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Violence, Force and Civil Society: Moderating Influences of the Just-War Tradition

J. Daryl Charles
Associate professor of ethics & culture, Union University


Force and Civil Society: Moderating Influences of the Just-War Tradition

The Philadelphia
National Meeting
Sheraton Society Hill Hotel
March 31-April 2, 2006

Yesterday at this time I was participating in a similar
panel discussion, at a large state university in Ohio, which shall go unnamed
and which hosted a conference with the theme “Religion and Violence.”
Sponsored by the University’s Contemporary History Institute, the conference
was constituted by three in-depth panel discussions dedicated to the following
three topics: the violent impulse in religion, peacemaking, and “just-war”

As one of several invited speakers, I went to the
conference not expecting that I would be in the company of like-minded or
sympathetic people. This indeed proved to be true. And you could probably write
the script. The culprits behind religion and violence in the world, alas, were
not Islamofascists, who in Iraq and Afghanistan have systematically suppressed
and tortured 50 million people in recent history and who, covenantally, are
unswervingly committed to the obliteration of Jews in the Middle East, nor were
they Islamo-anarchists who on several continents have been carrying out
mass-murder of innocents since the early 90s. No, as you might well guess, the
chief violators of human rights who truly threaten the world are….George Bush
and Condolezza Rice – and, of course, the Pentagon – all of whom conspire
not only to remove from us our civil liberties but who are bent on the
destruction of the world. To conclude, Stanley Hauerwas, the celebrated
Christian ethicist from Duke, declared by Time magazine in 2001 to be the most
influential American theologian of our day, delivered the keynote denunciation
of American imperialism. 

The essence of my remarks yesterday was to reiterate both
the timeliness and timeless of just-war moral reasoning as it effects not only
public policy but also civil society. My own interest in this realm, aside from
teaching religion and ethics in university liberal arts context, derives from
two sources: having done policy analysis in criminal justice during the 1990s
and my current research interest, which is the historical development of the
just-war tradition and its applicability to the problem of terrorism. 

My basic operating assumptions are these:

  • One
    must make a fundamental distinction between force and violence. I find John
    Courtney Murray’s basic distinction both helpful and necessary.
    “Force,” Murray writes, “is the measure of power necessary and
    sufficient to uphold…law and politics. What exceeds this measure is
    violence, which destroys the order of both law and politics… As an
    instrument, force is morally neutral in itself.”[1]
  • I
    further assume what Reinhold Niebuhr called a “Christian realism” about
    human nature. That is to say, humans possess both a dignity and depravity,
    based on moral agency. The latter of these realities necessarily implies the
    existence of moral evil, even when contemporary Western culture is
    embarrassed to name evil. Acknowledging moral evil, I am fully aware, is
    exceedingly difficult for “postmodern” culture, which refuses to make moral judgments of any sort. The question that
    moral relativists must face is not only whether we should resist Hitler, Idi
    Amin, Pol Pot, Milosevich, and company but also the Jeffrey Dahmers and
    Timothy McVeighs of the world, as well as the violent criminals in our
    neighborhoods and cities. Either there is
    a universal, non-fluid standard of justice, as Aristotle maintained, or
    there is not. If not, then Rwanda
    and Bosnia-Kosovo are merely differences of opinion. One man’s mugging or
    murder is simply another man’s good time.
  • Therefore,
    with Hugo Grotius, the “father of international law,” we must never say
    that everything is always
    permissible, nor that nothing is ever permissible. There are times when morally-guided force may
    be necessary in a world that exhibits moral evil. We need not embrace either
    moral skepticism or abdication and withdrawal, neither triumphalism nor
  • Therefore,
    we must work for a justly-ordered peace, what Augustine called the tranquillitas
    . What Augustine meant was simply this: peace is not merely the
    absence of conflict; rather, it must be justly ordered. Otherwise, a
    “peace” can subsist and be maintained by Mafia-like management, for even
    among criminals there exists an atmosphere of peaceful co-existence.
  • Therefore,
    given the fact that peace must be justly ordered, force is both
    permitted and limited. Law-enforcement officers demonstrate both of these
    on a daily basis. As do most parents. We neither cut off the hands of
    children who steal cookies, neither do we slap on the back of the wrist
    those who murder and rape. At least, we should not.
  • Therefore,
    we will need to affirm what ethicist Paul Ramsey called a “preferential
    ethics of protection” on behalf of the innocent third party when moral
    evil occurs. We are not permitted to be bystanders when moral evil befalls
    innocent persons; charity requires that we come to their defense. This
    applies to neighbors and to neighbor-nations, when we have the means to prevent a greater evil.
  • Therefore,
    force can serve moral purposes, as
    the entire criminal justice system, even in its fallible state, illustrates.
    Augustine, correctly, noted that out of charity we prevent evildoers from
    carrying through their acts. This is for their
    best as well as for society’s. Aquinas, indeed the mainstream of the
    Christian moral tradition, agrees.

