Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Can war be "just" anymore?

“War may sometimes be a necessary evil.  But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good. We will not learn to live together in peace by killing each other's children. The bond of our common humanity is stronger than the divisiveness of our fears and prejudices. God gives us the capacity for choice. We can choose to alleviate suffering. We can choose to work together for peace. We can make these changes - and we must.”  
These words were uttered by former President Jimmy Carter upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in December, 2002, as the United States was on the brink of war with Iraq.  We have been in a near constant state of war in our world since those words were spoken and we find ourselves in another tense moment as the western world debates how to respond to the news that the government of Syria in its current conflict used chemical weapons upon its innocent citizenry last month in an attack that some reports claim killed more than 1,400 people.

Pope Francis has been outspoken in his calls for peace in Syria and Egypt and all the troubled places in our world and he is clearly advocating that we find a way to that peace that doesn't involve more weapons, more war and more killing.  On Sunday, while calling for a September 7 day of fasting and prayer for peace, the Holy Father said:
"My heart is deeply wounded in particular by what is happening in Syria and anguished by the dramatic developments which are looming. I appeal strongly for peace, an appeal which arises from deep within me. How much suffering, how much devastation, how much pain has the use of arms carried in its wake in that martyred country, especially among civilians and the unarmed! I think of many children will not see the light of the future! With utmost firmness I condemn the use of chemical weapons: I tell you that those terrible images from recent days are burned into my mind and heart. There is a judgment of God and of history upon our actions which are inescapable! Never has the use of violence brought peace in its wake. War begets war, violence begets violence."  
The U.S. Bishops have joined their voices to the Pope's calling for dialogue over force.

All of this, for me, begs the question: what should the Catholic response be?  And can war ever be just?

The Catholic Church has long held a Just War Theory that there are times when war can be considered something just and even acceptable; that there are times when the greater good allows or even demands the action of nations and the use of force to stop a greater evil from being perpetrated. The Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it this way: 
“The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time: - the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain; - all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;  - there must be serious prospects of success; - the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.  These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the ‘just war’ doctrine. The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.” (#2309)
There is a laudable intention behind notions like the "just war" theory - notions that try to highlight other means of reaching peace; of avoiding greater destruction and loss of life; of looking at the use of force as an absolute last effort.  But, I think perhaps the time has come for us to think about this differently and to recognize that something like war never belongs in a category of justice.  That war is always wrong; always unjust - even if it might be from time-to-time necessary.  It is perhaps the very notion that was can be just that somehow makes it slightly easier for us to engage in it.

So much of our contemporary Catholic theology finds its roots in the great ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle.  So enamored were medieval theologians like St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Bonaventure with the ancients that they essentially engaged in an attempt to Christianize ancient Greek thought, thus giving Catholic theology a firm framework upon which to rest.  This is true in the development of understandings of both justice and the theory of the just war.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle explores justice and injustice in the world and comes to understand justice as a distributive virtue concerned with what one deserves and whether or not one receives what is due. He writes:
“Justice is a kind of mean, but not in the same way as the other virtues, but because it relates to an intermediate amount, while injustice relates to the extremes. And justice is that in virtue of which the just man is said to be a doer, by choice, of that which is just, and one who will distribute either between himself and another or between two others not so as to give more of what is desirable to himself and less to his neighbor (and conversely with what is harmful), but so as to give what is equal in accordance with proportion; and similarly in distributing between two other persons.”
Justice, for Aristotle, then has a proportionality about it.  Justice involves an equality and not an extreme in relations.  The just person acts justly when they act in equal proportion in a given exchange. 

The great doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas, takes this Aristotelian definition of justice and incorporates it into his Christian theological world view.  He writes in his Summa Theologica: 
“And if anyone would reduce [justice] to the proper form of a definition, he might say that ‘justice is a habit whereby a man renders to each one his due by a constant and perpetual will’: and this is about the same definition as that given by the Philosopher (Ethic. v, 5) who says that ‘justice is a habit whereby a man is said to be capable of doing just actions in accordance with his choice.’”
So, justice is rendering to each one their due. By this basic philosophical definition, I think it is fair to say that no war is just. Modern warfare, by its very definition, renders to far too many people death and destruction that are certainly not their due.  The 1,400 plus people who died in the Syrian chemical attack were largely innocent civilians - they certainly did not receive their due.  There are 139,000 innocent civilians who have been killed in the last 10 years in the conflict in Iraq (not the soldier actively in combat), certainly they have not received their due.  War renders far beyond what is due.

