The most recent issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality (16.1) features an updated translation of “The Moral Organization of Humanity as a Whole,” the last chapter of the Russian Orthodox philosopher Vladimir Soloviev’s major work on moral philosophy The Justification of the Good. Writing in 1899, Soloviev offers an insightful reflection on the centurion Cornelius, the first Gentile convert to Christianity (Acts 10), regarding the military vocation and the kingdom of God, appropriate to consider as we celebrate Veterans Day today:
Neither the angel of God nor the apostle Peter, the messenger of the peace of Christ, nor the voice of the Holy Spirit himself suddenly revealed in the ones converted, told the centurion of the Italian cohort that which was, according to the latest notions about Christianity, the most important and urgently necessary thing for this Roman warrior. They did not tell him that in becoming a Christian he must first of all cast away his weapons and without fail renounce military service. There is neither word nor allusion about this ostensibly indispensable condition of Christianity in the whole story, even though the point is precisely about a representative of the army. Renunciation of military service does not at all enter into the New Testament concept of what is required of a secular warrior in order that he become a citizen enjoying full rights in the kingdom of God.
While this may appear to be an argument from silence, Soloviev notes,
When Peter came, Cornelius said to him, “Now, therefore, we are all present before God, to hear all the things … commanded you by God” [10:33]. But in this all that God commands the apostle to communicate to the Roman warrior for his salvation, there is nothing about military service.
Taking seriously that the Apostle Peter did not leave anything out when he told Cornelius everything he needed to begin the Christian life, the omission of any command to renounce military service is a significant silence.
Elsewhere, Soloviev notes that while the Gospel commandment to love one’s enemies ideally prohibits war, “since a loved enemy ceases to be an enemy and cannot be made war upon,” our fallen world sometimes requires bloody callings, such as the vocation of a soldier, as a matter of prudence for the sake of compassion and justice:
When the centurion Cornelius was a pagan, the sentiment of pity that compelled him to ‘give alms generously’ [Acts 10:2] also certainly induced him to protect the weak from any injuries and to force violent aggressors to obey the laws.
In defense of the good of the use of force in society against the objections of some anarchists and passivists, Soloviev employs the metaphor of surgery:
It is as if someone pointed to the meaningless cruelty of an unsuccessful surgical operation, but then, incidentally, also to the suffering of a patient in a successful operation as an evident contradiction to the concept of surgery, in the sense of a beneficent art that helps people in certain bodily sufferings. It is more than evident that such representatives of state authority as, for example, Ivan IV [“Ivan the Terrible”] testify just as little against the humane basis of the state as bad surgeons do against the benevolence of surgery itself.
Soloviev would not deny the possibility of unjust war or tyrannical governance. However, he argues that just as medical malpractice should not cause us to decry surgical procedures as opposed to the Christian faith (even though the body is made for health and ideally would never need surgery), so also we must be more nuanced when we critique the use of violence in governance and even war. As the dictum goes, abusus non tollit usum: abuse does not destroy use.
No doubt Soloviev’s argument may not apply to all passivists (or anarchists) today, but it is something to ponder for Veterans Day. Some, like the centurion Cornelius (or, for that matter, St. Demetrius or St. George), must wrestle with how their particular calling as “secular warrior[s]” is conditioned by their citizenship in the kingdom of God. No doubt there is no easy answer for our veterans. War is a terrible thing, but sometimes it is necessary for the sake of the effective compassion needed “to protect the weak” from “violent aggressors.”
The path of a soldier is not an easy one, and the horrors of war linger on long after the fighting stops. Those rare few willing to undergo such trauma for the sake of others truly deserve our thanks today, even while we all hope and pray for a day when nations no longer need such surgery.
In the meantime, however, I also hope and pray for better surgeons: trained not only with skill with a scalpel, but with discernment of mind and virtue of soul.
With an introduction by Dermot Quinn, this essay is based on a lecture given by former Acton Institute Advisory Board member Russell Kirk, explaining Acton's view on the American and French Revolutions.