Daniel M. Bell Jr., Just War as Christian Discipleship: Recentering the Tradition in the Church rather than the State. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009. 272 pages. $16.49 paperback (Amazon). Click here or on the image to purchase Just War as Christian Discipleship from Amazon.com and help support The Other Journal.

Since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, we have been told by both sides of the partisan fence that we now live in an “age of terrorism.” What is especially novel about our age, so we are told, is not so much that our world is torn apart by violence, but that the “enemy” has no moral compass, no concern for the flourishing of human life. We are told that our extraordinary times may demand that we take extraordinary measures in warfare. In other words, the rules that may have guided warfare in the past may no longer apply. The images of tortured prisoners, maimed Iraqi civilians, and the thousands of flag-wrapped caskets of dead U.S. soldiers remind us of the horrific consequences of the two U.S.-led wars launched against this elusive “terrorist” enemy. Although many Christians opposed the wars from the beginning, others have backed the wars without hesitation, and leaders and spokespersons on both sides of the debate have appealed to just war principles and criteria to support their respective positions. In the midst of polemically charged debates between Internet pundits, political ideologues, and partisan hacks, it has often been difficult to find the space to reflect on, at least with any moral seriousness and clarity, the question of justice with regard to these particular wars. Yet, too much is at stake in warfare—perhaps especially modern warfare—to simply let the pundits control the shape of public discourse, not to mention Christian discourse on war. Indeed, in our time of war and rumors of war, a time when uncritical support of war and nationalist fervor is all too common, not least among American Christians, we are desperately in need of a theologically robust and critical discourse about war.

In order to wisely judge the morality (or immorality) of the current U.S.-led wars, Christians need to first acquire the proper tools necessary for intelligent and faithful moral discernment. The central task of Daniel M. Bell Jr.’s Just War as Christian Discipleship is to provide Christians with these tools in order that we might learn what it means to embody the just war tradition as a form of Christian discipleship. Although we often hear judgments about the moral justification of particular wars, only rarely do such judgments stem from more than a cursory knowledge of the just war tradition. Even when such judgments claim to be rooted in the just war tradition, a specifically Christian account of this discipline is often overshadowed by modern secular accounts of just war that differ in many significant respects from the Christian theological reflection on war. Bell’s book provides an accessible introduction to the history and development of the Christian just war tradition that encourages Christians to become a “just war people” by recovering and learning to inhabit the virtues and discipline that arise from this tradition. Bell is clear that the purpose of his book is not to make judgments about any war in particular, but to school Christians in how the Christian just war tradition can be faithfully embodied and lived out today. Only through such schooling, according to Bell, can Christians begin to learn what it might mean to be a “just war people.”

According to Bell, the Christian just war tradition is far more than a checklist of criteria employed to determine the morality of a particular war, but is better understood as a tradition to be embodied or lived out as a faithful form of Christian discipleship. In Bell’s view, the problem with treating the just war theory as a checklist of criteria is that it effectively separates the theory from the tradition and community that forms and sustains it. The just war tradition flows out of a longstanding tradition of Christian theological reflection on the moral life and is deeply enmeshed with the concrete practices that shape the Christian community. Bell’s intention is not so much to deny the importance of using criteria to make judgments about particular wars, but to emphasize the need to relocate the just war theory away from secular accounts of just war as a public policy checklist and toward a tradition that is inextricably bound up with the community-forming practices of the Christian church.

Bell’s book begins with a brief historical survey of the emergence of the just war tradition, but he also intends this to serve as a primer to the nature of the Christian moral life. It is here that Bell lays out the theological basis and foundation for the position advanced in the rest of the book. First, Bell acknowledges the reality that the early church unanimously rejected participation in military service and warfare. Considering this reality, what led to the later Christian adoption of the doctrine of just war? Does the transition from a resolute rejection of Christian participation in war to an acceptance of just war mark a radical break or “rupture” in the Christian tradition or an “organic development” in continuity with the faith tenets of early Christianity (24)?

