November 23, 2008

Richard Hays’s Challenge to the Just War Tradition

Filed under: Ethics — William Witt @ 6:49 am

Richard Hays represents an approach to Christian ethics that follows in the tradition of Mennonite John Howard Yoder and Methodist ethicist Stanley Hauerwas.1 This ethical approach understands Christian ethics to have a specific content provided by the New Testament texts themselves. Christian ethics is not simply a reiteration of ethical principles known by everyone in general (natural law). Nor is Christian ethics simply a matter of drawing practical application from abstract theological principles like law and gospel. Finally, the narrative texts of the New Testament do not present an “impossible ideal” meant to show human shortcomings, an “ethic of perfection” for select Christians, or an “interim” ethic reflecting a “consistent eschatology” concerned only with the end of the world–all views amounting to the claim that New Testament ethics are not relevant to the lives of contemporary Christians.

One of the distinctive characteristics of this approach is its narrative emphasis. The narrative mode of the New Testament documents is understood to have moral content. The gospels tell a story and Christian ethics has to do with appropriating the Christian story for one’s own. This narrative approach has been found to be a helpful in contemporary theology. Numerous theologians have adopted it; recent variations focus on the notion of drama, e.g., Kevin Vanhoozer.

However, this narrative approach has been a challenge to at least one reading of Christian ethics, the just war theory. The story of Jesus is a story of non-violence and non-resistance. Jesus conquers the powers of evil not by raising up an armed rebellion, but by going to the cross. God the Father vindicates him by raising him from the dead; the paradigm for Christian discipleship is that of “imitating Christ,” and the classic Christian ideal is that of the martyr. Hays’s exegesis follows in the earlier steps of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas who argued in their works The Politics of Jesus2 and The Peacable Kingdom3 that following in Jesus’ non-violent way of the cross demands a non-violent ethic.

Hays is clear about the problems that this narrative approach to Christian ethics creates for traditional “Just War” ethics. He says that the “just war criteria” are not derived from, nor derivable from the New Testament. They depend on a process of “natural law” reasoning that has little biblical warrant. In Hays’s words: “[T]he New Testament offers no basis for ever declaring Christian participation in war ‘just.’ ” Accordingly, Hays concludes that the just war tradition, even if the Church’s majority position, has to be rejected as incompatible with the teaching of the New Testament (Hays, 341).


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