Exploring the sweep of history for an answer: 'Why war?'

by Elizabeth McAlister

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By Matthew A. Shadle
Published by Georgetown University Press, $29.95

Hanging in the Jonah House living room in Baltimore is an icon of Ben Salmon by Bill McNichols. Salmon refused induction into World War I and was sentenced to death, a sentence later commuted to 20 years. He non-cooperated each step of the way and was released after about four years. I look at the icon and remember Salmon’s words: “Either Jesus was a liar or war is never necessary!” Reading The Origins of War, I thought a lot about Salmon.

I’m glad Matthew Shadle explored the sweep of history to explain why wars happen and that he did so in the light of scripture and Catholic tradition. I rejoice that he cited people like Pope John Paul II and Dorothy Day, who have been light to many in dark times. John Paul’s words “No to war! War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity”, echo in many hearts. Day lived among victims of war and greed, established communities to serve them, and stood against all that victimized them. The Catholic Worker movement is part of her legacy.

Three claims might summarize Shadle’s book:

  • Early generations of believers viewed war as a form of power politics that they were avid to avoid.

  • Later, believers became enamored with secular liberalism, its separation of culture and politics from religion, and, ultimately, its separation of church and state. Contemporary Catholics do not have a theory of war’s origins -- certainly not one that coheres with Catholic tradition. Many have embraced the just war theory and are often enthusiastic supporters of their government’s wars.

  • His theological account of the origins of war fashions a way to move beyond the liberal vs. conservative impasse among Catholic thinkers on the ethics of war today. Shadle upholds a theory of international relations known as “constructivism.” It became popular after the fall of the Berlin Wall and communism in Eastern Europe -- events no one anticipated. A scramble to explain them ensued.

In international systems, nations are generally seen as enemy, rival or friend. Changing that, to reestablish solid footings, has not been easy.

The broad theme for constructivists is that international politics and the identities of the states that engage in it take many forms. So constructivists seek to discover the identities of actors in the process of change and how these actors perceive and respond to threats. By targeting identity, constructivists address the very real human need to belong. To identify with others, to be recognized by others, has become important in international politics.

Shadle addresses the question “Why war?” by gleaning the fruits of this international relations theory and combining them with his theological ethics. Thus, he puts the social sciences in dialogue with Christian tradition in a way that he hopes will be critical, creative, honest and relevant to our time.

A key tenet is his belief that persuasive ideas, collective values, culture, and social identities shape international politics. Because he understands that international relations are a social construct, he is concerned with all the elements that influence the way people act in the international arena.

He presents a digest of international relations and asserts that constructivism offers a way to connect international relations with a renewed Catholic framework for studying the origins of war.

It may be that Shadle is reaching for a post-Vatican II theology, a Catholic understanding of what constitutes human fulfillment, including the role culture plays in forming a sense of human identity, interests and norms of behavior.

Nonetheless, I was disappointed that, in treating the biblical origins of war, Shadle did not address what, to me, are key insights.

First, he did not develop the truth that Jesus’ life and death proclaimed that war is murder. Abel’s murder in Genesis is the first, the founding, murder. It provides a perspective on the unspeakable role homicide has played in the foundation of human societies. Jesus exposed the truth of the founding murder when he announced his passion and death and linked it to all of human history.

The perspective of the Gospels is that Christ’s death is the consequence of his revelation that so many -- then and now -- find intolerable.

His own people did not understand what he proclaimed and so determined to rid themselves of him. In so doing, they confirmed the prophetic nature of his clashes with them.

Accepting his crucifixion, in a spirit of total nonviolence, Christ enacted the founding murder in reverse. His murder on the cross, in full daylight, revealed what had been “hidden since the foundation of the world.”

Hence he destroyed the ignorance and superstition of primitive religious practice and made an advance in knowledge possible. A scapegoat remains effective only as long as people believe in its guilt. The whole system of scapegoats was destroyed by the Crucifixion because it revealed Jesus’ innocence and, little by little, the innocence of all analogous victims.

Second, he omitted consideration of 1 Samuel 8:4-20, the passage in which Israel demands a king. The people argue that they need a king “to be like other nations.” Samuel brings the case to God, who responds that the people have not rejected Samuel as judge -- they have rejected God as king. God wanted these people as “a special treasure -- above all people ... a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). They wanted to be like other nations, to have a king to go out before them and fight their wars.

Their demand is a total betrayal of their identity, their vocation and their God -- a betrayal based on their desire to be like other nations. Implied in their wish is that people let neighbors dictate what is good, better, best. Then they vie -- even to war and death -- with neighbors to acquire the good, better, best before the neighbor can.

Their envy, jealousy, longing for what the other has may have more to say about the origins of war than any other human passion.

Reflecting on the overall impact of The Origins of War and the wars that darken our days, this simple fact leapt out at me -- a fact almost overwhelming:

Wars resolve nothing except who spends most to win them.

Wars are so bloody, ubiquitous, numerous, so costly on every level that people the world over, must, at some point, be moved to explore the “why” of war, which is to say its origin.

What a service Shadle has done to invite and encourage this reflection. May it prove so fruitful that humanity finally outlaws war.

[Elizabeth McAlister was among the founders of the Jonah House Community in Baltimore in 1973.]

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