Under ‘just war’ theory, the war in Yemen is a moral disaster

war chess
Photo by Gladson Xavier on Pexels.com

Providence Magazine’s mission is to apply right-wing Christian ethics to matters of foreign policy. The magazine’s co-editor, Mark Tooley, writes he recently got into an argument about the ethics of America’s support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen — the same war the U.S. Senate astoundingly rebuked this week — and concludes that Christian pacifists are morally unserious.

American Christian commentators can preach smug, condemning bromides. Or they can, if they are more serious, labor to apply the historical church’s vast ethical resources to complex geopolitical challenges for which there are usually no comfortable answers.

He doesn’t reference “just war” theory by name, though I assume that’s what he’s referring to. Technically, the theory is supposed to offer an obstacle to wanton warmaking — if you’re a Christian, you can only conduct a war under certain conditions — but I suspect that it doesn’t really work that way: Is there a war that America has refused to undertake because advocates conceded it didn’t meet just war criteria?

Let’s do what Tooley does, though, and apply the theory to Yemen. How does it stand up?

Just war theory is split into two parts — one that governs the reasons for going to war, the other that governs conduct in war. My friend Damon Linker one time summed up the six criteria for going to war thusly:

The war must be undertaken with the intention of establishing a just peace. It must be defensive. It must be aimed at protecting the innocent against unjust aggression. It must have a reasonable chance of success. It must be declared and waged by a competent governing authority. And it must be undertaken as a last resort. If the war meets these six criteria, it can be considered morally justified.

Let’s look at a couple of these items:

• It must be declared and waged by a competent governing authority.

How is such an authority defined? “A just war must be initiated by a political authority within a political system that allows distinctions of justice. Dictatorships (i.e. Hitler’s Regime) or a deceptive military actions (i.e. the 1968 US bombing of Cambodia) are typically considered as violations of this criterion. The importance of this condition is key. Plainly, we cannot have a genuine process of judging a just war within a system that represses the process of genuine justice. A just war must be initiated by a political authority within a political system that allows distinctions of justice.”

The war in Yemen being prosecuted largely by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is a dictatorship — one that recently had an opponent living abroad assassinated and dismembered. There are few people outside Saudi Arabia who would argue the monarchy serves the cause of genuine justice.

• It must have a reasonable chance of success.

The war is nearly four years old. It is a stalemate. Everybody believes they can win a war at the outset. But at this point, any “reasonable chance of success” is remote. The longer a war drags on, the less justifiable it becomes under just war theory.

• It must be aimed at protecting the innocent against unjust aggression. 

The war in Yemen is mostly about geopolitical posturing by outside powers. You should read this easy explainer of the war if you don’t understand what’s involved, but here’s the key point for our purposes:

Alarmed by the rise of a group they believed to be backed militarily by regional Shia power Iran, Saudi Arabia and eight other mostly Sunni Arab states began an air campaign aimed at restoring Mr Hadi’s government. The coalition received logistical and intelligence support from the US, UK and France.

The innocent are neither here nor there, it seems. The old aphorism is that “war is politics by other means” and that seems to be the case here. You can think that Saudi Arabia is preferable to Iran. But that doesn’t conform to just war theory.

These are just the justifications for war. There’s also a set of criteria for how the war is conducted.

The big one, for our purposes is called “discrimination.” Basically, civilians aren’t combatants and thus should be spared the pains of war as much a humanly possible. And it’s here, perhaps, that the war in Yemen falls most disastrously short of being just.

From August:

GENEVA — The military coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen has killed thousands of civilians in airstrikes, tortured detainees, raped civilians and used child soldiers as young as 8 — actions that may amount to war crimes, United Nations investigators said in a report issued Tuesday.

The report singled out Saudi and Emirati airstrikes for causing the most civilian casualties, saying they had hit residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings, jails, boats and medical facilities.

“There is little evidence of any attempt by parties to the conflict to minimize civilian casualties,” said Kamel Jendoubi, the chairman of the panel of experts that produced the report.

