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    Ukrainian refugees waiting for trains at the Lviv Railway Station

    Do Christians Have a Responsibility to Protect?

    Michael Budde says many Christians would like a Christ who allows them to kill.

    By Elias Crim

    April 18, 2022

    Available languages: Español

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    • Rowland Stenrud

      I might kill to protect innocents provided that I am not killing on behalf of the state and I am not in anyone's uniform and I don't have to leave my neighborhood. If someone is going around my neighborhood killing men, women and children I would kill him to save my neighbors and even save him from committing this terrible crime. I remember hearing of a father being forced to kill his beloved son in order to save the rest of the family from being killed by him. The son had become mentally deranged. The son himself would tell his father that he agrees with his father's action when they both meet in heaven. Death never has the last word.

    I’m old enough to remember the month-by-month escalation of our involvement in Vietnam as war fever took over the United States. Today, the Biden administration is still pushing back on talk of a no-fly zone over Ukraine, but a growing chorus of voices want more – possibly an invasion of NATO forces after all? Say, one staged from Poland if it or another NATO ally comes under threat.

    A new book by Michael Budde demonstrates the complexities of such issues as we watch the cable news anchors excitedly interview retired military brass on the wonders of Stingers, Javelins, and (coolest of all) drone technology. Our nation is coming together again! (The title of Chris Hedges’ 2014 book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning comes to mind.)

    A friend of Budde’s once described him as “the most Anabaptist Catholic I’ve ever met.” I would agree and as proof hand out copies of his work on American Christianity’s capture by consumer capitalism, on demystifying and resituating martyrdom within the everyday practices of the church, and on Christian identity as ecclesial solidarity.

    Ukrainian refugees waiting for trains at the Lviv Railway Station

    Ukrainian refugees waiting for trains at the Lviv Railway Station, March 2022 Vladyslav Sodel / Alamy

    His new collection, Foolishness to Gentiles: Essays on Empire, Nationalism, and Discipleship, looks at whether American imperial decline will take American Christianity down with it; the role of the church “after development”; Dorothy Day as “the patron saint of anarchism”; and themes of violence and revenge in popular culture.

    I’ve been hearing one essay, “Killing with Kindness,” in my head these last few weeks as we view the destruction of Ukraine, an ancient Christian community, by a political leader who is an adherent of what is historically a branch of that same Christian community. (Our inurement to the spectacle of Christians killing Christians is a major theme in Budde’s work.)

    Budde begins by grimly observing that in recent decades, the record of massive human rights violations, ethnic cleansing, and other crimes against humanity have led many Christian ethicists from a variety of traditions and regions – supporters of Christian pacifism and just war traditions alike – to decide that the general presumptions against war and violence can and should be set aside.

    In other words, Budde explains, for these ethicists protection of the innocent trumps the sovereignty of states under international law, as well as the explicit prohibition on killing found in the Gospel accounts of Jesus. Using the military in such cases is an act of Christian love we are invited to endorse, given the lessons of Rwanda, ISIS, and – on our screens hourly – the war crimes underway in Ukraine. Thus we came to embrace the doctrine now known as Responsibility to Protect (R2P), endorsed in 2005 by the UN member states. The UN defines R2P as the “political commitment to end the worst forms of violence and persecution; [seeking] to narrow the gap between Member States’ pre-existing obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law and the reality faced by populations at risk of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”

    R2P is thus primarily a secular framework, aiming to minimize, though it doesn’t forswear, lethal force, which Christian ethicists and church bodies have engaged. Here is Budde’s striking statement about this fraught topic:

    This book is not an attempt to convince people that Jesus would prefer his followers not to use lethal force, even for a good cause. Instead … I aim to give Christians a taste of what they’re buying when they affirm the legitimacy of even a little bit of lethal force, even in the most reasonable of cases. They want a Christ that allows them to kill, so I’m giving them especially that, especially when they think they’re affirming something else.

    Importantly, Budde distinguishes between the logic of states and that of Christians. He is not telling states what to do or not to do, but rather telling individual Christians and the church that they should refuse to endorse the use of military force embodied in R2P and similar frameworks.

