How to Think About the War Print
Written by Douglas Wilson   

20-1_war01 And Other Manifestations of Globaloney

I should note right at the beginning that this is a discussion of how to think about the war, not what to think about the war. This would make it a discussion of political epistemol­ogy, a subject that is actually addressed far less frequently than it profitably could be. Because of the apparent results of this neglect, we have to clear a lot of debris first, and so it might be a little bit of time before we get to a direct discussion of the war. But when we do get there, if we do, the preliminary work should start to make some sense.

First, a quick preview of what these results will look like—Christians who support the war should take care that they avoid all forms of neo-conservative tub-thumping. The red, white, and blue bunting of empire rah! should never be draped around the believer’s neck. And Christians who op­pose the war must stay out of all forms of leftist screech­ing. Both of these approaches are ideological, and ideological fixation in politics is one of the central corruptions of our age. Christian theology ought to be incarnational, and this means that Christian political theology needs to be incarnational. The goal of this essay is to explain how an understanding of this makes avoidance of the ideological extremes possible and fruitful.

Ideology is reason’s bastard child, a pathological counterfeit of right reason. Since the time of the Enlightenment, politi­cal ideology has become a driving, overarching method by which many educated moderns make their decisions, and the method by which the rest of the hoi polloi are urged to learn how make their decisions. It is this shared approach to ideology that makes the secular left and the secular right both children of modernity in equal measures. In modern politics, the secular right wing and secular left wing have far more in common than either one of them imagines. We tend to look at the differences between the isms—the talk­ing points differences—but what we really need to identify is the commonality located in the hard fact of the ism.

David Livingston writes in Chronicles, “Ideologies come in wildly different forms: liberalism, Marxism, socialism, fascism, conservatism, neoconservatism, feminism; but as isms, they are all corruptions of reason. And because they mimic reason, the corruption lies hidden.” The question that is always presented to us is “Which one is right?” We are not allowed to ask, “Is this way of doing things right? Is this the way we ought to be doing things?” Vigorous debate on television (if yelling can be called vigorous debate) is al­lowed and actively encouraged. This creates the illusion that profound differences are being aired, when it is sometimes difficult to find a dime’s worth of difference between the positions that are colliding so spectacularly. One wants to go left, and the other wants to go right, but really everyone is comfortable in the same car, and no one has any inten­tion of actually getting out.

Political ideology maintains pride of place as a capstone of Enlightenment thinking, which insisted upon coming up with an autonomous system by which humankind could govern itself apart from God. And make no mistake, this insistence on governance apart from God had to do with public governance. Nobody cares if you believe in Jesus in your heart. When it comes to public affairs, genuine politi­cal knowledge is only possible in this way, it is argued, and any other way is dismissed as the dangerous residue of unenlightened times. The secular state is the very embodi­ment of modernity—which incidentally reveals virtually all so-called postmodernist thinkers as mere posers. They all want to keep the liberal secular state intact, safe and warm, making them about as postmodern as John Stewart Mill. One tattoo does not a postmodernist make.

20-1_war05Livingstone notes that the “error in the soul of ideology, then, is to think that knowing that is more important than knowing how—and, in the most extreme case, to deny that the latter is a form of knowledge at all.” This creates some­thing of an optical illusion because explicit modernists emphasize the grand system (knowing that) while post­modernists (implicit modernists) like to cite philosophers like Michael Polanyi, pointing out that knowledge of how to ride a bicycle requires tacit knowledge, and not propositional knowledge. And this is quite right when we are talking about bike-riding—knowing how to ride a bike is true knowledge. Knowing how to govern a nation is also true knowledge, and it ought not to be left to the modernist system-builders, as all ostensible postmodernists are willing to do. But how can you be postmodern without being post-political-modern? You can’t.

But postmodernism has recently made quite a name for itself by claiming that all knowledge is situated knowl­edge. The unique postmodern twist on this is the claim that this relativizes all knowledge, landing us all in “who’s to say?” mode—but this is way too facile. Long before postmodernism was cool, conservative thinkers like Burke acknowledged and insisted upon the importance of local knowledge, and the importance of starting from there. But there is a difference between the conservative starting from there and the postmodern stuck there. Where this kind of historic conservatism differs from postmodernism is in its insis­tence that relativism follows from this not at all.