From November:

<p”>The announcement by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis at the Pentagon came on the heels of a statement by the aid agency Save the Children on Wednesday that underscored the harrowing nature of the conflict: An estimated 85,000 children might have died of hunger since the bombings began in 2015.

Experts say Yemen has become the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, and 14 million people could soon be on the brink of starvation,according to the United Nations.

“For every child killed by bombs and bullets, dozens are starving to death — and it’s entirely preventable,” Tamer Kirolos, Save the Children’s country director in Yemen, said in the statement. “Children who die in this way suffer immensely as their vital organ functions slow down and eventually stop.”

I’m not as familiar with just war theory as I should be, admittedly. But it sure appears that even a cursory application of its principles finds the Saudi war in Yemen wanting — and thus the U.S. support of that war unjustifiable.

Mr. Tooley is right: The world is complex. Aphorisms don’t always match the complexity of a problem. But sometimes these matters are simpler than they seem. The war in Yemen is a moral disaster — truth, whether or not you bring the “historical church’s vast ethical resources” to bear, or not.

Readings: What’s missing from the ‘Slave Bible’

photo of child reading holy bible
Photo by nappy on Pexels.com

Wow. From NPR:

On display now at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., is a special exhibit centered on a rare Bible from the 1800s that was used by British missionaries to convert and educate slaves.

What’s notable about this Bible is not just its rarity, but its content, or rather the lack of content. It excludes any portion of text that might inspire rebellion or liberation.

“This can be seen as an attempt to appease the planter class saying, ‘Look, we’re coming here. We want to help uplift materially these Africans here but we’re not going to be teaching them anything that could incite rebellion.’ ” Schmidt says. “Coming in and being able to educate African slaves would prepare them one day for freedom, but at the same time would not cause them to seek it more aggressively.”

Read the whole thing. Shocking, but not surprising.

Part of my journey away from full participation in the church came while watching Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” while I was an undergraduate at a Mennonite college. A sudden realization occurred, that black people had often experienced Christianity as a tool by white people to oppress them. Seems like a no-brainer maybe, but at 19 — in that context — it was mind-blowing. Why wouldn’t black people reject a religion used to hurt them? And what kind of God would punish people who rejected his One True Religion on the basis of how it injured them on this earthly plain? I couldn’t find answers to the questions that seemed both just and theologically orthodox. Justice seemed to be the higher calling.

We don’t cut whole passages from the Bible anymore in order to preserve white supremacy. Not literally, anyway. But maybe we still do this in our hearts.

Readings: Art museums are the gift that keeps on giving

red art relaxation girl
Photo by Una Laurencic on Pexels.com

Co-sign this piece from the Washington Post:

Here’s a holiday gift idea: Take someone you love to an art museum.

Just go. Take your mom. Take your husband. Take your girlfriend.

Meet them there, or catch the train in together. And remember: No pressure. It’s not like a play or a movie or a concert, which your companion might like but might just as easily hate, leaving you both stuck in your seats, and you feeling responsible. You can walk out of a gallery any time.

Last year, we used some of our Christmas money to purchase a family membership to the Nelson-Atkins museum in Kansas City. It’s a fabulous institution. The membership enabled us to see special exhibitions featuring everything from Depression-era photographers to Napoleonic-era art. I featured the photography in a SixOh6 post earlier this year:

These pictures were taken all within the lifetimes of my grandparents. It’s both forever ago and just that close. The conditions that millions of Americans were living in — in makeshift shacks, built from mud or items rummaged from the trash, or simply not having enough to eat an being required to flee across the country in hopes they’d find some way to make a living — are those we associate, in modern America, with “third world countries or with pre-modern ways of living in our own. Truth is: What we think of us civilization — of a largely middle-class society, anyway — is both recent and fragile.

An art museum need not be that weighty – there’s lots of fun you can have there. But the membership was a gift that kept on giving.

Football and forgiveness at Liberty University

american sports
Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

Checking in on football at Liberty University, the evangelical Christian college founded and run by the Falwell family. What’s going on with the team?

