C.S. Lewis, Just War, and the Locus of Authority

In a 1939 letter to the journal Theology, C.S. Lewis raises a very important, and too little discussed, question of just war theory: who is responsible to decide whether a war is just?  Too often, just war debates focus on the six traditional just war criteria, whether they are sufficient, and whether they have been fulfilled in a particular case.  But Lewis objects, “It is plain that equally sincere people can differ to any extent and argue for ever as to whether a proposed war fulfils these conditions or not.  The practical question, therefore, which faces us is one of authority.  Who has the duty of deciding when the conditions are fulfilled and the right of enforcing his decision?”  To this, Lewis offers a very interesting and uncomfortable answer.  To be sure, he grants from the start, no subject must obey a decision that he knows to be wrong and unjust; indeed, he must not obey.  But just how responsible is he to determine whether it is wrong or unjust?  Lewis is inclined to think that the ordinary citizen has, in fact, relatively little responsibility on this front.

He uses the analogy of a hangman.  Assuming that a Christian may legitimately be a hangman, we will of course say that

“he must not hang a man whom he knows to be innocent.  But will anyone interpret this to mean that the hangman has the same duty of investigating the prisoner’s guilt which the judge has?  If so, no executive can work and no Christian state is possible; which is absurd.  I conclude that the hangman has done his duty if he has done his share of the general duty, resting upon all citizens alike, to ensure, so far as in him lies, that we have an honest judicial system; if, in spite of this, and unknowingly, he hangs an innocent man, then a sin has been committed, but not by him.  This analogy suggests to me that it must be absurd to give to the private citizen the same right and duty of deciding the justice of a given war which rests on governments; and I submit that the rules for determine what wars are just were originally rules for the guidance of pinces, not subjects.  This does not mean that private persons must obey governments commanding them to do what they know is sin but perhaps it does mean (I write it with some reluctance) that the ultimate decision as to what the situation at a given moment is in the highly complex field of international affiars is one which must be delegated.” 

One can certainly feel the force of Lewis’s argument here.  To generalize it, surely we must acknowledge that the subject’s duty of determining the justice of laws to obey is not as thorough and comprehensive as the lawmaker’s duty of determining the justice of laws to enact.  Otherwise, every citizen would be his own lawmaker and there would be no authority.  And of course, this objection is not simply to protect authority, but to protect the subject from the awful, paralyzing weight of responsibility that he should have if he must thoroughly sift every judgment made by his leaders before going along with it.  If I should be guilty of sin every time I obey a law that should not, on the whole, have been made, then this would be a heavy burden indeed on every conscience, and an intolerable demand on each citizen’s time, since he must be forever researching the pros and cons of every decision.  

What Lewis draws our attention to here is perhaps the crucial, but often-neglected, dimension of authority–epistemological authority.  Although, within a suitably circumscribed sphere, authorities can make right what might otherwise be wrong, or make wrong what might otherwise be right, more importantly their job is to help decide for us what is right, in a situation where this determination is complex and very difficult to come by.  Submission to authority means, therefore, a willingness to suspend judgment, to defer to another’s conclusion, even if one cannot see all the reasons for it, even if, indeed, it may seem thoroughly unpersuasive at first glance.  Otherwise, again, we put unbearable burdens on each conscience, and reneder impossible any kind of collective action.  

 This much I think we must grant, despite our hesitation; to be sure, we must leave room for conscientious objection, for open debate questioning the law and the authorities, and yet these must be the exception, rather than the rule–most citizens, most of the time, will be justified in obeying political authorities without investigating all the ins and the outs.  But I expect we are likely to be far more hesitant about this principle when it comes to war, especially in a generation scarred by the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.  