Pre-modern political thought lived in the village, and was quite happy there. Modernism chased political thought out of its local villages, and forced it to live in an airy castle, right below the stratosphere. While it was living there, try­ing hard to make sense out of everything, the modernist infantry descended on our former habitations, our quaint villages, and burned them all to the ground. After a few generations, the postmodernists arrived to point out that this airy castle is for the birds (ha), and have chased us all back to our villages—with the proviso that we always re­member that modernity burned the villages down, never to be rebuilt. That, at least, is settled. If we attempt to build a tangible village, and if we try to live there and, worst of all, if we ever go to war with another village in the conviction that we are right and they are wrong, the postmodernists will be very angry with us, and will make us all go back and live in the airy castle again.

The point of this parable, and it does have one, is that both modernism and postmodernism agree that one village has nothing authoritative to say to another. They both agree that local knowledge cannot be real knowledge. The mod­ernist thinks that all authoritative pronouncements must come from the airy castle’s PA system, while the postmod­ernists maintain that no authoritative pronouncements can ever be made, and that whenever it is tried, the claim is nothing more than a thinly-dis­guised power grab. This claim is made quite authoritatively from lecterns at state universities, on a frequent basis, and so if we are paying attention, the only respon­sible thing is to exercise our Second Amendment option and stock up on ammo.

In contrast to this, consistently Christian political reasoning is inductive; that of the ideologue is deductive. The Christian reasons from where God has placed him, with due regard to his particular duties. The ideologue tries to find a van­tage point above it all, and then to reason deductively from there. You know you are a political child of the Enlighten­ment if you want to learn the “truth” about the “world,” gleaned from massive reading, study, and so forth, or even by simple acceptance of some propaganda, and then on the basis of this “truth system,” you form your friendships and allegiances. This is an attempt to arrive at your local politics by means of deduction, moving from the greater to the lesser. Capital oppresses labor, this man at the fac­tory that I just met qualifies as labor, and therefore I am on his side and I hand him a leaflet hoping to persuade him that I am on his side, and that he ought to come to our meeting tonight.

An anti-ideological approach to politics makes the move in the opposite direction, rendering general by induction. I decide who I want to be with, what kind of people I want to be like, and then I learn what they support, what they want to build, and what they are willing to fight for. I start with my family, my church, my people, and I look out at global politics through that lens. In the smallest village a thoughtful Christian should be able to find veterans, loggers, greens, one-worlders, businessmen, conservatives, liberals, students, and backhoe operators. And taking one thing with another, what are they like? This determination should obviously not be made on the basis of an arbitrary meeting with one chance individual. It is that kind of thing that gives prejudice a bad name—“I met a Mexican once . . .” It is unreasonable to see one black crow and infer from this slender datum the fact that all crows are black (even if you luck out and happen to be right). But if you have seen thousands of crows on three continents and they were all black, then proceed with your induction, and proceed that way with a clear conscience.

But as soon as we start to act this way (and most certainly as we start to speak this way), the ghost of Enlightenment Past is right there at our side, rattling his chains and insist­ing that he be allowed to escort us up into his master prem­ise. He whispers fiercely, “You cannot reason by induction here because someone on the other side of the world could reason in exactly the same way, starting with loyalty to his village, his people, his religion, and wind up in the opposite army across the way from you. Don’t you see how ludicrous this approach is?”

In other words, the possibility that local knowledge, em­bodied knowledge, can be wrong is used to debunk the idea that it could ever be right, or that there are circumstances when we have a moral obligation to treat it as trustworthy. Because a village over there could be wrong, that means that yours could be also, and so we must forsake our people, and our villages, and resort to the political salvation offered by “the abstract system.” “Here. Let me sketch the Hegelian dialectic on the chalkboard for you. This will make everything clear.” The abstract system postulates certain axioms which, when you accept, will then tell you what to think about everything. Every fact you encounter, all day long, is the conclusion of a chain of reasoning downstream from those a priori axioms. This is the Enlightenment politi­cal method. If the local facts don’t appear to fit with the demands of the system, then those facts are simply ignored, or pounded into place.