Former Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze has agreed to become Liberty‘s new football coach, sources told ESPN on Friday.

Say, why’s he a “former” coach?

At the time of Freeze’s resignation, Rebels athletic director Ross Bjork told ESPN that school officials found a pattern that included phone calls to a number associated with a female escort service.

Bjork separately told ESPN that once university officials dived deeper into Freeze’s phone records on a university-provided cellphone, going back as far as shortly after he was hired in 2012, they started finding more of a pattern with phone calls of the nature USA Today had earlier reported after an open-records request.

Guess who hired him?

Former Baylor athletic director Ian McCaw, who resigned in wake of the school’s sexual assault scandal, is Liberty’s athletic director.

Want to know something weird?

Ian McRary, Baylor’s Title IX officer from February 2015 to January 2016, was hired by Liberty in February 2016 as associate general counsel. Ian McCaw, Baylor’s former athletic director, was appointed AD at Liberty in November 2016. McCaw quickly hired Todd Patulski, his assistant athletic director at Baylor, as the Liberty athletic department’s associate athletic director and chief financial officer. McCaw, Patulski and McRary had all left their jobs at Baylor amid the investigation into that school’s handling of sexual abuse and assault allegations; administrators were accused in one of many resulting lawsuits with having “created a hunting ground for sexual predators to freely prey upon innocent, unsuspecting female students, with no concern of reprisal or consequences.” Not all the alleged rapists at Baylor were athletes, but the athletic department under McCaw and Patulski was viewed as the epicenter of the assault epidemic.

So. I don’t want to be glib about the possibilities of forgiveness and redemption where sexual sins are concerned. Still, it’s weird that Liberty — which is dearly, deeply committed to its conservative Christian identity — apparently routinely elevates men with these kinds of public histories, at least where football and sports are concerned.

I wonder what it tells the women on campus?

Readings: Why Damon Linker left the Catholic Church

art cathedral christ christian
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I know and owe Damon Linker: He’s a friend helped me make the connection that got me writing for The Week. But that’s not why I admire him and his writing. He’s stubbornly independent of mind, and that sometimes means he goes places that I don’t go, but there’s an integrity in his refusal to ever let the group do his thinking for him that I admire and hope to emulate.

Today, he writes about why he left the Catholic Church — and offers a stark challenge to those who remain. It’s worth reading for folks, no matter their spiritual beliefs.

What’s absurd? The claim that, of all the Christian churches, the Roman church is the very best, the truest of all, the one most fully and rightly ordered through time. That would be not only the church of the great diabolical popes of the past (like John XII and Alexander VI and Boniface VIII and Leo X), but also the church that in recent decades has seen literally thousands of priests in countries across the globe accused of sexually abusing children — 271 of them in the archdiocese of Boston alone — with untold numbers of bishops covering it up year after year after year. The number is untold, by the way, because we are still nowhere near knowing just how many members of the Catholic hierarchy around the world — all the way up to popes themselves — knew exactly what was happening and responded like self-protective bureaucrats and PR flacks out to protect a corporate brand from bad press.


Let’s be adults, shall we? If you believe that Jesus Christ was resurrected, that he is the Son of God and the second person of the trinitarian Godhead, that his teaching tells us how the creator of the universe wants us to live, then by all means be a Christian. But to believe that this particular church, of all the Christian churches in the world, is the one most fully and rightly ordered through time, over and above all of the others? You can’t possibly be serious.

Religions make claims that often, mostly, can’t be verified in this realm and in this lifetime. But Linker says that an institution that makes claims of moral superiority must demonstrate that superiority — and if it fails as completely as the Catholic Church has, then it’s reasonable to find its claims suspect, as well.

The Mennonites have a problem with this as well, of course, and all churches are afflicted by the fact that they’re made up of broken, fallen humans. But the rule that Linker seems to suggest here is one of basic evangelism: If your beliefs don’t help you be better, what good are they?

