The headlines are exasperating, if a bit hyperbolic: Reuters writes, “Pope Says Weapons Manufacturers Can’t Call Themselves Christians” while the Daily Beast puts it, “Pope: Gun Makers Are Not Christians.” In the Pope’s defense, and while I haven’t located a complete transcript of his June 21st speech in Turin, Italy, nowhere in the news pieces cited above does Pope Francis actually use those words. Not precisely. At most, at the rally of thousands of young people following his visit to the city’s famous shroud, Francis called believers who sell weapons “hypocrites.” In calling themselves Christians and yet selling arms, the Pope lamented, they traffic in duplicity: “they say one thing and do another.”
To be fair, the attention-grabbing headlines, however inexact, aren’t conjured whole-cloth. At a few points over the last year, the Pope has described the arms business as an “industry of death” and, correspondingly, those who produce weapons as “merchants of death”. While he may have intended more nuance by utilizing phrases such as “Many powerful people don’t want peace” and “Some powerful people make their living with the production of arms” (emphasis mine), his words have certainly been taken by most observers as a blanket condemnation of all in the arms trade. Moreover, in an address in St. Peter’s Square, he denounced arms traders as being included among those who will have a hard time accounting for their actions before God – grouping them with human traffickers and slavers. Weapons traders, the Pope concludes, “fabricate death” and further cycles of “hate, fratricide, and violence.”
Curiously, in the same address in Turin, Pope Francis criticized an array of moral failings among the political leaders of powerful nations in the 20th Century. Regarding the Shoah, “The great powers,” the Pope reminded his audience, “had photographs of the railway routes that the trains took to the concentration camps like Auschwitz…Tell me,” he insisted, “why didn’t they bomb” those railroad routes? Francis is referring to photographs of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps that have been a source of debate regarding what the allies knew regarding the deathcamps and when they knew it. The photographs were probably taken “accidentally” during flyovers to film nearby targets – including the synthetic oil plant at the Auschwitz III forced labor camp – or, Monowitz. While the photographs indeed show the train lines, gas chambers and crematoria, and hordes of prisoners, military planners, it has been argued, never analyzed the photographs in 1944 and they played no real role in decisions to bomb or not to bomb the rail lines. That said, in July of 1944, The U.S. War Department refused requests by Jewish leaders to include the rail lines in their bombing run against nearby oil refineries. The bombers’ route took them right over Birkenau. At stake in the debate is whether allied bombing of the railroad could have at least slowed the liquidation process, particularly of the Hungarian Jewish population whose final annihilation began in the spring of 1944.
Francis also pointed his finger at world leaders who did nothing to stop the Medz Yeghern, the Great Crime, the extermination of Armenians by the Ottoman Turks in 1915; a systematic slaughter that would eventually claim somewhere between 800,000 and 1,500,000 lives. The horror visited against the Armenians was among those moral cataclysms, including as well the 1933 Simele Massacre of Assyrians, through which evolved the American Polish émigré Raphael Lemkin’s study of the crime of “barbarity” – from which he would later develop the descriptive concept of “genocide.”
These later two critiques I call curious because it leads me to wonder precisely what Pope Francis wanted accomplished if he simultaneously condemns the arms industry. With what, precisely, did he intend the allies to bomb the rail lines? The 20th Century ought to have convinced us, including us Christians, that those kinds of folks who enjoy genocide cannot usually be talked out of their malevolence with prayers or harsh language – they most often have to be forced out of it. If soft power cannot get those who are murdering the innocent to stand down then hard power is necessary to knock them down. Such business is about more than “hate, fratricide, and violence.” If stopping genocide is a good thing to do then those who have done it – and those who supply the tools to help them do it – have, well, done good. To be sure, the motives of some who sell arms might be mixed. But while this might, in those cases, marble our moral evaluation, we oughtn’t allow the marbling to eclipse the good nor to forget that, just as soldiering can be a Christian vocation, so too can be making the tools of their trade.
The Pope’s comments ought naturally to call to mind Dwight Eisenhower’s “The Chance for Peace” speech in which he acknowledges that every dollar spent on arms is a dollar lost to something else: every bomber robs us of thirty well-built schools, or two electric power plants, or a pair of fully appointed hospitals. Many have made much of this and pair it with his farewell warnings about the “grave implications” regarding our nation’s reliance on the military-industrial complex and our need to remain remaining vigilant against its “unwanted influence”. But despite this moral sobriety, Eisenhower, in the same address, sounded another, less-often quoted, caution:
A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction. Our military organization today bears little relation to that known by any of my predecessors in peacetime, or indeed by the fighting men of World War II or Korea. Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.
Pope Francis has been a stalwart defender of those goods that come from peace, order, and justice. He needs to be known as an equally clear defender of that just expression of force that, in the last resort, is the only means to ensure or restore those goods. We mustn’t believe that this is a choice between violence and non-violence. If it were, then of course we choose non-violence. But the Shoah and the Medz Yeghern each remind us that the question is not how can a Christian kill one made in the imago Dei but, rather, what on earth do we do when one imago Dei is kicking apart the face of another imago Dei?
It will do no good to claim, as some have, that this is the business of the government and not of Christians. To claim that God ordained the sword for the government to maintain just order but that he has called Christians away from such business in order to provide an alternative, peaceable kingdom is, in my judgment, the true hypocrisy – not the notion of Christians providing weapons of war. If the peaceable kingdom were a viable alternative to hard coercion then, surely, God would have ordained such a kingdom instead of, rather than alongside, the government’s sword. Given that God has ordained the sword, I stand among those who infer, therefore, that the sword is necessary. And if the sword is necessary than that makes the peaceable kingdom parasitic – because it cannot remain in a world in which the good do not bear arms. The idea that Christians should allow their neighbors to dirty their hands while keeping their own souls clean is, frankly, morally abhorrent.