Just War and Interventionist Foreign Policy

[1] The January 13, 2003 issue of The New Yorker published an article about a manufacturer of artificial limbs from Staten Island. He wanted to help the victims of the civil war in Sierra Leone, in which amputation had been a key form of terrorist activity.

[2] He had difficulty finding a way to carry out his proposal until he was put in touch with an advocacy group called the Friends of Sierra Leone and consulted with an immigrant named Etta Toure, who works for a defense contractor in Arlington, VA. The author of the article interviewed her and wrote: “Of all the atrocities, Toure said, amputation was the worst. ‘The visual evidence that we have is going to be around us forever,’ she said. ‘The dead – after a while you forget, unless it’s your own family. But this is something that’s going to be permanent in our history, especially the children who will grow up and be like that always.’ Toure and the Friends of Sierra Leone had spent years trying to track down people uprooted by the war, and to get the attention of the United States government – without much success. In her company’s photocopying room, a sign was posted to remind employees about the need for security. It said, ‘Countries Don’t Have Friends – They Have Interests!’ Every time she saw it, Toure thought about her country of birth. ‘It translates, Sierra Leone is not of interest.’ she said.”

[3] In the wake of the controversial American intervention in Iraq we are faced with an ineluctable quandary. When, if ever, is intervention justified? Should we have taken action in Sierra Leone to quell the brutality that threatened to engulf it? On what grounds might our decision to remain uninvolved be justifiable?

[4] My intent in these remarks is to reflect with you on our heritage from Luther on issues of war and peace. It is important first to place his thinking in its historical and political context. Then I also want to explore his theology as he used it to make sense of political and social life in the conflicted world of his own day.

[5] The distinctive Lutheran teaching commonly known as the doctrine of the two kingdoms would be better named the doctrine of the twofold reign of God. It is related to Luther’s crucial distinction between the law and the gospel. God makes God’s power and love for the world known in the working of both the law and the gospel; the Christian continuously lives under both and serves the neighbor through both (another of those characteristically Lutheran simuls). Although for Luther the foremost use of the law was the second, that is, the power of the law to convict the conscience of sin, expose it to the wrath of God and in the light of the revelation of our incompetence, to drive us to Christ, he nonetheless recognized the critical role played by the law in its first or political use. The law’s power to set boundaries, protect the weak and vulnerable and uphold justice is what makes the civil realm civilized. Although the Christian is charged with turning the other cheek in the face of injury, he/she is not absolved from the obligation to wield the sword when bearing public responsibility for society’s well-being. As Luther wryly pointed out, if Christians went about their business as if all the world were Christian, while they were busy turning the other cheek, the wolves would devour the sheep.

[6] Here Luther differed dramatically from the radical view of his Anabaptist opponents. The latter insisted that true Christians already live as citizens of the heavenly kingdom, observing the demanding ethic of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and refraining from participation in civil government whenever judgment, coercion or oath-taking were involved. A hallmark of Anabaptist practice was the insistence on absolute pacifism, and one has only to think of Luther’s treatise entitled “Whether Soldiers Too Can Be Saved ” to realize the gulf between the two reform movements. Luther was able to answer this question concerning the military in the affirmative.

[7] At issue here is a stark difference in the movements’ respective eschatological assumptions. The Anabaptists could refer to their discipleship as the work of restoring the garden in the wilderness of the world, whereas for Luther the iustus part of the Christian’s simul iustus et peccator existence remains hidden to the eyes of the world. In consequence the two views produce sharply different ethics. Luther distinguishes between the magistrate as a Christian and the Christian who is a magistrate. The Christian as a private individual is obliged to forgive the injuries inflicted upon him, to walk the extra mile with the neighbor who demands of him that he do so, and to surrender not only his coat but his cloak also. Yet when the same Christian exercises his public role as a magistrate, he is required to pursue justice, to punish the one who does wrong, and to intervene to protect the vulnerable from injury by their fellow citizens. The Anabaptists rejected this dual ethic as an ungodly compromise with the world. In their eyes there would always be good reason to allow such accommodation and so the church would inevitably descend the slippery slope until the salt had completely lost its savor. In order to manifest true obedience to God and a faithful witness to the world, the Anabaptists insisted on disengagement from the public realm.

[8] Luther, on the other hand, condemned this position as a failure at the very heart of discipleship, that is, the call to serve and care for the neighbor. The Christian is called to imitate Christ in her self-emptying, even, especially, to the point of putting one’s righteousness at risk for the neighbor’s good. There was for Luther no “higher” righteousness than this, and consequently he denounced the Anabaptist alternative as nothing more than a form of new monkery, whereby the pursuit of holiness becomes an exercise in narcissism (the incurvatus in se of original sin that Luther deplored). Luther had high regard for vocations in the public realm. He spoke with admiration and pastoral sensitivity of those bearing the burdens of both authority and obedience for the sake of the civil community.