To answer these questions, Bell turns our attention to the historical and theological emergence of the just war tradition in Christian thought. When the just war tradition was adopted from Greek and Roman philosophy and developed by Ambrose and Augustine in the fourth century, it was resituated within the context of the Christian faith. Borrowing from Aristotle and Cicero, both Ambrose and Augustine adopt the language of virtues to speak of the moral life, emphasizing the importance of prudence, justice, courage, and temperance. Although Ambrose is significant as the first Christian thinker to adopt the just war tradition, Augustine is more important in Bell’s opinion, both in terms of the depth of his treatment on the subject and his enduring influence on the history of Christian theological reflection. As Bell interprets Augustine, “God created humanity to live in a just and peaceable community, and just wars are sometimes appropriate means of restoring and maintaining the tranquility of that order” (28). Augustine, however, finds it important to inquire about the causes for war and the authority by which war is waged. “For the natural order,” Augustine writes, “which seeks the peace of [humankind], ordains that the monarch should have the power of undertaking war if he thinks it advisable, and that the soldiers should perform their military duties in behalf of the peace and safety of the community” (Quoted in Bell, 28).

But how does Augustine deal with the pacifism of the early Christian church and the scriptural injunction to love not only your neighbor, but also your enemy? Augustine, Bell notes, begins by acknowledging this nonviolent witness and then goes on to assert that “times change” (28). Where nonviolence was once the appropriate form of Christian witness, it is no longer an imperative. The reason is not that God has arbitrarily changed his mind, but because the prophecy that the gospel will reach the kings and nations and that the church will be in a position of power to influence rulers has now been fulfilled in history. Bell points out that Augustine deals with the Sermon on the Mount and other passages that seem to support the Christian rejection of participation in war by arguing that these injunctions refer to “inward dispositions” and not to “outward actions” (29). With regard to the commandment “thou shall not kill,” Augustine argues that God is sovereign over life and death but extends this sovereignty to those charged with the responsibility of governing nations. Within this framework, Augustine may assert that to kill in war, under the authority of a governing body, does not violate the biblical commandment.

Remarkably, as Bell points out, this theological justification of killing in war does not permit one to kill in the name of self-defense. Christian participation in war is not born of vengeance toward the enemy for the sake of self-defense, but can even be construed as a form of enemy-love. The condoning of just war is, for Augustine, “born of the hope that evil persons might learn from the example of Christians what is to be valued truly and that through the patient goodwill of Christians they might be prompted to repent, reform, and restore the peace” (30). Far from an exception to Jesus’s call to love one’s enemy, just war is enemy love by means of a “kind harshness” (Quoted in Bell, 31). It is “kind” in that it seeks the repentance and reformation of the enemy; it is harsh in that it is a form of punishment against the will of the enemy. It is in this framework that Augustine can call Christians to “be a peacemaker, even in war so that by conquering them you bring the benefit of peace even those you defeat” (Quoted in Bell, 31).

Although Bell draws from other sources, including important medieval and Protestant developments of the just war tradition, it is Augustine’s original vision of just war as a form of Christian discipleship that Bell ultimately hopes to retrieve for the church. Before Bell explores other key thinkers in the just war tradition, he provides a short but highly significant treatment of the popular conception of how the doctrine of just war relates to the Christian moral life. In this section, Bell goes back to the original question stated above: is just war a compromise of Christian convictions, a fall from an “original righteousness” (24)? Many Christians, even those who stand in support of the doctrine of just war, nevertheless answer yes to this question. Many Christians simply begin from the assumption that, as Bell puts it, “Jesus preached an ideal of love and peace, but in this world of sin it is not possible to live according to that ideal” (32). Although Christians might appeal to Augustine to make this claim, the influential Christian ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr is probably more responsible for such an assumption. The problem with the Niebuhrian view, according to Bell, is that it views just war as a kind of necessary lesser evil. In a world of sin, Christians must forgo God’s call to live righteously and accept the inevitability that war, though evil, is necessary to limit greater evils from occurring.

