Conversations surrounding the ethics of war have been long overdue for an overhaul, if not an explicit interrogation of how the traditions of ethics surrounding the question of war work. For many years now, the literature around Christian ethics and violence have taken one of two approaches: 1) the traditional options of just war, nonviolence, and realism are fine and are merely in need of updating, or 2) the traditional options no longer hold in a world in which states are not the primary instigators of violence. Both of these approaches turn on the same assumption, however: that the ethics of violence constitute singularly unfolding traditions in need of further application.
Mark Douglas’ trilogy on the ethics of violence in a world of environmental changes constitutes an ongoing dissent to this basic consensus. His most recent installment, Modernity, the Environment, and the Christian Just War Tradition, examines the history of just war thinking, not as a smooth process of unfolding singular insights, but as a series of contextual responses that only appear as a singular tradition in hindsight. This approach, which he inaugurated in the excellent first volume of the trilogy on Christian pacifism, invites us to read the ethics of violence, and indeed the work of Christian ethics itself, as a history of contextual adaptation. And in seeing these positions as histories of adaptation, the hope is that we might again be able to turn to their historical wisdom in another time of environmental change.
Douglas’ volume begins with key late medieval and early modern developments in just war thinking, with a focus on the work of Francisco de Vitoria and Hugo Grotius, before passing through to the drafting and ratification of the US Constitution. This circumspect selection allows him to home in on the ways that these influential texts and thinkers are built on assumptions of what counts as “the natural world,” and thus where and how violence can be justly applied. As indicated earlier, one of Douglas’ aims in these examinations is to argue that the standard story of just war theory, as a seamless shift from the defense of one’s own army in war time to the basis for international law, is incorrect. For Douglas, this shift from the late medieval world to the modern one required not a development of basic assumptions about what is natural, but instead a radical shift or abandonment of previously held principles.
According to Douglas, Vitoria’s seminal works on whether it was permissible to take property from indigenous persons in the Americas and West Indies, for example, were works of a tradition of moral reasoning in crisis. The Spanish had encountered a true Other, a people who had sociality, customs, and values and yet still resisted conversion to Christianity, making them a true surd within the framework of medieval moral reasoning about violence. Only by coming to conclusions concerning the humanity of the indigenous persons could Vitoria then revise and expand the teaching he had received from Thomas Aquinas, Augustine of Hippo, and Cicero.
Similarly, Douglas argues that Grotius’ application of just war reasoning to a new context of international relations occurred against the backdrop of the emergence of new Others. With the collapse of a unified Catholic world into nascent nations and monarchies, new questions had to be asked about what it meant for the humanity of people to be related to their political identity. Grotius appeared in a world in which the question of “international relations” had not needed to be asked, for it was assumed that all European nations were of the same political house. And as such, new questions about the “natural” limits of violence, property, and sovereignty had to be asked in order to answer questions of political violence.
As Douglas works through these figures and then turns his attention to the just war ethos embedded within the US Constitution, he consistently asks the question of what traditions of moral reasoning are, and what use they might have beyond their initial period of authorship. In each of these epochs, assumptions about the natural world and its relation to humans are excavated, uncovering in some cases new gems for our age. As the anthropological assumptions of these just war texts are exposed, we are given more and more indication that these traditions are capable of being repaired, so long as we see them as traditions which are contextually sensitive and capable of being repaired. In contrast to some who would throw out all the rules in this age of environmental catastrophe, opting for technocratic solutions in place of moral reasoning, Douglas interrogates the just war tradition for signs that it might be restored and made sensitive to an age in which environmental degradation is not only a means of war, but increasingly its cause. The medieval and early modern thinkers may have treated the non-human world as an inert world waiting to be molded, and they may have fought wars treating the world in this way. But for conflict to be conducted morally in the 21st century—whatever else it might look like—it cannot treat the earth as if it had nothing to say.
Because Douglas’ concerns in this volume are not yet the ones projected for the third and final volume—conflict in a time of environmental change—there are few specifics on what this changed world of conflict might look like. As one who read and greatly appreciated the first two volumes of this trilogy, we can only eagerly anticipate the conclusion to discover what it might mean to recover an anthropocentric past for a more ecologically attuned future.
Myles Werntz is an associate professor of theology at Abilene Christian University.
Date Of Review:
August 25, 2023
Mark Douglas is Professor of Christian Ethics at Columbia Theological Seminary. The author of Christian Pacifism for an Environmental Age, his work has been supported by the Nohria Family Charitable Fund and the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton.
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