Review of War, Peace and God


[1] Gary Simpson, a professor of systematic theology at Luther seminary, has titled his new book WAR, PEACE and GOD: Rethinking the Just-War Tradition. He says that he uses the word tradition, rather than theory, because “a tradition is a historically extended, socially embodied argument about the common goods that comprise and sustain a community over time and space.” (p. 26) He distinguishes it from the more common phrase ‘just war theory’ on the grounds that theory might make it seem like “criteria dropped down out of some eternal realm of pure thought.” (p. 26) That he makes this distinction is interesting in that Simpson says to understand ‘just war’ tradition you must dive into arguments about what is beautiful, good and true; testing those arguments as Paul cautioned in Thessalonians. (p. 15)

[2] Simpson takes a linear historical approach to ‘just war’ tradition, starting with Cicero, and then considering the Christian approaches from Ambrose and Augustine, through Thomas Aquinas. He continues with reformation and post reformation thinkers Martin Luther and Francisco de Vitoria and Hugo Grotius. Taking such an approach requires a sympathetic attempt to understand the climate of the times in which these men wrote. It is essential to reflect how their stations in those times affected their thought, and how that thought was tested by the circumstances.  

[3] In his brief consideration of Augustine, Simpson references the Bishop of Hippo’s statement “those are better who are guided aright by love, those are certainly more numerous who are corrected by fear,” concluding that this attitude has “fueled centuries of imperial Christendom and the fateful history of crusades and holy wars.” This leaping conclusion, with no real discussion of the Donatist controversy from which the quoted statement arose, betrays a lack of sympathetic understanding of the dangers – real and physical as well as theological – which were presented to the orthodox faithful by the Donatists. The reader is left thinking that Augustine sought conversion by coercion or death. In fact Augustine opposed capital punishment of the heretics, beseeching that sins be punished only in a manner that was just and that would permit the sinner to repent of his sin. (See letter 100, Letters of Augustine). Augustine had attempted to engage the Donatists in discussion and in conferences. Those attempts were initially ignored and later met with violence (including threats to Augustine). The Donatists finally consented to negotiation after being confronted by the authority of raw power. The resulting conferences did produce fruitful discussion and helped lead to the diminution and eventual disappearance of the Donatist controversy.  

[4] Reflection and self-examination are inherent in the life of a Christian disciple. That we are limited by our human nature in our ability to even fully know ourselves is evident to anyone who has ever participated in any kind of accountability experience. Central to living the Christian life is the need for honest reflection. The temptation to take the easy road of generalization is ever present. Grace is an unmerited gift, why tax ourselves by expecting that we should be transformed?  

[5] To reflect on ‘just war’ tradition requires the same kind of rigor. There are many questions we must ask. Among them “what is peace?” Is it the mere cessation of hostilities? If so then Korean peninsula is at peace. Yes, there is a heavily armed border. Yes, the southern part of the country is increasingly prosperous, healthy and the citizenry have a relatively large choice in the manner in which they live their lives. The northern half is a police state, one in which most markers of public health are in decline. The leadership of North Korea is self-chosen, and not open to persuasion by the citizenry, most of whom live in astoundingly poor conditions. North Korea exports weapons, South Korea consumer goods. Is there some equivalency here?  

[6] Had the Confederacy won the American Civil War would a nation that held slaves been equivalent to one that did not? Was South Africa under apartheid at peace? Obviously inherent in the question of peace is a theory of justice. To what degree should the state have authority? Why even a state? What constitutes a state, ethnic unity? There are horrific examples of how unjust that has been throughout the ages, especially in the last 100 years. Is diversity better? Simpson quotes Elie Wiesel asking President Clinton to intervene in the former Yugoslavia, “People fight each other and children die. Why? Something, anything, must be done! (p. 92) Yugoslavia was a diverse nation held together by what from the American perspective appeared to be an excessive government. With the collapse of that government ethnic hatred, previously suppressed by state power surfaced again, leading to the bloodshed Wiesel abhors.   

[7] We can continue to ask these questions, but that leads us away from the central question as to how to you get states with diverse governments and different goals to live in peace. Germany, under National Socialism, lead by Adolph Hitler engaged in numerous peace conferences and signed numerous treaties. None of these meant anything. Consider Pakistan now, an ally in the “war against terrorism,” and yet an alleged haven for terrorists in that area of the country that the Pakistani government apparently fears to police. On the other hand Great Britain, faced with the passive resistance led by Mohandas Ghandi, voluntarily gave up its Indian colony. For that matter passive resistance worked to end the Jim Crow laws and permit equal access to the voting booth in the American south.  