Bell is, of course, right to challenge the theological vision of Niebuhr on this score—after all, this vision ultimately rejects the reality that God’s grace is at work in the world, sanctifying Christians to become faithful disciples of Jesus. Despite the popularity of this perspective, according to Bell, it is a problematic appropriation of Augustine for a number of reasons. Augustine is clear that Christian participation in war does not excuse one from Jesus’s command to love, but that this participation is rather an expression of love, even a form of enemy-love. Another problem with conceiving of just war as a necessary lesser evil is that it “undercuts the moral force” of the just war tradition (34). If the logic of the lesser evil perspective begins with the assumption that the ethics of Jesus are an impossible ideal for the disciple in the real world, then what is to stop one from simply dismissing just war when it too strikes us as overly optimistic or idealistic?

Bell’s criticism of just war as a necessary lesser evil lies at the heart of his retrieval of the just war tradition as a form of Christian discipleship. If Christian advocacy and participation in war runs against the politics of Jesus, then by Bell’s own admission, his entire proposal—retrieving just war as a form of faithful Christian discipleship—falls apart. Contrary to the Niebuhrian framework, Bell’s proposal is dependent upon a vision of the Christian moral life that does believe God is at work in the church, that God is turning us away from our sin and sanctifying the Christian community to become faithful followers of Jesus Christ.

But, if the ultimate concern of the Christian disciple is faithfulness to Jesus, then one might expect Bell to at least account for the highly questionable character of Augustine’s exegetical justification for rejecting Christian nonviolence. One might ask, for instance, about the theological legitimacy of Augustine’s construal of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity as an event of divine providence or a fulfillment of prophecy. In what ways does this reading of history shape Augustine’s theological interpretation of scripture?1 In addition, there is good reason to, at the very least, call into question Augustine’s speculative suggestion that Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount refers to “inward dispositions” as opposed to “outward actions.” On what exegetical grounds does Augustine make such a radical claim? Certainly this stands in discontinuity with the interpretative grid that informed the lived witness of the early Christian martyrs. Is Augustine’s adoption of just war really an organic development of the theology that informed the early Christian commitment to nonviolence? Unfortunately, Bell fails to ask these critical questions. Instead, he is content to uncritically assume the conclusion to his own question—that Augustine’s adoption of just war is an organic development and faithful extension of Jesus and early Christianity.

Bell briefly traces the history of the just war tradition beyond Augustine to defend the very notion of a just war against two anticipated challenges to the proposal of the book. Bell anticipates that both the “realist” and the “pacifistically-inclined” will say that the very notion of a “just war” is an oxymoron (39). The presumption that war is hell drives the realist to reject the discipline of just war as idealistic and unhelpful in the messy world of real warfare, and the same presumption drives the pacifist in the opposite direction: because warfare is not amenable to moral formation, we should refuse to participate in it. Bell believes these views are misguided and too deeply shaped by “imaginary and fantastic portraits of war painted by Hollywood” (40). Contrary to the realist and pacifist presumption, according to Bell, “any military historian or informed soldier will tell us, warfare is not a chaotic, ‘anything goes’ encounter analogous to a spontaneous, drunken barroom brawl” (40). Not only is this an unfair caricature of the theological grounds of the Christian pacifist tradition, but appealing to what supposedly any “war historian or soldier” might say is hardly convincing, especially considering the history of the twentieth century. What about Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Fallujah, to name just a few chaotic acts of warfare? Yet Bell asserts that these acts of chaos that are usually attributed to the so-called “fog of war” are often overstated and fail to recognize that war is a “rule-governed practice” (40). Is this not, however, to deeply misunderstand the fog of war intrinsic to modern warfare? The problem is that the sense of clarity that arises out of the ever-increasing technological precision of modern warfare is, paradoxically, precisely what defines the fog of war. The “fog” of modern warfare lies in the reality, as Thomas Merton aptly put it, that the one responsible for the most heinous crimes of war does not “see any blood unless his secretary gets a nosebleed.”2

