Book Review: War & the Christian Conscience

Book Review 14

Joseph J. Fahey.  War and the Christian Conscience: Where Do You Stand?  Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2005.  xviii + 194 p.

In the past decade Christians in America have had to confront a perennially vexing question; what should one believe about the Christian’s relationship to war?  Sadly, too many Christians simply believe that their government’s (or their particular wing of the church’s) posture on war is the Christian response, rather than examining the issue themselves.

In this work Joseph Fahey hopes to engage those who have never given much thought to their convictions on war (xv).  The book divides neatly into three parts.  The first part seeks to articulate a rudimentary understanding of conscience and its development.  Before doing so though, Fahey creates a fictional story that centers on a college student named Nicole.  Nicole and her classmates are thinking through their beliefs about war in light of their president’s reinstituting of the military draft for preventative warfare.  While the story is not going to win any awards, it does meet Fahey’s goal of providing a more concrete context in which to think through the subject, which he will return to at different points throughout the work.

Fahey defines conscience as

the innate ability to determine the ethics of actions as morally good, bad, or indifferent (12).

For Fahey this “innate ability” is not an “inner voice” inherent in all humans, but rather refers to the potential to develop an understanding of good and bad subsequent to birth.  From this Fahey explicates several “perspectives that form conscience.”  These perspectives are culture (specific and general social groups one belongs to), duty, egoism, gender, religion, science, and utilitarianism.  The discussion here is very general, so general at points it seems to undercut its usefulness.  For example, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are lumped together as “theistic religions,” and receive one paragraph.  Little theological resources are provided at this point.

Part 2 of the book examines “War and Christian Conscience in Christian History,” and comprises the heart of the book.  Four main positions, each receiving a separate chapter, are articulated: pacifism, just war, total war, and world community.  Beginning in scripture and working its way up to contemporary society, Fahey ends with a summary of each model’s salient  points and encourages the reader to write Nicole a letter in reference to the position.

The chapter’s dealings with scripture are not as deep as one would like, but they do provide the major battle grounds for the bible’s endorsement of each respective postion.  The strength of the chapters are in the focus on historical figures who are stand outside consideration for most white protestants, like Bartolome de Las Casas.  Also, at times Fahey’s historical analysis challenges (rightly in my estimation) traditional American opinions of certain historical figures and developments (eg Columbus is not someone to celebrate).   

At times, Fahey’s analysis reveals his preference for both the pacifism and world community models.  The biblical arguments for “just war” proponents are shot down with an intensity that is not matched in other chapters.  This contributes the overall rhetoric behind Fahey’s understanding of the historical development of the church’s beliefs on war, revealing an anti-war bias.  I have no problem with this in and of itself, but it is worth noting because Fahey’s book is endorsed by Patrick Coy specifically because it

doesn’t tell anyone what to think about war, but teaches readers how to think about it on their own.

Due to its genre as a survey text that attempts to be nonpersuasive, one must understand that despite Fahey’s noble intentions, he has, like anyone else, been unable to remove his opinion from his work.  However, occasionally it seems that this could have been avoided.

The last part of the book simply calls for the reader to make a choice regarding her/his opinion on war and the Christian conscience.  He asks the reader to decide how moral decisions should be made, based on his perspectives in part one, and to decide which model, or combination of models, one holds regarding the Christian and war.

The major strength in this book is its historical explications of the church’s beliefs on war.  For the novice, the historical overviews provided will enrich the believer’s understanding of both the Christian faith and its complex relationship with the issue of war.  Further, the push towards making a decision on this issue, and the encouragement to continue wrestling with it are commendable attributes (193-194).  Lastly, despite lapses the overall tenor of Fahey’s book is charitable in tone, making it a good place for the beginner.

The absense of any real theological depth is the main weakness of Fahey’s text.  For Fahey the process of forming one’s conscience on war is little more than determining how one prefers to form their conscience, and then make a decision based on those criteria.  It is a very modern, mechanical, individualistic approach that gives little attention to communal dynamics and frankly to the actual opinion of God.  The scriptures are more like pedagogical ethical treatises rather than a witness to the Triune God and His work today.

This is a helpful “first book” for someone on the subject in that it provides the broad historical contexts in which someone can engage the issue.  That being Fahey’s goal, he has for the most part succeeded.  Beyond that, one should look elsewhere for more sustained, theological adept reflections on this troublesome issue.


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