But can we offer a rational defence of this hesitance, without demanding that every hangman be a judge?  Well, yes, I think.  There are a couple routes.  First of all, while adopting as a general principle that ordinary citizens do not have the same responsibility to determine the justice of political decisions as authorities do, we might well want to say that their responsibility is raised as the stakes are raised.  In ordinary mundane decisions, we can generally assume that the authorities are making reasonable calls and that we needn’t second-guess these decisions.  In life-or-death decisions, such as capital punishment, then, although we needn’t put ourselves in the position of the judge and the jury, we may want to prick up our ears and be especially attentive to make sure that justice is being done, and be ready to speak out if there are anomalies that suggest it is not.  In decisions involving the life and death of tens of thousands of people, and of whole nations, then we should be far more attentive, far more questioning.  As a people, we do incur a certain degree of guilt if so much blood is shed wrongly, and so we ought to be diligent in demanding a clear explanation of a just rationale for war.  We don’t demand to know every detail, but we can and should ask for a coherent account, and if one is lacking, we should suspect that something rotten is afoot.  

But there is perhaps a more basic problem with the hangman example.  For the closest analogue of the hangman in a time of war is not the ordinary citizen, but the soldier.  Like the hangman, the soldier has signed up for the job of doing the dirty work.  He has in a very special way submitted his own judgment to that of his commanders; the justice system cannot work if the executioner is forever demanding to see all the evidence, and the military system cannot work if the soldiers are forever cross-examining every deployment order.  I would suggest that, although they have a serious responsibility to determine the justice of the system they choose to serve before they sign on the job, once they have so signed on, the hangman and the soldier have in fact less responsibility to determine the justice of orders than ordinary citizens.  In a controversial court case involving the death penalty, I would suggest, ordinary citizens have more duty to be protesting what they see as an unjust decision than does the hangman.  So, when a war is undertaken, soldiers may have to stay silent when those on the home front raise foreceful objections.  I would suggest that we have to give a more complex account of vocation, then, than Lewis’s simple citizen/leader dichotomy.  Lewis asks, for instance, 

“What is the alternative?  That individuals ignorant of history and strategy should decide for themselves whether condition 6 (‘a considerable probability of winning’) is, or is not, fulfilled? — or that every citizen, neglecting his own vocation and not weighing his capacity, is to become an expert on all the relevant, and often technical, problems?”  

Well no, that’s not the only alternative.  We are to weigh our vocations.  And some private citizens have a particular vocation to ask questions of those in power, to investigate the truth of their claims, to weigh the consistency of their rhetoric and to sift expert opinions?  Journalists, for instance, ought to have a crucial vocation within a modern society to inform the citizenry and to ask questions of those in power.  So when it comes to the possibility of war, the stakes are high enough that we should ask questions, and some will have the vocation to do a lot of cross-examination.  Perhaps Lewis is right and our default, if we live in a generally just society, should be to trust our leaders, but if this cross-examination uncovers evidence that contradicts what our leaders have told us, then we should not.


If we cannot be discerning and critical at this point, before the shots have been fired, before loved ones have been killed and we’ve been hardened by the ubiquity of death, before the fog of war has engulfed us, then when will be critical.  Lewis, like Paul Ramsey, operates under the assumption that ius in bello should be much easier to discern, and much easier for Christians to witness consistently to, than ius ad bellum: 

“a clear Christian witness might be attained in a different way. If all Christians consented to bear arms at the command of the magistrate, and if all, after that, refused to obey anti-Christian orders, should we not get a clear issue?  A man is much more certain that he ought not to murder prisoners or bomb civilians than he ever can be about the justice of a war.  It is perhaps here that ‘conscientious objection’ ought to begin.”


The problem is that history, above all the six years of history that followed Lewis’s writing of this letter, simply does not bear out this rosy optimism.  On the contrary, it seems generally to have been much easier for governments to convince their people that a war is being fought justly than that a war is being entered into justly.  Civilian deaths can always be covered up, or else dismissed as accidents.  Or perhaps a people, sufficiently hardened by war, can be brought to the point where they just don’t seem to care, as was the case by 1945, when the US and UK engaged in airborne atrocities on a scale that almost defies imagination.  If we are to be vigilant witnesses against the injustice of war, we must start by doing so when a war is first proposed, not after it is well underway.  Otherwise, if we start by simply trusting that the authorities know what they’re doing, then it’s almost certain that once we’re in the heat of conflict, when the alternative can be portrayed as treason, we will continue so trusting them, no matter what they command us to do.  

