War, peace & Jean Bethke Elshtain: a continuing exchange.


The unfair--indeed, quite offensive--criticisms lobbed at Jean Bethke Elshtain's Just War Against Terror by Stanley Hauerwas and Paul Griffiths ("War, Peace & Jean Bethke Elshtain," October 2003) reminded me of Friedrich Nietzsche's warning in Ecce Homo that the more humanitarian our values become, the more monstrous will be world politics. The authors' bizarre lucubrations on her book sounded more like a collaboration between Tertullian and Gore Vidal, with sectarian ecclesiology joining forces with supercilious anti-Americanism, than like an honest confrontation with Professor Elshtain's argument. Although one would never know it from reading their review alone, her book is in fact a careful and painstaking analysis of how classical just war theory must now bring its analytical powers to bear in today's transformed setting of Muslim-motivated murder by terror.

Readers of Prof. Hauerwas' recent Gifford lectures, With the Grain of the Universe, are already familiar with his postmortem attempt to read Reinhold Niebuhr out of the Christian fold by the vulgar expedient of declaring him not really a Christian to begin with, a sleight of rhetorical hand uncomfortably reminiscent of the infamous "Cadaver Synod" convened by Pope Stephen VI in 897, when this rancid pope put on trial for heresy the mummified corpse of his predecessor, Pope Formosus, and excommunicated him.

For that reason, I suppose it should come as no surprise that the authors have adopted for their screed the faux-magisterial tone of a privately promulgated motu proprio, arrogating to themselves an authority they do not possess--except in their self-anointed role as arbiters of Christian ethics. Hazel Motes, the preacher-protagonist of Flannery O'Connor's novel Wise Blood, wanted to start a "Church of Christ Without Christ." To judge by his books, Prof. Hauerwas would seem to prefer a "Church of Christ Without a Church," unless it be perhaps a "Church of One"--with himself as both infallible pontiff and lone communicant.

Readers of this periodical are also already familiar with Prof. Griffiths' earlier criticisms of the American "adventure" (his arch word) in Afghanistan, which resulted in the overthrow of the Taliban regime there (oh, and what a catastrophe that was to his hopes for a non-consumerist, abortion-free culture!). So again it comes as no surprise that the authors would sneer, using their collective soi-creant magisterial authority, at church-state separation and gaze longingly on the mirror-image polity in Muslim nations ruled by sharia (Islamic law). Such a topsy-turvy view might make sense inside Professor Hauerwas' idiosyncratic one-man, one-church ecclesiology; but in Mr. Griffiths, a professor of Catholic Studies, mind you, such a view beggars the imagination, espedally in the wake of Dignitatis Humanae, Vatican II's Declaration on Religious Freedom, which explicitly forbids Catholics to countenance state coercion of religious belief. Surely the authors have heard of the two million dead (most of them Christian) in Sudan, the grenades lobbed into a church in Pakistan during worship services one Sunday, the riots against Christians in northern Nigeria because of Christian opposition to the imposition of Islamic law there, the bombing of churches in Indonesia, the beheading of a Christian in Saudi Arabia for convetting from Islam to Christianity, and on and on. But then again, Gore Vidal recently said that the fate of Iraqis under Saddam Hussein's Arab-fascist boot was not his concern, so why should the fate of persecuted Christians get in the way of a little America-bashing by these spokesmen for Christian pacifism?

Prof. Elshtain is certainly right that their critique descends into the risible when the authors suggest that the civilized nations send out a posse to arrest Osama bin Laden (with what S.W.A.T. team culled from the Dogberry Constabulary, might one ask--Duke University's campus security patrol?).

But these two magisterial professors move beyond the risible and into the downright morally grotesque when they invidiously contrast our nation's First Amendment freedoms, especially the free exercise of religion (which James Madison called "the luster of our country"), over against the fierce persecution of Christians in Muslim countries. So much for solidarity with the suffering members of the Body of Christ.

For examples of authentic criticism, as opposed to their frivolous carping, one could quite legitimately fear that the Bush Administration's headlong rush into war against Iraq might leave the United States saddled with an American West Bank for the next forty years. One could similarly regard the President's tax cuts as a foolish indulgence at just the time when the government needs money to defend the country. And one can surely recognize that there is an inner sadness, even despair, that drives our consumerist culture and economy at just the time when it is precisely self-sacrifice that we most need.

But to make those concessions would be to start to draw distinctions-precisely what Jean Bethke Elshtain does so masterfully in Just War Against Terror. I suspect that is the real reason why Messrs. Hauerwas and Griffiths found her book so offensive to their sensibilities: it challenged them to think outside of their comfortable binary world, a world where morality is an algorithm, the Sermon on the Mount a foreign-policy manual, and moral dilemmas are whisked away with a few slurs on a writer and thinker who can recognize a complex moral problem when she sees one.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J.

University of St. Mary of the Lake

Mundelein Seminary

Mundelein, Illinois

One can only regret that in their assault on Jean Bethke Elshtain, Stanley Hauerwas and Paul Griffiths chose to vent their spleens instead of offering a serious and thoughtful pacifist critique of just war arguments about terror. Had one of my students turned in such a poorly reasoned diatribe, I would have pointed out the fallacies and made him rewrite it.

An example will suffice. According to Messrs. Hauerwas and Griffiths, "[W]hen America sees states organized on principles it doesn't like (this is what Elshtain means by 'failed states') it should remake them by force (if necessary) into states organized on principles it does like." What Elshtain actually says is that when a state is unable or unwilling to undertake the first duty of any state anywhere to uphold justice--then other states may be justified in intervention. We see then that Hauerwas and Griffiths have translated a claim about justice into a claim about what some people happen to like. So far as I can see, there are only two possible justifications for such translation. The first is to maintain that"I like X" is all that anyone ever means by saying "X is just"--in other words, to debunk justice itself. It is hardly imaginable that Hauerwas and Griffiths would take this line, because they would be hoist with their own petard; their arguments against the justice of Elshtain's position would reduce to "We dislike Elshtain's dislike of what we like." The second possibility is to present evidence that Elshtain is lying--that although there is such a thing as justice, she speaks of it only to mislead. Here the problem is that they have no evidence to present; in its place they offer a series of mind-reading exercises like the one at hand: Elshtain is lying. How do we know she is lying? Because she says A when she means B. But how do we know she means B? Because she is lying.

"Either mendacious or culpably blind," thunder Hauerwas and Griffiths; "ideology masquerading as dispassionate analysis." Who is it again that they are shouting about?

J. Budziszewski

Depts. of Government

and Philosophy

The University of Texas at Austin

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