The Good Samaritan and Just War Theory

In light of the the preeceeding Memorial Day reflection, I will remain on the intersection of war and religion, a topic with much personal import for me.

People often ask me how I reconcile my Catholic faith with my military profession. It is a fair and honest inquiry, after all, for the among the most famous words uttered by the Church’s Founder include “those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (John 18:11) and the admonition to “turn the other cheek,” which is in turn a repudiation of the old saying “an eye for an eye” (Matthew 5:38-39, et al.)  Nonviolence certainly characterized the life of the Messiah when he walked on earth (with one notable exception, namely, the attack on the moneychangers), and peace is certanly a noble Christian aspiration. But in this vale of tears, where the effects of the Fall continue to plague the poor banished children of Eve, lasting peace is simply an utopic dream. Aggressions and wars which escape even the most calculated and reasoned attempts at peace are part and parcel of our mortal existence. Because of this, pure pacifism is neither tenable nor acceptable; in order to protect good people from objectively evil and unchecked acts of violence, at times, the force of arms is a necessary recourse. Thus, shouldering arms is not necessarily a malum in se.

I have already addressed the concept of “just war” in two previous posts [here and here] on the need for Western military intervention against the so-called “Islamic State”, reviewing the criteria for just war in light of both the Cathechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 2309) and contemporary ethics. I refer the reader to those posts for a more detailed treatment on modern just war theory. What I wish to do here is to treat the subject more fundamentally and to explore the foundations of just war theory.

One of the most innovative contributions to modern just war theory comes from the great Methodist moral theologian, Paul Ramsey. In his famous work The Just War, he adopts a unique reading of the Parable of the Good Samaritan and on such basis develops a theoretical justification for the possibility of just war. First, let us review the parable (Luke 10:25-37).

There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test him and said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” He said in reply, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” He replied to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” But because he wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho. They stripped and beat him and went off leaving him half-dead. A priest happened to be going down that road, but when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. Likewise a Levite came to the place, and when he saw him, he passed by on the opposite side. But a Samaritan traveler who came upon him was moved with compassion at the sight. He approached the victim, poured oil and wine over his wounds and bandaged them. Then he lifted him up on his own animal, took him to an inn and cared for him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper with the instruction, ‘Take care of him. If you spend more than what I have given you, I shall repay you on my way back.’ Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” He answered, “The one who treated him with mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

The story, then, is firstly about charity toward one’s neighbor. Love of neighbor is the means to eternal life. When Jesus is pressed to define the word “neighbor”, he includes the Samaritans, traditional enemies of the Judeans. All persons, regardless of circumstance or national origin, are to be treated with charity. So far, so good, but what has this to do with the liceity of war?

Note that all the passers-by (the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan) came upon the man after the beating. Ramsey then asks a question that drastically alters the moral landscape of the problem at hand: “what if the Samaritan arrived during the beating“? In The Just War, he writes:

It was a work of charity for the Good Samaritan to help the man who fell among thieves. But one step more, it may have been a work of charity for the inn-keeper himself to hold himself ready to receive the beaten and wounded men, and for him to have conducted his business so that he was solvent enough to extend credit to the Good Samaritan. By another step it would have been a work of charity, and not justice alone, to maintain and serve in a police patrol on the Jericho road to prevent such things from hapening. By yet another step, it might well be a work of charity to resist, by force of arms, any external aggression against the social order that maintains the police patrol along the road to Jericho. This mean that, were the enforcement of an ordered communite is not effectively present, it may be a work of justice and a work of social charity to resort to other available and effective means of resisting injustice: what do you think Jesus would have made the Samaritan do if he had come upon the scene while the robbers were still at their fell work? What do you imagine Jesus would have had the Samaritan do if in the story he had come upon the scene when the robbers had just begun their attack and while they were still at their fell work? Would it not then be a work of charity to resort to the only available and effective means of preventing or punishing the attack and resisting the injustice? Is not anyone obliged to do this if he can?

Ramsey’s implication is clear: had the Samaritan arrived while the beating took place, the correct and morally obligatory response would be to use proportional force against the robbers to stop the onslaught. This reading of the parable has won for Ramsey both ardent praise and vigorous detractors. His interpretation, while novel and unique with no parallels in patristic sources, is in fact harmonious with Christian orthodoxy and standard just war theory.

