[Question 99 of 104]
How did C. S. Lewis view war?
Lewis’s views on war sprang out of deep conviction and were tempered by personal experience. As an infantry officer wounded in the First World War, Lewis experienced firsthand the death and devastation wrought by war. [n. 77: For a fuller evaluation of Lewis’s experiences and reflections on war, see Timothy J. Demy, “Technology, Progress, and the Human Condition in the Life and Thought of C. S. Lewis” (PhD diss., Salve Regina University, 2004), 76–84, 250–67.] Yet he can be understood to stand firmly within the just-war tradition, as his writings indicate. As a matter of conviction, Lewis thought that most people would become confused if they tried to sort out just-war principles and apply them to each real or potential conflict. Therefore, he encouraged citizens and soldiers, especially those of religious faith, to be keenly aware of their responsibilities vis-à-vis unlawful orders. In so doing, not only would they serve the cause of justice, but they would also provide a unified witness of moral principle to the onlooking world.
As to his own position at the time of the Second World War, Lewis declared to one friend: “I’m not a pacifist. If it’s got to be it’s got to be.” Lewis understood war to be a fact of human existence, an evidence of our fallen nature, and thus a part of human history. He believed that although the weapons of war, including nuclear weapons, might become more sophisticated, they do not change the fundamental nature of war or its participants. War, he maintained, accentuates the uncertainties of life and reminds people of the darker side of human nature, but it does not introduce any new dynamics into daily life.
In a collection of essays under the title The Weight of Glory, Lewis asks whether to serve in a war is immoral, morally neutral, or morally obligatory. In posing this question, he realizes that it will require answering a prior question, How do we decide what is good and evil?
The typical answer is that we follow conscience. But conscience, Lewis replies, is not some autonomous faculty; rather, it can be altered by argument and persuasion and can find confirmation in our personal experience. What’s more, people may be mistaken in the way their conscience perceives right and wrong. This leads Lewis to reason about reasoning itself as a cognitive process and consider how conscience is formed. The problem, as Lewis sees it, is that very often in the process of formation, people cannot “see” what for others is self-evidently true. What, then, can we do? Nothing, says Lewis, since the supposed inability to see is most often a refusal to see.
Lewis does acknowledge that all people possess a moral intuition about basic good and evil. This basic intuition, what he calls the “law of nature” or the Tao in other of his works, shows itself, for example, in the fact that all people prefer love over hatred, happiness over misery, and justice over injustice; these are “unarguable” moral facts. Having distinguished between opinion or private experience and morally intuited facts that find verification in all people based on the natural law, Lewis illustrates by way of pacifism. He finds it odd that one can claim, based on some moral sense, that “all killing of human beings is in all circumstances an absolute evil.” The one making this claim, Lewis believes, is “mistaking an opinion, or, more likely, a passion,” for a moral intuition.
How, then, Lewis wishes to know, do we decide on a question of morals? Moral judgment, he believes, depends on the meeting of facts, intuition, and reasoning, seasoned with a bit of humility. The result, to be sure, will not approximate mathematical certainty. But it will, hopefully, allow us to “reason.” What, then, may we say about war that is fairly certain? For one thing, all people agree that war is horrible; this is noncontroversial. But does war do more harm than good? And how might that be measured? Lewis leaves nothing to be taken for granted. He asks whether, in fact, wars—modern wars—achieve no good, and whether they cause greater harm than good in all cases. Would Europe be better, he asks, had it submitted to Germany in 1914? On this test, he confesses, he finds the pacifist position weak, since a Germanized Europe from 1914 onward more than likely would have been evil.
At the personal level, Lewis wonders whether violence can ever be done to individuals in a manner that is lawful. If violence is always immoral, then can criminals be subjugated and punished by society? Unless violence generically can be shown universally to be wrong, then one may conclude that good people everywhere will differ, say, on the question of capital punishment. The implications for war become apparent. For Lewis, the belief that war is always the greater evil implies a materialist ethic. That is, it proceeds on the assumption that death and pain are the greatest of all evils. But Lewis doubts that this is true. All people die, he notes, and some in great misery. Of course, Lewis readily grants that war is awful and that it can spawn evil. But the question for him is whether war is the greatest evil.
