Let’s resurrect a few fourth and fifth-century theologians and coach them for the Sunday-morning talk shows.  Be merciless.  Interrogate them with conspiracy-laced drills: Where were you on the afternoon of September 10th?  Were you prepping President Obama on his four-point strategy to “degrade, and ultimately destroy” the so-called Islamic State?  Were you whispering in his ear before his 2009 Nobel Laureate speech?  Maybe you spoon-fed him that line: “Over time, as codes of law sought to control violence within groups, so did philosophers and critics and statesmen seek to regulate the destructive power of war.  The concept of ‘just war’ emerged.”

Warn them of the pundits’ gotcha cynicism at their climactic question: “What were you plotting when you revised three centuries of Christian pacifism and said the faithful may bear arms?”  Pretend you love it.  Sweet-talk us through your nuanced reasoning — because we’re groping in complexity’s moral fog, beyond the reach of bumper-sticker analysis.

So, above all else, make sure your make-up doesn’t melt under the bright lights.

It All Makes Sense

We suddenly see why Eastern European countries hustled in their NATO applications after the Berlin Wall tumbled: Mother Russia is a brooding matriarch coveting the children she once kidnapped, and Vladimir Putin stands in the tsarist lineage of thuggish, self-appointed successors of the Byzantine Caesars. He stole the Crimean Peninsula and threw in a 97 percent vote as homage to yesteryear’s Soviet elections, then hid behind a who-me look while infiltrating Eastern Ukraine.  To the south lies the brutal “Islamic State” – or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.  Whatever.  Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, says he’s bent on spreading his “Caliphate” across Europe.  The Ottomans only reached Vienna in 1529 under Suleiman the Magnificent; he’ll finish the task – minus the sultan’s relative religious tolerance.

Moscow’s cynics and the IS fanatics maneuver on idiosyncratic assumptions, spawning alien reasoning and rendering genuine dialogue almost impossible.  Putin couples “might” with “right” and views deception as a useful tool.  Evidently, al-Baghdadi thinks coordinated suicide bombings are righteous.  Slaughtering the infidel is good; trafficking Yazidi teens is virtuous; beheading non-combatant journalists is upright.  It’s all God’s will.

How do we negotiate when we’re viewed as the Devil?  ISIS knows our peace-offerings are unholy lures and our questions are Satan’s probes.  Exploding a dynamite-laden vest sends them to paradise and us to Hell, so go for it.

Ancient Guides for the I-Phone era  

That’s where the ancient theologians and their modern interpreters step in.  They reluctantly abandoned their Church’s three-century stance on strict pacifism, which Peter Brock and Thomas Socknat define as “unconditional rejection of all forms of warfare,” including self-defense.  Goths and Visigoths marauded, culminating in Alaric’s sack of Rome in 410. Christians, once persecuted, now held high governmental positions with obligations to guard their citizens. Their moral dilemma: How do we handle sociopathic tyrants? Such bullies thank their enemies for the olive branches and then brandish them as whips. Putin and al-Baghdadi are the gallery’s latest installments.  Line them up with Nero, Genghis Kahn, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic, Slobodan Milosevic, and Charles Taylor. Think of Ted Bundy with an army.

Milan’s bishop, Ambrose (337-392 CE), borrowed Cicero’s “Just War” approach, which mandates a just cause, a formal declaration, and just conduct. His more famous pupil, Augustine (354-480), agreed in his classic, City of God, which also carved a notch for conscientious objectors. He contrasted God’s eternal, peaceful city with the temporal and ill-fated City of Man. The two cities now mingle, with Christ’s wayfaring pilgrims duty-bound to both.   Subsequent thinkers molded the theory into what might better be called “modified pacifism:” A war must be waged for a just cause, with the right intention, as a last resort, by a lawful authority, and with a reasonable chance of success. It must be selective in its weaponry, adhere to international conventions, and avoid deliberate civilian assaults.

Such standards would halt NATO from reckless attacks on Russia, since success is doubtful.  At the very least, they would have frozen UN troops at the 38th parallel when they drove back North Korean invaders in 1950 and prevented America’s involvement in Vietnam.  No coalition force would have invaded Iraq in 2003.

A pacifist heart beats within modern just war thinkers (that unfortunate label has stuck). Blood-letting makes their skin crawl. Didn’t Jesus, the Prince of Peace, order Peter to drop his sword? Didn’t pacifism reign during Christianity’s formation? They worry about war’s dark allure: the adrenaline-laced saber rattling, the feel of raw dominance, the malevolent pleasure of revenge. Pope Leo XIII called war a “scourge;” Pope Paul VI pleaded to the United Nations: “Never again war, war never again!” The US National Conference of Bishops wrote in 1983: “Catholic teaching begins in every case with a presumption against war and for peaceful settlement of disputes,” with force permitted in “exceptional circumstances.” John Paul II said war “is always a defeat for humanity.”

Roman Catholic thinkers still lift much of Just War’s intellectual heft under the banner of Natural Law, a system of moral reasoning supposedly available to all people of “good will.” Kristopher Norris has studied the theory’s evolution in that Church and says it now shares a “common starting point” with pacifism: War, at the very least, signals moral failure.  For example, Paul Griffiths of Duke University wrote in 2002: “The Catholic tradition is in fact abundantly clear about where the burden of proof lies when the possible use of lethal military force by a nation is concerned.  It lies with those who would endorse or advocate it.”

