Christian Conscientious Objection to War

“I think that Jesus would have turned his cheek once or twice but he never would have let anyone punk him around.”

Hearing a fellow soldier reason in such a way as he abused an Iraqi prisoner marked a turning point for Josh Stieber in his own reasoning about Christian participation in the war in Iraq: “Hearing him say it that way just made it sound so ridiculous. Here we supposedly had faith in this guy who very clearly was punked around, and ended up living and dying with sacrificial love. From then on, I really had to face the fact that I couldn’t have it both ways. Either I was going to try to find this inward reality where sacrificial love was possible for a higher goal, or I was going to let self-defense be my ultimate value.”

The above-cited Slate interview with Stieber follows closely on the heels of a recent NYTimes article about Michael Izbicki, a midshipman who, like Stieber, filed for a discharge as a conscientious objector.

Academy graduates accounted for only a dozen of the roughly 600 applicants for the special status between 2002 and 2010, spokesmen for the service branches said. Of those requests, fewer than half were approved. And like many of the other academy applicants, according to lawyers who handle such cases, Mr. Izbicki won his discharge only by taking his petition to federal court.

The Navy rejected Mr. Izbicki’s application twice, questioning the sincerity of his beliefs despite the support of several Navy chaplains and the testimony of two Yale Divinity School faculty members who said his religious convictions seemed to be mature and sincere.

One Navy commander suggested that the pacifist strain of Christianity that Mr. Izbicki embraced was inconsistent with mainstream Christian faith. The same commander likened the Quakers, who supported Mr. Izbicki, to the Rev. Jim Jones and his People’s Temple, a suicide cult.

What is interesting about both of these cases is the way in which both Stieber and Izbicki challenged the “spirit of compromise” in the Christian tradition regarding warfare. This spirit of compromise is often attributed to Augustine, who said that sometime Christian love (caritas) would require disciples to “take the sword,” not for their own defense, but for the defense of the common good. It is Augustine who Aquinas references in his own justification that war is not always sinful:

As Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 70): “To take the sword is to arm oneself in order to take the life of anyone, without the command or permission of superior or lawful authority.” On the other hand, to have recourse to the sword (as a private person) by the authority of the sovereign or judge, or (as a public person) through zeal for justice, and by the authority, so to speak, of God, is not to “take the sword,” but to use it as commissioned by another, wherefore it does not deserve punishment. And yet even those who make sinful use of the sword are not always slain with the sword, yet they always perish with their own sword, because, unless they repent, they are punished eternally for their sinful use of the sword.(II-II, Q. 40.1, ad. 1)

For Augustine, the idea is that you can kill your enemy, and that need not be contrary to the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount about non-resistance and turning the other cheek because one’s inward disposition is loving. Moreover, Augustine is wary, nay, terrified, of the potential chaos that threatens the Earthly City, chaos that Christians must be willing to fight against.

Aquinas himself is also an advocate of the compromise position. Observe how he deftly deals with the seeming conflict between the justification of war and the non-resistance of the Sermon on the Mount:

Such like precepts [as it is written (Matthew 5:39): “But I say to you not to resist evil”; and (Romans 12:19): “Not revenging yourselves, my dearly beloved, but give place unto wrath.”], as Augustine observes (De Serm. Dom. in Monte i, 19), should always be borne in readiness of mind, so that we be ready to obey them, and, if necessary, to refrain from resistance or self-defense. Nevertheless it is necessary sometimes for a man to act otherwise for the common good, or for the good of those with whom he is fighting. Hence Augustine says (Ep. ad Marcellin. cxxxviii): “Those whom we have to punish with a kindly severity, it is necessary to handle in many ways against their will. For when we are stripping a man of the lawlessness of sin, it is good for him to be vanquished, since nothing is more hopeless than the happiness of sinners, whence arises a guilty impunity, and an evil will, like an internal enemy.”(II-II, Q. 40.1,ad. 2)

Despite Aquinas’ apparent embrace of a spirit of compromise, it is reasonable to assume that he might fully embrace the decisions of both Stieber and Izbicki. In article 2 of his treatise on war, he asks whether clerics and bishops can engage in wartime fighting and responds in the negative:

Now warlike pursuits are altogether incompatible with the duties of a bishop and a cleric, for two reasons. The first reason is a general one, because, to wit, warlike pursuits are full of unrest, so that they hinder the mind very much from the contemplation of Divine things, the praise of God, and prayers for the people, which belong to the duties of a cleric. Wherefore just as commercial enterprises are forbidden to clerics, because they unsettle the mind too much, so too are warlike pursuits, according to 2 Timothy 2:4: “No man being a soldier to God, entangleth himself with secular business.” The second reason is a special one, because, to wit, all the clerical Orders are directed to the ministry of the altar, on which the Passion of Christ is represented sacramentally, according to 1 Corinthians 11:26: “As often as you shall eat this bread, and drink the chalice, you shall show the death of the Lord, until He come.” Wherefore it is unbecoming for them to slay or shed blood, and it is more fitting that they should be ready to shed their own blood for Christ, so as to imitate in deed what they portray in their ministry. For this reason it has been decreed that those who shed blood, even without sin, become irregular. Now no man who has a certain duty to perform, can lawfully do that which renders him unfit for that duty. Wherefore it is altogether unlawful for clerics to fight, because war is directed to the shedding of blood.

Much more than when Aquinas lived, Christians today embrace the idea of the universal call to holiness and the priesthood of all believers. Since Vatican II, this has been a particularly prominent theme in Catholic theology especially. It is no longer the priest alone who is called to the contemplative life, nor is it the priest alone who ministers at the sacrament of the altar. For Protestants and Catholics, the call to priesthood requires a radical transformation of life that is consistent with the call to holiness. In our world today, this call to holiness may very well include a call to pacifism, thus making Stieber and Izbicki contemporary prophets.

Stanley Hauerwas once wrote a beautiful and influential essay entitled “Why Gays (as a Group) are Morally Superior to Christians (as a Group).” In it, he writes

“I am ambivalent about recent discussions concerning gays in the military. I see no good reason why gays and lesbians should be excluded from military service; as a pacifist I do not see why anyone should serve. Moreover, I think it a wonderful thing that some people are excluded as a group. I only with that Christians could be seen by the military to be as problematic as gays.”

Gays can serve now. Maybe it is time for Christians to opt out.


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