Rod Dreher, gays, and climate change

shallow focus photo of green leafed tree in front of men
Their love is probably killing that tree. Photo by Chrysostomos Galathris on Pexels.com

The good news? Rod Dreher believes in climate change. It’s good to see a conservative take the topic seriously.

The bad news? It’s a doozy.

I believe that global warming is real, and that it is man-made. I believe that it is divine judgment for our technocratic hubris. I believe that there is a direct connection — not causal, but still a connection — between the exploitation of the natural world that is causing the earth to revolt, and the destruction of the concept of the natural family, of sex, and even of the human person. We were tasked with stewardship of the natural order, and now we are being collectively punished for our transgressions of it — for trying to impose our will on it beyond all limits.

If that’s not perfectly clear, Dreher’s hinting that the same forces that give us freedom for gay and trans people are the same forces that cause climate change.

I assume this is because queer people are made of burning coal.

Dreher updated his blog to deny that he was making the connection he made: ” I am not saying that the collapse of sexual and familial norms are causing climate change.” But he was, kinda.

He might’ve been more on the ball if he’d taken a closer look in his own corner, at conservative Christianity. While many folks embrace a theological imperative to stewardship, lots of conservative Christians have turned to justifications to ignore humanity’s role in causing climate change.

Some of this is lazy, wishful thinking: As Lisa Vox wrote last year, “Confidence that God will intervene to prevent people from destroying the world is one of the strongest barriers to gaining conservative evangelical support for environmental pacts like the Paris agreement.”

“As a Christian, I believe that there is a creator in God who is much bigger than us,” Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) told constituents last week at a town hall in Coldwater, Mich. “And I’m confident that, if there’s a real problem, he can take care of it.”

This is “thoughts and prayers” logic on a world-historical level.

There are also those folks — I grew up among many of them — who believe that environmentalism is a form of idolatry.

And finally there are folks who believe that God has given humans “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth,” and who see that dominion as power to be exercised instead a responsibility to be faithfully attended.

Add all these strands up, and you find that “the likelihood that a Christian survey respondent expressed a great deal of concern about climate change dropped by about a third between 1990 and 2015.”

I’m going to go ahead and suggest these attitudes have more to do with the crisis we humans and other living things face than anything your gay neighbors might be doing. I don’t think Dreher shares those attitudes — he wrote a book called “Crunchy Cons” once, back when he was more fun and less shrill — but still: The people who do share those attitudes are more part of his community. If he’s really concerned about climate change, he might obsess about gays less and start looking around at his fellow parishioners more.


Those hot Menno nights (Why Hollywood loves bad Anabaptists)

I’m guessing this might be the most famous scene in all the history of depicting Mennonites and Amish onscreen:

Hollywood does love Mennonites, but it really loves bad Mennonites. If you’re putting 1980s Harrison Ford into a movie about hiding among the Amish, well, it’s not because he’s not going to fight.

That’s understandable: There’s a dramatic tension between Mennonite values and the values of so-called “action” that’s interesting to explore. Gary Cooper nearly made a career out of these kinds of flicks: Sergeant York and Friendly Persuasion don’t either depict Mennonites, exactly, but they do depict pacifist Christians who ultimately decide to fight. They’re charming movies — and, ultimately, they’re propaganda.

Anyway, here’s the next entry, a kind of Mennonite version of Breaking Bad.

From the description:

Pure tells the story of Noah Funk, a newly-elected Mennonite pastor who is determined to rid his community of drug traffickers by betraying a fellow Mennonite to the police. But instead of solving the problem, he only makes it worse. Now, to protect his family, he must get involved in the illegal operations himself. Starring Ryan Robbins, Alex Paxton-Beesley, A.J. Buckly and Rosie Perez.

This is “based on true events” involving the “Mennonite mob,” so I can’t complain much, but on the other hand: You never see movies about Mennonites struggling to do the right thing … and doing the right thing. There’s plenty of drama in a story like that. But there aren’t guns and drugs, so it’s harder for Hollywood to get interested. Oh well.