Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

Thou Shalt Kill, or Not?

The Virtue of War: Reclaiming the Classical Christian Traditions East and West

Alexander F.C. Webster and Darrell Cole

Regina Orthodox Press, 2004

Iii + 252 pgs.


Christianity and War and Other Essays Against the Warfare State

Laurence M. Vance

Vance Publications, 2005

x + 118 pgs.


Father Webster and Professor Cole have spoiled what could have been an excellent book; Laurence Vance, besides much else in his remarkable collection of essays, helps us see what is wrong with it. Both books take up the same topic: What has Christianity to say about the morality of war? Both agree that under some circumstances, war can be just. Yet in their applications of just war principles to current American foreign policy, the books could not be more different. Webster and Cole support President Bush’s invasion of Iraq, while Vance opposes it.

Father Webster, in his part of The Virtue of War, proposes to evaluate the morality of war from the standpoint of Eastern Orthodoxy. By an examination of Holy Scripture, the practice of the early church, church canons, the writings of various Church Fathers, and remarks by later Orthodox saints and writers, he endeavors to show that the Orthodox Church holds that war is sometimes justifiable. Further, despite the fact that soldiers were often required to undergo penance before being allowed to receive the "holy mysteries" of the Church, the Orthodox tradition recognizes that soldiers can display virtue. Father Webster edifies his readers with tales of Saint Alexander Nevsky; the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI; and other Christian warriors.

I shall leave to my readers the details of Webster’s erudite account, but I note a curious omission. In his discussion of Christian attitudes toward the army under the Roman Empire, he fails to cite the most famous of all scholarly works on this subject, Adolf von Harnack’s Militia Christi (1905; the book was translated into English in 1981). Harnack maintained that the earliest Church strongly opposed Christian participation in the military: Christians were rather soldiers in the army of Christ. He saw the less radical position of the later church as a compromise with pagan views.

Even if we confine ourselves to Webster’s own discussion, the support that the Orthodox tradition offers for war appears very limited. He acknowledges that "Eastern Orthodox teaching on the morality of some wars forms one of only two ‘trajectories’ through the entire multi-millennial history of the Church, beginning with the experience of ancient Israel as recorded in the Old Testament. The other trajectory is absolute pacifism . . . the Orthodox justifiable war tradition reflects the lower ‘civilizing ethic’ rather than the higher ‘transfigurative morality’ exemplified by the absolute pacifist trajectory" (Webster and Cole, p. 31). With commendable scholarly honesty, Webster notes that in "the New Testament, we find the justifiable war trajectory much more difficult to detect amidst a plethora of texts that clearly reflect an absolute pacifist perspective" (Webster and Cole, p. 60; Webster, following Paul Ramsey, prefers to speak of "justifiable" rather than "just" war).

On Webster’s own account, the justifiable war trajectory that he has taken such pains to elucidate lends no support to the Iraq war. He notes that "defense of the People of God is the Orthodox equivalent of ‘just cause’ in the western just war tradition" (Webster and Cole, p. 33, emphasis removed). The People of God, in this usage, does not extend beyond the boundaries of the Orthodox Church. Although Webster thinks that "traditional Catholics and Protestants . . . behave in ways consonant with what it means to be Christian," nevertheless they are not included within the Church. The "traditional Orthodox understanding of the Church does not include the Protestant denominations or even the Roman Catholic Church since the Great Schism in 1054" (Webster and Cole, p. 221).

Since the regime of Saddam Hussein, whatever its faults, posed no threat to the Orthodox Church, Webster himself should oppose the Iraq war. Unfortunately, he fails to grasp the logic of his own position. He instead warns of a global assault by militant Islam and calls for a crusade against it. Readers of his perfervid rhetoric would do better to heed the wise words of Laurence Vance: "Unlike Saudi Arabia, Iran, and most other Muslim states, Iraq was not controlled by a fundamentalist Muslim government, something that is now a possibility. . . . The Baath government tolerated both Jews and Christians" (Vance, p. 70).

Darrell Cole continues the pattern set by his coauthor: his personal support for the Iraq war contradicts the conclusions of his own analysis.1 Cole offers us a survey, on the whole able and erudite, of Roman Catholic and Protestant thought about just war. It is more than a little surprising, though, that he calls Hugo Grotius a "Dutch Calvinist" (p. 164). Grotius was of course an Arminian and as such an opponent of the Calvinists.

The dominant theme in Cole’s account is that the tradition does not unreservedly condemn war. When the conditions for a just war are met, engaging in war is not a "lesser evil" but a positive good. The point may be granted; but the requisite conditions seem almost impossible to fulfill.