Bell does recognize that warfare is at times chaotic and destructive, but he maintains that this is not intrinsic to war itself. War as “a human practice” is subject to “moral deformation and corruption as it is to moral guidance and limitation” (40). Furthermore, the practice of war is shaped by “the politics and cultures and institutions that form the people involved” (40). The historical record reveals, according to Bell, that war can be both like the “highly ritualized and almost game-like wars of medieval chivalry that were minimally lethal” or more like “the total wars that characterized significant wars of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries” (64). In short, war does not have to be hell and the historical record proves it. Such an assertion, however, fails to recognize how the technological “advancements” of modern warfare have indelibly transformed the very face of war. It was on this ground that many Christian critics rightly and prophetically denounced the arms race during the Cold War. Indeed, we must face up to the increasingly stark reality that in a nuclear age, the practice of war has been decisively transformed—or deformed—in such a way as to render irretrievable the “minimally lethal” wars of the Middle Ages.

My primary intention here is not to undercut the merits of Bell’s book. For although the face of war has changed in such a way as to render the possibility of a just war questionable, Bell is right to insist that Christians should, at the very least, take up the challenge of distinguishing the Christian just war tradition from its secular counterpart, not to mention the many other ideologies competing for our loyalty. Over the last thirty years, and especially since September 11, 2001, many American Christians have bought into the neoconservative agenda of gaining worldwide liberal capitalist hegemony by means of endless war. In the Christian neoconservative mind, American liberal capitalism is God’s gift to the world, and the only way toward a prosperous and peaceful world is to defend this gift against the barbarism of our enemies by giving it away. In short, the neoconservative goal is the conversion of the enemy (by the barrel of a gun) to the values of liberal capitalism. Furthermore, as the war in Afghanistan and Iraq continue to ramp up, it is not at all clear that the election of Barack Obama marks a radical departure from this kind of political vision.

By recentering the just war tradition as a practice of the church rather than the state, the second half of this book provides the Christian seeking to live out the just war tradition with helpful resources. By exploring the criteria of “legitimate authority,” “just cause,” “right intent,” “last resort,” and “discrimination and proportionality,” Bell hopes to retrieve an account of just war “with all its teeth” (94-95; emphasis mine). In outlining each of the criteria of just war, Bell helpfully distinguishes between what he refers to as Just War as Christian Discipleship and Just War as Public Policy.

Though the two traditions sometimes overlap, there are significant differences that Bell rightly acknowledges. For instance, secular accounts often fail to allow a place for the church to speak with authority on issues of war. In addition, in secular accounts, self-defense is often heralded as a just cause for war, but a Christian just warrior always fights on behalf of the neighbor, even the enemy neighbor, and always seeks the good of all parties involved in a conflict, not merely national self-interest. The criteria of right intent is often downplayed or even dismissed in secular accounts, but in the Christian tradition, right intent is highly significant. Christian just warriors refuse to fight out of a spirit of vengeance and hatred, but only and always out of love and charity. On the issue of last resort, Christians will seek ways to limit the need for warfare through nonviolent conflict resolution and forms of policing. Shaped by the virtues of the practices of the Christian church, Bell encourages Christians to act justly in warfare. Because the goal of the Christian just warrior is not ultimately the destruction of our enemy but the conversion of our enemy, the Christian just warrior will weigh the costs and benefits of the use of violence in a given situation and discriminate between the combatants and noncombatants. Although Just War as Christian Discipleship and Just War as Public Policy are not always mutually exclusive, there are nevertheless substantial differences that Bell helpfully highlights.

