Recently famed American pacifist Stanley Hauerwas of Duke Divinity School had a cordial radio debate with British just war advocate Nigel Biggar of Oxford University, who authored the 2013 book In Defence of War.
Biggar lamented that much of Western culture, mostly excluding the U.S., has succumbed to a pacifist “virus of wishful thinking.” He pointed out that the ‘basic responsibility of government is law and order” without which “nothing functions,” and which “requires the use of force in the curbing of wrong doing.” War is a form of policing, and just war adherents see it as an expression of “love especially for the innocent” needing defense from aggressors.
“It’s hard to love your enemy if they’re dead,” Hauerwas quipped, so war can’t be understood as an act of love. Perhaps force that’s short of killing is “an open question,” he suggested. “I’m very committed to the rule of law. But the police aren’t the judge and jury,” as the military often effectively is in war. He also opined that the police can “function without firearms.”
Hauerwas recalled he once affirmed the use of force as an adherent of Christian realist Reinhold Niebuhr, until he was persuaded otherwise by Mennonite thinker John Howard Yoder. Nonviolence draws on Christ’s cross and resurrection, Yoder advocated, showing that God “refuses to use coercion to overcome our sin.” Christians accordingly are called to be nonviolent in a world of war.
If early Roman Christians had to take up the worldly reins of power to serve their neighbor, then why didn’t their neighbors include the barbarian enemy, Hauerwas wondered. And if pursuing nonviolence is wishful thinking, then why isn’t also lifelong monogamy in marriage?
Biggar credited Hauerwas for pacifism’s popularity among many Christians today. And he posited that the more “removed from what’s involved in government,” the more prone Christians are to pacifism. He said killing is always “tragic and destructive” but you can’t says it’s “intrinsically morally wrong,” as the “wrongness is in the motivation.” War is a last resort and is a “necessity of government” and “necessary for social peace.”
Hauerwas insisted Christians can be of service to neighbors in government but cannot participate in the state’s violence. He reiterated he’s open to “conversation” about supporting non lethal force. And he asserted that just war teaching no less than pacifism is in tension with realism by restricting some violent actions.
Biggar countered that pacifists like Hauerwas “tend to regard interests as immoral.” But there are “legitimate personal and national interests.” And government “pursuing physical security is not ignoble.”
Hauerwas complained that just war adherents typically ended up “underwriting U.S. imperialism.” And he wondered why the U.S. after the Cold War “kept the Pentagon [prepared] to fight two separate wars if we are a just war country.” He alleged that “neoconservatives” like Catholic thinker and IRD emeritus board member George Weigel “got into the Republican administration to offer categories” for justifying war.
Biggar countered that critics often scoff that “our rulers know what they’re doing half the time, as if we would do better. Governing is bloody hard.” Rulers are “burden bearers of the world” and are also “sinners like the rest of us.”
When asked if he as a pacifist would stand by as his family was killed, Hauerwas said yes, the “ultimate moral challenge for a pacifist is you may have to watch the innocent die.” But he insisted the same is true for just warriors if they follow their own rules. He also said his family is a “body of people called church that help one another,” with presumptions about “ecclesial reality not to be coopted by the world.”
Countering Hauerwas’ claim that Christ’s submitting to the cross mandates nonviolence, Biggar said the cross “means lots of things,” and you “can’t generalize to mean nonviolence always everywhere.” He noted that Jesus cited soldiers as paragons of faith and never asked them to quit their profession, as He did of prostitutes.
Hauerwas claimed that Christ admonishing Peter to lay down his sword was binding on all Christians. But Biggar said it was more narrowly a command for Jesus’ followers not to join a rebellion against Rome.
“In America war is a habit for moral reclamation of what we are as a people,” Hauerwas asserted. “It assures us that past sacrifices were justified,” and “war for us is a liturgical event.” Biggar disputed that America is prone to war, citing U.S. isolationism delaying entry into WWII, and more recently, British premier Tony Blair having to “arm twist” Bill Clinton into intervening in Kosovo. “America as habituated to war is just not true,” he concluded.
Hauerwas explained “we’re acting on reality that the Kingdom is now” in an age “inaugurated through the cross and resurrection.” Biggar countered that the Kingdom of God is only “partially present,” and the just warrior “reflects the coming kingdom. If it’s necessary to protect the innocent I don’t see why Christians should keep their hands clean. I don’t see a sharp dividing line between church and world.”
One aspect Hauerwas and Biggar might have addressed is the extent to which the Hauerwas/Yoder form of absolute pacifism mandatory for all faithful Christians can be asserted without declaring nearly all of universal/historic Christianity to have been in egregious error.
Hauerwas insisted Christian pacifists are not “self-righteous” and don’t claim moral superiority. But in fact, by dismissing historic Christian teaching in favor of a late twentieth century theological assertion, they are indeed asserting a unique spiritual superiority for themselves.