Vinoth Ramachandra

Killing Civilians

Posted on: May 29, 2009

Since the Second World War it is unarmed civilians who have been the biggest casualties in wars. And wars leave a massive trail of pain and destruction in their wake: broken families and communities, prolonged mental trauma, ecological disaster, rampant criminality and the brutalization of social life.

This is easily and quickly forgotten in the aftermath of military victory. In 1982, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, was asked by the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, to lead the nation in a service of thanksgiving and remembrance for British soldiers killed in the Falklands War. Runcie insisted that the service would be a memorial service for all the war dead, including Argentine soldiers. While this enraged Mrs. Thatcher, Runcie was simply standing in a long Christian tradition of bishops and jurists who have refused to allow states to co-opt them into nationalistic or imperialistic projects.

Christendom at its best was an attempt to bear witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ over the civil authority. The Church sought to tame the violence of states: outlawing torture, severely restricting the use of the death penalty, crafting international law in response to God’s moral law, and bringing warfare into the realm of justice. In a famous confrontation with the Roman emperor Theodosius in 390 A.D, Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, refused him communion and excluded him from entering the Basilica until he had done public penance for ordering the massacre of the citizens of Thessalonica. By the standards of the age, Theodosius’ actions were not extraordinary. But Ambrose’s judging of secular judges set a precedent for the Church. It began the long and complex process of reforming earthly justice, of making earthly powers accountable and responsive to the rule of Christ.

No war can ever be truly just. What is misleading called ‘Just War Theory’, as it was elaborated and developed in Western Christendom, is not a theory about war. It is rather a way of encouraging moral reasoning: given the horrors of warfare, how should we restrain it? It proposes that any act of war can only be justified if it is an act of judgment, redressing a prior act (or acts) of injustice, and seeking the restoration of peace as its aim. Around this primary proposal are built cautions and safeguards that have to do both with the reasons for going to war and the conduct of the war itself. All violence is evil. And the just war proposals seek to limit the scope of violence as is realistically possible.

Keeping in mind the nature of justifiable war as an act of judgment leads to the twin moral principles of discrimination (between combatants and non-combatants) and proportionality (the methods used must be proportionate to the offense that is being redressed). Wherever modern states and anti-state forces have lacked the moral worldview embedded in these Just War proposals, they have indulged in ‘total war’ and claimed for themselves an absolute ‘sovereignty’. They demonize the enemy, calling them ‘terrorists’ and such like, and so stripping them of their essential humanity.

The distinction between combatants and non-combatants is often a fine one, but nevertheless very important. It is not the same as the distinction between civilians and non-civilians. (‘Terrorists’ and ‘insurgents’ are also civilians, whether or not they wear uniforms). Non-combatants are innocent if they do not participate in the war effort: they neither produce nor possess the means to cause injury to others. It is immaterial whether or not they morally support the cause of the enemy. Thus, munitions factories or laboratories engaged in producing biological or chemical weapons are legitimate targets of attack because they are manufacturing the means to injure others. But companies providing food and clothing for soldiers are not, because they do not have the capacity to cause injury to others. While it is of the essence of ‘terrorism’ to blatantly ignore these distinctions, it is of the essence of any civilized state to scrupulously respect them.

Moreover, when a war is declared over, both sides are required to release immediately all prisoners. Former combatants are not to be hunted down and punished like criminals.

This way of reasoning is based on the conviction that all human beings possess an intrinsic and inviolable dignity; so that any violation of such dignity requires powerful moral justification. It is part of the moral and conceptual revolution that Christianity introduced into the Western world. Over time, these principles have become part of internationally recognized rules of military engagement such as the famous Geneva Conventions. All those, Christian and non-Christian, who passionately espouse universal ‘human rights’ against the claim of ‘non-interference’ in a nation’s ‘internal affairs’ stand, knowingly or (usually) unknowingly, in the moral tradition that springs from Bishop Ambrose’s example.

