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The Face of War

Throughout the Scriptures, people are described in highly personal, relational ways. We are neighbors, friends, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and enemies. We are never just called persons.

Though the Genesis Creation account says God made male and female in the image of God, the idea is not used elsewhere to speak abstractly about human nature.

In our involvement with others, we do not just meet “persons,” we encounter concrete individuals who are defined by their particular place in life. People have faces, so to speak, which tell their story. They are our neighbors or enemies; they are sons or daughters of God; etc.

But the ideology of war turns people into collections defined by their national identity. In war, people are no longer sons and daughters, neighbors and friends. They are soldiers of a nation.

In fact, in war every person is defined by the nation’s identity. We all are soldiers. We lose our concrete relational identity and become an abstract identity in which we are not substantively different than other people. War erases the personal face of everyone, turning us into numbers and statistics.

Karl Barth knew this ideology well. After living through the nightmare consequences of a World War and sensing the beginnings of another, in 1928 he wrote: “The first task of ethical reflection in relation to the possibility of war in the modern situation has to be to remove that abstraction, as though the people waged war in the vacuum of an idea but I, the participant, merely served the people, and to state instead that I am the people (as I am the state that kills the criminal), that I wage war, and therefore that I kill.”

The ideology of war redefines us: We’re a citizen and soldier; our enemy is an opposing soldier and citizen. But in terms of what truly tells our story, we are not first a soldier and citizen. We are sons, neighbors, friends, sons and daughters of God, and enemies. We have a personal story defined by concrete relationships, and so does our enemy. They are someone’s daughter, mother and neighbor as well.

As Christians we must resist the abstract defining power of the ideology of war. Our enemies are not just soldiers and numbers. They are souls with whom God relates, and the church must look at people the way God does, not through the eyes of the ideology of war.

If the church considers promoting a war, she must first feel the anguish of wanting to kill a son or daughter, a neighbor, a friend whom God is trying to incorporate into a bigger story of the redemption of the world. Of all institutions in society, the church must emphasize the human face in war.

For this reason, the church should be reluctant to use the principles of the Just War Teachings. At the heart of these principles is a deep abstraction about the people involved.

For instance, two of its principles are entirely abstract—”reasonable cause to win” and “proportionality to injury.” A war is just if a nation comes out better by going to war than by not fighting it and if the level of damage inflicted on the enemy is proportional to the level of injury.

We measure whether we “come out better” and are acting “proportionally” by adding up human lives and costs. From the perspective of the ideology of war, this judgment makes sense, because people are collections defined by the nation’s identity.

But for the church this reasoning is repulsive. People are not numbers on a scale–they are and will always be neighbors and friends, sons and daughters of God.

The question for the church is not whether it makes proportional sense to go to war, but whether it is ever justified to kill another son or daughter of God.

The Just War principles cannot help answer that question. They force us to take away the human face of war. For the church, war is always about us killing another son, neighbor, etc.

When Jesus commands us to love our neighbor and then elsewhere to love our enemy, he implores us to act personally with others even in the face of conflict.

They have stories, much like ours. We cannot dehumanize them and then add up whether it makes calculative sense to kill them.

One of the first steps in the ideology of war is to call the enemy a dehumanized name. They are no longer souls; they are less than human. It is easier to kill something which is less than a neighbor, friend, son or daughter, father or mother, or child of God.

To this tendency, the church shouts NO! War is about real people killing other real people, and over all its mayhem, God seeks his children.

This is the face of war.

Dennis Sansom teaches in the department of philosophy at Samford University.