One point, stressed by Cole himself, rules out totally America’s contemporary exercise in aggression. "War needs to be justified because going to war will lead inevitably, but not intentionally if the war is just, to collateral damage, which causes all kinds of unintended suffering . . . those who decide upon war must have their own intentions sifted as much as possible for evil desires that may lie behind the decision for war" (Webster and Cole, pp. 139–40). Is not the upshot of this that if those who decide for war have any intentions, such as the wish to aggrandize power, that are illegitimate, then resort to war is forbidden? What modern war does not stem in part from illicit motives?

A further problem remains to be considered. As Cole rightly notes, the just war tradition requires that a war be declared by a government holding proper authority. But a government that does not explicitly cooperate with the Christian church might in his opinion not qualify: "When the state does little more than provide basic protection, and when it insists it has a positive duty to be sure it isn’t influenced by Christianity, Christians might find it difficult to support such a government, particularly in wartime" (Cole, When God Says War Is Right, p. 88).

Cole, following Alasdair MacIntyre, responds to this problem by suggesting that the "only justification for war is either self-defense (to preserve our liberty) or to preserve a people’s liberty that we have pledged to uphold" (Cole, When God Says War Is Right, p. 88). Clearly, the Iraq war does not qualify: small wonder, then, that in his contribution to the later book, he omits mention of the problematic nature of duties owed to a secular state. To mention the difficulty might throw into question his support for the Iraq war, and this would never do.

When one takes full account of how difficult it is to meet the conditions for a just war, one can only agree with Cardinal Charles Journet: "After reading this specification [of the conditions for a just war] we might well ask how many wars have been wholly just. Probably they could be counted on the fingers of one hand."2

Vance, by contrast with Cole, offers a straightforward and cogent discussion. He agrees with Murray Rothbard that "America has had only two just wars (1776 and 1861, [on the Confederate side]). ‘A just war exists when a people tries to ward off the threat of coercive domination by another people, or to overthrow an already-existing domination’" (Vance, p. 3, quoting Rothbard). Since Iraq was hardly in a position to threaten the United States with coercive domination, Vance deems it obvious that the war should be condemned.

However critical I have been of Cole, he merits high praise for his vigorous condemnation of Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism. Niebuhr, probably the most influential twentieth-century American theologian, maintained that the love ethic of Jesus was an "impossible possibility." It should guide us as an ideal but cannot be put into practice. Instead, while never losing sight of the ideal, Christians who hold political power should act to secure the best consequences that they can in practice achieve. Doing so may sometimes demand that they violate moral absolutes. Evidently, Niebuhr did not agree with St. Paul, who considered it slanderous that opponents charged him with saying, "And why not do evil that good may come?" (Romans 3: 8).

Cole will have none of this. He points out that Niebuhr has no way to condemn anything as absolutely forbidden. On a consequentialist view, even killing innocent civilians may be accepted as a lesser evil. Niebuhr "has admitted that all warfare is unjust to some degree; we already, to use present popular terminology, possess ‘dirty hands’ when we engage in any war. Even ‘just-for-the-most-part’ wars are won with dirty hands. So how ‘dirty’ can the hands get in a good cause? . . . Niebuhr seems to have no way of telling us" (Webster and Cole, p. 175). In this connection, Cole notes that Niebuhr during World War II refused to condemn Allied saturation bombing of civilian targets.

In his assiduous defense of noncombatant immunity, Cole does not hesitate to do battle with the most famous Protestant theologian of the twentieth century, Karl Barth: "‘To-day everyone is a military person,’ Karl Barth wrote, either directly or indirectly. That is to say, everyone participates in the suffering and action which war demands." This statement is worse than nonsense—it’s the sort of nonsense that leads to great moral evil. For if every person is a ‘military person,’ then every person is a legitimate target, and the just war criterion of discrimination—noncombatant immunity—is completely emptied of application" (When God Says War Is Right, p. 112).

Given these commendable views, it is disappointing to encounter this naïve statement: "As far as just conduct goes, we have every reason to believe that the sterling record set in Afghanistan [by American troops] was actually improved upon in Iraq" (Webster and Cole, p. 212). Large numbers of Iraqi civilians have been killed in the American invasion, under circumstances that have not been disclosed. If Webster and Cole prefer to "wonder with a foolish face of praise" at the vaunted precision of "smart" weapons, they are free to do so. Readers who prefer facts to an exercise in propaganda would benefit from careful perusal of Vance’s book, especially the chapter "The Horrors of War." n MR

1 In my discussion of Cole, I have taken into account his slightly earlier book, When God Says War Is Right (WaterBrook Press, 2002), written before the Iraq war.


2Charles Journet, The Church of the Word Incarnate (Sheed and Ward, 1955), p. 307.


Close Window