Christ Has Abolished War – The War Within and Without

Whether we have in view violence on the largest scale such as war, or on the smallest scale such as the struggle within the individual, I would argue the same basic structure and dynamic is at work. For example, it is often said the first casualty of war is truth, and the presumption is that once lives are sacrificed in fighting a war, it will be difficult if not impossible to declare the war a mistake. The sacrifice of life would be betrayed by this truth, so the lie that the war was justified will serve in place of the truth. The narrative of patriotism, laying down one’s life for friends (see here), makes sense of war and this sense comes with its own morality and something like its own religion. But isn’t the same thing true on the individual level, that the self-punishment involved in guilt, masochism, or the intrinsic self-harm of addiction is its own justification? The life sacrificed is one’s own, but it too is a self-justifying system in which the sacrifice creates its own order of meaning and reality.

War creates a liturgical character on the order of ancestor worship in which the ultimate, eternal obligation, is to those who have died on behalf of the nation, so that to speak of the nation in any but absolute terms is to dishonor the dead. The society built on death, on the sacrifices of war, are bound together by the felt necessity to repay those sacrifices in a religious sort of patriotism. The survival or eternalizing of the state is implicit, as Dorothy Day indicated, in the “God talk” (e.g., phrases such as “In God We Trust” and “One nation under God”) which realpolitik exposes as fundamentally atheistic. “It has become expedient that we murder” and “that we ignore the precepts of Jesus Christ laid down in the Sermon on the Mount. . . .as Christianity has been reduced to a rule of expediency” serving the state. She pronounces the unthinkable or the ultimate secular blasphemy, “it is better that the United States be liquidated than that she survive by war.”[1]

But there may be something even more immediate in the justifying power of death, as studies of those who murder produce the same results: the killer sees the murder as justified and necessary (inevitable) and the act itself is viewed as righteous wrath.[2] It is not simply that one lies to others about the efficacy of violence, but the violence becomes the foundation of “truth” so that one is blinded to an alternative possibility – reality or truth. To state it within the perspective of war, the sacrifice of life in war creates a self-justifying system which generates its own ground or truth, but the same system can function at the individual level.

 It may be that the life of the state, on behalf of which the dead soldier is memorialized, seems to be a more tangible reality than the life, gusto, or being, sought in hedonism or addiction but it seems to be a matter of scale. The state builds concrete monuments to its war dead and the cult of the dead has its own uniforms, special salutes, and parades, but individual desire is no less tangible and it too is memorialized in compulsive repetition and it is no less life consuming in extracting life from the self. The individual has her own self-justifying sacrifice which creates personal rituals and “truth” of the same logical order as the sacrifice of war. The compulsion to repeat is the logic or economy at work in both instances – the investment of life is not just the assurance that this order is real – but it is the reality to which life is dedicated. So, we might say it is not just that truth is the first casualty of war, but an alternative truth is generated by both corporate and individual violence. In both instances the sign/significance is compulsively repeated as its circulation is the meaning.   

The deceit of the system is in plain sight in what is memorialized – the dead soldier represents life, freedom, and his ultimate sacrifice is what makes life possible and worthwhile. The concrete memorial or tomb literally reifies, eternalizes, or makes death an infinite value foundational to the life of the state. This bad infinite grips us personally when the concrete tomb of our own imaginary sense of self (the ego) becomes the foundation and energy behind all that we do and are. We would cadaverize (to coin a term), or memorialize our self on the order of a concrete object which is equated with life. We would establish the self as an object in the misperception that the image of the self or others (the bodily image) is the self.

Clearly the tomb and the self as object mark the same deceit, in which death is presumed to be life. In this sense, to call this a desire for death or death drive does not get at the mistaken presumption that to follow this drive or desire it is presumed that one is gaining life, whereas it is only the acquisition of death. This language may not be exactly accurate, as it is picturing a synchronous desire which folds all of this thought into an experience as if it is diachronic. Cognition or time does not necessarily figure into it. Thus, the Bible will refer to the deceit of desire as a first order experience of the lie. Idolatrous desire is pictured as a prostitute luring her customers to the grave. It is presumed or felt that to follow this desire is life itself – it is the life force or all that makes life worth living but it is only a force for death.

The idol or the concrete object for which one might sacrifice everything illustrates the psychological move as it occurs in the individual. The tomb/idol or the war memorial is a sign or the bearer of the sign in which the body of the soldier is completely covered over, so much so that the tomb or memorial need not contain any physical remains. For the individual, the body becomes the bearer of a sign and what is written over the body has displaced the body or any significance which it might have had in itself.

