Justifying War: A Conversation with Nigel Biggar. Part One.

What is a Just War?

Nigel Biggar, In Defence of War
Nigel Biggar, In Defence of War, Oxford University Press, 2013, 384 pp., $55.00

Professor Nigel Biggar is the Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology and Canon of Christ Church, Oxford. He also directs the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics & Public Life. Biggar holds numerous degrees from American, Canadian, and British universities and is the author or editor of books in various areas of ethics and moral philosophy. His most recent book is In Defence of War, published by Oxford University Press. This week he spoke to David Lincicum and Michael Law about just war, human nature, forgiveness as a non-religious act of morality, and whether Christianity is inherently pacifistic — and he tangles with Stanley Hauerwas over realism. This is the first of a two part interview, the second of which is now available here.


MRB: It’s a bit precarious to be talking positively about war these days, isn’t it? Yet you say you are fascinated by it more than by peace. How does a Christian ethicist come to find interest reading about and studying war more than he does peace?

NB: The reasons for my fascination with war are partly autobiographical. I was born in Britain only ten years after the end of the Second World War. As a child I played in my grandmother’s air-raid shelter, and as a teenager I went to a school and a college down whose walls the names of the war-dead — most of them in their late teens and early twenties — cascaded. Many of those who fought were no less morally responsible or religiously earnest than I am. Nevertheless, the fate of their birth confronted them with grave choices that I have never had to make. So all my life I have wondered how, if I had been born a mere thirty years earlier, I would have coped — both as a human being and as a Christian.

But beyond the happenstance of history and autobiography, there are also reasons of Christian principle for my interest in war. While sin is universally shared, it is not evenly spread. For sure, much wrongdoing in the world is the result of ignorance and misunderstanding, and it can be righted by patient and pacific reason. Much, but not all. Some wrongdoing is very grave, and those who perpetrate it will not be persuaded to stop it. In such cases, the perpetrators must be punished — primarily for the sake of their victims, but also for their own sakes. Justified war is an extreme form of such punishment — and therefore an expression of love for one’s neighbors.

MRB: This book’s argument for a justified war places you in the theological tradition stemming from Augustine, Luther, and Reinhold Niebuhr. Briefly, can you tell us what you take to be the most important indicators of a just war?

biggar300NB: According to thinking that takes its cue from the UN Charter, the paradigm of a just war is national self-defense; aggressive war is always, prima facie, morally suspect. However, according to the Christian tradition of reasoning about these matters (in which I stand), the paradigm of a just war is military action to defend or rescue the innocent from intolerable injustice. Such war might be defensive — for example, Poland’s war against Nazi invasion in 1939. Equally, however, it might be aggressive — as in NATO’s intervention against Serbian forces to stop ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in 1999. The basic marks of a just war are that it is a response to some grave wrong, and that its primary intention is to right that wrong.

MRB: But you’re not, as you discuss early on in your 2011 book, Behaving in Public: How to do Christian Ethics, fully Niebuhrian?

NB: With Reinhold Niebuhr, I refuse the Enlightenment delusion that human beings are essentially benevolent and morally responsible, and that they’re only corrupted by external, social forces. It’s not that I think we’re invariably wicked. We’re not. Indeed, sometimes we’re capable of impressive moral nobility. Nevertheless, human beings are often morally weak and sometimes deeply committed to serious wrongdoing. So with Niebuhr, I’m realistic about human moral ambiguity and about the possibility of real malevolence in the world.

Unlike Niebuhr, however, I’m more up-front about hoping for God’s eschatological intervention at the End of time. I hope for this partly because history seems to me to leave too much unfinished business — too many un-vindicated innocents, too many unpunished perpetrators — to allow us to rest satisfied. Such justice as we can achieve in space and time is little more than a gesture, a token, a fragment. And if that’s all there is, it’s not clear what it’s gesturing to, what it’s a token or fragment of. I hope for a new world to come, because that seems necessary to make sense of our puny attempts at justice in the here and now, and to sustain them. Without such hope, it would seem to me that we’re just pissing against the wind.

MRB: In chapter 2 of your new book you talk about how retribution should always involve forgiveness. If forgiveness isn’t an explicitly religious category, what does it look like as a sincere expression of global superpowers and other nation-states?

NB: Forgiveness is a moral category before it’s a religious one. Nevertheless, it’s a virtue that features with distinctive prominence in the Christian tradition. This is partly because Jesus made it a primary characteristic of God, of course. But it might also be because eschatological hope that God will intervene to rectify un-righted wrongs at the end of time makes forbearance in the face of injustice here and now more psychologically possible, because it’s more rational.

Since the paradigms of forgiveness, repentance, and reconciliation are interpersonal — think Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son — when we talk about such things in the context of political or international relations, we’re talking about something analogous and weaker. Can nation-states forgive? Yes, but only in an attenuated fashion. Nation-states are not likely to embrace their enemies — certainly not in the midst of conflict — but they can and should have compassion for them, where compassion is due. And compassion is the matrix of forgiveness.

Thus, for example, it would have been absurd for the United States to react to the attacks of 9/11 by declaring to al-Qaeda that it would continue to treat it as a friend. But it would not have been absurd for it to react by — among other, retributive things — straining to understand what motives had driven young, well-educated, middle class Arabs to sacrifice themselves in such a horrendous manner. Perhaps in the rank undergrowth of their deeply distorted worldview there lay some grievances that were justified and that deserved redress — say, the running sore of the unresolved plight of the Palestinian people. In that case, a complete response to 9/11 would have involved moments of rectification, as well as moments of retribution. Righteous hostility would have been tempered by a measure of compassion.

