On the Moral Use of Force

On the Moral Use of Force
by pragerfan

July 6, 2008

A reader of my blog wrote to me:
Do you think there was some later revelation where this [the doctrine of the moral use of force] was made clear to more modern generations of the Church?
I don't know if I would call it "revelation." But throughout Christendom starting probably with Constantine, there has been an ethic for fighting to defend the innocent. This is what motivated at least in part, the Crusades. Regardless of whether you believe the crusades to be a noble effort, or a success or failure, you cannot deny that the Crusaders themselves believed that they were doing God's work in liberating and rescuing fellow Christians. When Sts. Augustine and Ambrose of Milan laid out the theory of "just war" that certainly helped strengthen the case for the moral use of force as well.

One could argue that the 20th century has brought a "revelation" of sorts to the way people think about morality. Perhaps in prior centuries one could embrace pacifism because after all, it was mostly an academic exercise anyway - it wasn't likely that one was [personally] going to have to come to terms with the the moral consequences [of a national policy of pacifism]. But as war-fighting technology advanced, the ethicist was confronted by a new challenge: what do we do when the innocent are slaughtered en masse and we have the means to stop it? If our morality can't even say that we should attempt to protect the innocent from the reach of a bloodthirsty tyrant because we are afraid God will punish us for killing the tyrant or his henchmen, then what is the point of our ethics?

More importantly, what practical good is our moral handwringing to those who have been gassed? Jews in Auschwitz prayed daily that Allied bombs would fall on the infamous Nazi death camp. They didn't care about living or dying. They cared about stopping the evil. That we did not obliterate Auschwitz is IMHO one of the great moral mistakes of World War II.

I acknowledge that a good portion of the "moral use of force" argument is based on intuitive moral axioms, along with the Old Testament as I previously discussed. What makes a lot of people - and perhaps yourself - uncomfortable is that moral use of force implies that we place more value on some lives than it does on others. We believe that it is morally right - in fact it is a moral imperative if one is able - to kill the murderer to stop his murdering. The absolute pacifist believes that as soon as I pull the trigger to shoot the murderer, I myself become a murderer. In believing this, the pacifist morally equates the person who is trying to stop the murderer with the murderer himself. This moral symmetry in my view is mistaken, and there is nothing in Scripture which I know of that would suggest otherwise.

Christianity tends to over-emphasize faith and under-emphasize goodness. As long as we all have faith in Christ, i.e. the right theology, it doesn't matter what we believe regarding temporal issues. In the context of this discussion, one would say that he embraces pacifism because he believes Jesus was a pacifist, etc. and he's trying to emulate Jesus, which is fine. But then this is what is meant by "those who are merciful to the cruel end up being cruel to them that deserve mercy." For those who really deserve mercy are the innocents, but in showing "mercy" to the cruel by doing nothing to stop the tyrant, the pacifist cruelly ensures the demise of the innocent.

In short, pacifism ensures that objective evil, not goodness, prevails. There is no clearer example of this than the failure of the European Allied powers to confront Hitler in 1936 after he annexed the Rhineland, and then again in 1938 when Hitler annexed the Sudetenland. Hitler would have been stopped in his tracks and the world would have avoided the horrors of World War II.

Let's try turning the question around. Everyone always argues from the point of "God doesn't want me to kill that murderer because then I am no better than he etc.." But what makes us think that Jesus would desire us to do nothing whilst evils are perpetrated against innocent people? What makes us think that Jesus would have us choose a course of action which results in more evil, more suffering, and less goodness?