[9] Let us look now at three historical cases in the life of Martin Luther that involved the potential waging of war and concern for the maintenance of peace. Luther’s role in the Peasants’ Rebellion of 1525 has always been controversial. Among his own supporters at the time were those who expressed great dismay at the vehemence of his response to the eruption of armed rebellion. At the outset of the conflict Luther called clearly for accountability on both sides. The princes too had obligations to the peasants who owned them as lord, and the failure of the former to protect the latter’s welfare was, in Luther’s eyes, culpable. He agreed to serve as a mediator between the two parties, but once the peasants lost patience and took up arms against their overlords, Luther had no hesitation in demanding that force be used against them. Indeed, his writing on the matter seemed to support the extravagant use of violence in which the lords indulged themselves. Yet Luther defended his position by insisting that the need of the neighbor required it: if the rebellion were not quelled, then many innocent persons would be seduced by the treason of others. He saw war as justified to the end of re-establishing a stable social order.

[10] The Diet of Augsburg was convened by the Emperor Charles V in 1530 in large part as a response to the threat of Turkish invasion. The sultan’s forces had prevailed as far as the gates of Vienna in 1529, and the emperor undertook to resolve the religious controversy in his German holdings so as to insure a united force in support of his military defense action. Luther saw such a war as justified, indeed necessary. The emperor was charged by God with the office of oversight for his subjects, and it was his job to do all he could to secure his territory and his people’s welfare, including taking up arms. However, Luther was very clear that a war against the Turk ought never be undertaken as a religious crusade. This was an affair exclusively of the lefthand kingdom. Moreover, if the Turkish forces prevailed, German Christian subjects would be obliged to give their Turkish rulers obedience. They should recognize in them the ordering hand of God’s creative work and the rod of God’s punishment inflicted upon a disobedient people.

[11] At the end of the 1530 Diet of Augsburg the evangelical party was dismissed with the injunction to recant within one year. The threat of civil war, Catholic against Protestant estates in the German Empire, was very real. Melanchthon had, as Luther graphically expressed it, almost crucified himself with worry at the prospect of breaching the peace. And Luther himself was a hard sell when it came to recognizing the right of the German princes to take up the sword against the emperor. However, he was eventually convinced by the arguments of the evangelical jurists, that the emperor, by lowering himself to serve as the dupe of the pope, had in some sense deposed himself. The “lesser” authorities of the German princes and magistrates were legitimate and divinely ordained. They had the authority and responsibility to defend their subjects and their lands, even against the emperor if he failed to honor his own office by supporting them in theirs.

[12] It is clear from these cases that Luther’s situation with regard to issues of war and peace differed considerably from our own. First, Luther is very clear about the lines of responsibility and authority. The legitimate ruler is readily identified; he makes the decisions, and his subjects follow. Moreover, the shifts in the political balance of power of his day worked greatly in Luther’s favor. The rivalry of France with the Hapsburg hegemony created the space needed for the reform movement to survive and flourish. In sorting out the political players of his day, Luther was able to identify himself and his fellow evangelicals as beleaguered victims rather than aggressors.

[13] So what can we learn from this part of our Lutheran heritage as we take up questions of war and peace in our own time? First of all, it is clear that Luther allowed for the legitimate use of armed force in the process of carrying out the law in its first use. Luther’s movement benefited from the shifting political realities of the balance of power in the Europe of his day. Now we live in what has been described as a unipolar world, with our country accruing and exercising a disproportionate amount of political, economic and cultural power. To see ourselves as victims should require an extraordinary exercise of the power of imagination, yet the line between aggressor and victim is shifty. Just think of the identity crisis precipitated in our nation by the tragedy of September 11. Moreover, the focus of authority and accountability is far more diffuse than it was in Luther’s day. If we are called to obedience in the civil realm, obedience to whom? Our political structure, our own experience, does not allow us to see such authority inhering in concentrated form in one person or hierarchy of persons. Rather the rule of the first use of the law works through many different agents of sovereignty, engaged in conversation and conflict. (Am I to conclude that Donald Rumsfeld, because he holds official position within the government, has more insight than the protestors who flooded the streets of San Francisco before the outbreak of war in Iraq.)

[14] Now let us return to the article with which I opened my remarks, the report on the horrific events in Sierra Leone. Should we have taken up arms to protect the cruelly maimed children caught in the civil war there? Should we have left the children of Iraq to the continued deprivations of the Sadamite regime, rather than engage in bloodshed that so clearly served our own self-interest? Luther’s legacy is, I think, of real value in helping us ask the penetrating questions required by such troubling situations. Given the nature of the arms available in today’s world and the possibility of escalation, what would a legitimate or reasonable use of force be? When, if ever, is the use of force justified? And finally, what should care for the neighbor look like amidst the often competing demands of the many neighbors in the contemporary global arena?

Jane E. Strohl

Jane E. Strohl is Professor of Reformation History at Theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, CA.