Christian attitudes toward war: Rethinking the typology

Ted Grimsrud—April 9, 2012

The challenge for Christians (and everyone else, of course) to think morally about warfare and the preparation for warfare remains as important, if not more important, than ever. Fortunately, Christian moral theologians have brought forth a bit of a revival of such moral reflection with a number of recent books after many years of relative quiet in this area.

These are a few of the books that I am aware of: 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).

In general, though, writing about moral reflection on war and peace from Christian perspectives tends to repeat the general typology that was introduced by historian Roland Bainton over half a century ago in his Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace. Bainton sees three categories: pacifism, the just war, and the crusade.

In a short discussion in a textbook I use in my introductory ethics course, Robert Stivers reiterates Bainton’s typology, though he somewhat confusingly uses the term “Christian realism” for the just war type (Robert Stivers, et al, Christian Ethics: A Case Method Approach, 3rd edition [Orbis, 2005]). Like Bainton does, Stivers presents the “crusade” type as essentially being a thing of the past for Christians, meaning that what we have to do with mainly is pacifism and just war.

The more I think about it, though, the more problematic I see this typology to be—at least in the sense that it leaves too much out and over-simplifies what is left. One of the main problems is that only a tiny minority of Christians would hold to either pacifism or the just war (as usually defined).

So I have been working on a revised typology that has two main types: (1) Negatively disposed and (2) Positively disposed. Each of these two types has three subtypes, as I will explain below. [After putting this together, I  discovered a recent article by Matt Stone that addresses this same topic in ways that are parallel with what I do here—though different in interesting ways. Most notably, Matt agrees that the number of carefully considered adherents to the “just war” position is tiny. He calls the the characteristic of most people “total war.”]

I. Negatively disposed

What unites the three “negatively disposed” approaches is the conviction that, morally, the benefit of the doubt is always against war. They do differ on whether that benefit of the doubt can ever be overcome.

1. Principled pacifism. This view would be against war based on starting principles. One example would be how many Mennonites have said that they can not fight due to their understanding of Jesus’ commands such as “love your enemies.” Hence, the relative justice of particular wars is irrelevant. Others might say their starting point is the sacredness of all life,understood in a way that precludes using lethal violence against anyone.

Most World War II conscientious objectors would be in this category. They refused military service, in the most part, simply because they believed any possible war was wrong due to their moral principles. Even if that may have been a “just war,” they would still have refused to fight. In this view someone could even affirm that at times warfare has served the overall human welfare while still refusing to fight.

2. Pragmatic pacifism. This view would be against war due to conclusions based on the evidence of how warfare works in the world. Perhaps even due to using just war criteria, this view concludes that all actual wars are certain to be unjust. Based on history, we can say that each war has and certainly will violate some if not all the that standard just war criteria, such as: not the last resort, not fought for the purpose of serving peace, the harm outweighs the good, noncombatants are severely harmed, et al.

These two forms of pacifism often can reinforce each other. One could start with a principled pacifism view based on, say, church teaching or a kind of moral conversion. However, with sensitized moral perceptions, one could conclude that wars in actuality do not meet the just war criteria—that war does not work for human well-being in practice. Or, one could start with an evidence-oriented analysis and after one concludes no known wars have ever been just, one begins to start with that assumption when reflecting on the morality of warfare.

3. Skeptical just war. This view would differ from “pragmatic pacifism” in large part due to more openness about the possibility of the just war criteria being met. In the United States, this view would not qualify for legal conscientious objector status because of not being opposed to war in all its forms. This view would fit in the “selective conscientious objector” category (a category not given legal standing) by saying that particular wars are unjust, but not every possible war.

However, this view starts with the assumption that any particular war is not just unless proved otherwise. The logical conclusion for those holding this view is that wars that to not overcome that burden of proof should be opposed. Something like this was, in fact, a common view in the U.S. during the Vietnam War for some who went to Canada or prison. This view could also lead to “nuclear pacifism”—the conviction that based on just war grounds, any possible nuclear war is unjust.

Though the description I’ve just given is close to how many people describe the “just war” position with the assumption that this is the main alternative to pacifism in the Christian tradition, it is actually a very unusual view in terms of actual adherents. Notice that this view has no legal standing in the United States; those opposed to particular wars are still required to enter the military in the case of a draft or stay in the military if they are already there. You would think if this view actually were common, there would have been more effort to make it legally viable in this country.

