Shuck and Jive

Sunday, May 13, 2012

A Just War is an Oxymoron: A Sermon

A Just War is an Oxymoron
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

May 13, 2012

Roman 12:1-21

I feel sadness today. I have been drawing ideas for my sermons this Spring from Walter Wink. Walter Wink died this week, Thursday, May 10th, peacefully at home at the age of 76. Part of the sadness comes from the vacancy, a looming black hole, that is left when a person who has lived a magnetic life dies. Wink was magnetic in many ways. He drew me in by the way that he was able to articulate concepts of the Bible in a modern idiom.

He showed that the wrestlings of our ancestors continue in us. The principalities and the powers or the powers that be, were as real in the time of Jesus and Paul as they are today. He ruined almost every movie for me with his analysis of the myth of redemptive violence. Every time I cheer for the hero to beat the bad guy into a bloody pulp I know I am participating in the myth that violence is good, just, and redemptive.

He calibrated the propaganda meter in me so that I’ll never be able to hear a president, congressperson, corporate executive, media pundit, religious leader or military general speak without knowing that it is more blasphemy from the Domination System. This system of rules written and unwritten, bureaucracy, public relations, power and influence seeks to delude us into thinking that its way is the eternal way, the way that is non-negotiable, the way, the truth, and the life.

He drew the connections between all forms of oppression including racism, sexism, economic exploitation, militarism, and heterosexism. These forms of domination including domination of Earth are pervasive at the corporate and individual level. We are all complicit. There is no escape into self-righteousness. We have to do the work of engaging the violence and deception within as we engage the violence and deception without. In other words his ideas were not just ideas, they were commitments to ways of living that we can choose or not choose to engage.

The larger sadness I feel is that with his passing I realize that I have not engaged the powers nearly enough. I have hesitated, hedged, sought self-justification, and have been too concerned with position and reputation to commit to giving myself fully to this domination-free order, this way of distributive justice, this way of peace. That is what happens when magnetic figures pass. You recognize your own shortcomings in light of their accomplishments.

Finally, I feel sadness because I wish I could have done better with these sermons. I haven’t done him justice in my feeble explanation of his ideas that are radical and yet simple. As he wrote in his chapter, “Beyond Pacifism and Just War” in The Powers that Be:
But the church’s own witness should be understandable by the smallest child: we oppose violence in all its forms. And we do so because we reject domination. That means, the child will recognize, no abuse or beatings. That means, women will hear, no rape or violation or battering. That means, men will come to understand, no more male supremacy or war. That means, everyone will realize, no more degradation of the environment. We can affirm nonviolence without reservation because nonviolence is the way God’s domination-free order is coming. P. 144

Walter Wink affirmed that the ways and the means must be consistent. If our hope and our goal is peace, the way to peace must be peace. If we wish to hope for and work for a domination-free order, we are invited to live it now.

Since starting these sermons I have received some good comments.

One person asked me if my sermons were directed at men more than women. While I didn’t really think about it that way, I think the questioner, who happened to be a woman, had a point. While women are capable of violence, it has been the men that have done the lion’s share. Why might that be? Is it genetic? Are males naturally more violent than females? It could be. I might defer to our evolutionary biologists for that.

Whether men are or are not biologically set up for aggression more than females, it is true that the domination system enculturates violence in men and targets men and boys for violence. It may be true that boys and men have a natural desire to blow up stuff, but that desire is reinforced, mythologized, and honored in our culture. Under the values of the Domination System, to be a man, to be masculine, is to be violent. The myth of redemptive violence is particularly targeted towards men. For men, violence is sexy. Part of our task is to sever that connection between violence and manhood. Transforming aggressive tendencies into nonviolent resistance and constructive peacebuilding needs to be a central part of the agenda of a domination-free order.

I think Julia Ward Howe put it so well in 1870 when she sought to transform Mother’s Day into a day of peace for humanity. These are powerful words of resistance:
Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.

Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have taught them of charity, mercy, and patience.

We women of one country will be too tender of those of another to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.

She called for a congress of women. She was ahead of her time as is often the case with prophets. Perhaps now after 140 years of the deadliest violence Earth has witnessed, that such a congress will happen.

Another asked me to clarify whether or not violence is innate to the human species. Our brains do have aggression centers that have been necessary for survival. We have evolved for fight or flight. So, violence is natural. Some might argue that because violence is natural, nonviolence will never be effective.

Human beings have the capacity to transcend and to control biological urges at least some of the time. Even though our bodies crave and store sugar which is an important thing to do when sugar is scarce, now, knowing that, we can make decisions about diet including sugar intake and find other ways to transform those biological cravings into healthier ways of living in the present. In other words, human beings have evolved decision-making capabilities that allow us to manage to some degree what we have inherited from our ancestors and to survive changes in our environment.

