Just War and Civil Discourse

The Psalmist lamented, “I am for peace; but when I speak, they are for war.” (Psalm 120:7). What does it look like to be for peace in a world fraying under conflicts? Churches are being torn apart and crush pastors and parishioners alike. Political disagreements, fights about masks and vaccines, as well as race, police violence, and injustice are causing ruptures in families and communities. It is not simply that there are disagreements which should concern us. Even that Christians sometimes disagree on how to understand or respond is nothing shocking in itself. There have always been disagreements in the church and some are certainly worth fighting for. Yet, Christians should be concerned about how people are disagreeing with one another, particularly brothers and sisters in Christ. 

Christians are called to walk in the way of Jesus even in the midst of conflict. The higher the stakes, the more character is needed to navigate disagreement. Instead of modeling our words and thinking in conflict on the language of the crusades, we would do well to consider just-war criteria in how we engage conflict in the church, the culture, and online. I want to help us move into more healthy disagreement by showing how crusader language appears in our conflicts today, then explain the different posture presented in Just War Thinking, before offering how this might change how we disagree with one another. 

Crusading in the Culture Wars

I am becoming convinced that many of our current conflicts are caught up in crusader language. “Crusader thinking” comes from thinking about how Christians engage in war, but it maps well onto all sorts of conflict:

Crusader thinking on war has three key characteristics:

  1. the conflict is between the forces of good and the forces of evil 

When we are caught in crusader thinking, we divide the world into two polar opposite groups: us and them, good and evil. For crusaders, this is not a relative term. It is not saying that our cause is more just than theirs, but that we are good and they are evil. As Joseph Allen says, “For crusaders the moral distinction is absolute and unambiguous: true believers against infidels, righteous people against the unrighteous…crusaders reject not only evil deeds the enemy does, but also who the enemy is” (War: A Primer for Christians, 9). Our opponents become not only wrong, but evil. This charges the conflict with incredible energy and significance and often blinds us to the humanity of those we disagree with or even potential places of agreement. 

This warlike language of absolute good and evil is not only found in Hollywood blockbusters, but has infiltrated the common ways we speak in politics, society, and the church. Every election is the “most important election in our lifetime” because if “they” win the country (perhaps the world) is doomed. Even legitimate places of disagreement are fanned into raging infernos by continuous replaying of various atrocities (real or imagined) by our enemies. Those who disagree with us on social or moral issues become, not just wrong in this argument, but the very epitome of what is wrong with the world and sinister against into the ongoing destruction of society as we know it. They are instruments of oppression or chaos, take your pick. 

The sociologist James Davidson Hunter diagnoses this mentality as ressentiment. He describes it as where people or groups define themselves by their opposition to another group. They have no positive identity. They are not ‘for’ anything truly, but their identity is found in being ‘against’ something else. In To Change the World, Hunter says,

“Accounts of atrocity become a crucial subplot of the narrative, evidence that reinforces the sense that they have been or will be wronged or victimized. Cultivating the fear of further injury becomes a strategy for generating solidarity within the group and mobilizing the group to action. It is often useful at such times to exaggerate or magnify the threat. The injury or threat thereof is so central to the identity and dynamics of the group that to give it up is to give up a critical part of whom they understand themselves to be…The adversary has to be shown for who they are, exposed for their corruption, and put in their place. Ressentiment, then, is expressed as a discourse of negation; the condemnation and denigration of enemies in the effort to subjugate and dominate those who are culpable.” (Hunter, 108).

Crusader language is used so frequently because the sense of urgency, hurt, and potential disaster works, in the short term, to galvanize the troops. Reciting the refrain that “all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men [sic] to do nothing” and then pointing out just who the evil people are will get a lot of people mobilized for your cause. The nigh-apocalyptic urgency creates its own kind of fervor. But decades of this kind of language (inside and outside the church) has been disastrous for how we consider conflict.

  1. the goal is total victory, seeking perfect conditions in the world

Flowing out of this dualism between absolute good (us) and absolute evil (them) is a lack of restraint in the goals of conflict. It is not enough to gain a small victory, we must destroy them. Compromise becomes impossible, even if everyone would benefit. Complete, total victory is the only option. Sometimes there is a sense that if we win this battle, solve this issue, remove or defeat them, then – finally – we will have peace. Finally, we can restore what has crumbled. Finally, we can be out from under the yoke. Finally, we will enter the promised land of peace. In politics, it is usually framed as complete party victory, the selection of the supreme court, or the winning of this or that court case. In the church, it is often the conflicts around sexuality. If we just win this fight, then we can have peace. Or if we just move to this denomination where they already agree with my stance, then we will have peace. Yet, we find that when we move there, the point of conflict only shifts to something else. 

