November 10, 2004


Defending Our Neighbor: Can we start a war to protect others? (Stephen L. Carter, 11/10/2004, Christianity Today)

In an essay entitled "War and Massacre," philosopher Thomas Nagel asks us to envision a conversation between two soldiers on the battlefield. Each seeks to explain to the other why he must be killed. This scenario reminds us that we must always justify so serious a moral act as killing. We cannot do it until we are persuaded, morally, that it is necessary.

The criterion of necessity is a difficult one, and the early Christians struggled with it. They knew that Christians must not kill casually. Many believed that Christians may not ever kill. Today, most Christians—like most other people—accept killing (even if reluctantly) when grim necessity forces upon us a war we would rather avoid.

For example, most of us agree that war is morally permissible to defend one's own country against aggression. There are difficult questions still. (What counts as aggression? May one attack before the enemy strikes?) But wide consensus exists on the general principle of self-defense.

The more difficult question, and one that increasingly confronts the world, is the justice of going to war to protect not our own people but someone else's. In other words, if Christian morality will permit Country A to fight Country B if Country B attacks it, will it allow Country A to fight

Country B if Country B attacks Country C? Or what if Country B is slaughtering only its own people? May Country A go to war to protect the people of Country B against their own government?

Plainly this question arises today with what President Bush described at the United Nations in September as genocide in Darfur, Sudan. Earlier Secretary of State Colin Powell and other leaders across the political spectrum made the same point. It also arose in the late 1990s during the Hutu slaughter of the Tutsi in Rwanda, which Samantha Power, prize-winning author of A Problem from Hell, described as history's fastest rate of murder.

Meeting Nagel's test seems fairly simple. The soldier of Country A can tell the soldier of Country B, "I must reluctantly use force because your government is slaughtering its people." At the same time, one can immediately see a problem. If Country B is killing its own people, Country A will have to invade Country B. That is, Country A will have to commit an act of war itself.

The literature on just-war theory refers to this conundrum as the problem of "humanitarian" war. This does indeed present a moral puzzle. It might seem obvious that Country A ought to intervene to stop the killing. The trouble is, governments attack their own people so often that Country A might find itself constantly at war.

That Hitler can justifiably point out that we ought to be getting rid of Stalin too can not make attacking the Nazis immoral.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 10, 2004 2:34 PM

The article is tedious. Righting a grave wrong justifies the prosecution of a war as much as self-defense. That being said, while a war may be just, actually undertaking it must be subject to the test of prudence. To say that such an arrangement demands that every grave injustice requires constant war is unbalanced.

Posted by: luciferous at November 10, 2004 3:32 PM

Luciferous is correct. Defence of others is actually an easier case for a Christian since all charity is on the side of use of force, and the temptation to act out of sinful wrath is diminished.. Remember that John the Baptist counselled soldiers to obey their officers and Christ himself told his disciples that swords get you through times of no cloaks better than cloaks get you through times of no swords.

We should remember that restraining the unjust agressor is charitable even to that agressor. It were better for the would-be robber that his criminal career be ended before he adds to his guilt with perfected evil acts.

But ponder what the duty of the Good Samaritan would have been if he came upon the man who fell in with robbers while be was being beaten. Assuming that he had already accepted Our Lord's advice to sell a cloak and buy a sword, what should he do now?

Does this mean that all evil must be met with force? Sometimes. Authority comes from God, for the establishment of peace and the punishment of evildoers. The power of the Roman emperors, to the extent that it was used in accordance with reason, was legitimate, and Christians were to submit to it and obey. If God has put the power in your hands, you may have a duty to use it.

That is not the same thing as "constant war." Rather it is constant law enforcement. Launching the missles against the evil empire in the FORMER SOVIET UNION [let Non Nobis and Te Deum be sung!] and blowing up the world would be a disproprotionate evil; taking out this or that gang of hoodlums would not.

Posted by: Lou Gots at November 10, 2004 4:37 PM

If Mr. Nagel ever had someone take a shot at him in ernest he would never have written the essay.

Posted by: genecis at November 10, 2004 6:26 PM

As Maurice Hankey observed 85 years ago, there's no way to define aggression.

Poland was the aggressor against Czechoslovakia, but that hasn't led Orrin to support the Hitler-Stalin Pact.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at November 10, 2004 8:10 PM


There's nothing wrong with aggression. Oppression is the question.

Posted by: oj at November 10, 2004 8:13 PM

It is permissible to right a wrong, or to protect a victim from an agressor.
Permissible, but not a duty.

Posted by: ray at November 10, 2004 9:16 PM

There's no way to define oppression, either.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at November 11, 2004 1:59 PM


Perhaps not for you to--the rest of us know it when we see it.

Posted by: oj at November 11, 2004 2:41 PM

And you accuse me of being ad hoc. Go ahead, define it for us.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at November 11, 2004 10:37 PM

The exercise of unjust authority.

Posted by: oj at November 11, 2004 10:52 PM

Define unjust. And tell us who gets to assess it.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at November 12, 2004 10:06 PM

Authority is unjust when exercised without the consent of the governed. America gets to assess when that occurs.

Posted by: oj at November 12, 2004 11:39 PM

A good argument against religion, then.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at November 13, 2004 5:27 PM

Christianity is how we determine justness and why America gets to do so.

Posted by: oj at November 13, 2004 6:09 PM