Book Review: Ryan P. Cumming. The African American Challenge to Just War Theory: A Christian Approach. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013, 235 pages, $65.33

[1] “What is the Christian witness for questions of war and peace?” is the opening line in Ryan Cumming’s introduction to his book.  From here Cumming moves toward the assertion that the African American voice has been conspicuous by its absence in the Christian debate over the relevance of the just war theory in the 21st century.  The absence of African American voices in the just War debate in American Christendom is significant because the debate is fundamentally one about power.  The lack of voices representing those who are not empowered weakens the debate and ultimately calls into question all assertions of legitimacy regarding the use of military power as a tool of geo-politics in the 21st century.

[2] In Chapter 1 of his book, Cumming reviews what he calls “The State of Just War Theory Today.”  In the course of his review, Cumming breaks the topic into four sections providing a broad span of the prevailing literature on the subject.  First, Cumming addresses the “presumption against war”.  He begins his assessment with two leading Protestant scholars who interpret the just war theory with a presumption against war, Ralph Potter and James Childress. While both of these scholars agree that the just war theory begins with a presumption against the use of force, they base their arguments differently.  Potter roots his argument in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ which he asserts exemplifies a commitment to nonviolence.  Childress on the other hand claims a moral priority for non-violence over violence based on what he views as the universal human prima facie duty of non-maleficence.  Cumming then reviews J. Bryan Hehir and the US Catholic Bishops letter, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response.  Here Cumming sees the moral duty is to avoid war ad bellum but when that becomes impossible the in bello criteria work to limit the suffering produced even by a justified use of violence.  Cumming offers a critique of Protestant thought regarding just war theory by pointing out that the presumption against war is read into the just war theory rather than being drawn out of that theory. Second, in counter valence to the view of the presumption against war, is the presumption against injustice.  Here the argument is made that part of the historical foundation of the tradition of just war teaches that war can be either morally good or morally evil depending upon how it is used and by whom.  Third, Cumming names three internal challenges to just war theory.  The challenges are: to view the tradition as generative, participatory and developing; to avoid dualism especially when the tradition centers on the discussion of legitimate authority; and to examine the premises and hermeneutical process of just war theory in a self-critical and tradition-critical manner.

[3] “Who makes decisions about war?” leads the reader into a conversation regarding decision making or “legitimate authority” with respect to making war.  Clearly there are no longer princes or emperors to make these decisions and the question of presidential war making authority over against that belonging to Congress is in heated debate.  Much has changed since the days of Augustine, Aquinas and other leading thinkers within the just war tradition.  Two changes of significance rise to the top of the list and the possible answers to each contribute to the debate regarding legitimate authority.  The first has to do with technology and the rapidity with which decisions regarding war must be made.  Second is the advent of what is frequently described as asymmetrical warfare.  The shift in debate has moved to a question of where does morally legitimate power reside and how is that power to be utilized.  In the past, decisions regarding warfare had the luxury of time.  It took huge amounts of time for an army to be assembled, for the army to move to the battle space, and for the necessary logistical support to be put into place.  In today’s world a missile strike can be launched within a matter of minutes with the potential of near total devastation of the foe, leaving only a retaliatory strike capability that assures the mutual destruction of both belligerents.  This is the basic doctrine of “MAD” which gained prominence during the Cold War.  Asymmetrical warfare is often thought of as a new doctrine of warfare.  However, David’s confrontation and defeat of Goliath could certainly be understood as an example of asymmetrical warfare.  However, what has changed is the battle space.  From large armies massed upon an unpopulated rural battleground our modern day world has seen a shift to small unit, special operations, force conducting its work in urban areas.  What this means, of course, is that non-combatant immunity and proportionality are both called into question.  A shift has also occurred with the breakdown of the Westphalian notion of nation states, raising the question of the use of political power and authority to new levels.  Cumming asserts that, “Just war theory fails when it applies a notion of legitimate authority suitable to a Westphalian world of equal powers to a unipolar world.”  The moral dilemma that we in the modern world find ourselves living with is having to “choose between the unilateralism of the United States, and the multilateralism of the UN, without an adequate understanding of how moral character is to be evaluated in either case.”  War in the twenty-first century requires a struggle with the right authority for the decision to wage war.  Because of the changing nature of war the old sources of power no longer hold sway and the status quo of the just war theory no longer works.

