Last week I commented on the missed opportunity concerning the recent article on moral injury in Christianity Today to counter, or gesture to those who do, the position that war is morally injurious by its very nature. I argued that Christian pacifism, positioning itself against violence as malum in se, or morally evil in itself, is unable to allow for the critical observation that killing, because it comes in different moral kinds, is not necessarily a censorious act. Regarding moral injury, this deficiency is harmful because it does nothing to alleviate the clinical connection between killing in combat and soul wounds and, thereby, between killing in combat and suicide.
I also endeavored to stress that the descriptive work of the article, by bringing into public view the issue of moral injury and some of its primary clinical experts, is both crucial and excellently done. Moreover, the essay’s author and CT are to be lauded for calling the Church into action by cautioning Christians against reducing combat trauma to a mental-health issue best left only, or even primarily, in the hands of psychiatric professionals. The VA psychiatrist Jonathon Shay, credited with first articulating the moral injury construct, himself acknowledged that moral injury is ultimately alleviated not through the clinic but rather the community. Katelyn Beaty, CT’s Managing Editor, strikes a similar chord in her Editorial Note when she affirms “the community of Christ has a uniquely Christ-shaped role to play in healing the wounds of war”. While I believe this is clearly true, my critique hoped to also make clear that I do not believe this Christ-shape can be characterized by, nor frankly even include, the advocacy of pacifism.
Instead I gestured toward the intellectual and moral tradition of just war in which Christian theological ethical reflection has been grounded for two millennia and from which the best analysis of the psychological implications of war and killing in war can be derived and take their bearings. In my estimation, the particular Christ-shaped role the community of Church has in healing the wounds of war is grounded in a particular understanding of the nature of war itself. Contra Christian pacifism, the Christian ethicist Richard Miller has observed that viewed through the just war lens war, pace Sherman, is not in fact hell. War is tragic, awful, it may include evils, but the institution itself, the tradition goes, is a rule-governed activity – that is, there are legitimate moral expectations that surround political leaders and military personnel regarding decisions to enter war and how to then conduct the prosecution of that war. To this critical insight I would add that we know also that war is not hell because war, unlike hell, is a realm in which God can be both known and worshipped.
If this is right, then because war is a realm of moral expectation in which God can be known and worshipped, it is a realm necessarily, that is by definition, constituted by love. Among other things, the understanding of love governing the just war tradition is grounded in Jesus Christ as characterized by, rather than despite, his triune reality and, therefore, by the comprehensive testimony of the whole of scripture – as opposed to a truncated view leveraged from a rather sentimentalized reading of the red-letter bits alone. This love requires its manifestation by the Christian warfighter toward both the innocent neighbor under assault as well as the enemy-neighbor employed in the assailing. In its expression in St. Augustine, what this love necessitates is the formation within the just warrior of an abhorrence of the love of violence, revengeful cruelty, implacable enmity, and the lust for power and a clinging to a disposition characterized by a desire for peace, reluctance at the need to fight, and a lack of hatred. In part this means that the just warrior’s intention toward the enemy is only, in love, to restore justice by restraining him from doing evil, not, specifically, to kill him – even if the just warrior knows, with a practical certainty, that his actions will, in fact, be the death of him.
This is a view of love that, however provocative, is faithful to the scriptural witness. It recognizes the enemy as a neighbor for whom a responsible demonstration of love commands, among other things, that he be restrained from sinning; for, as Augustine has it, it is a kind severity to strip an enemy of lawlessness even if in the pursuit of this good his resistance leads, in the end, to his vanquishment. Augustine, of course, is simply channeling James who teaches that it is an expression of love to turn back a sinner from his sin and thereby save his soul. Just war truth is old truth.
In the context of my critique of the CT article, these brief observations on the disposition of the just warrior are important because of the article’s lingering impression that veterans need to lay down their arms before they can be of real service to the church. This impression seems strengthened by a companion piece in the same issue unfortunately titled “Jesus is Better than War.” As a summary statement of what is an otherwise fine essay seemingly intended only to remind us that our identity is rooted in Jesus Christ and not in lost dreams, the title is a non sequitur. However unintentionally, the unnecessarily obtuse heading, coupled with the original article’s suggestion that after having laid down their arms veterans can now repurpose their martially formed and oriented habits of service and sacrifice for now civilian acts of service through the Church, deepens the impression that a decision has to be made between Jesus and the vocation of soldiering. Excepting a few very particular historical contexts, the tradition of just war insists no such decision needs to be made. Warfighting can be a Christian vocation.
To extend Luther’s observation: soldiers need neither renounce soldiering before they, too, can be saved nor must they renounce the martial life before they, too, can serve the church. Uniquely, through faithfully carrying out their martial vocation, our military men and women as military men and women can, among much else, demonstrate how to simultaneously abhor evil while endeavoring to resist our enemies without malice; how to fight only when the necessity of peace, order, and justice demands, all the while preferring that our enemies might rather be restrained without violence; and how even as they bring the fight to the doorstep of the enemy, closing with and killing him, the justified war fought justly can be a means toward establishing the grounds for not only the cessation of hostilities and the rescue of the innocent but of peace, pardon, and reconciliation with the enemy as well. That’s the uniquely Christ-shaped role the Church, through the witness of its marital brothers and sisters, can play in not only the healing of moral injury but as witness to the greater community around us that is struggling to know how to be good in a world rushing its way toward hell and still get to heaven.
In light of the reality of human belligerence, the classic just war tradition is superior to Christian pacifism in approximating love. Indeed, given the conditions of this world and the human soul, pacifism in my estimation does not, and indeed cannot, exemplify the Christian life. While pacifism is, strictly speaking, a Christian option, it is an option only in a way broadly analogous to something like celibacy. That is, while it is an option it is an exceptional one, reserved only for those few possessed by a very particular divine call or for whom the conditions or circumstances of their existence render celibacy the best, that is to say most faithful, of available options. Another way to say this is this: it is the pacifist and not the soldier who is the exception to the Christian norm.
For those grappling with moral injury I hope this is received as manna. It is essential for our warfighters to know that war can, in the last resort, be a work of love. The imago Dei can walk the battlefield. God can be known and worshipped, even in the midst of the killing. Love can rule in the combat zone.