This is why William Bennett and Noam Chomsky are really pursuing the same method, one on the right and the other on the left. One has a starting axiom that America is christ and the other that America is antichrist. Everything else follows from that, and not surprisingly. In reality America is just one more big country, doing what big countries have always done, for good or ill.

For Marxism, the axioms say that all history is driven by economics. For anti-Americanism, a herd of stampeding elephants in Myanmar is the nefarious work of the CIA. For feminism, all the “facts” of history tell us merely what the patriarchal oppressors have decided to tell us, silencing the marginal voices of a long-neglected sisterhood. The striking thing about all such ideologies is that the appear­ances around them are always fit, without much difficulty, into the system. The reality of the Incarnation has greatly retarded the ability of Christians to really play this game, but a few have managed to try. Sometimes the Christian system is purely theological (like Calvinism or Trinitarian­ism), and other times the system is simply borrowed from the worldlings and the central features of the system are given Christian names in a sham baptism. With the former examples, please note that I am talking about a particular method of reasoning, and not questioning the Trinity or the biblical doctrine of predestination. I am talking about the direction the reasoning generally moves, and not necessarily the content of the reasoning.

The philosopher David Hume noted how newcomer ideologies had barged into the political process, disrupting everything. Prior to the Enlightenment, political motiva­tions were principally of two kinds—affection and interest. Affection was the motivation of the “king’s man,” the loyal vassal, the man who gave his personal support to certain ruling families. The second motivation, interest, is not hard to figure out either. Interest is the motivation of the man who knows which side of his bread the butter is on. But Hume descried the entry of “parties from . . . abstract spec­ulative principle,” saying that they were only known in mod­ern times, and represented a political pathology, a political downgrade. This corruption can be called Cartesian politics, and this approach to politics can be seen everywhere. It is the animating principle of virtually all political junkies.

Now this argument I am making can be read with equanim­ity, and we can all even nod as if an important point were being made. But if someone were to proceed differently than our established custom, and make his actual decisions on a different footing entirely, our horrified reaction will reveal just how much children of the Enlightenment we all are. If we were to ask a young man why he joined the Marines and volunteered to go fight in Iraq, and he replied that his father was a Marine in Vietnam, and his grandfather a Marine at Guadalcanal, and he wanted nothing more than to make them proud, whether we said so or not, we would feel in our hearts that this was an insufficient reason at best, and mindless jingoism at worst. But if he said that he had been reading a great deal about foreign policy lately, and he wanted to help “spread democracy,” even if we disagreed with his deductive reasoning, we would still appreciate that this was the kind of reasoning that he was working through. “Good man—starting with the abstractions like that.” He would at least be a fellow Enlightenment child. The first guy is a redstate redneck alien. He grew up hunt­ing possum in Tennessee and ignored all the lessons that modernity tried to give him.

20-1_war02My argument here is not that this inductive reasoning from local circumstances cannot be wrong. It obviously can be, and in some portions of the world—places like Nazi Ger­many and modern Pakistan, it is almost completely wrong. But taking one thing with another, the inductive approach is far superior to the deduction-from-universal-abstractions approach. It is far less likely to result in genocides and world wars. It is far less likely to turn a peaceful French countryside into Mordor. The shrill warnings that are given against political inductive knowledge resemble secularist attempts to get Christians to feel ter­rible for the misdeeds of the Grand Inquisitor (and, just for the record, they were misdeeds) while ignoring the fact that the Spanish Inquisi­tion, throughout the course of its entire history, killed fewer people than Stalin did in the course of an average week. And, in case you hadn’t picked up on the irony here, Stalin was the secu­larist. Concrete sins have slain their thousands; abstractions their hundreds of millions.

