Once again, John Fea comes through with a thought provoking blog post. He is discussing a review of some recent books that consider America’s proclivity to be involved in one war after another over the years of its history. (Dr. Fea links to all of the pertinent articles and books, so I’ll avoid that here.) Of particular interest to John is the reviewer’s comments on some of the themes in one of the books (Richard Rubenstein’s Reasons to Kill: Why Americans Choose War), and the alternate theory posited by the reveiwer (Michael Nelson at The Chronicle Review). Let me give you a little from each (for fuller context see John’s blog post) and then my reaction to this.
First, from the Nelson’s comments on Rubenstein’s book:
Rubenstein argues that a proclivity to war sank deep and enduring roots in American soil for two small reasons and one big one. The first small reason is the early settlement pattern that made Scots-Irish immigrants—warriors for more than six centuries in defense of their native land against the English—the dominant ethnic group in the southern frontier; the second is the “Billy Budd syndrome,” in which Americans have long been “blinded by uncritical trust in authority,” even when it leads them into unnecessary wars against countries like Mexico, Spain, and North Vietnam. The big reason is that Americans are a religious people who won’t fight unless convinced that their cause is just but who are easily persuaded that lots of causes are just. Those include “self-defense” broadly construed, an “evil enemy,” “patriotic duty,” and their “unique virtue” as “liberators and peacemakers, not selfish imperialists.”
Second, from Nelson’s counter-explanation:
First, both the volunteer forces and the ROTC expulsions turned the military’s recruiting gaze southward, to the region of the country (still rich in Scots-Irish ethnicity and culture) most supportive of the armed forces as an institution and of war as an instrument of national policy.
Nelson provides additional research support that suggests that as the military has turned more southern, it has also gotten more politically conservative (and Republican). He claims that this helps justify the preoccupation with war. I would tend to agree with the first commenter, however, that this recent trend does not explain the long history of our country’s involvement in armed conflict.
I think that Rubenstein’s conjecture about our propensity as a religious people to claim support for only “just” wars, yet we have been at war in small and large ways since long before the official start of the Revolutionary War. While we claim to only use force as a last resort, and only if it is justified in some way (arguing the ends justify the means?), we still end up involved in all sorts of conflicts. Certainly, there was a lot of debate about whether we should have been involved in Vietnam. This argument predates me by some years, but I think it is interesting that most of what I have heard about it indicates that it was primarily the liberal political wing that argued against the war, not the conservative religious types. Today, much the same is true. It is generally the left side of the political aisle arguing that we should not be in Iraq or Afganistan, or at least should not have gone in. (What to do about it now is a trickier subject, I think.)
Our propensity to justify whatever war we think meets our interest as a country is one of the things that started me on my personal journey away from the belief in “just-war” theory. I now find myself at a point in my walk with Jesus that I would say that I am a pacifist. I prefer to label myself as non-violent, because I don’t want pacifist to be equated with passivity. I want to be very active in my faith, and in trying to find peaceful ways to resolve conflict, both personally and in the larger public sphere. I do not want to be passive, and just let others decide while I claim innocence, since I didn’t make the decision. One proviso: I know that Scripture says that the government has the power of the sword, and I do believe that the federal government has every right to have an army, and defend its interests. I will do what I can, by voting, to encourage what I consider to be the most ethical use of this power possible. What I will not do is participate in the wielding of this power, or tacitly condone what I consider to be excessive use of this power.
I know I could be wrong. Many Christians whose lives better model Christ than my own sometimes does disagree vehemently with me on this issue, and they may be right. Until we get to heaven, I don’t think that we will know for sure. I leave that decision up to your own conscience, and maybe sometime I will address my own personal journey on this more fully. This is not the point here. My point is that as citizens of the US, we ought to consider why we are so prone to be at war. Is the seeming infatuation with armed conflict something that should concern Christians? That is an issue we must each address on our own, but I think it is something we should consider. Just because America chooses to be at war does not mean that the choice is correct. We should look at each case, and ask ourselves as Christian whether there is something here that we should raise concern about, as we have the power to do in this country. I am concerned that so many followers of the Prince of Peace don’t find it alarming how little peace in the world has actually been accomplished by all of this war. Let us all pray that Christ Himself will show each of us how to advance His Kingdom here on earth, rather than our own personal or national kingdoms.