Tuesday 25 February 2003

A man set under authority

Since I sense I’ve been testing AKMA’s patience with my recent posts on the politics and ethics of warfare, I read with interest his Friday Sermon and its afterthought, Luther, [Just] War, and Preaching. In the latter AKMA wrote:

First, war is never right. There is a prevailing school of Christian ethical reflection—one from which I dissent—that teaches that disciples of Jesus may participate in warfare in defense of a just cause, on behalf of innocents, when every other means of bringing about the desired end has failed; such a situation makes participation in a war “just,” though it does not make the war itself a positive option. (My own Anglican tradition affirms in its Articles of Religion that “It is lawful for Christian men at the commandment of the Magistrate to wear weapons and serve in the wars,” though the Latin version of that article stipulates “et iusta bella administrare.”)

I accept, and I can only trust that AKMA does too, that—given the disparity between our respective positions—I’m not sure we’ll be able to find agreement—although I can feel myself inching my way slowly in the direction of AKMA’s position (I am particularly drawn to his belief that one’s truest identity is found in “respecting a primary allegiance to statelessness”).

But, at the risk of sounding like a cracked record, I’ll quote from John Keegan’s A History of Warfare once again, since Keegan frames his argument in similar terms to AKMA’s, although obviously he reaches a very different conclusion. In his opening chapter, titled War in Human History, Keegan writes:

The bounds of civilised warfare are defined by two antithetical human types, the pacifist and the ‘lawful bearer of arms’. The lawful bearer of arms has always been respected, if only because he has the means to make himself so; the pacifist has come to be valued in the two thousand years of the Christian era. Their mutuality is caught in the dialogue between the founder of Christianity and the professional Roman soldier who had asked for his healing word to cure a servant. ‘I also am a man set under authority,’ the centurion explained. Christ exclaimed at the centurion’s belief in the power of virtue, which the soldier saw as the complement to the force of law which he personified. May we guess that Christ was conceding the moral position of the lawful bearer of arms, who must surrender his life at the demand of authority, and therefore bears comparison with the pacifist who will surrender his life rather than violate the authority of his own creed? It is a complicated thought, but not one which Western culture finds difficult to accommodate. Within it the professional soldier and the committed pacifist find room to co-exist—sometimes cheek-by-jowl: in 3 Commando, one of Britain’s toughest Second World War units, the stretcher-bearers were all pacifists but were held by the commanding officer in the highest regard for their bravery and readiness for self-sacrifice. Western culture would, indeed, not be what it is unless it could respect both the lawful bearer of arms and the person who holds the bearing of arms intrinsically unlawful. Our culture looks for compromises and the compromise at which it has arrived over the issue of public violence is to deprecate its manifestation but to legitimise its use. Pacifism has been elevated as an ideal; the lawful bearing of arms—under a strict code of military justice and within a corpus of humanitarian law—has been accepted as a practical necessity.

The dialogue to which Keegan refers, between the founder of Christianity and the professional Roman soldier, is described in Luke 7: 1-10.

1 Now when he had ended all his sayings in the audience of the people, he entered into Capernaum.
2 And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear unto him, was sick, and ready to die.
3 And when he heard of Jesus, he sent unto him the elders of the Jews, beseeching him that he would come and heal his servant.
4 And when they came to Jesus, they besought him instantly, saying, That he was worthy for whom he should do this:
5 For he loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue.
6 Then Jesus went with them. And when he was now not far from the house, the centurion sent friends to him, saying unto him, Lord, trouble not thyself: for I am not worthy that thou shouldest enter under my roof:
7 Wherefore neither thought I myself worthy to come unto thee: but say in a word, and my servant shall be healed.
8 For I also am a man set under authority, having under me soldiers, and I say unto one, Go, and he goeth; and to another, Come, and he cometh; and to my servant, Do this, and he doeth it.
9 When Jesus heard these things, he marvelled at him, and turned him about, and said unto the people that followed him, I say unto you, I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.
10 And they that were sent, returning to the house, found the servant whole that had been sick.

AKMA absolutely rejects Keegan’s argument that the sacrifices made by soldier and pacifist are comparable:

while soldiers may be humble, altruistic, and noble, theirs is emphatically not the greatest sacrifice one can make. There’s a tremendous difference between risking one’s life in warfare, armed with automatic weapons, missiles, grenades, bombs, and so on (on one hand) and risking one’s life in service to others unarmed, from the conviction that helping those in need is one’s fundamental obligation (on the other hand).

In one sense, it would seem that the CO of 3 Commando agreed with AKMA’s conviction—and who would be better qualified to judge than a man who had under his command representatives of both Keegan’s “antithetical human types, the pacifist and the ‘lawful bearer of arms’”?

Though it won’t come as any surprise that I believe the sacrifices made by soldier and pacifist are comparable, my instinctive response is to have a greater degree of respect for the pacifist stretcher bearer than for the pacifist anti-war protester, since the latter’s moral position is so frequently held at no personal cost—and while sheltering under the protection afforded by professional soldiers.

My strongest interest lies, however, in how AKMA—or anyone with Christian convictions—would interpret the exchange between Christ and the Roman centurion.

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I dunno. In this specific case, I could argue that my absolute distaste for this war is more self-protection than "sheltering under the protection afforded by soldiers," since I can pretty convincingly argue that what the soldiers are going to be up to makes me significantly *less* safe.

