiers, otherwise why would St. John have told them to be content with their wages? The violence referred to here is robbery. In another translation, "Rob no one by violence or by false accusation..." What is interesting about this is that the first clause refers to things, and the second clause "by false accusation" refers to one's reputation - in other words, one's good name.

  • There are many military figures mentioned in the N.T. (soldiers, centurions, tribunes). They are depicted both unfavorably (soldiers who mocked Jesus) and favorably (the Roman centurion whose son Jesus healed). These vignettes speak to the individual, personal characters of the soldiers in question; they are not a moral assessment of the war-fighting profession. We err if we do not consider both the writings of St. Paul and the other letters of the N.T. along with the Gospels when trying to construct a N.T. view of the morality of warfare.

    IV. Examples of the Saints

    There are many Orthodox saints who were warriors: St. George, St. Procopios, St. Daniel the Stylite, et. al. In Catholicism, St. Joanne of Arc was also a warrior. We revere and venerate these Saints through the icons in the church. We have done so for over a thousand years.

    V. The Liturgy

    The authors make a contradistinction between the number of times "peace" is mentioned in Chrysostom's Liturgy, e.g. "In peace let us pray to the Lord," and the prayer for the Armed Forces in the Great Litany, which I cited at the top of this article. However, I (not necessarily the authors) would go a step further and say that the "peace" referred to is not the peace understood by the world; it is the peace that "passeth all understanding." It is the peace of John 14:27 and Phil. 4:7, it is the spiritual peace that Christ gives. That is the peace in and with which we are supposed to pray to the Lord. The peace of Christ is "not as the world giveth." The only kind of peace that the world gives is the fragile "peace" of treaties oft broken between nations. But Christ is the true Peace-giver. This is the peace of the Liturgy.

    I had a lengthy discussion with a theologian friend of mine regarding whether it is right that we pray for victory for our Armed Forces. I argued that it was right and proper. We discussed this for quite some time and I don't know if I ever convinced him; for one, he seems to have a difficult problem with God "taking sides" as it were. I will now offer another argument. Let us say then that it is morally wrong to pray for victory for our Armed Forces. Don't we then do an injustice to those who have sworn to defend our freedom and our way of life by excluding them from prayer in the house of the Lord? We pray for all other people in the Great Litany: "For every city and land, and the faithful who dwell therein" yet we purposefully exclude our Armed Forces? This strikes me as unjust: after all, if we do not pray for their victory, by default are we not praying for their demise?

    VI. Luther

    In his essay, "Secular authority: To what extent should it be obeyed?", Luther argues that the law and the sword should be used for the punishment of the wicked and the protection of the upright. Christians are the best holders of sword and authority, because these are a particular service to God. Luther's objections to the argument that Christ did not use a sword:

  • Christ's words are for true Christians, to guide the conduct of Christians toward other Christians, and not toward non-Christians.
  • Christ did not take a wife, become a tailor, or do many other things, but we don't say that therefore no one else ought not to do so. Christ pursued His own office as our Redeemer, and as such could offer no resistance (Matt. 26:53).

  • Luther argues that soldiering is a work of love (protecting the innocent and the upright). I would add that with today's technology, we can do this work with very minimal collateral damage and unintended casualties, thus obtaining the moral good. One cannot morally compare, for example, Saddam Hussein's use of innocent people as human shields to our use of precision-guided bombs with the intent of destroying only those targets which were of military necessity.

    VII. Calvin

    Calvin argues that one cannot conceive of Jesus Christ of the New Testament commanding anything different than the Yahweh of the Old Testament. I agree with this because St. Paul tells us that God does not change (Hebrews 13:8). Calvin holds that St. Paul's letter to the Romans establishes the purpose and work of Christ and so allows us to understand all other Scripture (including the Gospels).

  • Because of human disobedience, God sees to it that many are killed justly, including through war.
  • It is part of God's character to use force against evil and therefore to use human beings - including Christians - to restrain the actions of other evil human beings.
  • By failing to use force to protect others, we do harm to the image of God.
  • There is no moral difference between murder and failing to save an innocent person from being murdered whom you could have saved.

  • VIII. Conclusion

    Obviously, I can't post the whole book in this web posting. First, the authors would probably come after me with pitchforks. :-) Second, the arguments are complex and it's really not possible to provide a Cliff's Notes version here. I would like to comment on the simplistic nature of pacifist arguments against just war, for example, "it is always wrong to kill another human being," "Thou shalt not kill" (a mistranslation of the commandment which is actually "Thou shalt not murder"), "You can't fight violence with violence," etc. We need to be careful not to be taken in by arguments like these. One of the reasons people buy into these arguments is precisely due to their simplistic nature. Arguments for justifiable war, much less the idea that war can actually be a moral good, are complex by their very nature because, for one, these arguments involve balancing a number of factors against the taking of human life.

    Life is a high value, indeed (though not the highest value), and I would certainly agree with those who believe we should give the value of life great weight. However, we make a moral error when we value all human life equally. To argue we should not have killed Nazis because the lives of those who gassed Jews during World War II are as morally valuable as the innocent victims they murdered is to flout the "common tribunal of human experience" (John Thiel: God, Evil, and Innocent Suffering) and to question the justice and goodness of God. For if God does not morally differentiate between murderers and their victims, there is absolutely no theological basis by which we can make moral distinctions between any behaviors: there ceases to exist a moral framework in which good can be called good, and evil can be called evil.

    Most people are horrified by war, and that is understandable: war is an extremely messy business. People get killed. Because war is repulsive, many people don't generally want to engage in the unpleasant and formidable task of deeming a war to be just. They would rather not go to war at all. They would rather stick their heads into the sand and just hope that "U.N. peace envoys can work everything out." That approach might have worked several decades ago. But in a post-9/11 world, we can't afford pacifism - whether it originates on the secular or the religious left - as an option. We certainly can't afford to have historically incorrect views of Christianity shaping our decisions regarding war and peace. This book admirably succeeds in presenting a strong case for virtuous war that will allow us to make difficult decisions without compromising our faith or moral values.

    Update: This book, along with Professor John Thiel's book noted above, eventually led me to write my master's thesis on the moral obligation to wage warfare to end evil, completed in 2016.