Since the dawn of civilization, tendencies toward violence because of biological aggression have been exploited by the Domination System. The mythology of war, masculinity and redemptive violence rather than curb biological aggression has nurtured it. Rather than provide ridicule and shame to those engaging in violent behavior, including so-called just war, we have instead in the words of Julia Ward Howe, provided “caresses and applause” to those “reeking with carnage.” Change the myths and we can change behavior.

Those writing in biblical times knew this. Genesis chapter 4, written around 1000 BCE in the time of the height of the Israelite monarchy, the Domination System was in full swing. At that time this story was placed in the founding chapters of its mythology of the human being. The myth of Cain and Abel wrestles with the question of whether a violent end is our fate. These words were placed in the mouth of the Lord to Cain who was about to slay his brother:
“…sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”
The sin is of course, violence. The key here is that the human being can master it. Cain did not. But he could have, and that is the hope that drives the entire biblical tradition. Violence does not have to be our fate. It could be. But it doesn’t have to be. The open ended question is directed at us. What will we do to stop that cycle?

Another comment I received is also insightful. Most of us don’t see ourselves as Clint Eastwood types just looking for hoodlums to make our day. We are instead more like Gregory Peck who is true and good and abhors violence, but at the last resort engages it because only a coward lacking morality wouldn’t fight for the good against evil.

The question is this: is there a way not to be cowardly and not to be violent? The myth of redemptive violence says no. That is why at the end of the day or at the end of the film, Gregory Peck has to give in to violence. That is why in every war every country convinces its people that its war is just, necessary and one that Gregory Peck (or a comparable hero) would fight.

Since the time of Augustine, coincidentally when Christianity and the Roman Empire united, a theory of just war was needed. Among these criteria are:

• The war must have a just cause.
• It must be waged by a legitimate authority.
• It must be formally declared.
• It must be fought with a peaceful intention.
• It must be a last resort.
• There must be reasonable hope of success.
• The means used must possess proportionality to the end sought.
Also, three conditions must be met...
• Noncombatants must be given immunity.
• Prisoners must be treated humanely.
• International treaties and conventions must be honored.

We might ask if recent wars initiated by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan meet these criteria. Those who like these wars will say yes and those who don’t will say no. The Just War criteria is embedded with the myth of redemptive violence. Because of that, virtually any war can be excused as just.

That said, the Just War criteria can and should be used to evaluate, mitigate and reduce levels of violence. I quote Walter Wink: 
“I propose that we terminate all talk of ‘just wars.’ Even as the word ‘pacifism’ sounds too much like ‘passivity,’ ‘just war’ sounds too much like ‘war is justifiable.’ The very term is saturated will illusions about the rightness of war that are no longer acceptable. Those who regard all wars as criminal can scarcely use these helpful criteria when they are forced to discuss them within a framework that is basically inadequate.”
“…Instead, I suggest we rename the just-war criteria ‘violence-reduction criteria.’ that is, after all, what most of us are after. We are not seeking a rationale for legitimating particular wars, but ways of stopping warfare before it starts, and of decreasing its horrors once it begins. Perhaps both just-war theorists and advocates of nonviolence can find common ground for attempting to restrain bellicosity in the phrase violence-reduction criteria.” P p. 139-140
From Wink’s perspective which is a good third way, we can use the just war criteria not to justify whatever skirmish the Powers want us to fight, but as violence reduction criteria before and during the wars themselves.

There is a reason those in power, the powers that be, lead us into wars, and spend our capital on so-called defense.  That reason is connected with national political and economic interests.   The reason for war is not because our enemies are bad and evil and we have to kill them with our weapons and our sons and daughters bodies as a last resort.  That is the myth that justifies our violence.   The glorification of violence and war perpetuates that myth.  The so-called morality of war, the "just war" perpetuates that myth.

Wink put it clearly:
Violence is contrary to the gospel. But we are not always able to live up to the gospel. I am embarrassed at how easily I can lash out at anyone who makes me angry (it is the lashing out, not the anger, that disturbs me). Even so, when as individuals or nations we are unable to act nonviolently, we are not excused for our actions, nor may we attempt to justify them. P. 140
In 1870, Julia Ward Howe also put it clearly:
We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have taught them of charity, mercy, and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth, a voice goes up with our own. It says, “Disarm, disarm!
Happy Mother’s Day.


  1. Somehow, I find it hard to imagine that Walter Wink would be disappointed in you, John. Carry on!