The Common Good
April 2010

Waging Virtue

by Allyne Smith | April 2010

Just War as Christian Discipleship: Recentering the Tradition in the Church Rather Than the State, by Daniel M. Bell Jr. Brazos Press.

This work is an important contribution to Christian discussion of the just war tradition. The author, a gifted Methodist theologian best known for his Liberation Theology at the End of History, has provided the reader with both a helpful summary of just war teaching and a constructive argument for reclaiming this tradition for the church.

The first two chapters reprise the pacifism of the early church and the emergence of Christian just war thinking in the late fourth century. The third chapter establishes the fundamental thesis of the book, which is that there are two principal strands of the just war tradition (JWT). The first and authentic strand Bell terms “just war as Christian discipleship” (JWT-CD). The second, which he calls “just war tradition as public policy checklist” (JWT-PPC), refers to JWT as it has been maladapted by secular governments. He sketches the fundamental assumptions of each approach and situates JWT-CD in the virtue ethics of Aristotle and Aquinas.
The remaining five chapters address the traditional criteria for jus ad bellum, or justice in going to war (legitimate authority, just cause, right intent) and for jus in bello, or justice in conducting war (last resort, reasonable chance of success, discrimination, proportionality). Each chapter contrasts how JWT-PPC and JWT-CD understand the criteria differently and how each challenges the church to embody the requisite virtues for living the moral life during peace as well as war.
Such a brief summary cannot do justice to Bell’s rich insights and analysis. Suffice it to say that the book is a must-read for anyone seeking to understand Christian reflection on war. Still, the book has its weaknesses. Although Bell doesn’t dispute that the church was pacifist until the emergence of the just war tradition in the late fourth century, he doesn’t make a case for why just war should be considered an authentic development of the church’s tradition rather than a distortion.
Although Bell’s knowledge of the current debate is evident throughout, he too easily dismisses the development of jus post bellum criteria, i.e. thinking about the extension of justice after the fighting is concluded. Bell thinks such criteria unnecessary, saying that they are implied in the moral life as a whole. But such a move can be used to say that no just war criteria are needed as they, too, are all implied in the life of virtue.
Bell also too easily rejects the view that war is intrinsically evil, which he believes entails the “realism” of Reinhold Niebuhr. This highlights a glaring omission in the book—any consideration of Eastern Christian thinking on war (he acknowledges this in an endnote). Were Bell to have looked east, he would have found a richer, more nuanced tradition that rejects the model of crusade, seeks to mitigate the evils of war, and acknowledges that killing is always wrong even when it is the lesser evil. The Orthodox tradition cannot comprehend Bell’s assertion that killing justly in a just war “bears no burden of moral guilt.”
Had he known of St. Basil of Caesarea’s penance (no reception of communion) of three years for a soldier who kills in war, Bell might not have made the mistake of claiming that the medieval church’s requiring soldiers to go to confession upon returning from war was not for killing. Instead, he draws the counterintuitive inference that it “was born of the recognition that the moral life is difficult.”
These objections notwithstanding, I strongly recommend Bell’s book as indispensable for the current debate. It will not resolve differences between proponents of just war, “realism,” and pacifism, but it could be a valuable resource for Christians of these persuasions to reflect together on how best we can follow Christ in peace and war.
Allyne Smith is an Orthodox priest, professor of the St. Denys Orthodox Theological Institute in Paris, and author of The Philokalia: The Eastern Christian Spiritual Texts—Selections.
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