“Just War as Christian Discipleship” by Daniel Bell

Just War as Christian Discipleship: Recentering the Tradition in the Church Rather Than the StateJust War as Christian Discipleship: Recentering the Tradition in the Church Rather Than the State by Daniel M. Bell Jr.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Daniel Bell’s book is an important work that attempts to re-center the tradition of just war on the church instead of the state. To make his case, Bell distinguishes Just War as Christian Discipleship (CD) from Public Policy Checklist (“PPC,” 73. Throughout his book, Bell uses upper case in reference to just war. I cannot be sure exactly why, but I am inclined to defer to Yoder’s impulse against granting it the esteem of a proper noun. ) He leverages Augustine primarily in his effort to show that just war as a form of discipleship is essentially an act of love, that just war cannot be seen as a lesser evil but is in itself a working out of the entire life of faith in reference to the particularities of battle. Indeed, he reminds us that if just war is really a manifestation of Christian love, one specific expression of the broader moral life for Christians, it is made possible only through the entire character of one’s life. After all, “Discipleship is the sum total of our lives as Christians.” (20) He wisely reflects that just war (PPC) is less holistically focused, for it “does not concern itself with daily life outside of war” and “has as its starting point … modern nation-states and international law.” (74) Because just war PPC is so limited in scope, and because Bell does such a superb job of deconstructing some of its faulty assumptions, I will focus more on Bell’s development of just war CD in the interest of brevity.

“No church has produced a single, definitive ‘doctrine’ of just war.” (71) Instead, just war is simply the name for that set of virtues and habits called for in direct response to the particular circumstances that war and violence entail. In other words, just war is no different from the suffering love expected of Christians who encounter a freezing beggar or wounded traveller. Christians necessarily clothe the former and provide aid to the latter. When Christians are confronted by similar injustices that expect violence, the response is unique but cannot be divorced from the same love that motivates the earlier situations. Just war criteria therefore include things like proportionality, the requirement of legitimate authority, etc. Particular injunctions emerge from the context in which a Christian finds herself. For example, a Christian who encounters a wounded traveller would clean their wounds and prevent further bleeding. There would be specific guidance formulated by experts in medicine that she could leverage to provide a loving response appropriate to the situation. Likewise, “faithful just warriors may be morally obligated in certain circumstances not to fight in the first place or to surrender once the fighting is underway.” (241) All of this describes how the church can look to pagan philosophers like Cicero or Aristotle to come to certain conclusions about the justice in war apart from explicitly Biblical considerations. Indeed, “Christians adopted a rudimentary vision of just war from the Romans,” it is therefore “a living tradition that more closely resembles an ongoing conversation.” (71. Bell adopts a Yoderian emphasis on “tradition” over and above “doctrine” or “theory” for the same reasons Andy Alexis Baker and Ted Koontz outline in their Note 1 on page 75 of Yoder’s Attitudes. )

But Bell is right to point out that Christian discipleship is a form of life inseparable from the habits that disciples cultivate within the church with the help of the living and the dead amongst us. “In the midst of the Christian community… we have the gracious opportunity to learn from the lives of the saints around us as well as from the lifetimes of the saints who have gone before us.” (83) For this reason, Augustine holds as much influence as does Paul Ramsey or John Yoder, though they may disagree heartily. Bell emphasizes over and over again the necessity of learning the virtues within the church so that we might be a just people capable of waging war in such a manner. One point in particular I had not come across before is Bell’s insistence that “Individuals cannot be just warriors… Just War (CD) is the practice of a community or it is not practiced at all.” (239) Not only significant for its import in relation to the centrality of community for Christians, but also for its parallels to military culture, in which there are no lone rangers on the battlefield, a form of life that emphasizes the necessity of camaraderie and never leaving a buddy behind. The implications of this claim are impressive for its scope in challenging the notions of individuality so prevalent in America, and increasingly in the Army, whose marketing ploy includes phrases like “An Army of One.”

However, this very idea of being formed by experts and mentors in the field begs the question of who it is the church looks to for martial formation. Modern notions of propositional theology make the criteria for just war more central than the character necessary therefore. Augustine is a formidable thinker, but he reflected to people like Boniface without personal experience in war. This is less a dig against Augustine as it is what moderns have done with him, for he never espoused a formulaic understanding of criteria-based expectations about war. Instead, he responded pastorally to a fellow Christian in search of answers to incredibly vexing questions of profound significance. Likewise, we must be careful to turn as well to those who know war in a deeper sense than abstract theologizing can attain. Augustine wielded theology deftly in his reflections on war, but we must be careful to turn to saints with particular virtues and experience for questions of particular scope like just war, like Martin. In all, Bell does a wonderful job of outlining the significance of just war as Christian discipleship made possible only by being a just people that does not merely “hold a presumption for justice” (87) but are ourselves just. The church holds no such presumption in the same way it does not contain a social ethic. We are, after all, just. We are a social ethic.

•Why does Bell begin his exploration of discipleship and war with Augustine? As Yoder and Bainton show, the propositions that emerge as major tenets of just war have their origins in Aristotle and Cicero, so beginning with Augustine seems to make him a middleman, as though the church’s discernment about soldiering and the virtues erupted spontaneously in the 4th century, which ignores many of the soldier saints that went before the African bishop. How might incorporating the passion of military martyrs and the lives of the soldier saints challenge and enrich Bell’s account of war as discipleship?
•If it is true that Ambrose (and Augustine?) believed “war was a deeply religious undertaking,” (27) where did they develop this understanding if they borrowed its structure from the pagan jurist Cicero? Can this impulse be traced to similar ways in which Gentile Christians adopted Roman structures and symbolism (ex. basilicas, magisterium, etc.) at times above those that might have been inherited from Judaisms?

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