Two Faces, Two Kingdoms

Each time I read through C.S. Lewis’s masterpiece, Till We Have Faces, I’m struck by some new layer of meaning, some new profound insight, and this latest (fifth, I think) time was no exception.  One of the most emotionally wrenching and mentally jarring moments in the book comes on the very last page, the only bit not written from the perspective of Orual.  “I, Arnom, priest of Aphrodite, saved this roll and put it in the temple.  From the markings after the word might, we think the Queen’s head must have fallen forward on them as she died and we cannot read them.  This book was written by Queen Orual of Glome, who was the most wise, just, valiant, fortunate, and merciful of all the princes known in our parts of the world….”

On their own, there is nothing particularly arresting about these words.  However, to any reader who has traversed the pages of this book, following Orual on her psychological journey of love, hate, envy, insecurity, and pettiness, these words come like a splash of cold water on the face.  This is the same Orual who has been consumed, up till the final days of her life, with jealousy and self-love, who is Ungit, the embodiment of sin and ugliness, devouring everyone around her: “It was I who was Ungit.  That ruinous face was mine.  I was that Batta-thing, that all-devouring womblike, yet barren, thing.  Glome was a web–I the swollen spider, squat at its centre, gorged with men’s stolen lives.” 

How can she be simultaneously the embodiment of wickedness and yet praised by her subjects as “the most wise, just, valiant, fortunate, and merciful”?  


In this story, I think that Lewis has eloquently and beautifully portrayed what the Reformers meant when they spoke of the two kingdoms in man, the distinction between civil justice and true justice.  Often the Reformers’ conception of total depravity sounds strange and harsh to us.  Luther will say things like “Even just and pious men, whose justice might be found pure outside God’s judgment in the realm of mercy, are in his His judgment not at all helped by this justice but are equal to the last and most vile sinners.”  Even our best works, he insists, are sins apart from Christ.  How can Luther speak like this, we wonder?  It is not just that he says that our good works cannot save us–he says that they are not even good.  If a man practices justice, surely that counts for something?  Surely it is better than committing injustice.  

Luther goes on to endorse the importance of justice in the civil kingdom, but separates this entirely from justice in the spiritual kingdom.  Any pagan, he says, can be just in the civil kingdom, just as much as any Christian.  But this justice, whether pagan or Christian, however appreciated it may be in the eyes of men, counts for nothing coram Deo.  Surely this is an unhelpful dichotomy, we say.  If God’s standard of justice bears no resemblance to what we humans recognise as justice, doesn’t this make God’s justice arbitrary?  


Lewis’s narrative, however, powerfully explains Luther’s logic.  We each have two faces–the face which we show toward the world, and the face that only God sees, unless he enables us to see it for ourselves.  Too often, our most loving actions toward other people turn out to be, as Orual realises, “a love that can grow to be nine-tenths hatred and still call itself love”–a love that devours and consumes others in its self-love.  Our best works of justice and mercy, our labours for the common good, turn out to be only distractions by which we seek to escape from the emptiness within us: 

“What did I not do?  I had all the laws revised and cut in stone in the centre of the city.  I narrowed and deepened the Shennit till barges could come up to our gates.  I made a bridge where the old ford had been. . . . I did and I did and I did–and what does it matter what I did?  I cared for all these things only as a man cares for a hunt or a game, which fills the mind and seems of some moment while it lasts, but then the beast’s killed or the king’s mated, and now who cares?  It was so with me almost every evening of my life; one little stairway led me from feast or council, all the bustle and skill and glory of queenship, to my own chamber to be alone with myself–that is, with a nothingness.”  


