Just War (or Homeless: the Epilogue)

Following the events of my previous blog entry (Homeless: A Story), I was troubled, though it took me a while to put my finger on what was bothering me.

It boiled down to two things:

  1.  Mindful practice
  2. Ethical warfare

In retrospect, I realized I’d had some preconceived notions about what a clergy sleep out would be like, and those notions were not in alignment with the reality of my lived experience that night.  When I tried explaining my unsettled feeling to someone who hadn’t been there, I was told, “Oh, you’re just feeling guilty for having too much fun when you thought you should have been miserable.”

But that’s not quite it.  I was plenty miserable at a previous homelessness simulation, and I was still miserable the next day; and I’d had fun at a previous homelessness simulation, and I felt great the next day.

It wasn’t until I was on my way home this time around and I saw that man standing there with his sign that I realized we’d spent the entire event not mentioning homelessness at all.  We were an interfaith group of clergy, and while I was there we hadn’t even said a prayer.  In hindsight, I was so intent on making sure I didn’t freeze to death that I didn’t spend much time at all thinking about the people who didn’t have a choice about where they slept at night.  Perhaps the assumption in this group was that they had already done so many awareness events with their congregations that they felt there was no need to speak about it to each other.

But if I had it to do again, I would have stayed up through the whole night, keeping vigil in the cold, sending prayers for safety and healing into the dark.  If I had done that—if I had spent the night with my thoughts trained on someone other than myself, thinking about something other than my own comfort—then perhaps I could have met the homeless veteran with more equanimity in the morning light.

It somehow seemed like a double blow, seeing that he was a veteran.  Here was a man who had given so much—endured so much—for his country, for those he loved, for those he didn’t love, for me.  And there was I, a bleary-eyed seminary student wearing seven layers of clothing, driving home with her cardboard box in the back seat.

This incident happened in the days following our class discussion about the ethics of warfare.  As I reflected on my experience with the veteran, I thought back to the claim that warfare can be practiced ethically.  For review, here is the excerpt we discussed from Doing Right and Being Good, David Oki Ahern and Peter R. Gathje’s article, “A Typology of Christian Responses to War and Violence: Pacifism, Just War, and the Crusade” on pages 160-161:

In its fully developed form, the just war doctrine holds the Christian presumption against war, but recognizes that it can be right to enter into war (jus ad bellum) only if it meets these criteria:

  1. Just Cause: The war must confront a definite and real danger, such as to protect innocent human life against an aggressor or to defend a just political order.
  2. Right Intention: The participants have the right intention of establishing peace with justice, and not simply to destroy or punish the opponent.
  3. Last Resort: The violent act is undertaken only after all peaceful means of resolving the conflict have been exhausted.
  4. Proportionality: The inevitable harm of the war must be less than the good that is sought through the war.
  5. Legitimate Authority: The war must be sanctioned and carried out by those responsible for the common good, typically a legitimate governmental authority.  This forbids private feuds and vigilante justice.
  6. Comparative Justice: There must be the recognition that no party has absolute justice on its side.
  7. Reasonable Likelihood of Success: There is a reasonable likelihood that the party can achieve its war aims, so that the suffering and destruction that war inevitably produces at least may bring about the good of protecting innocents and restraining aggressors.

If entrance into war or violence can be justified, the means used must themselves be just (jus in bello).  Traditionally, the just war theory measures acts of violence and war against these criteria:

  1. Discrimination: Those carrying out the act of violence must discriminate between combatants and noncombatants, so that direct and intentional targeting of civilians is forbidden.  Theologians in the Middle Ages developed the implications of the “principle of double effect,” which recognizes that a single act may have multiple effects, some of which are intended, some of which are foreseen but unintended, and some of which are unforeseen.  According to these theorists, some limited foreseen killing of innocents may be justifiable if they are an unintended consequence of targeting combatants.
  2. Proportionality: The violent action must be proportionate to the desired end.  A just response should use an economy of force, that is, limit destruction to the minimum amount needed to accomplish a just objective.

