The U.S. Warfare State and Evangelical Peacemaking

AMID THE COUNTRY'S serious fiscal problems, our $775 billion annual defense budget, not to mention our tens of billions of dollars spent on intelligence and other national security expenses, is treated as sacrosanct. Budget-cutters, especially on the Republican side, do not train their sights on the defense budget as they seek to address our flood of red ink, but instead focus on dramatic cuts in the safety net for the poor.

According to former Reagan budget director David Stockman, our $775 billion defense budget is nearly twice as large in inflation-adjusted dollars as the defense budget of Dwight Eisenhower for 1961, during the Cold War. Our FY 2011 defense budget was five times greater than that of China, our nearest competition for this dubious honor; constituted over 40 percent of the world’s entire military spending; and was larger than the cumulative budget of the next 14 nations in the top 15. All of this occurs at a time when our infrastructure is crumbling, our schools are sliding, and one-sixth of our population cannot find or has stopped looking for full-time work.

Stockman suggests that no plausible national defense goals today justify this level of defense spending. He rightly points out that “we have no advanced industrial state enemies” akin to the USSR of Cold War days. He argues that what in fact supports a budget of this size is an ideology of “neoconservative imperialism” and an attempt to function as a “global policeman” even after the world has “fired” us from this role.

Retired U.S. Army Col. Andrew Bacevich argues in several important recent books that the direction of U.S. foreign and military policy is slipping from democratic control. It is instead dominated by a cohort of active and retired military, intelligence, law enforcement, corporate, lobbyist, academic, and political elites whose power in Washington is sufficiently impressive as to foreclose serious reconsideration of what Bacevich calls the “Washington rules.” The elites enforcing these rules consistently drive us to policies of permanent war, a staggeringly large global military presence, and regular global interventionism. This analysis stands in striking continuity with the warnings offered 50 years ago by President Eisenhower about the “military-industrial complex.”

While our taste for large boots-on-the-ground military interventions appears finally to have waned after the bloody and bankrupting off-budget wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, our special forces, covert, and technological interventions abroad—and the massive, secret national security establishment that supports them—have heightened. Our nation has not had a serious debate about the centralization of presidential authority involved in this recent shift, including the legitimacy of presidential authority to order long-distance drone strikes—in countries that want such strikes, and in countries that don’t want them.

The United States remains a nation traumatized by 9/11 and its terror attacks. We are easily manipulated into military and covert engagements in the name of post-9/11 national security.

One of the greatest tragedies of the last decade has been the extraordinary burden borne by the small cast of paid (e.g. “volunteer”) soldiers who have been killed or traumatized by our recent wars. We honor them with sentimental displays at airports and ballparks, but seem to have no serious answer for mental health problems that now take 25 veterans’ lives by suicide for every one soldier now dying on the battlefield. And we will be paying their pensions and medical expenses for the next 70 years.

In a trenchant turn of phrase, Stockman suggests that we have developed into a “warfare state” whose military-spending excesses are one major factor contributing to economic decline and imminent fiscal emergency. I believe that Stockman is correct.

THE CHRISTIAN, AND not just evangelical, voice in U.S. foreign policy debates seems entirely marginalized, more so than at any time I have lived through or studied. There is no contemporary Christian leader, scholar, denomination, or movement whose views on U.S. foreign and military policies seem to matter to either party or its leaders.

Just war theory does not seem to be functioning in any significant or constructive way. In academia, its use seems to have become an empty intellectual exercise divorced from any persuasive power to guide either state policy or Christian practice. The outcome of just war theory reasoning seems tightly linked to the prior ideological or temperamental makeup of the just war theorist.

On the right, anti-Muslim and neo-Crusade thinking has resurfaced in both popular and academic circles, Christian and otherwise. This problem has obviously been exacerbated by the trauma of 9/11 and other acts of Islamist terrorism as well as the stresses of multiple U.S. military engagements in majority-Muslim lands.

Pacifism remains popular in elite academic and popular (progressive) circles. But it has little to offer to public discussion other than occasionally trenchant analyses of obvious excesses or wrongs in U.S. foreign and military policy. And most academic pacifism is untethered to actual Christian communities that practice either nonviolence or any other form of radical Christian discipleship.