This darkness in our souls renders, from the eternal perspective, all the good works which we do outwardly worthless.  But of course, that is not Lewis’s (or Luther’s) final word.  We ought not think therefore that civil justice is pointless or meaningless. It does nothing for the person doing it, perhaps, if their soul is dark, but it does much for others.  Arnom meant it when he penned those words with grief, “the most wise, just, valiant, fortunate, and merciful of all the princes known in our parts of the world….”  Part of Lewis’s point, I think, is to remind us how much good is done in the world by people whose souls are consumed with rottenness within, how many, no doubt, of our great heroes and saints were men and women who would be ashamed for us ever to read the journal of their inner thoughts.  And this can be a comfort to us, deeply mindful of our own sin and twistedness–that God works through broken vessels, through warped instruments, to accomplish good for his creatures upon earth.  Remembering this profound distinction between these two faces, these two justices, these two kingdoms, can teach us to appreciate outward justice where it may be found, not demanding of it an inward perfection, but neither putting too much trust in it, forgetful of the darkness that lies deep within each of us.

PS: Apologies to those who have been having trouble accessing the site, or their RSS feeds, in the past couple days.  I myself have been blocked from it several times.  Hopefully Squarespace will get their act together soon.

Drenched with Deity

In his English Literature in the Sixteenth-Century, C.S. Lewis offers perhaps what is the best summary of and introduction to Richard Hooker that I have yet found, far more lucid and on the mark than most “specialist” treatments.  Toward the end, he offers this luminous passage:

“Every system offers us a model of the universe; Hooker’s model has unsurpassed grace and majesty.  from much that I have already said it might be inferred that the unconscious tendency of his mind was to secularise.  There could be no deeper mistake.  Few model universes are more filled–one might say, more drenched–with Deity than his.  ‘All things that are of God’ (and only sin is not) ‘have God in them and he them in himself likewise’, yet ‘their substance and his wholly differeth’ (V.56.5).  God is unspeakably transcendent; but also unspeakably immanent.  It is this conviction which enables Hooker, with no anxiety, to resist any inaccurate claim that is made for revelation against reason, Grace against Nature, the spiritual against the secular.  We must not honour even heavenly things with compliments that are not quite true: ‘though it seem an honour, it is an injury’ (II.8.7).  All good things, reason as well as revelation, Nature as well as Grace, the commonwealth as well as the Church, are equally, though diversely, ‘of God’.  If nature hath need of grace’, yet also ‘grace hath use of nature’ (III.8.6).  Laws merely human, if they are good, have all been ‘copied out of the tables of that high everlasting law’ which God made, the Law of Nature (I.16.2).  ‘The general and perpetual voice of men is as the sentence of God himself’, for it is taught by Nature whose ‘voice is but his instrument’ (I.8.3).  ‘Divine testimony’ and ‘demonstrative reasoning’ are equally infallible (II.7.5).  Certainly, the Christian revelation is ‘that principal truth in comparison whereof all other knowledge is vile’; but only in comparison.  All kinds of knowledge, all good arts, sciences, and disciplines come from the Father of lights and are ‘as so many sparkles resembling the bright fountain from which they rise’ (III.8.9).  We must not think that we glorify God only in our specifically religious actions.  ‘We move, we sleep, we take the cup at the hand of our friend’ and glorify Him unconsciously, as inanimate objects do, for ‘every effect proceeding from the most concealed instincts of nature’ manifests His power (II.2.1). Not, of course, that our different modes of glorifying God are on a level. . . . But we must not so regard the highest in us as to forget that the lowest is still of God, nor so call some of our activities ‘religious’ as to make the rest profane. . . . We meet on all levels the divine wisdom shining through ‘the beautiful variety of all things’ in their ‘manifold and yet harmonious dissimilitude” (459-61).