In recent years I am particularly nourished by the writings
of one public intellectual who has done much to encourage people of religious
faith toward responsible citizenship. I refer to Jean Bethke Elshtain, who
teaches political ethics at the U. of Chicago. An Augustinian scholar, Elshtain
has dedicated much of her scholarly work to investigating the foundations of
civil society. What makes good citizens? What constitutes civil society? Why is
religious faith so important to democratic pluralism? What happens when people
no longer can engage in moral discourse? And why is it unacceptable when people
of religious conviction abdicate the public square? 

In describing responsible citizenship, Elshtain has coined
the striking expression “chastened patriotism.”[2]
Thereby she stands in the Augustinian tradition and wishes to accent both
attachment and detachment. That is,
having learned from the past and being cognizant of human nature, “chastened
patriots” are “necessarily poised between unacceptable alternatives on
either side.” They are poised between an unreflective nationalism that
diminishes our duties and loyalties to others, on the one hand, and an
unwillingness to defend our innocent neighbor, or a neighbor-state, being
oppressed and standing in great need, on the other hand. 

With the end of the Cold War a decade and a half ago, most
people – from the average layperson to the policy-maker – thought the
question of military force to lack urgency. Yet, I would argue, it is precisely
those developments since then that
call forth the need for reexamining the merits and moral substructure of armed
conflict. Consider within this brief period, for example, Iraq’s invasion of
Kuwait and genocidal treatment of its own people, notably the Kurds; the
starvation of civilians in Somalia; exile and enslavement of both Christians and
non-Sharia Muslims in Sudan; the slaughter of roughly 800,000-900,00 people in
Rwanda; genocide in Bosnia and Kosovo; the need for massive relief efforts in
Burundi, Rwanda, Liberia, Sudan, and Afghanistan; the production of chemical and
biological weapons in Libya and Iraq (not to mention developments in Iran); the
talibanization of parts of the Middle East, Africa and SE Asia; the breathtaking
rise of maturing international terrorism worldwide; and drug-trafficking in
several continents. These diverse crises, regardless of one’s political
sympathies, force laypeople, educators, politicians and policy-makers alike to
reflect on the morality of war, the use of force, and military intervention. How
will we adjudicate matters of gross injustice? Egregious human rights
violations? Social-political evil? 

Just-war thinking, classically understood, approaches the
human condition with a certain realism, which is a necessary starting-point for
any responsible attempt at policy, both domestic and foreign. That is, just-war
reasoning simultaneously chastens Realpolitik,
or militarism, with its disdain for any moral reasoning whatsoever, and its
religious equivalent, the jihadic and crusading spirit; but it also chastens the
pacifist-isolationist impulse, which refuses to intervene and resist
social-political evil in practical
terms. The classic just-war position understands itself to mediate between two
opposing poles – between the unwillingness to make moral judgments, on the one
hand, and the unwillingness to express moral judgments through practical and
forceful resistance for the purpose of an ordered peace. 

The very moral principles that inform the just-war
tradition, to the surprise of some, also undergird generic criminal justice. For
example, on the same basis both distinguish between aggressor and victim,
between unjust and just behavior, and between the criminal and the punitive act.
Without these fundamental distinctions, in any policy realm, there is no such
thing as “civil society,” and crime — whether intranational or international
— can proceed unabated, with no justly ordered peace. 