II. Positively disposed

What unites the three “positively disposed” approaches is the conviction that, morally, war is inevitable, even necessary, at times and that therefore we should not imagine a world without war—which in practice means that we should not assume the wars need to overcome a benefit of the doubt against war before being supported or even accepted.

4. Favorable just war. This view accepts the inevitability of war. It believe that it is counter-productive, even dangerous, to seek to do away with war. Partly this is so because such a negative attitude toward war hinders preparedness efforts centered on maintaining a strong military for deterrence purposes and in order to serve national interests that might be jeopardized by an inability to respond appropriately with military force when necessary.

Partly, as well, the idealism that would imagine doing away with war may ironically reinforce the interests of those who believe in total war. This view applies just war reasoning to try to make wars more moral (or, at least, less immoral). It focuses on seeking to limit the damage damage done by war (“restraint” is a common “favorable just war” term). In practice, in the United States, advocates of this position have almost always supported the specific wars their country engaged in (for example, the wars in Vietnam and Iraq).

5. Blank check. This is by far the most common view held by Christians, probably since the time of Augustine, certainly in the modern United States. The core conviction here, perhaps overtly voiced or perhaps simply assumed, is that citizens have the responsibility to go to war when their nation calls upon them to.

Though the influential fourth century bishop, Augustine, has been called the “founder” of Christian just war thought, his influence in undergirding the “blank check” approach has probably his most important legacy. Augustine argued that citizens should leave the reasoning concerning a war’s justness to the government. A soldier’s responsibility is simply to obey orders, to treat their task as a job to be done (and not to ask moral questions). Likewise, non-military citizens also are expected to support their national government during wartime.

So there is a hint of “just war” reasoning in this view in that one hopes that one’s leaders make sure that their cause is just before taking their nation into war and one believes there could be some vague kind of accountability should leaders enter into an unjust war. However, on the practical level, Christian citizens do not undertake just war reasoning prior to deciding to go to war nor do they do just war reasoning in the course of the conflict as to whether the tactics are too unrestrained. They simply obey orders.

6. Crusade. This view differs from the blank check by having a more positive view of the goodness of some wars. If one’s nation is God’s agent for good in the world, if there are transcendental values at stake, when one has a clear sense of calling from God to fight, then one must do so.

Since for a crusade, the war is serving an absolute good, one need not be concerned with the just war theory and its concerns for proper procedures, limited tactics, and win-ability. In a crusade, the calling is to fight, all-out, and leave the outcome to God.

III. Reflections

My purpose in this short essay is simply to propose a revised typology for thinking about war and peace in a Christian perspective. This typology will need to be tested with historical data to see how elegant it actually is.

One way it seems better than other typologies by separating two general approaches to pacifism. In practice, most pacifists probably combine the principled and pragmatic approaches. However, the distinction helps us see how pacifism and certain approaches to just war philosophy actually have a great deal in common and are part of one continuum that includes all those who are disposed against war.

A second element of this typology that seems new is to actually draw a dividing line between two distinct just war approaches. The “skeptical just war” view has much more in common with pacifism than with the “favorable just war” view (and likewise the “favorable just war” view could be seen to link more closely with the blank check and crusade).

But probably the main contribution this typology can make is to lift up the “blank check” as not only a distinctive view rarely noticed in most discussions on this topic—but actually as by far the dominant view among Christians (and other citizens as well).

In other words, most discussions of Christina attitudes toward war are blind to the predominant “attitude.” Hence, most of these discussions more or less mislead and provide little clarity to this most important moral concern.

8 thoughts on “Christian attitudes toward war: Rethinking the typology

  1. Thanks Ted for breaking it down in such a way. It does indeed help to clarify the matter. What does it say that the dominant view among Christians is the ‘blank check’? How did the Christian community go from understanding and living in the power of non-violent love, to barely being aware of its existence? And to assuming that dominative power is the only kind there is?

    1. I appreciate the encouraging comments, Mark. I think your questions, perhaps partly intended more rhetorically, are actually crucial. We need to understand these “whats” and “hows” if we hope to expand our peaceable concerns beyond our tiny minority.

