In the area of man’s social and political concerns there is hardly a more agonizing question facing the world today than the question of war and peace. Other questions recede into the background when this one is asked, because this one affects not merely the quality of our corporate existence upon earth, but our very existence itself. With the discovery of nuclear energy and the manufacture of the hydrogen bomb there has come into the hands of men a power able to scorch the face of the earth and to destroy or mutilate all life upon it. If states were to resort to war, and in the course of it employ the thermonuclear power they now possess, they would be able to exterminate each other and in the process involve all or the greater part of mankind in death. This means that when today we seriously put the question of war, we place ourselves upon the very brink of history where yawns the abyss of global chaos. Standing there we are able to hear with new clarity and understanding the words our Lord once spoke to Peter: All who take the sword will perish by the sword.
Hearing the prophecy, we can hardly fail, of course, to hear the accompanying command: Put your sword back into its place! And having heard this we are bound to inquire into its relevance for us. Teetering on the brink of racial suicide, we are compelled to ask: If Christ’s word about perishing is likely to be realized in our own life and time, must his command to lay up the sword be heeded when we formulate our current plans and policies? Is it possible that history has carried us to the point at which contemporary states are required to appropriate to themselves the imperative once addressed to Simon Peter? Is it possible that in this atomic and space age, with its eschatological nuances and forebodings, Christian states are required to eschew violence just as in the first century, with Gethsemane all about him and Christ’s cross looming before him, Peter was required to sheath his sword? Is it perhaps the case that wars are no longer a moral possibility, and that they must be renounced even though without them nothing can be expected but a crucifixion? Does the Christian way in this twentieth century lead straight from the abyss through renunciation to the cross?
The pacifist has a ready answer to these questions, and his answer may at long last be ripe for adoption. I myself, however, do not speak out of his tradition. Although I hold that war is never to be glorified and that it always witnesses to man’s sin, I acknowledge that man’s participation in war can be dictated by a genuinely Christian obedience and concern. I do not concur, therefore, in the pacifist’s unqualified condemnation of violent coercion. Historic pacifism fails, I think, to reckon sufficiently with the demonic powers active in historical existence. It also tends to misconstrue the nature and function of the state. And it unwarrantably divorces love from justice, thereby robbing love of its hard core of responsibility. I prefer, therefore, to approach the question of thermonuclear warfare from the side of those who have traditionally held to the legitimacy of war and have elaborated in its support the “just war” doctrine.
God’S Purpose In Government
According to this doctrine the “governing authorities that exist have been instituted by God” (Rom. 1:1). This is taken to mean, not that God sanctions every possible political administration or regime, but that he does not countenance anarchy and wills the establishment of governed states. It means that it is God’s will to place men under the governance of responsible magistrates whom he authorizes to rule in his name as his appointed ministers. In this view it is the task of the state, not to usurp the place of other structures within society, such as the home, the school, and the church, but to establish a just political order within which human lives can flourish in accordance with God’s creative and redemptive purposes. Since human life can flourish in accordance with these purposes only when men are free to meet their obligations, the state is called upon to recognize and guarantee these necessary freedoms. These freedoms do not have their origin in the state; they flow from mankind’s moral task and are rooted in God’s command. But the state has been established to secure them, and it is obliged to defend them against perversion and attack.
To this end the state is armed. A sword has been put into its hand by God himself for the maintenance of order and for the punishment of evildoers. The sword is necessary because the world is evil, and because sin, expressing itself in anarchy and lawlessness, continuously threatens the state and jeopardizes the freedoms requisite to the full flowering of the moral and religious life. This lawlessness must, in the name of love and justice, be held in check by the coercive power of the state; and when the lawlessness is armed, it must be countered with a force sufficient to render it inoperative. From this it follows that a police force must be maintained, and also a military establishment, for there are not only lawless citizens but also lawless states bent on disturbing the order of justice within which human society was meant to flourish. Against these the state may take up arms, sometimes in redress of grave injury and wrong, more often in defense of another’s right to freedom and self-determination, always in response to an unprovoked attack upon itself.
What Of Thermonuclear War?
