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Patrick Van Inwegen
We Are Obligated to Create Justice

by Patrick Van Inwegen

I believe that we have an obligation to be just. As Christians, we are supposed to follow Christ and His example of comforting those who suffer, aiding those who cannot defend themselves and actively changing the structures that encourage injustice. My faith comes out of the Catholic tradition, though I am too young in my faith to speak with authority as a Catholic.

Historically, this belief in an obligation to be just has led theologians and philosophers to construct a Just War Doctrine: When suffering exists that we can stop, countries have an obligation to act. This has meant that, when all other means are exhausted, a country can go to war with another to stop egregious human-rights violations or to bring stability back to the international system. In theory, this rectifies the disjuncture between the suffering caused by war and the obligation to end suffering; and, historically, war may at times have been an effective tool at stopping injustice. (I'll leave that to the historians.) 

If war ever was an effective tool, it is no longer. Modern wars, and maybe all wars, require setting aside notions of justice to further the war effort. News reports of torture, prisoner abuse, restrictions of human rights, and other injustices are not aberrations but a fundamental and inevitable outcome of the dehumanization that is required to wage war in the 21st century. The Bush Administration's push for changes in acceptable interrogation techniques are an indication of this fact. Soldiers are placed in a context where murder, rape, crime and dehumanization are tools for winning submission. Psychological studies suggest that very few people can behave morally in such conditions.

To be clear, the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan conflict with my belief that Christians have an obligation to create justice. Both the Ba'athist and Taliban regimes were unjust, and we had an obligation to change them – to help those who were oppressed. We destroyed the structures that had created oppression, but at the same time we strengthened the structures that support the war system that makes dehumanization inevitable. We validated the use of militaries to solve international problems, ensuring that atrocities will be committed.

If we are required to act to change oppressive structures and the war system is itself this type of structure, what can we do?  More concretely, what do we do about the Saddam Husseins of the world?

We are obligated to act. But our action must be to create justice, not destruction. We should have worked to build international consensus on pressuring change in Iraq and Afghanistan and we should be working harder to do this in Sudan, Myanmar and Palestine, and in other places where oppression exists. We need to set up the structures that will allow justice to prevail internationally, involving greater leadership and participation in international organizations but also in unilateral humanitarian aid and support for sustainable development. This is a long-term struggle, and it will be difficult and costly, but it has not been easy spending hundreds of billions of dollars and killing thousands of people. More important, it has not been just.

Van Inwegen is an assistant professor of political science at Whitworth.

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