As with criminal justice, the classic just-war position,
far from being a contradiction of the Christian primacy of peace, is mediatory
on the question of force. That is, it represents a moderating position between
the poles of crusade, jihad or militarism on the one hand and pacifism on the
other, as clarified by its fundamental assumptions. What are these assumptions?

  • Evil
    exists and must be resisted in the present life, even when it subsists in a
    mix of cultural and religious factors that might entail political,
    diplomatic, economic as well as military responses for their containment.
  • Further,
    there is a peace that can be immoral if and where it leaves the innocent
    unprotected. Hence, peace is not merely the absence of conflict.
  • Further,
    the natural moral law, by which all human beings intuitively recognize the
    good and avoid evil (so Aquinas), is applicable to all peoples in all eras.
    It is expressed in the golden rule of Plato and Jesus, in the contours of
    the Ten Commandments, in what the framers called “self-evident truths,”
    and in what C.S. Lewis called the Tao. In the words of one public
    philosopher, it is what we can’t not
  • Further,
    just-war teaching, like criminal justice, begins not with a presumption or
    bias against force per se but
    against injustice. It measures
    the use and application of force, and this measure is always proportionate
    to the crime. But its basic presumption is not against force per
    but against injustice and evil. Charity, thus, can express itself in
    the forceful protection of one’s neighbor.
  • Therefore,
    because charity has as its goal the highest good for all people, whether
    perpetrators or victims, criminal justice and armed conflict can be
    undertaken in conformity with the demands of charity, justice and human
    dignity, since its seeks to protect the innocent third party from gross
    injustice and social evil.

Such are the assumptions of both criminal justice and
just-war reasoning. 

Mainstream moral thinkers through the ages address a
recurring objection among religious people regarding force and armed conflict.
Ambrose, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Suarez and Grotius, for example,
all respond to the common objection that coercive force is incompatible with the
teaching of Jesus and Christian charity. Significantly, each one of these
thinkers traces the standard objection to a misunderstanding of the words from
the Sermon on the Mount “don’t resist evil” and “turn the other
cheek.” Aquinas, especially, in the Summa (II-II Q. 40), is at pains to show
that force per se is not a category of injustice but rather is necessary to the civic
peace. He distinguishes between private responses to abuse and delegated
authority’s obligation to protect the public. The Sermon on the Mount concerns
the former — personal abuse; it is not
to be read as a public-policy prescription. 

Paul Ramsey, one of the few ethicists to make this
interpretive distinction, observes that part of our difficulty is that we have
distorted the meaning of Jesus’ teaching. He reminds us that Jesus’
directive is: “If someone strikes you.”
The matter is personal. Jesus is not
advocating, “If someone strikes your
on the right cheek, turn to him your neighbor’s other cheek.”
While people are free to forego self-defense, they are not free to ignore the
plight of the innocent third party.[4]
Just-war thinking, which allows but
does not require coercive force, is an
extension of responsible ethics and politics. Indeed, the mainstream of the
Christian moral tradition and the just-war tradition in particular – from
Ambrose in the late 4th century to the Catholic Catechism in the present day — affirms the conviction that morally
guided coercion can be an expression of charity. 

But a common objection, both in foreign policy and criminal
justice, is raised: Isn’t retribution merely a pretext for vengeance? Clearly,
revenge is not rooted in love for one’s neighbor. Is there a moral difference
between retribution and revenge? A fair question. Indeed, civil society must
be informed by this basic distinction. 

Just-war reasoning, and the Christian moral tradition,
distinguish the retributive act from revenge, vindication from vindictiveness,
in important and unmistakable ways. At its base, the moral outrage expressed
through retributive justice is first and foremost rooted in moral principle, not
mere emotional outrage or hatred. Governing authorities apply what Augustine
called “benevolent harshness” by punishing criminal behavior, thereby
mirroring a concern for the population’s welfare as well as for those doing
wrong. Such applies both to domestic and foreign policy. Indeed, not to act
against the wrongdoer is to nourish and strengthen the will of the wrongdoer. It
needs re-emphasis, in the present cultural climate, that it is virtuous
and not vicious
to feel anger at moral evil. In truth, something is very
wrong if we don’t express anger and moral outrage at evil. And yet, moral
outrage is not enough. 

