Hammer and Nail

In the near twenty-five decades of United States history, our country has been at war for most of that time. Be it a lawfully declared conflict or an ambiguous “intervention,” we have been eager to solve our conflicts with force. “When all you have is a hammer,” the idiom goes, “everything looks like a nail,” and many of our conflicts have looked like nails.

With sabres rattling yet again, it might be helpful to revisit some basic Christian ethics. There are those who make the assertion that we are a “Christian Nation” – a dubious claim at best – but if such a nation existed, it would certainly follow the trajectory of Christian  principles. 

In the beginning, as institutional Christianity filled the vacuum created by the collapse of the Roman Empire, early theologians began wrestling with this knotty problem of war. Some held fiercely to nonviolence, as many Christians still do, seeking peace through uncompromising reconciliation. 

But it was St. Augustine, writing 1,600 years ago, who set the moral standard – a standard Christians have often failed to meet – for the church to follow. Per Augustine, war was indeed evil. Yet, he understood what German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer recognized in his own time: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil.” In this tension between doing evil and allowing evil to go unchecked, Augustine crafted his best ethical solution.

Summarizing Augustinian thought: A conflict has to have a just cause, a cause that does not include cruelty, vengeance, or “love of violence.” Force has to be proportional and restrained, not total and unending. The goal must be justice, peace, and reconciliation; not profit, material gain, or annexation of any kind. And most importantly to Augustine, war must be a tactic of last resort, employed only after all other efforts have been exhausted.

For a moment, set aside all our unjust wars waged against the Cherokee, Lakota, and other aboriginal peoples to seize their resources. Set aside our conflicts that have been driven purely by ideology, oil, or revenge. Focus on that last Augustinian principle: War must be a tactic of last resort. Can we return to this ancient moral standard?

Mahatma Gandhi, a modern saint, said, “He who cannot protect himself or his dearest by nonviolently facing death, may have to do so by violently dealing with the oppressor…Though violence is not lawful, it is far better than cowardly submission.”

He went on to say that “given enough time” – that is, with enough patience, engagement, understanding of root causes – and enough letting go of selfishness and ego, “a peaceful solution can be found for almost any problem.” 

Thus, amending G.K. Chesterton’s wondrous quote might be in order: Peace “has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” Yet, in the 21st century, with the stakes and costs of capricious war so high, it behooves us to stop, talk, and listen; because not every conflict is a nail requiring the strike of a hammer.

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