In the grip of abstractions, men are savage and pitiless. You can get away with a lot when fighting for “liberty, equality, fraternity,” or for “the solidarity of the working man,” or “democracy.” Now the apologist for deduction may grant that this is so, and acknowledge that there has been a lot of bloodshed, but he then goes on to insist that this was because the deductions and calculations were done wrong. “But these axioms, these premises . . . I have them right here . . . promise better results.” In response to this, I want to maintain that the problem is with the ideological approach generally. As a method of political thought, it is idolatrous and idols will always eventually demand blood.

The priority of local knowledge is something that novelist John Buchan understood very well. His Richard Hannay novels were written during the course of the First World War, and have been dismissed by some as nothing more than propaganda for the Allied war effort. But this is far too glib. As David Danielle points out in his book The Interpreter’s House, “A jingoist he was exactly not.” In Green­mantle, Buchan goes so far as to give a kind treatment to the Kaiser, and his sketches of individuals close to the land show clearly that he knows nobility can exist on the other side, not to mention perfidy and mind-numbing incompe­tence on his own side. People are always people.

But reading through his novels about the Great War today, one of the striking things that astonishes is how little the ideological landscape has changed in this last century. The pacifists, the accommodators, the rugged foot soldier, the courageous strategist, the temporizer, are all around us today. And the arguments we hear against the war in Iraq today have been lifted right off the rack of arguments against World War I, and work just as well . . . or poorly, as the case may be. But in the midst of all this, Buchan shows ordinary people making ordinary decisions on the basis of the information available to them, which isn’t very much, and he shows how these ordinary decisions are honorable, right, and well-grounded.

This works because God governs the world, not our abstract reasoning, and He structures it in such a way that when we avoid the company of fools—in our own village—and seek out the company of the wise in the same place, God connects us to the global issues rightly. We don’t have to get a Ph.D. in international rela­tions before we vote for candidate Smith or Murphy, or obtain an MA in economics before buying something on sale at Wal-Mart. We don’t have to spend a month in the library trying to decide if it is all right to join the Navy. This protection from God doesn’t happen because we have ensured a goodly outcome, it happens because God honors those who walk with Him, and who do their duty accord­ing to their light in the place where He has put them. The attempt to figure the big picture out beforehand (so that we can then know the right thing to do) is to give way to the ancient temptation—ye shall be as God. But Jane, in That Hideous Strength, made her momentous decision on which group to join based entirely on who the nice people were. Given the circumstances, this is the wisest thing she could have done. And it is exactly what we should seek to do.

The Enlightenment approach insists that we fill our heads with the facts about globalization, or American empire, or rubber plantations in Central America, or the threats of terrorism, cogitate on them for a bit, and then boom, out comes the answer, smoking hot. This is upside down and backwards.

Neoconservative advocates for the “war on terror” are ideologues, and routinely argue for America as the great Propositional Nation. They shy away from grounded knowledge, local knowledge, people knowledge. They want grand, abstract propositions, and they exult in them. But leftist opponents of the war are no better, and are fre­quently far worse—because the abstractions they argue for are grander and more distant. Their attachment to arid propositions is just as fierce—so America as demigod and America as demon are really just the Mutt and Jeff of ideo­logical argumentation.

Jesus said that we were to judge prophets by their fruit. This of course applies to those who claim to prophesy in the name of the Lord, but it also applies by extension to the secular prophets who surround us on every hand. Why would it not apply to them? And what kind of people are they? To be suspicious of the claims made on behalf of global warming by Al Gore because virtually all the greens I know are shrill and unpleasant people is not an abuse of reason. It is an act based on prejudice, admittedly, but as Theodore Dalrymple has recently shown, civilization is built on the strong foundation of prejudice. Ultimately, it is the only way we can make any reasonable claims about the broader world. And what kinds of people are making these claims together along with us? What kind of people are they?