[8] Simpson recounts Martin Luther’s advice to John the Steadfast as to how to carry out his duties as a prince. He does not remark upon why John would have solicited Luther’s counsel. A similar heritage is not sufficient explanation. The common and intermingled threats posed to each by the Catholic Church and its allies as well as the rise of Turkish Islamic power might supply some rationale. A better explanation is that they shared a common faith, and thus had an obligation to community, with each other and others who shared that faith. A shared faith makes for much easier dialogue. A shared philosophy or at least a common approach can help smooth the way toward determining commonalities and compromising on differences. Prince John considered limitations on his behavior as a ruler as part of a calling to serve God.   [9] Publicity, calling leadership to account for falling short of what they are called to by God, is one means Simpson suggests to promote peacemaking. He notes that Luther remonstrated bishops and preachers for serving their own ends and not serving God. Luther called them to serve God publicly, not backbiting and saying what they believed privately while spouting the politically acceptable in public.  Rather, they are to publicly rebuke that which is wrong. Public shaming of a leader or nation that is engaging in evil has at times been an effective tool, its effectiveness dependent on the capacity of the nation’s leadership to be shamed enough to change the behavior.   [10] Having such publicly accountable leadership rarely occurs. Anyone familiar with the long campaign to end Great Britain’s support of slavery and the slave trade knows that publicity takes persistence as well as a constituency with conscience.  

[11] Among other methods suggested are strengthening the cooperative forces of love and community. It is important to note here what community is. It may be a shared value system and faith, such as one should find in a church, a fellowship of believers. In this instance the value system provides the ligature to tie the believers together. It may be a shared interest. Commerce is a plethora of small communities that has great public benefits. Individuals transact for what they need or desire from someone or group who offers to meet that need or desire. War and violence obviously disrupts commerce, in ways beyond the immediate impact on those who are affected, for violence diminishes certainty, a key ingredient in the smooth transaction of commerce. Commerce also boosts ties beyond communities of belief and geography. It increases opportunity for social bonding and cultural understanding. It is aided by honesty and transparency, elements in building peace. Community is built in many other ways as well. Being open to the opportunity to meet others, listening and learning, while being steadfast in faith helps to expand community.  

[12] Simpson directs some his suggestions to political influence, which can have quick and direct results. Political solutions can also change as the leadership changes. Sometimes those changes can be almost overnight. What was settled under one government can become a potential source of conflict under a new government. The carnage against just their own citizens by various governments in the twentieth century should chasten those who expect too much from government.  

[13] Simpson concludes his book with a discussion of four global challenges, first among which is whether there is responsibility to protect the citizens of states whose state is making war against them. Simpson mentions Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia as recent examples. He acknowledges that the United Nations has demonstrated that it is incapable of undertaking a competent armed intervention. Could it be made capable, given the need to compromise due to the variety of its member states? But were it capable would it be right to interject it? When would it be right, only when there was a great chance of success? Never? Anytime injustice showed it’s ugly head? Obviously those who seek peace require discernment, resolution and perseverance  

[14] Another of Simpson’s challenges is “American Empire.” He seems to draw equivalence between the acquisition of territory a la the British or Roman empires and the spreading of influence through (American) culture. That the former was accomplished through the coercive use of force and the latter by the assent of those so influenced is not remarked. Nor is there any note made that such cultural influence tends to diminish state authority. Given that it was state authority under which the numerous genocides of the 20th century were carried out, one ponders as to why its diminution would not be considered a path to greater justice. Please understand this not as a call to anarchy, but a warning not to place too much hope or faith in humans when gifted with power to do the right thing.  

[15] One cannot conclude this review without pointing out that Just War Tradition is marred by the rather startling omission of a Lutheran writing in a Lutheran context, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was at one point a pacifist. Clearly in his writing and obviously with his life he took another stand, a stand for which he was hanged. This offers a great opportunity to examine and consider as to whether Bonhoeffer’s response was just, effective or ultimately a waste. Reflecting on the course that Bonhoeffer took would have permitted Simpson to discuss both just war tradition and to what extent one must remain a loyal subject of an unjust state.   
© January 2009
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 9, Issue 1