This, in its bare essentials, is the traditional case for the just war, and it is, I judge, in substance sound. Nevertheless, this doctrine does not do what some men think it does. It does not justify every war, nor every kind of war, nor every way of conducting a war approved on independent grounds. Although the doctrine sanctions war in principle, it does not sanction war in general. I dare say it does not sanction a general thermonuclear war at all. Indeed, if what the scientists tell us is even approximately correct, it is questionable whether a general thermonuclear war can, in the traditional sense, be called a war at all. It can better be called a meaningless holocaust, which no amount of theological subtlety or ethical ingenuity can justify. If a general thermonuclear war is able to scorch the earth, destroy all or the major part of the technical, cultural, and spiritual treasures of mankind, and annihilate the human race or all but a maimed and wounded fragment of it, as many responsible scientists allege, then a general thermonuclear war is simply impermissible, whatever the provocation. If a Christian must choose between a “war” like this and slavery or martyrdom, then it is slavery or martyrdom he must choose. No Christian may take part in the mad and wicked act of racial suicide and undertake to put an end to human history.
I understand that there are some Christians, nevertheless, who declare that they would rather be dead than Red. I am able to put a good construction upon their words and in this way to agree with them. But if they mean to say that anything and everything is preferable to existence under Communist domination, even the destruction of the planet and the annihilation of its inhabitants, then I quite emphatically disagree with them, and in any case deny their right to act in accordance with their preference. And if they suppose that a total nuclear war can be justified solely as a means of testifying to the worth of transcendental values like freedom, truth, and goodness, regardless of what happens in the realm of historical existence, then I also disagree with them. It is not Christianity, but only romanticism, that could induce a man to fight a war with no historical goal in mind or beguile him into thinking that heaven is served by devastating the earth. A war makes sense when it can honestly be regarded as an effectual political instrument serviceable to meaningful social ends. When it cannot be so regarded, when it does not achieve or envisage a lasting peace settled on the foundation of justice, when it does not intend or effect a righteous and stable political order within which concrete human values are preserved and fostered, and when it destroys the very community in whose interest it was fought, then it makes no sense at all and cannot exact a Christian endorsement.
If it could be demonstrated, as I suppose it cannot, that if it comes, the war we dread will be of the sort here contemplated, then we all—the traditional proponents of the just-war concept and the pacifists—could make common cause and declare our intention not to fight. We could then urge the government to scrap its nuclear missiles and the whole range of its atomic armament, and agree to deliver ourselves into Mr. Khrushchev’s hands. I do not now advocate this course of action. One reason is that not repudiating war in principle, and not knowing that even an atomic blast cannot be contained and localized, I cannot determine a priori what premium—in terms of limited war—I am entitled to pay or to invite others to pay, in order to insure that freedom and self-determination, and the religious and moral values underlying these, shall continue to exist upon the earth. Another reason is that our existing armaments appear to act as effectual deterrents of Communist aggression and as preservers of the peace. Moreover, the United States is the guardian of the freedom of many smaller nations, and she is the ally of several larger nations with whom her fortunes are intertwined. For her to proceed to unilateral disarmament would be to deliver not only herself but the whole world into Russian hands. This cannot be right.
There is no way out of our terrible impasse but multilateral disarmament. Fortunately, it is becoming increasingly plain, to the Russian people no less than to ourselves, that the world cannot continue to live in the dread shadow of the bomb. Although the possibility of its limited use cannot be apodictically denied, it is very unlikely that if war breaks out, it will be put under any restraints. But in that case a frightful judgment will fall upon the earth and unspeakable devastation will ensue. To prevent this terrible destruction must become and continue to be our first political concern. The best way to prevent it is to secure agreements on a disarmament plan which will give each side a reasonable assurance that faith is being kept. In the effort to secure these agreements our own country, because it is a Christian nation, must take the lead, and all Christians should encourage the government to acquire and manifest understanding of the legitimate aspirations of our opponent and to exercise such patience in negotiations as may be required to attain the desired end.
In our shrunken world the several nations simply must learn to live together. The alternative to this cannot be contemplated with equanimity. Among us, all narrowly chauvinistic sentiments should be banished, and the horror manifested in some circles when peaceful coexistence with Russia is proposed ought to be greatly tempered. To live and work together we need not compromise our convictions or ideals, or surrender our just claims, but we do need to exercise toleration and restraint in peripheral matters and concerns. When this is done, and when we are much in prayer for a world in desperate plight, some easing of the tensions in international relations can be expected.
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