A Deadly Nexus: “Necessity”, the Just War and Sacrifice

By Kelly Denton-Borhaug.

Published by The Humanities Collection

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I propose to theologically explore what Iris Marion Young has called “the logic of masculinist protection” currently operative as a form of justification for the security regime that has emerged in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001 (Young: 2003). Young’s gender analysis begins with images of masculinity associated with chivalry, in which the good and virtuous rulers take risks and perform sacrifices in order to protect those under threat. The compulsory response for those protected is to offer their cooperation and willing assent. Young’s analysis underscores the unequal power dynamics implicit in this social arrangement that are blurred by a patriarchal protective mask of virtue and love. Citizens are required to unite behind the will of the security state in its role as protector, grateful for the safety afforded by this arrangement. Dissent increasingly is seen not only as dangerous, but “ungenerous.” We are asked to believe that only “aliens” will suffer the consequences of surveillance or other infringements of rights, and trust in the “necessity” of coercive and violent responses decided upon by those in power. Young writes, “Chivalrous forms of masculinism express and enact concern for the well being of women (or any other groups deemed to be “in danger”) but they do so within a structure of superiority and subordination” (Young: 2003: 230). Young’s trenchant feminist analysis can be deepened with a theological investigation into the roots of those dynamics she explores, “loving self-sacrifice” and “necessity.” This paper explores the ideology of “necessity” as it has developed, at least since the time of Augustine, as a nexus between Christian understandings of salvation (in particular with respect to frameworks of loving self-sacrifice) AND masculinist protective schemes embedded in just war theory and discourse. I assert that this same nexus is powerfully operative in the "war culture" in which we currently find ourselves, and functions by discouraging and dissimulating questions regarding power dynamics, and ridiculing non-killing methods suggested as possible responses to the real threats of terrorist activity. Augustine’s parable of the “just judge” in The City of God, Book XIX, portrays exactly the masculinist protective stance outlined by Young. In the parable the judge reluctantly but unyieldingly embraces punitive and violent methods as the “necessary” means for dealing with wrong-doing and evil. Moreover, this embrace rises out of the frightening specter of potential social disintegration, as scholar R.A. Markus writes, “The question for justice and order is doomed, but dedication to the impossible task is demanded by the very precariousness of civilized order in this world. . . (thus) the wise man will wage just wars and lament the necessity which lays this duty upon him” (Markus:1983:10). For Augustine, war becomes, thus, “a moral demand made on human beings by an immoral society”; a necessity that may not be avoided. Christian ethicist Lisa Sowle Cahill describes Augustine’s war ethic as a “killing-as-love paradox,” continued by the Reformers and alive and well in the twentieth century in writers such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Ramsey (Cahill:1994:94). A version of this same argument has been articulated since 9/11 by “just war against terror scholars” such as Jean Bethke Elshtain and most recently was criticized by Mark Lewis Taylor in Religion, Politics and the Christian Right(2005). Despite Taylor’s criticism, however, the “necessity” of the “just war” is widely assumed and generally unquestioned across many sectors of American society. Why? Returning to the link between necessity and loving self sacrifice in Christianity since Augustine is an important key to understanding our current climate. Christian atonement doctrine outlining Jesus as the ultimate protector of humanity who lovingly self-sacrifices (and/or is sacrificed by the first person of the Trinity) in order for humans to achieve salvation must be seen as connected to, undergirding and supporting the right of the chivalrous male protector to take those risks and make those sacrifices as a part of “just war.” Moreover, I argue, the ideology of “necessity” functions in such a way that the “necessity” of the suffering and self-sacrificing Jesus serves to underwrite the “necessity” of the just war and vice versa. Eventual Christian atonement metaphors such as penal substitution portray Jesus as the necessary substitute for sinful humanity, paying the price on their behalf. Feminist Christian theologians and ethicists have questioned this redemptive portrayal of Jesus for exactly the same reasons that Iris Marion Young critiqued masculinist protection as “an apparently benign form of male domination” (Young, 223). McFague, Brock and Parker, Schussler-Fiorenza, Tamez, Williams and other feminists, mujeristas, and womanists have been highly suspicious regarding the diverse ways traditional atonement understandings create a religious ambiance parallel to the political environment of a growing security regime described by Young. From the perspective of feminist analysis, the danger lies in the way all these frameworks too easily encourage passivity, dependence and subordination; and discourage questioning, agency, ethical responsibility, and mutuality. Young quotes scholar Susan Rae Peterson, who in the final analysis describes masculinist protectionist proclivities in the following way, “the state as a male protection racket.” Are Christian institutions guilty of the same thing? Or to ask the same question in a slightly different way, does the ideology of “necessity” in Christian atonement theology wittingly/unwittingly undergird the logic of masculinist protection in a just war culture? These are the questions I will continue to pursue in my investigation in preparation for this paper.

Keywords: Just War Theory, Sacrifice, Ethics

The International Journal of the Humanities, Volume 5, Issue 9, pp.161-168. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 557.990KB).

Dr. Kelly Denton-Borhaug

Assistant Professor, Religion Department, Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA, USA

Kelly Denton-Borhaug, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA, U.S.A. She holds a Masters of Divinity with Honors from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley. Her teaching and scholarly interests include Christian understandings of redemption, feminist theology and ethics, Jewish and Christian feminist ethics, Christian ethics, war and war-culture.


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