These are not abstract issues. They are concrete issues, and local connections provide us with the best way of sorting through them. Short of doing what the Amish have done, it is not really possible to isolate yourself from the world, or from what is going on out in that world. Someone might say that as a pastor of a church in Idaho, why don’t you simply preach on “spiritual” things, and just stay out of it? It is a pastoral impossibility, and would be culpable neglect of what the Scriptures require of us. The men of Issachar understood the times, and knew what Israel should do. As I write this, two men in our congregation have served in Iraq, one in Afghanistan, and yet another in Qatar. Some close friends of ours over the course of decades attend our church, and their son was killed in action in Iraq. Whether or not to think about the war is not an option. And if we are going to think about it at all, we have to seek out a way of thinking about it biblically. But thinking about it biblically is not to say that we should function like ideo­logues, and then lend the weight of a “biblical worldview” to our conclusions.

Another way of putting this is to distinguish between biblically-grounded opinions, on the one hand, and settled dogma, on the other. If we were to argue, for example, that the war is immoral because it offends our ideological commitments, then this would require that we bring church discipline against all the men mentioned in the previous paragraph who are serving in the expansion of America’s secularist empire. And if we went the other way, and declared dogmatically that service in the war was manda­tory because spreading democracy is a Christian thing to do, we would be guilty of the same error. The evangelist Billy Sunday, in the course of the First World War, ended at least one sermon standing on top of his pulpit, waving an American flag. This is problematic; it is ideological, mean­ing that it is idolatrous.

20-1_war03If an abortionist sought mem­bership in our church, we would refuse him unless he repented. If a homosexual couple sought mem­bership, we would refuse them. If a pornographer wanted to join, we would say no. But would we allow a conscientious objector in? Yes. Would we allow a colonel in the Marines to join? Absolutely. Does this mean that I believe “it is all relative” and that when it comes to issues of war and peace, each Christian can just choose for himself? No. But it is a recognition that the prophetic vision recognizes that when men come to “study war no more,” and the lion lies down with the lamb, and men turn their ingenuity to the task of making the finest plowshares out of the finest spears, we are then at the culmination of the gospel age. The elimination of war is not irrelevant to Christian worldview thinking, but is rather the capstone of that kind of thinking in history. The gospel tells us that all enemies of Christ will be subdued before the Lord returns—with the one exception of death. That enemy will be destroyed by the Lord Himself. All the other enemies—famine, disease, pestilence, war—will be destroyed through the agency of the faithful proclamation of the gospel, adorned by the Church living it out. But we have good reason for believing that war will be one of the toughest nuts to crack. It well may be that it is the next to last enemy to be destroyed.

And it will not be destroyed by facile and simplistic thinking—which is to say, ideological thinking. Winston Churchill defined a fanatic as one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. The ideologue is simi­lar—he demands submission from everyone to the dic­tates of the abstraction that holds his loyalty by the back of the neck. This is why, without any sense of irony, the advocate of pacifism can find himself arguing, in the most bloodthirsty way, for the engines of war to get warmed up. The example of Emerson and the American War Between the States comes to mind. An ideologue is incapable of saying that people might come round to his way of think­ing in a thousand years. He has the system (or the system has him) now, and the idol statue demands sacrifices and devotees now.

And so, as a Christian pastor and biblical constitutionalist, I opposed the war in Iraq on constitutional grounds. The president is not authorized by the Constitution to go to war with another sovereign nation and replace its govern­ment. Congress has the responsibility to declare war. This conviction of mine is a political opinion, one which I would never dream of invoking in the discipline of God’s people. And godlier men than I believe that the war is perfectly justified, both constitutionally and scripturally. I write this, not as a max nix relativist, but as someone who believes that the diamonds of some absolute truths are not lying on the surface of the ground. For those, we will have to dig some deep mines. But as the historian Christopher Dawson once put it, the Christian church lives in the light of eternity and can afford to be patient.

I am no pacifist, and so I believe that there are wars that are just in principle, and in which Christians might participate with a clean conscience. I hold this position as one who believes that every just war ought to be aimed, in principle, at the glorious elimination of war that the prophets have wonderfully anticipated for us. If we hold our convictions about war in this way, refusing the ideological lure, we may not see wars abolished as quickly as we might like. But if we reject ideology, we will at least not be breeding additional and unnecessary wars in the meantime.



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