All of which worries George Weigel, whom Damon Linker ranks as one of the most influential “theocons” (imagine former Vice President Dick Cheney with a rosary and other neocons attending daily mass): “The new Catholic ‘default position’ is more accurately described as a functional pacifism that mistakenly imagines itself an authentic development of the just war tradition.”

In other words, the Quakers have snuck into the Vatican.

Weigal has a point.  Griffiths said America didn’t meet the burden of proof for attacking the Taliban because all the information came from untrustworthy governmental officials and a “jingoistic and blinkered” national and international media.  No one can meet such standards of evidence.  But Norris says Weigel is “misguided.”  Griffiths himself admits that he and his kin do not have the last word.  His own bishop supported the coalition attack, and most prelates still ask the lingering questions:  What about those Mafia-don leaders?  What about mob mentalities engulfing entire nations?

The ghosts of the Rwandan genocide want to know.

An Inadequate Rejoinder

Pacifists almost invariably reply with platitudes and finger-wagging deflections: “We didn’t negotiate enough … we’re just as guilty … We’re for peace; you’re for war …”  Kaeley Pruitt-Hamm, the Advocacy Coordinator at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, responded to Obama’s September 10th speech with a blog-entry tagged “war is not the answer.”  She said: “As evidenced by negotiations with Iran, it is possible that diplomacy can work, certainly better than meeting violence with violence.”

Really? Does total non-violence invariably lead to genuine, holistic peace? Remember the hopeless diplomacy of Cyrus Vance and David Owen in their efforts to end the Bosnian War. The Serbs only negotiated after NATO bombings.  And, incidentally, few claim war is “the answer.”  Remember Obama’s third and fourth prongs: Cut-off ISIL funding and provide humanitarian assistance.  Remember Bosnia: The NATO jets flew to push the Serbs into negotiations, which led to the (imperfect) Dayton Peace Accords.  Pacifist bromides – given by sincere people who play constructive peace-building roles (no one can reasonably question the courage and integrity of the Mennonites and the Quakers) – often fail to address the point.

Strict pacifism’s weaknesses glare when we review a bygone era that ran on different assumptions: The fascist threat rendered the political Left less dovish in the 1930s. Reinhold Niebuhr, a social democrat and arguably America’s greatest twentieth-century Protestant theologian, debated in 1932 with his brother, Richard, on the pages of The Christian Century. Japan had attacked China late the previous year. Reinhold said war is sometimes necessary while Richard suggested the U.S. should pray, repent, remain inactive, and plunge into “an American self-analysis.” Our inaction would be “of those who do not judge their neighbors because they cannot fool themselves into a sense of superior righteousness.”

A question: How would our doleful self-analysis have helped up to 200,000 Nanjing civilians in 1937, victims of the Imperial Army’s orgiastic rampage? Does our guilt for past sins excuse present-day neglect?

More weaknesses reared in 1936, when the Nazis re-militarized the Rhineland. The British and French remembered the Great War’s slaughter and did nothing. Hitler, who ordered his troops to retreat if attacked, took heart: The allies were soft. He bullied them into ceding Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland at the Munich conference of 1938, after which British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain proclaimed “peace in our time” to the applause of his countrymen (we forget the applause). Hitler invaded Poland the next year.

Incredibly, British pacifists still wagged their fingers in 1942 while the air raid sirens howled. George Orwell – again, a socialist – said pacifism served the pro-fascist cause: “If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other.” That’s why the Nazis encouraged allied pacifists while rounding them up in the Fatherland. “Lying on one’s back” in attempts to halt German troops betrays “ignorance of the way in which things actually happen.”

Perhaps Orwell wasn’t fair, but D.S. Savage, General Secretary of the Anglican Pacifist Fellowship, reeled in near-drunken moral equivalency: “War demands totalitarian organization of society. Germany organized itself on that basis prior to embarking on war. Britain now finds herself compelled to take the same measures after involvement in war. Germans call it National Socialism. We call it democracy. The result is the same.”  His credulity knew no bounds: “Who is to say that a British victory will be less disastrous than a German one?” … “Hitler requires, not condemnation, but understanding.”

No wonder why Orwell accused Savage of “intellectual cowardice.”  As Paul Berman writes, British thinkers “gazed across the Rhine and simply refused to believe that millions of upstanding Germans had enlisted in a political movement whose animating principles were paranoid conspiracy theories, blood-curdling hatreds, medieval superstitions and the lure of murder.”

Much like the Islamic State.

Orwell was kinder to Mohandas Gandhi in 1949. The Indian leader’s Satyagraha philosophy was “a sort-of non-violent warfare, a way of defeating the enemy without hurting him and without feeling an arousing hatred.” He commended Gandhi’s rejection of “the sterile and dishonest line” that all sides are equally evil, and even credits him for intellectual consistency in his calls for sacrifice. But “it is difficult to see how Gandhi’s methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again.” The British raj would arrest Gandhi with great publicity; Stalin would have had him shot and his family laboring in Gulag mines, with Pravda somberly rejoicing over its fictional statistics on escalating pig-iron output. No one would have known his fate and, in a land crowded with NKVD moles, no one would have asked.

Which circles us back to Putin and al-Baghdadi: Modified pacifism is our only reasonable choice as long as former KGB agents and fanatics reign and itch for those halcyon days of empire and Caliphates.