But, yeah, I take your point that I'm counterpart to a chickenhawk. For now, anyway. If Ashcroft gets his way, that may change; it may become actively dangerous to be anti-this-war.

Hope and believe I'll still be openly anti-this-war.

Posted by Dorothea Salo on 25 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

"Christ exclaimed at the centurion's belief in the power of virtue, which the soldier saw as the complement to the force of law which he personified."

I'm not sure where this thought originated - but it didn't originate in the text. Jesus was excited by the man's faith. So certain was he [the centurion] that Jesus, the son of God, could heal his servant - that he knew all it would take would be a word from Jesus.

There is no comment on war. No comment on bearing arms. No comment on concession of a moral position.

It is simply an expression and acknowledgement of faith.

Paul defines faith as "being sure of what we hope for, ccertain of what we do not see" (Hebrews 11:1) and this is what was expressed and acknowledged.

Posted by victor echo zulu on 25 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I just keep on wondering why, if Jesus was an absolute pacifist, was one of his closest disciples carrying a sword in the Garden of Gesthemine. (I know I botched that spelling) I don't doubt that Jesus was a pacifist and I don't doubt that Jesus disapproved of Peter cutting off the ear of the high priest's servant. What I do doubt is that Jesus was teaching us that force was never an option.

Posted by Larry Burton on 25 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Dorothea, I guess I was thinking more along the lines that -- before the Bush cabal took control of the United States -- many of us (Americans, Europeans, Australians) slept relatively peacefully (although sometimes at the expense of the peace of others) because American soldiers were guarding the ramparts.

Victor, putting to one side the centurion's faith -- which is not in doubt ("but say in a word, and my servant shall be healed") -- what struck me was Christ's positive attitude to the centurion. I can accept that Christ would be willing to cure the servant even if he disapproved of the centurion's military profession. But I find it difficult to believe that, if he did find fault with the carrying of arms, that he would have spoken of the centurion in such glowing terms. In other words, how would it be possible for Christ to have said: "This man's profession is evil but his faith is beyond compare."?

Because the centurion makes his position in the chain of military command very clear. In saying "For I also am a man set under authority, having under me soldiers..." he admits to both obeying and giving orders, some of which must inevitably result in violence and death.

In that regard, I also doubt -- along with you, Larry -- that Jesus was teaching us force was never an option.

Posted by Jonathon on 25 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

It's not a simple argument. To say Jesus was a pacifist is as shallow as saying he was a warmonger. Jesus made a number of juxtaposed statements such as:

Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn
" 'a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law--
a man's enemies will be the members of his own household.' (Matthew 10:34-36)


"Put your sword back in its place," Jesus said to him, "for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. (Matthew 26:52)

and this one

Jesus answered, "I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me."
Then Jesus asked them, "When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?"
"Nothing," they answered.
He said to them, "But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: 'And he was numbered with the transgressors'; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment."
The disciples said, "See, Lord, here are two swords."
"That is enough," he replied. (Luke 22:34-38)


"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:43-45)

Jesus also demonstrated the use of force:

In the temple courts he found men selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold doves he said, "Get these out of here! How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!" (John 2:14-16)

I don't have time to develop a well supported argument (just about to leave for a week), but these few verses should illustrate that the issues is not as simple as black or white.

Having said that, I do not support war.

Posted by victor echo zulu on 26 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

Interesting. The Quaker position on pacificism may be relevant here: "it takes courage to fight; it takes even more courage to _not_ fight when you can". Theirs is an _active_ pacificism, refusing to bear arms, but volunteering for any dangerous job that would ease the pain of war but did not explicitly distinguish between 'friend' and 'enemy' - stretcher-bearer, for example, as in Jonathon's comment about 3 Commando, or bomb-disposal. (And yes, I know damn well I don't have that courage...) They regard the bearing of arms as inherently unlawful yet understandable, an action to be dissuaded rather than derided.

I'll admit that I have an inherent dislike and distrust of most forms of 'Christian' hypocrisy, on this matter as on so many others. Yet the Quakers probably come closest to being real in their commitment to genuine Christian principles - and probably do deserve the distinction that AKMA makes between "risking one’s life in warfare, armed with automatic weapons, missiles, grenades, bombs, and so on (on one hand) and risking one’s life in service to others unarmed".

That said, I'd agree with you, Jonathon, about the hypocrisy of many anti-war protesters "sheltering under the protection afforded by professional soldiers" that they also denigrate - a sickening example of 'shadow', in the Jungian sense, which we saw at its worst after the Vietnam war. "God and the soldier we alike adore / but at the time of trouble, not before / the trouble past, the wrong now righted / God ignored, the soldier slighted"...

(There's several weeks'-worth that could follow on from this thread, but I'd better stop there!)

Posted by Tom G. on 26 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

The centurion passage was also a favorite prooftext of proslavery writers in the American South and elsewhere. Jesus' silence about the fact of the centurion's slaveholding was seen as tacit approval of the practice. After all, he had the chance to say "Now that I've cured your slave, you must free him," but he didn't--even though elsewhere he enjoined people to, e.g., give up their wealth or leave their fathers and mothers before they could be saved.

Jonathan's argues that it's improbable that Jesus could be construed as saying "This man's profession [cultural practice] is evil but his faith is beyond compare"--but this same argument could be applied mutatis mutandis to a justification of slavery.

And it was.

Interpreting silences is not necessarily inadmissible, rhetorically speaking. But it's a dicey business.

Posted by T.V. on 28 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour