Monday, May 27, 2013

Gospel Guidance on War and Peace

Servant of God, Dorothy Day
Each Memorial Day, we pause to honor those who have died in the service of our nation. It is an opportunity for our country to consider the cost of the freedoms we enjoy.  Perhaps it should also be a moment to reconsider the principles of the warfare we employ.

Since the time that Jesus spoke with an other-worldly authority, Christians have been forced to grapple with his radical non-violence:  “I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44); “Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword (Mt 26:52).  Jesus was not naïve: He personally felt the violence of an unjust and fallen world.  And yet he made no easy compromises about using worldly power or resorting to violence.

Christians of the first centuries saw military service as incompatible with walking the path of Christian discipleship--not because they were unwilling to die in service to the empire, but because they were unwilling to kill for it.  From the time of St. Augustine on, however, the Church realized the necessary role of the state in protecting its citizens from aggressors, and Christians were allowed to help provide military defense of their fellow citizens.  Thus a theory of “just war” principles emerged, in an attempt to provide moral guidance to individuals and nations regarding how best to promote peace.  The theory was guided by the assumption that defending oneself and one's people from an aggressor is qualitatively different from being the aggressor, or from resorting to “pre-emptive” military strikes or "preventative warfare." 

In a powerful section entitled “Safeguarding Peace,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church discusses war within the context of the fifth commandment’s prohibition of killing (CCC, 2302-17).  Two passages that seem particularly noteworthy today: 

·        “Those who are sworn to serve their country in the armed forces are servants of the security and freedom of nations.  If they carry out their duty honorably, they truly contribute to the common good of the nation and the maintenance of peace” (2310).  The Church clearly affirms that serving in the military can be a noble means of maintaining peace and defending security and freedom.  It is right and just that we celebrate our nation’s veterans--and their families--and that we thank them for their heroic sacrifices. 

·       “Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely” (2313).  The Catechism clearly emphasizes that there ought to be no targeting of non-combatants, and no unjust treatment of prisoners.  Even our “enemies” maintain a God-given dignity which requires that they be treated humanely.  Therefore, we should have no hint of “our lives” being more valuable than “their lives”; no element of the “end or goal” justifying the “means or methods.”  We should avoid the temptation to re-define “combatant” to include anyone who might someday become an armed enemy.  And we should never resort to state-sponsored assassinations or torture of prisoners.  These are principles of "unjust war," and these are clearly incompatible with the revelation of the Gospel.
The 21st century question for Christian parents and grandparents is no longer whether our children and grandchildren are able to serve in the military, or whether we are willing to see them die in defense of our country.  The question is whether they should ever be in a position where they might have to kill at the service of "unjust war" principles.  Perhaps the best way to honor those who have died in past service of our nation is to ensure that future generations won’t keep justifying our right to resort to violence, in service of national self-interest. 
We should not let the blind fear of terror and death should drive us toward a disordered love of our country, or toward an inhumane treatment of our alleged enemies.  After all, we believe in a Reality that's stronger than evil and death:  As Jesus said, "I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?” (Jn 11:26).