Sunday, March 6, 2011

Yoder vs. Augustine: Ethics of War and Peace (pt.1)

The pacifist tradition of the early Christian church has had an important influence on the ethical thinking of two highly influential Christians: the 4th and 5th century bishop Augustine of Hippo, and the 20th century Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder. While Augustine attempted to modify the principled pacifism of the early church to allow for Christian involvement in the military, Yoder essentially advocated for a recovery of the early Christian ethic of absolute, principled pacifism that was increasingly marginalized after the age of Constantine. Although the two share a conviction that violence is certainly an evil, we will see through a comparison of their thinking that this does not stop them from coming to very different conclusions about the legitimacy of using violence as disciples of Christ. Both the logic and biblical exegesis of the two theologians effect their opposing conclusions.

Unlike the vast majority of theologians after Thomas Aquinas, Augustine and many of his followers remained in some continuity with the Christian pacifist tradition of the early church by demanding pacifism in matters of self-defense. On the other hand, Augustine goes well beyond traditional Christian pacifism by defending the legitimacy of participation in the wars of the state on the grounds that Christians have dual citizenship: one in the City of God due to their Christian baptism, the other in the City of Man due to their present life under governments in a sinful world. As citizens of the City of Man, Christians have an obligation to participate in necessary civic matters, including war, for the sake of the common good: “…war should be waged only as a necessity, and waged only that God may by it deliver men from the necessity and preserve them in peace.” Augustine argues that there is a difference between the use of force in self-defense, where private citizens must be pacifists because they do not have any authority to do otherwise, and the use of force as authorized by the state, where a Christian can engage in the lesser evil of war under governmental authority. Because of his strict interpretation of Romans 13, Augustine believes that there is a divine purpose for the government’s use of force in order to restrain evil and uphold an orderly society. Christians can then be soldiers because they are doing so under the authority of a divinely approved government. An extension of this line of thought for Augustine is that even an unjust government must be obeyed and may not be overthrown by its citizens.

Augustine is seen to be the father of the Christian just war doctrine, as his writings outline three of the basic criteria while implying a fourth. The three criteria are just cause, legitimate authority, and right intent, which serve to limit war and violence to the greatest possible extent. Any just cause must ultimately have as its goal the restoration of peace and can be for the sake of national self-defense or the protection of the weak. Legitimate authority is obviously central for Augustine’s interpretation of Romans 13. Right intention means that all wars must have the purpose of establishing civic peace and social stability: “Peace should be the object of your desire…war is waged in order that peace may be obtained.” The fourth implied criterion is last resort, which is based on the belief that even just wars are still an evil and should be avoided. This is important to note, because the Augustinian tradition continued to require soldiers to go through confession, penance, and absolution after returning from war. As this fact reveals, the early just war tradition developed in a difficult tension with early Christian pacifism and a new place of power in Christendom.

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