The Ghost of Congress’ Past: Foreign Policy and Just War Theory

on June 13, 2014

Criticizing the current Congress and administration. Reminiscing about the old days. Cracking biting jokes about colleagues. What more do you expect when former congressmen get together?

On June 5, the National Archives, in partnership with the US Association of Former Members of Congress, hosted a panel discussion entitled, “The Role of Congress in International Crises.” Historians, political science gurus, and well-informed citizens alike couldn’t help but ardently anticipate the panel; former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert and famous reporter and editor for The Washington Post Bob Woodward highlighted the group that also included former congressmen Chris Shays (R-CT) and John Tanner (D-TN) and former White House press secretary Mike McCurry, who served as the panel’s moderator.

The topic at hand addressed a major foreign policy tension in the United States since World War II. The Constitution both gives the power to declare war explicitly to Congress (Article I, Section 8) and names the president commander-in-chief of all of the armed forces (Article II, Section 2, Clause I). In the past half-century, especially with the passage of legislation like the War Powers Act, the president of the United States has increasing liberty with his control of the armed forces. In fact, the United States has not issued a formal declaration of war since World War II, despite our military involvement in Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, and many other locations all over the world since 1945.

The panel agreed that the president needs to have authority to make quick decisions that might not allow enough time to seek congressional approval or that put the nation’s security at risk. While the Constitution plainly assigns the power to declare war to Congress, the panel unanimously agreed that, in practice, the power really lies with the president. The panel only devoted less than half of the discussion to the topic in the title; they focused the rest of the event on congressional-presidential relations and Speaker Hastert spent significant portion of time captivating the audience with his account of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

You could say the event went off without a hitch.

Think about it: Enthralling stories instilling national pride. Practical advice on reaching across the aisle (despite their lack of authority to take further action). Entertaining interactions with fellow panelists and the audience. Even most of the audience members seemed to have their questions answered.

Except me.

Now, let me explain. I hesitated to ask my questions due to their primarily theological content (Mike McCurry, who now serves as a professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, might have had some interesting answers), not to mention the number of people I would have had to climb over to access a microphone. I couldn’t help but think about the theological implications of simply handing over authority to the president in foreign affairs, especially instances of military action.

In the fourth century, the public perception of Christianity completely changed. Where the church once suffered persecution and worked almost entirely in opposition to the Roman Empire, Constantine entwined Christianity with the Roman Empire. Christians, who some assert almost entirely rejected participation in warfare until Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313, found themselves in a conundrum; the Roman Empire’s new relationship with the church allowed them to openly express their faith, but it also in some cases required their participation in some practices Christians had collectively opposed for their entire history to that point.

Eventually, St. Augustine articulated what we now understand as the just war theory as an effort to limit war, or at least limit how Christians participate in war. Tradition attributes seven principles of the just war theory to Augustine (presently, the number of principles varies depending on who you ask, when you ask them, and what the weather forecast predicts for that day…) for justly entering and participating in warfare. I have neither the time nor the interest to outline all of these principles; I want to suggest that the change in foreign policy highlighted by the panelists last Thursday, especially with regards to military action, have a profound impact on our understanding of the just war theory.

A just authority comprises one of the key components of the just war theory. In other words, the governing body with the authority to declare war must do so in order for the war to be just (along with the fulfillment of the other principles). While our president clearly has authority over our country, does the Constitutional requirement for Congress to declare war mean unchecked military action, even ordered by our commander-in-chief, can be considered just?

While the answer to that question is subject to interpretation, I believe the blatant misuse of the just war theory is a bit clearer. Some Christians have the tendency to think the phrase “just war theory” makes every war acceptable and completely justified (and the justification becomes even stronger if you throw Augustine’s name in the mix). Augustine first articulated just war theory to limit war to the essential pursuit of justice, not to justify all war.

In fact, some views of war better reflect the reapplication of the just war theory to the crusading movement. Pope Urban II first articulated the idea of a “holy war” in 1095 and compared the First Crusade to a war between cosmic forces of good and evil. Now some justify national military interests in the same way.

I guess the question really is: do we claim God is on our side or do we live like we are on His? Do we throw God into our personal and national interests in an attempt to justify our means to an end or do we sincerely and primarily seek Christ and allow all other claims on us to fall to the wayside?

This conversation about war, peace, and violence needs to happen within the church. I consider myself a just war theorist, but for some reason violence permeates this discussion on both sides ­— I know my fair share of “militant pacifists.” While Christ calls us to believe, he first calls us to obey as evidence of our love for him (see John 14:15). Regardless of where we fall we need to stop having violent attitudes towards discussions on violence. “Violence doesn’t solve anything,” responded to our desire as children to hurt one other in order to solve our problems; perhaps walking in the way of love includes being child-like once again (Luke 18:17).

Soli Deo Gloria

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