[4] Cumming now asserts that the African American voice must be heard and seriously listened to in the search for legitimate authority to wage war.  While African American theologians have commonality with their white counterparts in rooting the ultimate authority to wage just war in God, they have a markedly different notion of what that power looks like.  White theologians typically center their theological justification for making war in the righting of injustice.  African American theologians on the other hand tend to highlight God’s special concern for the oppressed.  Cumming argues that there is a different hermeneutic at work in the two views of authority to wage war.  He uses the example of the Spanish-American War to make the claim poignantly saying, “While the African American community strongly opposed Spanish imperialism in Cuba, many commentators opposed the war on the grounds that the United States had failed to secure its own legitimate authority to declare war by failing to protect the rights of African Americans at home.”  Cumming goes on to argue against American legitimacy in just war by observing that, “Any government that oppresses its citizens through exploitations, marginalization, and violence ceased to be legitimate.  God’s identification with the oppressed underscores the importance of examining an authority’s relationship to the poor in its realm.”

[5] Proportionality is the next topic that Cumming addresses.  For his part, Cumming sees three failings of the theory of proportionality.  First, he believes that the cost of war has been reduced too narrowly on the lives lost as the only evil to be weighed against the good ends of war.  “Proportionality has become so narrow that it is, in some ways, little more than a shell of the robust criterion it once was.”  The second criticism is closely related to the first in that proportionality ad bellum has been collapsed into proportionality in bello.  The weakness is that the argument concerning the proportional cost of war with all of its ramifications is lost by reduction to the simple equation of how many deaths are worth such-and-such a value.  Third is the loss of the relationship that had previously existed between the various parts of the just war theory such as just cause, right intention, reasonable chance of success, and legitimate authority.  Again it is the reduction of proportionality to value of the number of lives lost rather than to broaden the notion of costs across the spectrum of warfare.  Cumming argues for a value-relative cost analysis that includes an honest assessment of what government is intended to do, how the national budget reflects the moral values of the society, and who suffers the decreased economic incentives resulting from the increase in military spending.  For instance, the poor are much more likely to suffer the consequences in decreased economic incentives through cuts to welfare, housing, education, and Medicaid spending.  If society is going to seriously consider proportionality as part of the cost of waging war, the just war theory cries out for the voices of those, the poor, who are going to bear the greatest burden from increases in defense spending.

[6] Cumming concludes his argument with the provocative question, “What is the goal of rethinking just war theory?”  Drawing rather heavily upon the thought and writing of James H. Cone, Cumming carefully cautions those who tout a just war theory to be careful of narrowing their thought to a simple question of law and order.  What happens when one employs just war theory to the use of power and determines an injustice is so grave that it merits military intervention?  Cone argues that this thinking was a prime reason that America’s war in Southeast Asia failed in its stated goal of righting an injustice and did not meet the criteria for a just war.  Cone understands the failure of Vietnam to be the starting point located in the legalistic notion of maintaining law and order and the presumption against war.  Both camps, Cone suggests, rarely come from an oppressed group and therefore run the risk of dictation from the position of privilege to the victims of injustice the moral rules of addressing their oppression.  Finally, Cumming asserts that a new hermeneutic of just war must include the voices of those who are oppressed, those who have been liminalized, and those who voices have not been clearly heard in the debate regarding their human interests and the costs that they will bear in any and all wars.  It is in the open conversation in which the interests of the poor are made known not by the privileged but by the poor themselves.

[7] While this is clearly a book that rose out of Cumming's dissertation it is, nonetheless, a book that raises important questions regarding what is better described not as just war theory but just war tradition and its application to questions of authority, power, and the use of military force in the 21st century.  The book is available both in hardcover and Kindle versions and provides an excellent point of departure for a journey into an in-depth conversation regarding war in a country that has spent over ten years of the new millennium engaged in the longest war in our nation’s history.

Wollom A. Jensen is a retired CAPT, Chaplain Corps, United States Navy.  A rostered Pastor in the ELCA, he currently serves as Executive Officer to the Episcopal Bishop for Armed Forces and Federal Ministries.

© June 2014

Journal of Lutheran Ethics

Volume 14, Issue 6