But such rules are ineffective as long as the dominant worldview of the wider society lacks a high sense of the value of human beings. And herein lies the rub. Can laws, international conventions and external coercion by themselves bring about a politics of responsibility and accountability? And where the Christian shaping of the collective social conscience is steadily being eroded (as in the West) or has never been deeply implanted (as in the East), how long will respect for human rights flourish?

[For more, see my article on ‘War’ in the Global Dictionary of Theology, eds. Dyrness & Kaikaainen (2008)]

14 Responses to "Killing Civilians"

The problem with this blog post is its brevity. Often, being brief is a good thing, but this topic is simply too complex to be covered in such a short space. It’s easy to say that all violence is evil, and there is no truly “just” war, and to use good reasoning to back it up. But the cold hard truth is that there are many other factors involved.
To take everything you say above at face value, for example, one would have to take a stance that no police officer would be right if he were to take a shot at a criminal in order to save the life of another.
Then there’s the obvious conflict between “all violence is evil” and the actions that God ordered His servants to take in pre-Christian times. I say it’s a conflict because of the presupposition that I share with many believers, that God is 100% good. Yet we know that He enabled David to kill Goliath. In doing so, we know that David saved the lives of many others.
Other items I could mention, but you surely see them coming: wars that God sent the Israelites to fight, the times that God sent them into cities and ordered every man, woman, and child (and animal) to be killed. Modern arguments include World War II, which is no different from one police officer killing one to save many.

This is not to say that you are wrong, but that this subject is not so black and white.

What do you say about States/Entities/Individuals that wage war against us? Shouldn’t we have the ability to defend ourselves or should we turn the other cheek until we are essentially wiped out?

Mark, you didn’t ask me, but if I may interject:

The “turn the other cheek” verse specifically refers to something from a culture that most of us are not familiar with. If someone slapped you on the cheek 2000 years ago in Judea, it was an insult. Not an attempt to harm you.

This is an important distinction. If someone disses you, I read that passage that you are not to retaliate. This is backed up by several other passages, of course, and the one I will point to is 1 Peter 2:21-23 …Christ… leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps, … who when He was reviled did not revile in return.

But if it’s a matter of taking one life to defend another, I see no biblical directives to refrain from such a practice.

Dr. Vinoth,

Thank you again for your brief but excellent reflections on war. I usually do not like to respond to comments made by others to a blog post that I did not write. Having said that I would like to indirectly raise a few questions to JamesW.

What I found most poignant in your blog is the connection you make between States that make claims to absolute sovereignty, and using that as a justification for its actions particularly during times of war. The sovereignty of the state is constructed, elaborated and practiced as an ‘exclusion of the other’, the enemy both inside or beyond our borders. The logic of sovereignty is based on an insider/outsider logic – the safe ‘innocent’ insiders who belong to the community of humans that the state must decisively act to protect against the dangerous and dammed outsiders.

So for example, John Bolton (former United States Ambassador to the United Nations) has argued that the relationship between the sovereignty of the United States and international law is a zero-sum game. He argues that there is no law greater than the United States constitution. Imagine if every country in the international system makes the same argument to defend its actions. So today we have a global situation, because the United States can do whatever it wants fighting its war on terrorism to defend its sovereignty, Israel as a sovereign state does whatever it wants fighting those dangerous and dammed terrorist, and Sri Lanka does the same and the list goes on….

So my question to JamesW is how much of your reasoning on war, violence and military action, including how you read the story David and Goliath and remember World War II is trapped within this logic of sovereignty that I have tried to explain.

Mr. Powell. All valid questions. I guess the issue I take with your comments, and with some of Dr. Vinoth’s, is that they are very theoretical. That is, one could construct arguments for or against the idea of national sovereignty, nationalism, just wars, etc., and debate it very effectively and convincingly. Meanwhile, Jews are being murdered simply for being Jewish in the 1930’s, and we know, instinctively, that it was right to defeat the Axis powers, theories be damned. We know that David was right in defeating Goliath, because God apparently not only approved, but facilitated the event. And we know that God is always good, all the time.