    Budde acknowledges that people like himself, “who insist that Jesus meant what he said in the Sermon on the Mount and elsewhere, that Christians shouldn’t kill people even in a good cause,” are generally regarded as unrealistic, detached from the realities of suffering and oppression in the world. In response, he offers some contrary realism for the reader’s consideration:

    • State actors, when the chips are down, “mostly don’t give a damn” about our ethics. The distinctions and discriminations made by Christians do not and will not materially shift the decisions made by persons engaged in military actions.
    • Military adventures, including those conducted under R2P auspices, will happen or not independent of what Christian leaders decide. “We have next to no influence in these areas.”
    • There have been some gains made in the area of gospel nonviolence in the past century – the de-legitimation of war as an acceptable part of ordinary statecraft; opposition to some classes of tactics and weapons; the acceptance of conscientious objection; the elevation of Christian pacifism as a defensible position in the church. By endorsing the use of killing in the ‘limited” and “constrained” contexts described in R2P and “its theological cousins,” Christians may well wipe out these gains and whatever advances we might hope to see in the future. Some scholars, Budde notes, argue for the incompatibility between just war theory and R2P and offer approaches known as just peacemaking or just policing (he cites here the work of Gerald Schlabach and Tobias Winright). “Should it sign on to these ventures, the church will again be tarred with the brush of religiously sanctioned killing, and the gospel will again be shown to be a sham.”
    • R2P and its theological cousins presuppose the moral significance of scale – that there is some magnitude of suffering and death sufficient to impel Christians to set aside their qualms about killing. Then to whose account, the author asks, should one charge the 250,000 persons dead in Libya after the “successful” R2P intervention and overthrow of the Gaddafi regime?

    One of Budde’s problems with R2P doctrine involves his skepticism over the extent to which military interventions to “protect” at-risk populations have been the justification for colonial and neocolonial attacks on weaker countries. (We might think of King Leopold’s atrocities in the Congo, Hitler’s takeover of Czechoslovakia to “protect” German minorities, the US invasion of Grenada in 1983, the Russian war against Georgia in 2008, the 2011 NATO invasion of Libya.) Realistically, R2P operates as an asymmetrical force in the world, a privilege of the powerful.

    And then there is the practical impossibility of limiting the use of force in R2P adventures once they have begun, and of managing the outcomes in ways that deliver on promises made, especially around questions of regime change.

    Budde raises one more provocative question: Who will be the agents of lethal force employed in matters of Christianly-inflected R2P? What institutions will provide them, train them, and socialize them into the attitudes and dispositions necessary to become efficient soldiers?

    After all, conventional wisdom notwithstanding, “it is very difficult to compel most people to kill other people.” The research on combat in the European theater in World War II indicates that only 15 to 20 percent of individual riflemen were able to fire their weapon at exposed enemy soldiers, even at risk to themselves. This “extreme reluctance to kill,” Budde notes, confirms research from as far back as the Civil War and from subsequent investigations. All of which has posed an obstacle to state action and ambition, as Budde puts it.

    The answer, quite simply, is a series of training procedures aimed at dehumanizing both one’s enemies and one’s own soldiers – requiring then other efforts to rehumanize those same soldiers at the end of their service. Budde’s review of the literature on this “combat socialization” and its connection to widespread abuse of civilians, including by UN peacekeeping forces, makes for chilling reading.

    Budde ends the essay with a bitter, Swiftian prescription: “If one is serious about conducting armed interventions in ways that respect the Christian convictions described herein, I suggest you have no other choice than to bring back religious military orders – explicitly Christian armies,” like the Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller, to be trained “in ways consonant with just peacemaking or with R2P principles compatible with Christian just war principles,” in order to fulfill Augustine’s ancient proposal that Christians must learn to kill with love.

    Here’s Augustine’s most famous passage on whether death and killing in warfare are the worst things that can happen to a Christian (from Contra Faustum Manichaeum):

    For what is culpable in warfare? Is it because some men, who will die anyway, are killed so that others may be tamed to live in peace? This censure is one of cowardly, not conscientious, men. The desire to harm, the cruelty of vengeance, warlike and implacable intention, ferocity of rebellion, lust for domination, and similar motives, these are what is culpable in warfare.

    Thus Augustine places intention and interior disposition at the center of the choice between just war and simple murder. In other passages, Budde notes, Augustine similarly turns the Gospel injunctions against violence into commands to be observed only in one’s heart. “Killing can be an act of charity, and torture can be an expression of corrective love.”

    Michael Budde’s sober commentary on these wrenching issues challenges us to ask ourselves whether killing for Christian reasons isn’t always “a contradiction at the level of visceral reaction that should be explored rather than buried under piles of exculpatory discourse.” If only we can find or create enough space amid the roar of world events for such questions to be heard and explored.

    Contributed By

    Elias Crim is the founder of the group blog Solidarity Hall and the editor of Ownership Matters newsletter. He contributes regularly to America magazine, Front Porch Republic, and Strong Towns.

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