MRB: You call yourself a Christian realist rather than a Hobbesian realist. How do you distinguish the two when approaching justification of war?

NB: For Thomas Hobbes, natural law reduces to the law of self-preservation. At bottom, as he sees it, all human individuals are driven by the desire to avoid pain and death. That drive is their only basic “law”; and even when they choose to bind themselves by entering into social agreements or contracts, it remains their basic motive. This is Hobbes’s so-called “realism” about human beings and human societies, and in the theory of international relations it results in the view propounded by the likes of John Mearsheimer that nation-states are driven, first and last, by fear. From this it follows that, at bottom, Hobbesian war is self-defensive in nature. It also follows that, as far as war is concerned, the “right” to self-defense is the sum of justice. Beyond that, no holds are barred.

A properly Christian realism, however, is at once not so cynical and more realistic. It claims that human beings are in fact motivated — and obliged — by a range of goods, not just the single one of self-preservation. And this claim commands empirical backing: in fact, people sometimes do risk and sacrifice their very lives for the sake of moral integrity or justice. Even nations care to maintain their moral self-respect and can be moved to do justice. In this view, war is not primarily an instrument of self-preservation but one of righting grave moral wrongs. Its paradigm is humanitarian intervention, not self-defense. And even when self-defense is just, it is hedged about by moral constraints. According to Christian realism, therefore, the self-preservation of a regime or a nation-state is not the first and last word in the justification of war.

MRB: Stanley Hauerwas has recently argued against realism. He writes:

Realism is used to dismiss pacifism and to underwrite some version of just war. But it is not at all clear that the conditions for the possibility of just war are compatible with realism. At least, it is not clear that just war considerations can be constitutive of the decision-making processes of governments that must assume that might makes right. Attempts to justify wars begun and fought on realist grounds in the name of just war only serve to hide the reality of war.

How would you respond to his claim that realism involves its own form of idealist optimism?

NB: Why on earth “must [governments] assume that might makes right”?! That’s a piece of dogma as cynical as it is empirically false. No doubt governments are sometimes run by Hobbesian realists, but not always. Sometimes they are run by men and women of sensitive conscience, who are not obviously more morally benighted than Stanley Hauerwas or I. Judging by recent national debates in Britain over interventions in Kosovo, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, moral considerations are now part-and parcel of public discourse, and even if members of government weren’t moved by their own consciences to take them into account, political success would require them to. For sure, moral factors are usually mixed up with considerations of national interest, but not all national interest is immoral. Was it immoral for Churchill to persuade his fellow-countrymen to defend their institutions of liberal democracy against Nazi domination in 1940? Not obviously.

As for just war talk obscuring the horrendous reality of war, well, in a sense it does, insofar as the neatness and clarity of its conceptual distinctions belie the messy, ambiguous, flesh-and-blood reality. But that doesn’t just apply to war: most of human reality is messy and much of it is morally ambiguous. Consequently, moral analysis often has to struggle both to make coherent sense and to do justice to the flesh-and-blood particulars. But the difficulty of the struggle is no good reason to abandon it. Besides, if just war reasoning sanctions the doing of some morally dubious things, pacifism sanctions the permitting of them. Whether you’re a just warrior or a pacifist, it’s difficult to be both moral and realistic.

MRB: Why do you find pacifism insufficient theologically? Many would say that Christianity is inherently pacifistic, and that only after the marriage of Church and Empire did Christians become wed to war.

NB: One of the major theological problems that I have with Christian pacifism is this. Christian pacifists often assume the classic Anabaptist position: on the one hand, government’s use of force to punish the wicked is ordained by God, but, on the other hand, that is not the role of Christian believers. That role is to bear witness to an alternative society so completely governed by God as to lack need for the sword. But this distinction of roles seems incoherent. If such a “peaceable kingdom” were currently practicable as an alternative to the “coercive kingdom,” then presumably God would have ordained the former instead of the latter. I say “presumably” because a benevolent God would not ordain unnecessary coercion. Since, however, God has ordained it, he evidently thinks it necessary. The implication is that, under the current, spiritually and morally ambiguous conditions of this secular age, the “peaceable kingdom” cannot be alternative; it can only be parasitic. This puts pacifist believers in the intellectually incoherent position of contradicting in principle what they depend upon in practice, and in the morally inconsistent position of being able to keep their own hands clean only because others are required to get theirs dirty.

On the historical question of whether or not Christianity was originally pacifist, but only became “wedded to war” after the “marriage” of Church and empire, my view is the following. First, while it is clear that Jesus refused the militant religious nationalism of the “Zealots,” it is not clear that he enjoined the renunciation of the use of force always and everywhere. Certainly, judging by Romans 13, St Paul did not think that he did. Second, current scholarship tends to hold that the tradition of supposing Christian faith and the public use of force to be compatible is as original as Christian pacifism. And third, to imply that Christian just war thinking involved the “marriage” of Church with Empire and its “wedding” to war is quite unfair. Eusebius might have mistaken the Empire for the Kingdom of God, but Augustine certainly did not. And it is Augustine, not Eusebius, who is seminal for Christian just war thinking.

[Continue to Part Two.]