Both the goal of total victory and the promise of lasting peace in this life now – if only we can win this battle – are failures in eschatology. God is the judge. There will be a judgment day. One day the wheat and the tares will be separated. But not today and not by us. In fact, a too harsh winnowing now can damage the wheat as much as the weeds. A crusader spirit can seek to swiftly divide the world into extremes and do damage to both the church and the culture. 

  1. Because the enemy is evil, extreme measures are justified as means of conflict

This is the most devastating part of crusader thinking. In moving our opponents in a conflict from simply “wrong” to “absolutely evil,” we open ourselves up to justifying all sorts of cruelty to others. The end of defeating the opponent justifies the means of mean-spirited attacks, vicious jibes, and degrading language. In his article on the departure of Beth Moore from the SBC, David French comments that

“The spirit of the age declares that if you get the “big” things correct (your political ideology, your complementarian or egalitarian theology) then cruelty and self-righteousness in the pursuit of those goals are either minor flaws (“bad manners”) or outright virtues (after all, didn’t Jesus drive the money-changers from the temple with a whip?)”

When we view our opponents in conflict (in the church or society) as wicked and evil, then ferocity and viciousness in our attacks can be seen as a sign of our commitment to the cause, even virtuous (or at least excusable). On the flip side, a willingness to engage in self-reflection and note the struggles, challenges, problems, and even failures of our own tribe is seen as treasonous. A crusader mentality cannot handle internal critique or dissension. Those who dissent are quickly cast out and lumped with the evil outsiders. 

There is a deep and painful irony that such a mentality would grow up among Christians. In adopting a crusader mentality, where we dehumanize our opponents in order to destroy them with arguments or slanders, we end up drinking deeply of the spirit of the age even as we attempt to resist. Hunter again: 

“The tragedy is that in the name of resisting the internal deterioration of faith and the corruption of the world around them, many Christians – and Christian conservatives most significantly – unwittingly embrace some of the most corrosive aspects of the cultural disintegration they decry. By nurturing its resentments, sustaining them through a discourse of negation toward outsiders, and in cases, pursuing their will to power, they become functional Nietzcheans, participating in the very cultural breakdown they so ardently strive to resist” (Hunter, 175).

Ends & Means Matter: Just War Thinking

Is there another way? Are we faced with the choice of either “taking the gloves off” in every disagreement and going for the throat or refusing to fight at all and seeking unity at all costs, even at the cost of suffering and falsehood? What would it look like to enter conflict as one shaped by Christian virtue and not by a crusader spirit? 

What a crusader approach gets right is that some things are worth fighting for. Causes for conflict can be morally and spiritually significant. Critiquing a crusader spirit is not to say that disagreements don’t need to happen or that every contemporary conflict is over an unimportant issue. In fact, we need to be able to engage well in disagreement because truth matters. Right and wrong matter. Instead, I am attempting to draw together the wisdom of Christian thought about what conflicts are worth having and what kind of character we should have in the midst of them. 

There are two other great traditions in Christian thought about war that provide wisdom for how to handle conflict in church and culture: pacifism and just war. I will leave it to someone more versed in pacifism to demonstrate the gifts it would bring to our thinking about conflict in our age. However, let look at three ways that Just War Thinking differs from crusader thinking in how it approaches war and conflict.

  1. All people are made in the image of God and are, thus, deserving of respect. 

Jesus commands us to love not only our neighbors, but our enemies (Matthew 5). In his parables, Jesus expands our conception of neighbor to include those we might once have called enemies (Luke 10:25-37). Those worthy of love and respect are not simply our friends and allies, but also our enemies. Thus, even when we must engage in disagreement or conflict, Just War Thinking requires us to treat our opponents as neighbors. Within the church, we are dealing with brothers and sisters in Christ. 

Just War Thinking cannot condone the quick and easy division of people into the good guys and the bad guys. It resists the dehumanizing tendency of crusader thinking by drawing us back to Jesus’ call to love our neighbor and enemy. Even those in the right are sinners who are prone to error and must “get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice” (Ephesians 4:31). Even those in the wrong are made in the image of God and to be treated as our neighbors. It also may turn out that, through the work of disagreement, study, and genuine discernment, we are surprised by who is right and who is wrong. Even in those moments where we are utterly convinced of the righteousness of our cause or convictions and we believe the stakes are incredibly high, we must remember we are still dealing with those Christ has called us to love.

  1. Conflicts are inevitable in a fallen world. Sometimes conflict must be entered out of love for and to protect victims of attack.

