Is Pope Francis Right That We Should ‘Ban All Weapons’?
Pope Francis is having a mixed month. He was right on target, and defied expectations, by coming out boldly for Alfie Evans. This as his biggest fans and defenders sniped at “American pro-life” “fundamentalists,” and the local bishop wrote in support of the hospital. That felt great. For a few days, it was like having John Paul II or Benedict XVI back: The pope was speaking, but we weren’t cringing.
That didn’t last. This weekend the following pearl of wisdom appeared on the half-shell:
Do we really want peace? Then let’s ban all weapons so we don’t have to live in fear of war.
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) April 29, 2018
Okay, let’s just admit it: On the face of it, this makes no sense. It’s on the order of saying “Are we opposed to FIRE? Then maybe we shouldn’t have all these FIREmen and FIRE departments. Think about it!” Ideally, in such a statement, all the “i”s should be dotted with smiley-faces.
Is pacifism Christian?
Let’s unpack the problems in this papal statement. Then we’ll look for the Golden Mean (where virtue lies) by critiquing the opposite extreme point of view. Because the reverse of a stupid statement isn’t usually truth. It’s usually something equally foolish and dangerous.
Tell it to Pyongyang
Two words ought to suffice to respond to Pope Francis here. Can you guess them? The first one is “North.” And the second is … you got it! “Korea.” That vicious atheist tyranny where a Communist elite leaves the masses to starve and freeze in the dark has spent its scant resources on developing nuclear weapons. Now it seems prepared to give them up, in return for a U.S. promise not to invade it. That didn’t happen because President Trump followed advice like Pope Francis’. It’s the outcome of credible military threats, and probably some devastating covert operations we won’t learn about for decades.
Ever looked at that famous night-time map of the Korean peninsula?
If pacifists such as Dorothy Day had gotten their way, the whole of Korea would be in darkness. Indeed, the whole world would have succumbed to Communist aggression. Except that it wouldn’t have needed to, since it would already have been conquered by the Nazis. (Day had opposed fighting them too, and even fighting Japan after Pearl Harbor.)
Do the Quakers Have it Right?
Is pacifism Christian? Is it the really “pure” Christian position which we’d adopt if we weren’t compromised by “natural” affections and worldliness? The Quakers thought so, even back when most of them were Christian. The Mennonites and Amish still do. And some early Christians refused to serve in the Roman military.
But things aren’t quite what they seem. When Jesus healed the centurion’s servant, he didn’t tell the man to stop being a soldier. (Matthew 8: 5-13) By contrast, when He saved the adulterous woman from stoning, He did tell her, “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 7:53-8:11)
As scholar Peter Leithart reports in Defending Constantine, the main objection Christians cited to military service wasn’t … serving in the military. They didn’t think it un-Christian to defend Rome’s borders from attack. But they couldn’t take part in the pagan rites that most legionaries imposed on their recruits, invoking false gods to grant them victory. Once Constantine suppressed these ceremonies, Christians streamed into the legions.
And why shouldn’t they? Christ’s command to “turn the other cheek” refers to a minor slight that wounds our pride. Not to a violent attack on an innocent third party. It’s hard to see how a pacifist can justify using force even in keeping public order. The outcome, outside of a tiny, close-knit community such as the Amish, would of course be chaos and the dominion of the most ruthless. That’s true for the microcosm of a city (see Juarez, Mexico) as for the global stage of nations.
As Jason Jones and I wrote in The Race to Save Our Century:
If you are not the kind of person who can pat himself on the back for asserting, “Kill them all, let God sort them out,” pacifism offers a more exotic pleasure: the privilege of looking down with furrowed brow on the actions of every man and woman throughout the whole of human history and on the instincts of every human being who has ever lived. Because there is no drive more rootedly human than the will to preserve yourself and to protect your loved ones—an instinct pacifism condemns, either openly or secretly.
Any position that asks that you passively watch your spouse or children be raped, enslaved, or killed is intrinsically antihuman. (Inconsistent pacifists, who would protect themselves and their families, but won’t take part in protecting their neighbors and fellow citizens, are simply and radically selfish.) Pacifism is also subhumanist, since it devalues the lives and liberty of every human being, which are simply not worth fighting for.
There’s another problem with pacifism: It discredits the legitimate Christian critique of war. The orthodox (“Just War”) tradition teaches that war is a very great evil. So it ought to be a last resort, subject to strict criteria, and waged with respect for civilians.
Say that instead we must only embrace a Gandhi-style non-resistance to evil, and you invite most people to dismiss Christian ethics altogether. They’re airy-fairy sentiments, that urge you to live in a dream world. And the only alternative to them is ruthless pragmatism.
The Flip Side of the Coin
The great Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, who famously condemned the bombing of Hiroshima, less famously damned pacifism, too. As she wrote:
Now pacifism teaches people to make no distinction between the shedding of innocent blood and the shedding of any human blood. And in this way pacifism has corrupted enormous numbers of people who will not act according to its tenets. They become convinced that a number of things are wicked which are not; hence seeing no way of avoiding wickedness, they set no limits to it. … Pacifism and the respect for pacifism is not the only thing that has led to a universal forgetfulness of the law against killing the innocent; but it has had a share in it.
So yes, let’s set aside pacifism. It is neither the historical nor the logical Christian inference from Jesus’ words.
When Jesus healed the centurion’s servant, he didn’t tell the man to stop being a soldier. (Matthew 8: 5-13) By contrast, when He saved the adulterous woman from stoning, He did tell her “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 7:53-8:11)
That said, we must avoid the equal and opposite temptation of ruthless militarism. War is evil because it unleashes man’s worst passions. Chief among them? Tribal hatred and cruelty toward the innocent. We are grossly tempted by our own side’s suffering, and the righteousness of our cause. We’re goaded to dehumanize, starve, or directly kill even civilians among the enemy.
Military historian Caleb Carr tells it best. Soldiers slaughtered civilians in ancient Rome, in medieval sieges, on both sides in the Crusades, and throughout the Thirty Years’ War. At last in the 18th and 19th centuries, rulers began to rein in their armies and show some respect for civilians. (At least, within Europe. Colonial wars continued to be ruthless.) We even developed “laws of war” based on natural law.
That restraint collapsed after World War I. Its commanders on both sides had watched their soldiers die by the millions in futile trench warfare. They’d also seen Russia collapse thanks to civilians’ outrage at the ravages of war. Add to that mix the invention of bomber planes and what did you get? A doctrine called “strategic bombing.”
War Without Limits
What did that doctrine do? It flipped Christian ethics on their head. It sought ways to terrorize and punish civilians (softer targets) as a means of saving the lives of soldiers. Bomb the enemy’s cities often enough and hard enough, and (like the citizens of Russia in 1917), they would rise up and force a surrender. Or at the very least, you’d degrade your enemy’s war making potential — by killing munitions workers. And farmers. And pretty much anyone who contributed anything to the war effort — which means, in a modern war, virtually every adult in the country. Along with the children who live near the factories.
That’s the nightmare of modern war, and we should indeed be working our hardest to restrain it. Stream columnist Jason Jones made a wise contribution in that direction. Go read his “white paper” that seeks to diminish the number of “city-busting” strategic nuclear weapons in the world. The goal? To eventually abolish them altogether. Where did Jones get that idea? From two famous Christian realists: Ronald Reagan and John Paul II.