“War is America’s Altar”

Stanley Hauerwas spends a couple of chapters of War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity dealing with the role of war in the American national and religious identity. He begins with an evaluation of just war theory and “realism,” particularly the approach to Christian governance espoused in the 20th century by Reinhold Niebuhr. (Niebuhr is never one of Hauerwas’ favorites, and in his Gifford Lectures, Hauerwas is heavily critical of Niebuhr’s failure to have an ecclesiology — Niebuhr sees no role for the church as bearing God or witnessing to God’s presence in history in a world of nation-states.)

After briefly evaluating Augustine and Martin Luther, Hauerwas writes:

Reinhold Niebuhr understood himself to stand in this “realist” tradition. In 1940 in his “Open Letter (to Richard Roberts),” Niebuhr explains why he left the Fellowship of Reconciliation: he did not believe that “war is merely an ‘incident’ in human history” but rather that it “is a final revelation of the very character of human history.” According to Niebuhr the incarnation is not “redemption” from history as conflict because sinful egoism continues to express itself at every level of human life, making it impossible to overcome the contradictions of human history. Niebuhr, therefore, accuses pacifists of failing to understand the Reformation doctrine of “justification by faith.” From Niebuhr’s perspective, pacifists are captured by a perfectionism that is more “deeply engulfed in illusion about nature than the Catholic pretensions, against which the Reformation was a protest.” 

“Just war” proponents argue that war is justified because our task as Christians and as citizens is first and foremost to seek justice. Paul Ramsey understood his attempt to recover just war as a theory of statecraft to be “an extension within the Christian realism of Reinhold Niebuhr.” Ramsay saw, however, that there was more to be said about “justice in war than was articulated in Niebuhr’s sense of the ambiguities of politics and his greater/lesser evil doctrine of the use of force.” That “something more,” Ramsey asserted, is the principle of discrimination, which requires that war be subject to political purpose through which war might be limited and conducted justly, that is, that noncombatants be protected. 

Yet it is by no means clear if just war reflection can be yoked consistently to a Niebuhrian realism. Augustine and Luther’s “realism” presupposed there was another city [the church] that could at least call into question state powers. For Niebuhr, realism names the development of states and an international nation-state system that cannot be challenged. Niebuhrian realism assumes that war is a permanent reality for the relation between states because no overriding authority exists that might make war analogous to the police functions of the state. Therefore each political society has the right to wage war because it is assumed that doing so is part of its divinely ordained work of preservation. “Realism” therefore, names the reality that at the end of the day in the world of international relations, the nations with the largest army get to determine what counts for “justice.” To use Augustine or Luther to justify this understanding of “realism” is in effect to turn a description into a recommendation. (p. 23-24)

Which is my primary complaint with Martin Luther, who describes well but proscribes poorly in his essay on the use of temporal power and what Lutherans (and others) have come to call the “two kingdoms” theology.

Hauerwas then deals a little with international law and the nation-state order, which now requires that governments undertake war with just intentions.

This means that a war can be undertaken only if peace, which is understood as a concept for a more “embracing and stable order,” be the reason a state gives for going to war. The requirement that the intention for going to war be so understood as an expression of love for the enemy just to the extent that the lasting order be one that encompasses the interests of the enemy. (p. 25)

Which leads to a wonderfully snarky comment from Hauerwas:

And pacifists are said to be unrealistic?

And Hauerwas begins to get down to the centrality of war, particularly total war, in the context of American democracy. He focuses heavily on the Civil War because it became the moral template for how Americans understood themselves and what war did for, to and with them.

I think the lack of realism about realism by American just war advocates has everything to do with them being American. In particular, American advocates of just war seem to presume that democratic societies place an inherent limit on war that more authoritarian societies are unable to do. While such a view is quite understandable, I want to suggest that democratic societies, or at least the American version of democracy, are unable to set limits on war because they are democratic. Put even more strongly, for Americans, war is necessary to sustain our belief that we are worthy to be recipients of the sacrifices made on our behalf in past wars. Americans are a people born of and in war, particularly the Civil War, and only war can sustain our belief that we are a people set apart. (p. 27)

Hauerwas then reviews how pastors and preachers on both sides of the Civil War saw the war as both an atonement for sin but also as a blood sacrifice necessary if the American people were “to inherit their providential destiny.” (p. 30) Such ideas became enshrined in the few short words of the Gettysburg Address, which Hauerwas describes as “chilling” (and rightly so):

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. 

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Which prompts Hauerwas to write:

A nation determined by such words, such elegant and powerful words, simply does not have the capacity to keep war limited. A just war that can only be fought for limited political purposes cannot and should not be understood in terms shaped by the Gettysburg Address. Yet after the Civil War, Americans think they must go to war to ensure that those who died in our past wars did not die in vain. Thus American wars are justified as a “war to end all wars” or “freedom.” Whatever may be the realist presuppositions of those who lead America to war, those presuppositions cannot be used as the reasons given to justify the war. To do so would betray the tradition of war established in the Civil War. Wars, American wars, must be wars in which the sacrifices of those doing the dying and the killing have redemptive purpose and justification. War is America’s altar. Confronted by such a tradition of war, the attempts to justify war using just war considerations, no matter how sincerely done, cannot help but be ideological mystifications. (p. 32-33)

War, then, in the American context, is a continual redemptive sacrifice, a sacrifice that redeems the world, that redeems America. It is purpose. It is meaning. It may be the only real shared meaning Americans have.

Finally, Hauerwas notes that while there was ink about the need for the Civil War before and during the conflict, a conflict that would redeem and remake the nation (simply consider the lyrics to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”), the war itself — and its outcome — provoked almost no theological reflection either by the winners (many of whom wandered away to other causes) or by the losers.

In his book, The Civil War as Theological Crisis, Mark Noll asks why the Civil War, in contrast to past wars, produced no “deep theological insights from either elites of the masses.” At least one of the reasons may be be, as Noll amply documents, that religious thinkers in America assumed the people of America had a covenantal relationship with God. America was identified with the ttibes of Israel in which is was assumed that the federal union “created a higher bond than the bond constituted by the unity of all Christian believers in the church.” This was combined with the confidence of the Enlightenment that the common man was capable of reading Scripture without guidance from any authority, which meant that it was a simple matter to read God’s providential will for political events. The war did not force American Christians to deeper theological insights because the war was, for America, our church. (p. 33)

The closest one can come, I think, to a re-evaluation of the war theologically is the speed with which abolitionists disappeared, and with it any real commitment to racial equality (aside from its use to punish the occupied Confederacy as Reconstruction wore on), which suggests to me that the commitment to civil and social equality was pretty ephemeral to begin with. (I recall reading somewhere that many religious abolitionists were of an apocalyptic mindset to begin with, and when the war ended not with the creation of New Heaven and New Earth but with Ulysses Grant sending the defeated rebel soldiers home with their horses so they could plant the next crop amidst the ruins of their towns and cities, was fairly much of a let-down.

But the importance even today of the Gettysburg Address in explaining the Civil War — indeed, most American wars since — shows that the war prompted almost no theological reflection. Not then, and certainly not since. The Civil War became the central sacrifice, the central liturgical act, in the religion that is The United States of America. And it must be understood that way.

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Next time, I’m going to skip a few chapters. There’s a couple of I’m going to skip because I don’t think they add much. Hauerwas does some of his best writing on the subject of justice in this book. And he spends a very silly chapter defending Martin Luther King in what I consider to be a very un-Hauerwassian way (yes, that would make me an Hauerwassian against Hauerwas).