Until Christ returns and sets all things right and makes all things new, there will  be conflict. Christians should lament even justifiable conflict, but we should not be surprised by it. There will be conflict because each person in a relationship, in a church, in a society is a sinner and is prone to selfishness, delusions, and other forms of wickedness. There will also be conflicts because there are unjust social situations in this fallen world. There is always the temptation to use good gifts for harm (power, wealth, etc.). That temptation grows as groups get larger and the gifts are greater. 

Just War Thinking has no delusions that any current conflict is the ultimate conflict. History and human nature testify (in accordance with Scripture) to the inevitability of conflict. This frees us to lower our sights on what we expect each conflict or disagreement to accomplish. When we hope that resolving a conflict will lead us from A to Z, we become disappointed when it only gets us to M. Yet, M is real progress if you began at point A. Knowing the consistency of struggle and conflict allows us to have more manageable goals for each confrontation. 

  1. How we handle conflict is just as important as why we enter into it in the first place. 

This is the most crucial part of Just War Thinking for contemporary conflicts. Crusader thinking has criteria (albeit skewed) for entering into conflict, but no rules for how to fight because they feel no need to hold back because the enemy is evil. By contrast, Just War requires both justice in entering conflict and justice during conflict. In the context of war, Just War Thinking includes the following criteria for entering a war: justifiable cause, legitimate authority, last resort, declaration of war aims, proportionality, reasonable chance of success, and right intention. If these are not met, then one should not enter into the conflict. But justice requires we also act justly in the midst of conflict by using the categories of discrimination and proportionality. For our immediate purposes, the nature of these criteria is not near as important as that they exist. How we handle conflict is as important as why we enter it in the first place. 

We can fight a just cause, but fight it unjustly. When we do so, our side loses it legitimacy. We can also fight justly,  but for an unjust cause. When we do so, our side also loses its legitimacy. Instead, both the means and the ends of conflict must both be aimed at justice, truth, and love of neighbor. 

More Just Disagreement 

What does this have to do with how I tweet, how I post, or how I disagree with someone else? A couple suggestions: 

First, we do not need to dehumanize those we disagree with in order to win. This violates Jesus’ command to love neighbor and enemy as well as denies our opponent’s dignity as one made in the image of God. Treat everyone you talk to, in person or online, with respect. You can be forceful in your disagreement, but avoid treating them as less than human or a personification of the enemy. 

Second, The distinction between a just cause for conflict and just conduct in conflict should lead to greater self-reflection from every Christian wishing to engage in critical conversation. Christians are certainly not immune to fighting over less than worthy causes and turning molehills into mountains. Yet, the more frequent problem in our age is how we conduct our conversations. Genuine and significant disagreements are clouded by a rancor and vileness that does not seek the truth, but merely to drive out those who disagree or force them to submit. The Crusader spirit does not truly seek to discern or even really to convince the other. It works to banish evil and achieve victory. Our discourse should be characterized by the fruit of the Holy Spirit, not the spirit of the age. This is not a matter of political correctness, but of Christian virtue. The failure of Christians to uphold both just causes and just character is truly damaging to the witness of the church and furthering the fracture of our society. David French nails it again in his article on Beth Moore, this time discussing the need for Christian virtue when the stakes are high: 

“It is the presence or absence of these virtues that is presently splitting the Evangelical community as much as any doctrinal difference. I’d argue that the presence or absence of these virtues is also splitting our nation as much as any single ideological dispute. And yet those virtues are increasingly seen as “secondary values,” if not outright obstacles to true justice. It’s as if kindness to your opponents is somehow seen as evidence of insufficient devotion to your righteous cause.”

Christians should be people of conviction and character. We cannot sacrifice one for the sake of the other. 

Third, conflict must be entered into out of love for our enemies and those being harmed.  Revenge is not a properly Christian motive for conflict (online or in person). Owning the libs (or the MAGAs) is not a properly Christian motive for conflict. Christians should lament conflict, but be willing to enter into it out of love for our neighbor, not hatred or rancor. When our goal is the good of our neighbor, not their downfall, we will engage in disagreement differently. 

Fourth, We sometimes need to count the cost of entering into a disagreement. Will the evil effects of this conflict exceed the evil to be prevented by entering into conflict? Will the harm caused by this fight actually end up being greater than the harm caused by letting it go? This criteria has helped me frequently refrain from entering into arguments online. Will I actually do more harm by arguing with this person (with little chance of success) than if I hold my tongue? 

Conclusion: The Possibility of Christian Conflict

How we handle conflict will say a lot about our character and our witness to Christ. While much of the world and much of the church has embraced the cutthroat way of cruelty, Christians are called to chart a different way. The wisdom of the Just War tradition offers an alternative driven by love and rooted in character. May the church be far more just in its disagreements. 

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