Perhaps the problem is not just that nations, created by humans, are imperfect (although that certainly is the case), but the problem in debates like this is that any ideas, any theories, any arguments one can dream up, are formulated by humans who are equally imperfect. Perhaps, Mr. Powell, there are reasons that only God knows about why some wars are justified in His eyes, and we cannot comprehend why. At least not in this life.

And that brings me to my original point in my earlier post. This issue is not black and white. Even saying that it has shades of gray does not do it justice. It is complex, possibly too complex for even the best of us to fully grasp. My concern with any “God hates all violence” arguments, or their extreme opposite, is that the complexity is ignored in the interest of coming up with a man-made answer to the question. And I am not convinced such an answer is possible.

I am convinced that some wars are just. Some must die in order that others may live. I just don’t profess to be able to parse out what’s just from what is not. I question the validity of any statement from anyone who says such parsing is within their capability.

… instinctively, that it was right to defeat the Axis powers, theories be damned. We know that David was right in defeating Goliath, because God apparently not only approved, but facilitated the event. And we know that God is always good, all the time….

Just because God approved and facilitated to give a king to israel (annoint Saul) doesnt mean that He really ‘agree’ to it?

I guess that’s where we disagree then.

I wasn’t talking about Saul. I was talking about David. God clearly said He was allowing Saul’s anointing reluctantly. I don’t see anything in the reading of the David v. Goliath story that indicates this. And that’s not to mention the other times in the OT when God ordered His people to kill the enemy.

Please could you read what I have actually written before you rush to comment on it?

How on earth did you get the idea from my post that I was a pacifist?!!!

Please could we drop the “dr” in future mails?

Sorry, I was following Powell’s lead on the Dr thing. But I am not sure who you are referring to with the remark about being labeled a pacifist and not having read your post before commenting. I most certainly did read it.
Specifically, my first comment was addressing your statements “No war can ever be truly just.” and especially “All violence is evil.”

My example to disprove the latter statement, from a Christian perspective is: God wanted David to kill Goliath. God is incapable of doing evil. Therefore, not all violence is evil.

I think violence is a result of the Fall, and so is war. And Fall is not God’s plan.

When we read the story of David and Goliath having situated it within the bigger picture of how God tried to rescue Israel as a nation so that she would be faithful to her vocation (Genesis 12) we realised that David killing Goliath was one act of God trying to bring back disobedient Israel to the right path. And Israel’s disobedience was never God’s plan.

I think David killing Goliath was plan B of God. Plan A was that Israel would never disobey. This may appear as if God was helpless is over-ruling the affairs of human history. But does not Fall appear that way too? Why on earth did God not stop Adam from eating the fruit if he was sovereign? Of course this does not stop us from saying that God is sovereign. To me this rather demonstrates that human mind is incapable of understanding the totality of reality.

All violence, to me, is plan B or C or D of God. Theologians of old argued for just war as the lesser evil; their preference would have been no war. I think “God wanted David to kill Goliath” as if that is plan A of God is a modern way of reading theology. And I am afraid such rigid reading of human history is found wanting.

God bless!

my point about saul is:

although saul is approved by God and annointed by God to be king, God does not actually like the idea of israel wanting to have a king (just like the other nations). ref:1sam8
But that is what israel want for themselves: and God gave it to them. (God have a bigger plan yes, but that is not my point. the point is: at that very moment, his people failed to listen to what he wants, and just go on with what they think)

as of war:
although God seems to ‘approve’ war on axis power, on violence, that does not mean that He likes this stuff. I strongly feel that this actually means that we as His ppl failed to listen to Him, and yet He can make our failures a part of His plan; creatio ex nihilo.

Just look at what the Lord has done in calvary.


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May 2009
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