These criteria were intended both to place roadblocks in front of questionable wars and to limit the destruction of even those that are justified.  Today Christian ethicists debate if this theory, which arose to deal with the hand-to-hand fighting of ancient and medieval warfare, is adequate in the face of nuclear weapons, totalistic wars of nation against nation, terrorism, popular revolutions, civil war, and wars of extermination.

This document does not outline any ethical practices to follow in the aftermath of a war.

I would add to this debate that we have an ethical responsibility to look out for our veterans and make sure that they receive the medical and psychiatric care they need, access to affordable drug-free and alcohol-free housing, as well as any necessary job training to make sure they have a place in civilian life.  The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) estimates that “107,000 veterans are homeless on any given night. Over the course of a year, approximately twice that many experience homelessness. Only eight percent of the general population can claim veteran status, but nearly one-fifth of the homeless population are veterans.”  The VA also has a plan to end veteran homelessness in five years, though I could not find anything specific on their website to outline how they intend to carry out this plan.  The list of supportive programming they have in place, however, is extensive.

In short, I think that the justification for ethical warfare that was outlined above has merit.  But if we are basing all of our war-related ethical decisions on a document that has obvious gaps, such as the ethical treatment of those who fought in the war, then there is an immediate need for a review of these standards, especially since we have the largest homeward-bound mass of veterans since Vietnam heading our way, having left Iraq today after nine years of war.  “The quiet U.S. exit, shrouded in secrecy until it occurred, closes a war that was contentious from the start and cost the nation more than $800 billion.”

During this season of advent—which means “coming”—we are awaiting the arrival of the newest generation of veterans.  As leaders in various faith traditions, we point the way toward the moral path for those who choose to listen to what we say.  Let us all have the courage to use our prophetic voices and speak out in favor of building a more just, more hospitable, more loving country for those who have sacrificed so much.

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About Leaping Loon

I am an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister serving our congregation in Elgin, Illinois. While I am determined to embrace my propensity to wander, it oftentimes takes a leap of faith to do so. My life's motto seems to be: "Leap, and the net will appear." True to my spirit, and following Love's call, I must simply free myself to go. Where will I end up? Let's find out. Welcome to my journey!
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2 Responses to Just War (or Homeless: the Epilogue)

  1. Chris says:

    Thank you for these two posts. I thought about your previous post for a long time after I’d read it. Generally I comment, but I didn’t know what to say. Homelessness is something closer to my social circles than most people’s, even though it’s very far away and it is an issue I struggle with.

    I’ll admit a struggle in understanding what sort of reads as a lack of compassion for yourself, or an expectation of yourself that I am not convinced is reasonable. Isn’t part of the struggle of being homeless, or being in challenging situations in general, that so frequently it is hard to see beyond the present circumstances? Isn’t losing some of yourself to self-preservation part of what is so dehumanizing about those sorts of experiences? It’s a very human thing to focus on your freezing limbs if you’re cold. It’s also very human to chat it up with other people who relate to you, who are in similar circumstances (the homeless people in my neighborhood congregate and laugh and carry on too). Praying may be more noble, but perhaps the experience was more authentic because you forgot, you know?

    Simulating homelessness is different than the despair that comes with living on the streets for a long time, I’d imagine. I wouldn’t beat yourself up too much over the disconnection you experienced with the veteran – you’re a step closer understanding his experience than most of us (and me) but very far away too. And he probably saw that. He might be jaded to any help, veteran or not.

    Regardless of whether or not war is just, the military breaks a lot of implicit and explicit promises to its service people. And until our country cares more about general welfare, the 1/5 of homeless people who are vets and the 4/5 of homeless people who are not will struggle until we get our human priorities straight. It’s terrible, and I struggle every time I try to think of a way out.

    In any case, bless you for your warm heart and deftness with a keyboard 🙂

    • Leaping Loon says:

      Chris, I really appreciated the thoughtfulness of your response—thank you! You’re right that I have a tendency to be very self-critical, always trying to hold myself to higher standards. Generally I’m better at forgiving myself for being human, but for some reason this particular juxtaposition of events really got to me. Again, your suggestions of alternate ways of thinking about these things were very helpful, so thanks! ~Leslie

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