As Mark van Steenwyk and I have prepared to teach both a Masters and a DMin version of our “Resources for Radical Living” course this coming winter, we have reconfigured the course significantly. Among the changes will be the figures and movements we deal with under the heading of “the prophetic life.” There we hope to deal with two public issues that continue to challenge Christians today: the problem of the poor and the problem of war.
Thus it is with interest that I read today George Weigel insisting that for some time now, following the late great Luther scholar Roland Bainton, we have been “Getting History Wrong on Just War”.
Weigel summarizes Bainton’s position, which he understands to be highly influential today, as follows:
According to Bainton, there are “three Christian positions with regard to war,” which evolved in “chronological sequence, moving from pacifism to the just war to the Crusade.” This evolution, Bainton suggested, was really a devolution or deterioration, reflecting an abandonment of primitive Christian purity and an untoward alliance with the state: after Constantine, the Church cut itself off from the moral purity of the evangelical counsels and the Sermon on the Mount and began, in Stanley Hauerwas’s memorable phrase, to “do ethics for Caesar.” A truly reformed Christianity—a Christianity true to its origins and to its Founder—is thus, necessarily, a Christianity that embraces pacifism.
Weigel observes that Bainton’s schema is still in force for many, and that therefore “many Catholics who hold to some version of the just-war tradition now smuggle into it a pacifist premise: the just-war tradition, they argue, begins with a ‘presumption against war,’ a ‘presumption’ that goes far beyond the obvious moral truism that nonviolent problem-solving is preferable to problem-solving through war.”
The problem, says Weigel, is that Bainton’s schema has now been revealed as “simplistic and inaccurate”:
In an important article in the spring 2010 issue of Logos, the quarterly published by the Catholic Studies Program of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., theologian J. Daryl Charles argues that Bainton got it wrong, by failing to give an “accurate accounting of the complexity and diversity of pre-Constantinian Christian attitudes toward the military.” Drawing on the last half-century of historical study of the early Church, Charles reminds us that, while there were indeed early Christian pacifists who took their moral cues for thinking about war and peace from the Sermon on the Mount, there were also Christians in Roman military service long before to the Constantinian settlement in the early fourth century.
Moreover, following the research of James Turner Johnson, Charles suggests that whatever difficulties military service posed for Christians in, say, the second century A.D., had to do with state-enforced idolatry rather than with soldiering per se. The early Church, as Charles puts it, lived with “divergent strands of thinking” on war and peace and the ethics of Christian participation in the military, a plurality of thought that “does not require” the assumption of a “universal or uniform conviction” that pacifism was the only imaginable Christian position, on the Bainton schema. Things were more complicated—and more interesting—than that.