The ever growing violent situation of our world is a stark reminder that the Just War theory is now defunct.  This theory the Church has held onto for so many centuries, is simply no longer an effective measure for understanding military activity in our world.  Weapons are far too powerful to ever be used in a morally acceptable way.  The effects of these weapons are harmful to far too many non-combatant people to justify their use morally.

War, by its very nature, is inherently directed towards an imbalance of justice.  When one looks at the innocent lives lost, the infliction of tremendous harm in standards of living through the lack of clean drinking water, the lack of medical assistance, the lack of electricity, and all of the things brought about by warfare; it is obvious that the majority of those who are harmed by warfare are innocent bystanders.  They are by the very nature of warfare being treated unjustly. 

As I earlier quoted President Carter, “War may sometimes be a necessary evil.  But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good.”  War is never a moral good and so it is not helpful as a Church to be defining conflicts in terms of justice.  There is always an unease when Church leaders proclaim a conflict to be Just.   As we watch the bombs exploding, the people dying, the destruction of infrastructure and lives, it is somehow difficult to look at that and say, “That is justice.”  It is simply destruction, pure and simple – even when necessary.

The Church should instead modify its teaching and develop a new category – Necessary versus Unnecessary War.  Remove the evaluation of warfare from the moral realm – or rather, accept the fact that war is always immoral, even when necessary.  The world needs to accept the reality that any war – all war – is a sign of human failure.  There should never be triumphalism, even patriotism, as one nation wreaks destruction upon another nation – whether necessary or not.  The only question that people of good will should ask is, “How did it come to this?” 

A Necessary War Theory might ask similar questions. A Necessary War is engaged in: 1) For self-defense – a nation has first been attacked by an aggressor; and 2) the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain; and 3) all other means of putting an end to it must have been exhausted and shown to be impractical or ineffective;  and 4) there must be serious prospects of success; and 5) the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated; and 6) the use of arms must be limited and proportionate; and 7) every effort to strike only military targets and avoid civilian targets must be made; and 8) the defending nation or community of nations must make every effort to gain the approval of the world community.

The world community must accept that although the world is perhaps a more dangerous place than it has ever been before, it also for the first time in history possesses the ability to find non-violent solutions to its problems.  There should be today no longer a need for war.  Instead if nations accepted in solidarity their connectedness and sought to address the other issues of justice – health care, population, homelessness, hunger, etc. – the imbalance of wealth that pits one nation against another would diminish.

By eliminating a Just War theory, the Church would be free to be completely committed to peace - always, everywhere, in every situation. The Church would be free to encourage and even initiate dialogues that lead to peace and connectedness among people throughout the world.

Blessed Pope John Paul II, speaking in Madrid, Spain, in 2003 exhorted young people to do just this calling on them to be “architects of peace.”  He said:
“Peace, we know, is above all a gift from on high which we must ask for with insistence and which, moreover, we must all construct through a profound inner conversion…Respond to blind violence and inhuman hatred with the fascinating power of love. Keep far away from every form of exasperated nationalism, racism and intolerance. Witness with your life that ideas are not imposed but proposed.
What is the Catholic position?  Jesus answered that in his Sermon on the Mount, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” (Matthew 5.9)  We are called to be instruments of peace in the world and not to wait until guns are pointed to start the dialogue, but to be engaged in that dialogue constantly so that we are not in the position of asking, "How did it come to this?"  We are called to be talking to the stranger, meeting them as brother and sister, feeding the hungry who are close and who are far away, sheltering the homeless wherever they are - these and so many things are the building blocks of peace. By the time it gets to guns and planes and bombs, there is very little peacemaking left to be done.

Following the Falklands War in 1982, Blessed Pope John Paul II said, "Humanity should question itself, once more, about the absurd and always unfair phenomenon of war, on whose stage of death and pain only remain standing the negotiating table that could and should have prevented it."

As this Saturday approaches, let us embrace what Pope Francis is calling us to - a day of true prayer and fasting for peace in the world. Let us encourage our leaders to sit down at that negotiating table and seek the ways of peace together.  If we want peace, let us work for a true justice where every one receives what is due to them - shelter, food, healthcare, safety, love, joy and harmony.

"God gives us the capacity for choice. We can choose to alleviate suffering. We can choose to work together for peace. We can make these changes - and we must.”

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