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Personal Reflection: Being Christian… in our world


Bobby Chesney, Parishioner
Charles I. Francis Professor in Law and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs

Not long ago, at Communion Café, we sang the spiritual “Down by the River.” It’s not a song I’d given thought to before, but as we sang the refrain again and again (“ain’t gonna study war no more”) I began to feel a bit uncomfortable. I’m no soldier, to be sure, but the focus of my work as a law professor could certainly be described as studying war. The courses I teach, the articles I write, and my public speaking all focus on laws that both constrain and enable the national security activities of the U.S. government, including especially the use of lethal force, detention, interrogation, and surveillance in connection with counterterrorism. War is part of that enterprise, and the pacifist aspiration of the song we sang that day (which draws directly from the “swords into plowshares” passages found in both Isaiah and Micah) was an occasion for self-reflection. So, too, when Morgan reached out to see if I would participate in, and write about, Being Christian…in the World.

The sort of tension I’m describing is as old as Christianity itself. Early Church leaders struggled with questions of this kind. As Christianity spread through the Roman world, there was considerable debate about the propriety of a Christian even serving as a soldier, let alone engaging in acts of violence. In the late Roman Empire, the question became a matter of public debate, as some blamed the Empire’s declining military fortunes on the government’s official embrace of Christianity. A friend of St. Augustine urged him to write a public letter disputing that line of argument, and this in turn eventually led St. Augustine to articulate his immensely-influential conception of “Just War”—a series of conditions which, when satisfied, rendered the use of force compatible with Christian faith. It’s no exaggeration to say that, in one version or another, the defense-oriented Just War concept has remained critical to Christian thought ever since (though pacifism has always remained an influential doctrine as well, exercising a kind of gravitational pull counteracting, sometimes successfully, sometimes not) the worldly temptations that drive people to push the boundaries of Just War thinking too far.

All of this remains on my mind when I think of the impact my work on national security law might have on the larger world. And ultimately, I find it inspiring rather than problematic. I feel that I have a chance, however small my impact might be, to work through the law to improve the balance between measures needed for defense and the risks we must take if we are to be true to our Gospel obligations. I do not claim to have all the answers, and am sure I make more than a few mistakes along the way. But even “studying war” brings with it a constant moral tension, it is a good thing—maybe even a duty we all share—to wrestle directly with these issues.

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