Bell places a great deal of emphasis on the importance of character formation throughout the book—one does not become a just warrior overnight or by simply reading off a list of criteria, rather it takes a lifetime of training in the virtues within the church community. Yet Bell does not sufficiently account for the kind of character formation that takes place outside the Christian community, particularly the kind of formation the soldier (whether Christian or non-Christian) receives when left in the hands of the military. One wonders whether the kind of character formation that Bell hopes to see arise from living in the church community is ultimately undone the moment a Christian soldier enters boot camp. How does the Christian soldier, then, resist the re-formation (or perhaps stated more accurately, the de-formation) that comes with the territory of learning to be a good American soldier? One cannot help but sense an ecclesiological idealism latent in Bell’s expectation that the virtues of the Christian moral life will form a people capable of waging just wars and acting justly. This is not to refuse the sanctifying grace of God in the present for some kind of Niebuhrian realism, but to underscore the important theological point that God’s grace is not identical to the church community and its virtuous practices.3 The church’s traditions and practices must always be open to the voice of the Spirit who beckons us to reconsider and at times seek reform.

As Christians, our allegiance is first of all to Christ, not to the just war tradition. If the concern of Christian discipleship is ultimately faithfulness to Jesus of Nazareth, then neither the church community nor its many traditions are free from critique.4 In times of great moral uncertainty like ours, plumbing the depths of the wisdom of the theological tradition in a fresh manner can often open up fruitful paths of inquiry to help guide us in our contemporary context. Such plumbing, however, if it remains open to the voice of the Spirit, may lead us to call into question and even challenge the wisdom and faithfulness of our inherited moral and theological tradition. Although it is imperative that contemporary Christians listen with a spirit of generosity to our mothers and fathers in the faith, there may be times when, precisely because of our boundedness to Christ and with respect for the faith of our predecessors, we will be led to reject rather than retrieve a particular trajectory of thought taken in the past.

This is not to say that Bell’s book on the just war tradition is not useful for particular audiences. It will, for example, help to recenter the many American Christian soldiers influenced by the ideology of neoconservatism. Indeed, as Bell insists, traditional Christianity does not support war for national self-interest (or even self-defense) or vengeance against the enemy. But, even as Bell’s book is widely read, Christians of all persuasions should never cease to ask the critical question: is this faithful to Jesus? Though simple, this is probably the most valuable insight that John Howard Yoder offered Bell’s own teacher, Stanley Hauerwas, many years ago. Indeed, one cannot but help note the irony that a book entitled Just War as Christian Discipleship could come from the pen of someone schooled by Stanley Hauerwas, arguably the most influential pacifist theologian of our time.

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1.  In his attacks on “Constantinianism,” John Howard Yoder sought to uncover the historical, cultural, and political conditions that helped to create a new framework for biblical interpretation in the fourth and fifth centuries. As Yoder points out, “when Christians of the fourth and fifth centuries began to justify military service, they did it [. . . by] insert[ing] their understanding of the Bible within the framework of other new commitments, especially the conviction that the events of the fourth century had been providential.” John Howard Yoder, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution, eds. Theodore J. Koontz and Andy Alexis-Baker (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009) 77.

2. Thomas Merton, “Toward a Theology of Resistance,” Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968) 7.

3. See Nicholas Healy, Church, World and the Christian Life: Practical-Prophetic Ecclesiology (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000).

4. As Yoder put it, “If I say I am committed to the authority of Jesus plus a particular church or of Jesus plus common sense or of Jesus plus my own best insights, or of Jesus plus a particular creedal heritage, that very addition of something extra is structurally sectarian” John Howard Yoder, “Christ, the Light of the World,” The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994) 191. Originally published in John Howard Yoder, The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2003) 138. Of course, Hauerwas’s debt to Yoder is well-known. In a particularly illuminating section in the The Peaceable Kingdom, Hauerwas states, “[Yoder’s] emphasis on the significance of Jesus’ whole life—that is, his teachings as well as his death and resurrection—provided me with the means to make my account of character and virtue less formal [. . . . .] I had perhaps discovered a way [. . .] which takes Jesus’ life to be a paradigm for our own lives.” Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983).