Just peacemaking theory offers a profound strengthening of the last-resort criterion of just war theory, as well as highlighting realistic conflict resolution possibilities through creative state and NGO diplomacy and grassroots citizen advocacy and action. It is currently the most relevant of all existing Christian peacemaking theories/strategies, but it would not be accurate to say that it has gained wide influence in U.S. foreign policy circles.

A longstanding coalition strategy within the center-left of evangelicalism has attempted to overcome differences between pacifists and just warriors by emphasizing areas of agreement and shared commitment to just peacemaking. This has protected friendships and produced strategic gains at times, but I wonder whether it has weakened the concreteness, realism, and relevance of evangelical peacemaking efforts, and perhaps obscured the legitimate, principled differences between pacifists and those who believe Christians can sometimes support the use of force.

EVANGELICAL PEACEMAKERS NEED to join the conversation about U.S. foreign and military policy, such as it is. That includes studying U.S. foreign policy goals, our current military presence around the world, our alliance commitments, existing and planned weapons systems, and finally how all of that is reflected in the U.S. defense budget. We also need to become aware of the various political, civic, and economic forces that block needed budget cuts in defense even when foreign policy and governmental leaders believe those cuts are needed. This is a formidable research agenda calling for the emergence of a new generation of ethics specialists in this area.

What would it mean to offer our own proposals, or join with those of others, for the kind of foreign policy, use of military force, and size and shape of defense budget that we could support? This would require a willingness on our part to accept a legitimate national right of self-defense and use of lethal force under certain specified conditions. It would also involve consideration once again of the morality of maintaining military forces and weapons of sufficient scope to deter aggressors. In other words, we would have to decide whether there is such a thing as “national security” that can find a place within a Christian approach and, if so, how a legitimate national security is best garnered and protected.

To do the above would involve accepting, at least provisionally, the stubborn existence of an entity called the nation-state, a world filled with an ever-shifting array of nation-states, and the internationally recognized right of those states to defend themselves. That is one price of admission to the conversation about how much defense to buy, for what purposes, etc. Currently in academia there is much critique of modernity, including the hegemony of the nation-state and its use of violence. This is really quite interesting, but meanwhile we live in a world with 190-plus nation-states, including our own, all of which are committed to defending themselves.

I suggest we need a swing back toward consideration of the difference between an ethic for Christian disciples and an ethic for the leaders of nations, states, political communities. The state is not the church. Even though I believe that the church qua church is called to be a nonviolent community, the state qua state cannot be a nonviolent community—though it can be called to exercise its security responsibilities as nonviolently as possible. The church can urge peace, we can pioneer peacemaking practices, and we can place ourselves at risk in order to create reconciliation opportunities between peoples and nations. But we must take seriously once again the classic conundrum that the statesperson, even the Christian statesperson, faces responsibilities involving the use of force in relation to protecting the people within his or her realm that others generally do not (cf. Romans 13:1-7). That is what U.S. military, intelligence, and diplomatic operatives do, and are supposed to be doing, even if their current mission needs dramatic trimming.

WHAT IF THE thinking of U.S. center-left Christians, including evangelicals, has been somewhat misshaped by the increasingly obvious wrongs of U.S. foreign and military policy for the last 65 years, including the first use of nuclear weapons in 1945, the insane nuclear arms race with its Mutual Assured Destruction madness, the deployment and planned use of nuclear weapons in various theaters of war, the foolish conventional-but-devastating wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and elsewhere, and the bloating of our military budget as outlined earlier?

What if because U.S. foreign and military policy has been potentially lethal to the planet, as well as bankrupting, unwise, and neo-imperialistic, this reality has obscured for us historic issues in Christian thinking about war that go back at least as far as Ambrose? What if we simply haven’t had to deal with the most basic and ancient questions about whether or how peoples on this planet legitimately defend their lives against aggressors, because until the recent domestic terror attacks this was not the most urgent question when thoughtful Christians engaged U.S. foreign policy? These are at least the questions raised for me as I consider the nexus between the U.S. warfare state and evangelical peacemaking.

David P. Gushee is the Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University. This article is adapted from his presentation at the September 2012 Evangelicals for Peace conference in Washington, D.C.

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