  2. I read this post with great interest. Particularly, since I recently read “Love Your Enemies: Discipleship, Pacifism and Just War Theory” by Lisa Sowle Cahill. Cahill, as you note many do, follows the typical breakdown of a pacifism, just war and crusades. Your reframing this is very helpful as it brings out different aspects (including the notion that the dominant ‘blank check’ view often, if not always, goes under the radar in this type of discussion).

    However, Cahill also makes an important ‘binary’ distinction similar in form to yours. Her thesis regarding violence / war hinges on the distinction between a theology that regards the Kingdom as present or the Kingdom as future… pacifism and its variations largely falling into the first (the reign of God is already present and at work in community and conversion to Kingdom values including nonviolence is available now) and just war and its variations falling into the second (because the reign of God will happen in the future, the church must engage in “pragmatic” solutions in a “unredeemed” world which includes meeting force with force as a moral necessity; essentially acting for God in the immediate absence of God – contra Romans 12.19).

    She also makes the point that Christian pacifism and just war are qualitatively different in that pacifism is rooted in the idea of a “conversion to more compassionate and inclusive attitudes” rather than, like just war, a “system of prescribed behavior” or “a superior moral system” – hence the New Testament ambivalence to the law. This ambivalence toward the law does not seem to carry forth in just war thinking.

    Do you see value in this kind of qualitative distinction? Does the inclusion of a certain just war theory in ‘negative disposed’ blur the distinction between pacifism and just war?

    Ultimately, I appreciate coming at this from different angles because this highlights thing (such as the dominance of the ‘blank check’ in North American Christianity) that we might otherwise miss. Thanks for an insightful and helpful reframing.

    1. Thanks much for this Barry.

      I read Cahill’s book quite closely several times a number of years ago when I used it for my “History and Philosophy of Nonviolence” class. I thought it was a helpful book in many ways. I agree that her emphasis on differing eschatologies between pacifists and just war people is insightful—at least in terms of the historical expressions of pacifism. I read that as her effort truly to take pacifism seriously as a distinct and legitimate stance.

      However, I am not sure if it is because she still (maybe subconsciously) wants to marginalize pacifism or more because she doesn’t really bring the discussion into the 20th century, but she pretty completely misses the “pragmatic pacifist” perspective that only truly became prominent due to Gandhi’s work. This view, I think, could be seen as redefining “kingdom” and broadening its applicability to present day social change efforts.

      Her “binary typology” doesn’t really seem to have a place for the kind of social change oriented (or “pragmatic”) pacifism that has become much more widespread in the years since World War II.

      I guess my thinking right now (and it’s still in process, so I especially appreciate your questions) wants to diminish the sense of difference between just war and pacifism and argue that the “pragmatic pacifism” and “skeptical just war” views are very, very close and have a lot of possibility for working together (see the efforts of Glen Stassen to coordinate a “just peacemaking” approach the joins together pacifists and just war folks).

      Part of my agenda, I suppose, is to convince just war people that there is not a clear line between their views and pacifism. This might help persuade them to apply their criteria more rigorously to the degree that they might move closer to being pragmatic pacifists. One of the main purposes of this argument would be to them to commit to a much stronger rejection of current war preparation practices. I think many just war people would philosophically be on the “negatively disposed” side in my binary typology but are still too comfortable with accepting war preparation. I’d like to challenge them to be much less comfortable.

      What do you think?

  3. My observations would be that many people are somewhere between blank check and crusade. I suspect few people see the US action as an absolute good. But that most see one or more practical good’s that favor particular wars, and a general emphasis on military preparedness. These “goods” might range from “Kill Osoma Ben Laden” to keep the oil prices down, to don’t let the communists/terrorists/dictators get enough power to threaten us. This feeling seems strong enough to require that any presidential or senator back a strong military even at the expense of cutting welfare, or medicare, or social security, those parts of our US budget that in part support the poor.

    I don’t think I could call them crusaders, they are just “conservative” preserving our American values, as better than those of any other country.

    1. Thanks, Al. You help me see that a difference between “blank check” and “crusade” is that the former do not see US action as “an absolute good”—even as they nonetheless more or less uncritically go along with it. I see this in many of my students. They don’t really know (or care) anything about just war philosophy; they are not crusaders; yet they do not question the idea of going to war whenever called upon to do so.

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