Lewis also wonders why only liberal societies tolerate pacifists. Totalitarian states do not tolerate them, and yet it is precisely those states that need the pacifist influence. What does this suggest? At the very least, Lewis concludes, it does not suggest that war must or should be abolished. Those who do make calls for the abolition of war, as he sees it, tend to assume that “the great permanent miseries in human life must be curable if only we can find the right cure.” But more often than not, Lewis finds, the utopian “fanaticism” of “Marxists, Freudians, Eugenists, Spiritualists . . . , and all the rest” is the fruit of such thinking. And from these people, Lewis notes, “I have received no assurance that anything we can do will eradicate suffering.”
Finally, Lewis is perplexed that so many cultural authorities—literary, religious, and social—seem to make a strong case against rather than for pacifism. What’s more, he takes seriously the light of religious revelation. He finds, as an Anglican, that the Thirty-Nine Articles declare it “lawful” for Christian men, in service to their society, to bear weapons and serve in wars. Moreover, the history of the church is such that its fathers collectively teach the legitimacy of the sword being used by the magistrate to protect the common weal. Why is this?
Given these consensual voices, on what then does the case for pacifism rest? This is the question that vexes Lewis. Ultimately, the entire case for pacifism, as he understands it, appears to rest on a certain statement by our Lord, “Do no resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:39). But does this statement not need qualification? Lewis thinks it does, believing that it can be interpreted in three ways.
- One is to say that it imposes a universal duty of nonresistance on all people in all circumstances.
- Another is that these words by Jesus are spoken as hyperbole.
- A third is to say that our Lord is addressing the daily trials that attend Christian discipleship, and that the disciple is being cautioned not to react out of a retaliatory, vengeful spirit toward others.
In reflecting on these three options and the intended meaning of Matthew 5:38–39, Lewis asks rhetorically, “Does anyone suppose that Our Lord’s hearers understood Him to mean that if a homicidal maniac, attempting to murder a third party, tried to knock me out of the way, I must stand aside and let him get his victim?” Lewis thinks it impossible. “War was not what His hearers would have been thinking of,” he concludes. Rather, the “frictions of daily life among villagers” were more than likely to be on the hearers’ minds. Not only is this for Lewis the more natural reading of Matthew, but
it harmonises better with St. John [the] Baptist’s words to the soldiers and with the fact that one of the few persons whom Our Lord praised without reservation was a Roman centurion. It also allows me to suppose that the New Testament is consistent with itself. St. Paul approves of the magistrate’s use of the sword (Romans 13:4) and so does St. Peter (1 Peter 2:14).
In the end, Lewis concedes, “This, then, is why I am not a Pacifist.” There are simply too many impediments.
If I tried to become one, I should find a very doubtful factual basis, an obscure train of reasoning, a weight of authority both human and Divine against me, and strong grounds for suspecting that my wishes had directed my decision. . . . It may be, after all, that Pacifism is right. But it seems to me very long odds, longer odds than I would care to take with the voice of almost all humanity against me.
At a deeper level, Lewis believes that war encourages individuals to think about death and the afterlife. The temporal concerns of war direct the attention of people to the spiritual and eternal concerns of immortality. War makes death real to us, he writes in the essay “Learning in Wartime.” Keeping death in proper perspective, for Lewis, serves as a perpetual reminder of a marred and broken world because of sin.
- D. A. Carson, “Just War” (audio), March 10, 2004.
- D. A. Carson, Love in Hard Places (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002). Carson updated his notes after 9/11 to include a 37-page section entitled “Hard Case Two: Osama bin Laden” (pp. 108–44).
- William D. Barrick, “The Christian and War,” The Master’s Seminary Journal 11 (2000): 213–28.