This “body of sin” or “body of death” is not simply the physical body but it is the body as ego – as in the bodily ego or the notion of the self as object. Here, all of the processes of the body take on an eternal weight of meaning. Food for the stomach and the stomach for food (I Cor. 6:13) can become an eternal circulating system of signs in which eating and digesting is its own justification. Sex can take on an eternal weight of meaning – its own mysticism – where it is presumed the body is the means to life. In this way the “flesh,” in Paul’s description, becomes a principle unto itself, a principal for death which he equates with immorality. As Lacan will describe it, desire is related to the ego which is imaginary (like an object or on the order of the physical body), so desire is the desire to establish the being of the Subject on the order of an object. The physical body is written over with a significance which obscures or transforms natural drives and desires. According to Paul this is immorality, and what it forgets or loses is that the body is for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body (I Cor. 6:13).

The body of state might become the same sort of self-justifying closed entity – and ironically with the absolutizing of the state with the Constantinian shift this process is Christianized or baptized. Just as the body becomes the container of the soul, the state is identified with the millennial kingdom, as it is made to bear an eternal weight of meaning. Just as the physical body is the empirical bearer of the soul amounting to a refusal of the body and its mortal contingencies, the state becomes divine or God-like as infallible judge, creating its own hell and dispensing its own heavenly rewards. According to Ernst Kantorowicz, the kings two bodies consist of his “natural body” rendered insignificant, as it is simply the bearer of the “body politic.”  Any idiot or any body can serve as the marker of this exalted sign of state. What is of enduring significance is the letter or sign and not the body per se (the king and state – like the individual now have two bodies), as the body is the incarnation of the sign written over or made possible by the sacrifice of its empirical bearer.

Given this singular genealogy for the war without and the war within, if Christ has established peace, then not only the individual but the world has been freed from the lie giving rise to the necessity of personal and corporate violence. My claim is that sin and war depend upon the economy of a lie which Christ has exposed and abolished. It is hard to say which claim may be harder to believe – that Christ has freed us corporately from the necessities of war or individually from the struggle of sin. If the internal struggle giving rise to sin cannot be conceived of as defeated in the peace of Christ, it may be a leap too far to understand how Christ has abolished the logic and necessity of a world which requires war. On the other hand, if it can be understood how individually we can be liberated from the principle of the flesh, it may be easier to conceive how the defeat of this same principle might apply to war. If the war within and the war without consists of the same sort of violence or sin, then redemption from sin is both an individual and corporate or world-wide possibility.

The gospel calls us to live lives of peace as an accomplished fact, and this means that the world that God loved and is redeeming is already the resource and reality out of which we live. We might speak of two worlds, if it is understood that there cannot be two orders of reality or two created orders anymore than there can be two bodies. We might refer to the world of the flesh or the world of darkness but this is not an actually existing world but it is a world written over with a lie. The lie might seem to have obtained world-wide traction (wiping out its empirical bearer) but its “size” does not mean that it is of a different order than the lie which takes hold within the individual. In fact, apart from the one the other cannot exist. The individual is given over to the same lie no matter if he encounters it in his tribe or state or within himself. The world given over to the lie is simply a support for the individual and the individual is a support of the corporate lie.

By the same token, the individual living in peace presumes that he witnesses to an alternative order to which the world can respond. The recreation of the world or the culmination of creation portrayed throughout the New Testament means that the Christian lives in a world freed of the seeming necessities of sin. It is not a world we could or need to create as Christ has created it. As Stanley Hauerwas has indicated, Christians need not work to create a world free of war as the world has already been saved from war. The Christian lives in a world in which war has been abolished and the manner of his life is a testimony that this is a first order reality which exposes the unreality of the world built on the lie of violence.

This cosmological shift is the message of the Gospel of John in which the light is now shining on all the world. The Prologue opens with a new-creation narrative which at every turn exemplifies, as with Nathaniel, the possibility of living without deceit. Here the wedding feast of the lamb, the cleansing of the cosmic temple, and the abode with the Father, are already established realities. Where darkness and light and life and death might appear to make up a cosmic dualism, John is proclaiming the end of the struggle. Life has defeated death and the light has penetrated the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.

The book of Hebrews declares an end to a similar sort of cosmic order, in which it seemed God was only available through angelic mediators and a sacrificial system condemned to comprehending God in shadows. Christ, the complete representation of God, has assumed within himself the role of both priest and victim and has brought an end to the seeming necessity of sacrifice and death: “Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (Heb 2:14-15). The god (whether the god of state or the world or the individual) who held out “satisfaction” through sacrifice and death is dethroned. The community of the saved testify to this end of sacrifice.

 As Hauerwas puts it, the church is an alternative to war. “The sacrifices of war are no longer necessary. We are now free to live free of the necessity of violence and killing. War and the sacrifices of war have come to an end. War has been abolished.”[3] The church sets forth an alternative ethic, no longer under the constraints of sin and war, as peace is established.

[1] Dorothy Day, “We Are Un-American, We Are Catholics,” Catholic Worker 14, no. 13 (April 1948), 2. Cited in John Mark Hicks. Resisting Babel: Allegiance to God and the Problem of Government (Kindle Location 1650). Abilene Christian University Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] See Richard Rhodes, Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist.

[3] Stanley Hauerwas, “Ten years and counting: Christianity and the end of war,” ABC Religion and Ethics –