In what specific
ways are retribution and revenge different? There are several critical
distinctions. Whereas revenge strikes out at real or perceived injury,
retribution speaks to an objective wrong. Whereas revenge is wild,
“insatiable,” and not subject to limitations, retribution has both upper and
lower limits, acknowledging the moral repugnance both of assigning draconian
punishment to petty crimes as well as light punishment to heinous crimes. 

Vengeance, by its nature has a thirst for injury and
delights in bringing further evil upon the other party. We can see this in
observing terrorists at work, can’t we? The avenger will not only kill, but
rape, torture, plunder and burn what is left, deriving satisfaction from his
victim’s direct or indirect suffering. Augustine, of course, described this
visceral inclination as a “lust for revenge.”[5]
Retribution, by contrast, has as its goal a greater social good and takes no
pleasure in punishment. 

Finally, whereas revenge, because of its retaliatory mode,
will target both the offending party as well as those perceived to be akin,
retribution is both targeted yet impersonal and impartial, not subject to
personal bias. For this reason, Lady Justice is depicted as blindfolded. 

Understood properly, retributive justice is a moral entity
that serves a civilized culture, whether in the domestic or international
context. It isolates individuals, parties or people-groups who endanger the
community – locally, nationally or internationally – for their wanton
disregard for the common good. It controls the extent to which a citizenry is
victimized by criminal acts. It rewards the perpetrator proportionately with
consequences befitting the crime. And it forces both the offender and potential
offenders to reflect in the grievous nature of the crime. Each of these elements
is critical in preserving the social order, the tranquillitas

Elsewhere, in the volume Between
Pacifism and Jihad
, I’ve argued for the necessity of thinking through post-bello
dimensions of just-war moral reasoning. Standard discussion of just war theory
focuses on two categories – ius ad
and ius in bello considerations. Perhaps this third sphere, the post-bello,
might be fodder for later discussion. I have in mind, for example, international
tribunals for war crimes and crimes against humanity (genocide may well be on
the increase since 1990), preemptive as well as post-crisis humanitarian
intervention, the applicability of just-war criteria to terrorism, peace-keeping
and post-conflict stabilizing, and post-war national-building. 

I close with an observation by South African Justice
Richard Goldstone, who was Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal
Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. In an important address several
years ago at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, Goldstone had this to say about violence
and justly mediated force:

The one thing I have learned in my travels to the former Yugoslavia and

Rwanda and in my own country is
that where there have been egregious human

rights violations that have been
unaccounted for, where there has been no justice,

where the victims have not
received any acknowledgment, where they have been

forgotten, where there has been a
national amnesia, the effect is a cancer on the

society. It is the reason that
explains, in my respectful opinion, spirals of violence

that the world has seen in the
former Yugoslavia for centuries and in Rwanda for

decades, to use two obvious
example… So justice can make a contribution to

bringing enduring peace.[6] 

Without becoming imperialistic, I do think that in the
present geopolitical climate, we shall need to make similar contributions to
peace. Rescuing or preventing slaughter may be our reasonable service of
charity. Thank you very much. 

[1] John Courtney Murray, We
Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition
York: Sheed and Ward, 1960), 274.

[2] Jean Bethke Elshtain, Women
and War
(rev. ed.; Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1995),
252-53, 268-69.

[3] Jay Budziszewski, What
We Can’t Not Know: A Guide
(Dallas: Spence, 2003).

[4] This line of thinking is
found in Ramsey’s Basic Christian
(New York: Scribner’s, 1950), as well as his War
and Christian Conscience
(Durham: Duke University Press, 1961) and The
Just War
(New York Scribner’s, 1968).

[5] City
of God

[6] Cited in “War Crimes
When Amnesia Causes Cancer,” The
Washington Post
(February 2, 1997), C4.

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