Christian Salafia, at his website Homebrewed Theology, represents the pacifist criticism of Ramsey’s view. In response to another person’s citation of Ramsey, Salafia delivers a standard (although venomous) answer. He criticizes Ramsey’s apparent use of counterfactual reasoning (i.e., “The Samaritan would have/should have fought off the robbers”) by appealing to strict literalist exegesis:

Jesus would have stepped in-between the robbers and the intended victim.
Just as he did with the adulterous woman.
Or as he did at the pool of Bethesda.
Or as he did during his arrest.
There isn’t one single story where Jesus stepped into danger and met violence with violence.
Not. One.

Of course, Salafia engages in his own unproductive counterfactual reasoning by arguing the negative of Ramsey’s implication (i.e., by saying “Jesus would not have fought the robbers”). Furthermore, his failure to make critical distinctions between each of the stories reveals his own ideological bias. Unlike in Ramsey’s hypothetical situation, Jesus arrived before the adulterous woman was being stoned (nevertheless, this story reflects the just war theory’s proposition that recourse to force is illicit if dialogue has prospects of success). The story of Bethesda is irrelevant, since there is no threat of a beating. The comparison to Christ’s arrest is even more irrelevant: Ramsey is not concerned with an individual choosing to not defend himself; he is concerned with charitably intervening to aid a neighbor in distress.

Salafia is right, however, when he writes that “There isn’t one single story where Jesus stepped into danger and met violence with violence.” (Thus we can leave aside the attack on the moneychangers.) However, this line of reasoning has never been a valid method of ethical argument. No expression of positive law (be it the Bible, the Catechism, or any other source) can adequately account for all particular situations, for its human authors cannot forsee every possible circumstance. Treating the biblical text such narrow manner deprives it of life and fails to open its wisdom to the vissicitudes of our own Sitz im Leben. Hypothetical treatments like Ramsey’s, which point to real life situations, are the method by which practical developments in theology arise.

Both historical criticism and moral-anagogical interpretation of the parable are valuable in this case (as in most cases). The first examines the Sitz im Leben of the text itself, while the latter attempts to discern the timeless significance of the text for us in our own time. A detail in the parable oft-overlooked by amateur exegetes is the line, “A man fell victim to robbers as he went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.” This is no incidental detail but one of incredible import for the story and for all its moral implications. A great American orator spoke about the road to Jericho on the eve before his death:

You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, “I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.” It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1200 miles — or rather 1200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you’re about 2200 feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.” And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” (Martin Luther King, Jr., “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, 3 April 1968)

Dr. King saw firsthand the perils of the setting deliberately chosen by Jesus. The “Bloody Pass” is a place where travelers suffered legitimate, pressing, and imminent concerns about safety, and Jesus’ audience obviously understood this without need for an explanation like Dr. King’s. What made the Samaratan’s act so shockingly revolutionary was that he put himself in grave peril just by stopping to help the beaten man in the “Bloody Pass”. This is the essence of Christian charity– to risk oneself for the sake of another.

Now let us return to the pacifist’s answer to Ramsey’s proposition: if Jesus (or the Samaritan) had arrived during the beating, Salafia claims that he “would have stepped in-between the robbers and the intended victim” just as he did “with the adulterous woman”. Does such a passive response really evoke the genuine concern that Dr. King saw in the original parable? Does it really express the fullness of charity which dares to ask, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” I argue that such a passive intervention certainly risks onself, but not necessarily for the sake of another. If the Samaritan was genuinely concerned about “what will happen” to the victim, surely the Samaritan would be compelled to use the force necessary to stop the aggression.

The road to Jericho is a symbol of human history. Hidden along its blind turns and deadly inclines are those who will dare to seize upon innocent people and leave them for dead. Those who travel along the path may traverse undisturbed, while others will face the peril of the robbers; others yet may come across victims left for dead, and others still will witness an attack in progress. Some of these will be timid Levites who will one day earn the judgment of God. Others will be Samaritans who lovingly tend and bid the wounds of others. No less noble than these Good Samaritans, however, are ones who choose to stand guard along the road, ready to defend the viatores from the lurking bandits; to them, all are their neighbors, and thus they lend their charitable service to all by standing ready to defend those who cannot defend themselves.

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