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Peace and Principle

by Victor Lee Austin

In Defence of War, by Nigel Biggar (Oxford, 384 pp., $55)

This book, which is hands-down the most ambitious and consequential defense of the Christian just-war tradition we’ve seen in decades, is, first of all, an argument “against the virus of wishful thinking.”

What wishful thinking? That Jesus was a pacifist; that Paul was a pacifist; that the Christian tradition, when it is true to itself, is pacifist. That Nigel Biggar would call such views — widely espoused by Christian theologians today — “wishful thinking” is but the second sign (the first is the title) that here we have a Christian ethicist of no mean courage. His thought is careful and exact — he really does mean, for instance, that Christian pacifism is “wishful thinking” for the precise reason that it is not grounded in realism and imports into its Biblical exegesis unwarranted assumptions.

Like a contemporary Thomas Aquinas, Biggar begins by laying out the views he disagrees with. He sets forth the pacifist arguments of Stanley Hauerwas (once called by Time magazine “America’s best theologian”) with care, citing, as it were, chapter and verse for each step. He does the same for John Howard Yoder and for Richard Hays; more than anything else, Hays’s influential work has cemented the notion that the New Testament itself eschews violence. (And all this is just the first chapter.)

Biggar is a man of distinctions. He agrees that soldiers appear in the New Testament as sinners, but so do tax collectors. He disagrees that soldiering per se is sinful. Tax-collector Zacchaeus’s sin, he notes, is fraud, and soldiering sins, as much as they are mentioned, are “robbery by violence and false accusation, and discontent over wages.” And once soldiering is recognized as not essentially sinful, the thin edge of the wedge is in place to overturn the pacifist reading of the New Testament. We then can acknowledge that Jesus’s repudiation of some kinds of anger and violence — for instance, messianic violence — does not amount to a repudiation of violence in general. We can recognize the verbal violence of his language against his opponents (you brood of vipers!).

I linger over the first chapter because, for a moral theologian today, it is an impressive achievement. But it is only the first of many refreshingly clear chapters.

If we admit that the New Testament does not forbid all violence, we also must admit that it calls for everything to be done in love. So, Biggar asks, is it possible to see war as an expression of love?

Start with the Biblical call to forgiveness. The problem is obvious to almost every person: So-and-so has harmed me, perhaps grievously; I know I’m supposed to forgive him; but how do I do that? Biggar sees forgiveness as a process comprising distinguishable moments. Initially, the victim should offer her enemy the forgiveness of compassion. This is unconditional, and amounts to a recognition of fellow humanity. Forgiveness-as-compassion forswears vengeance and intends conciliation. But then the victim offers “proportionate expression of resentment and retribution.” She does this to prevent the wrongdoer from harming others (and thus shows love for others). But it is also to communicate to the wrongdoer himself the wrongness of his actions. And this is done to show love for the wrongdoer, with hope that it will enable reconciliation. Then, should the hope find fulfillment, the wrongdoer repents. And once he has, the victim offers forgiveness-as-absolution. This latter aspect of forgiveness is conditional on the actual repentance of the wrongdoer, and leads to their reconciliation.

Every friend or counselor will find this analysis helpful, but its importance here is the Christian sense it makes of punishment, both within a state and between states. And it shows how war, as an extreme but arguably sometimes necessary form of retribution for wrong done, can be interpreted and understood as an expression of love for the enemy.

Besides being a professional Christian ethicist — he is the Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford — Biggar studies accounts of actual wars. This book includes reflections by soldiers on their conduct. Some of them are brutal. But others show love: in the treatment of captives; in the care for comrades; in the disciplining of anger and training that works against bloodthirst. Biggar does not argue that all war is an expression of love, only that it is not impossible for it to be so, and that one can find instances when it was.

Now to love someone is incompatible with intending to kill him; therefore, Biggar must argue that soldiers should never intend to kill the enemy. This too, he finds, is not impossible. We could imagine in the midst of a battle that suddenly the enemy was rendered impotent. If soldiers then did not kill the enemy, it would show that killing was not their intention. Their intention, instead, was to stop the enemy from doing harm.

Biggar is a realist about human beings (we are sinners capable sometimes of very good things; realism here lies between idealism and cynicism). He is also practical. For war to be justified, the good it aims at must not be overborne by disproportionate costs. The battle of attrition of the Somme — in which, in four months of 1916, there were 600,000 British and French casualties in the making of an “advance of about six miles” — has long been held up as an example of disproportionate, and thus unjustified, warfare. Biggar takes the reader through the battle, and enlightens us thereby on what proportion really requires.

But more immediately, Biggar caps off this book with an extensive and nuanced evaluation of the Iraq War. He applies to it the just-war criteria that his book has elucidated, patiently weighing the evidence as well as the arguments of the critics. He concludes, with significant nuance, that the war was justified.

At the center of the book Biggar takes on the contemporary analytic philosopher David Rodin, who is known for his arguments that just-war thinking fails both in theory and in practice. What Biggar shows is that there is a traditional, Christian body of thought on war, running from Augustine through Aquinas and the 16th-century Salamancan theologians to Hugo Grotius in the 17th century, of which Rodin seems ignorant. Contemporary philosophical just-war thinking, as espoused, for instance, by Michael Walzer, is rights-based and takes self-defense as the justifying grounds for war. Rodin’s attacks on that view are successful, Biggar argues; but they do not show that the older tradition falls short.

This is because the justification for war in the older tradition was based not on self-defense but on the need to show love for the neighbor, both, as noted above, the neighbor who is under attack and also the neighbor who is the enemy. Such war is undertaken for punitive purposes, to provide judgment where there is an unmet need for justice that is so grievous that it is worth the terrible costs of war. In this tradition, the written laws of states, and such written international law as there might be, are never the final word on what is just. For, in Biggar’s realism, there is real right in the world, right that is not dependent on positive or written law, and that in extremity can bring judgment on that law.

Conservatives, liberals, persons of faith, agnostic philosophers, professors, politicians, citizens anywhere who seek careful and clear thought pursued without rhetorical slander and with courage: If such people wish to seek whether and how war might be justified, and when it might be necessary, this book is worth their time.

– Mr. Austin is the author of Up with Authority: Why We Need Authority to Flourish as Human Beings.

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