The Essential Paul Ramsey (Ramsey // Werpehowski & Crocco, eds.)

The Essential Paul Ramsey (Ramsey)

Paul Ramsey, The Essential Paul Ramsey

Edited by William Werpehowski and Stephen D. Crocco

New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994.

When I was 18 I decided to never lock my car for religious reasons. I heard a good sermon about detachment form possessions and, crazily enough, tried to put it into practice. It wasn’t any kind of grand idealistic gesture—its not like I left the keys in the ignition—I didn’t want people to steal it, I just wanted to have some sense that this car, like everything else in life, wasn’t something that belonged to me in the strictest sense. I remember the day, however, that I drove my friend to Best Buy and he had his backpack loaded up with valuables with him. When we got out he asked me if I could lock it. This went against my principles; religious principles, no less. Not wanting to be a jerk or make a big deal out of it, I went ahead and locked the door.

This illustrates an important point that Paul Ramsey and other defenders of Christian violent resistance argue: the right thing to do changes when it’s not just me alone in the equation, but also our neighbor. We might be able to stomach turning our own cheek, but are we called to turn our neighbor’s cheek also? My last post was on a book about Christian nonviolence, in the spirit of fairness this book is a defense of violent resistance from a Christian perspective.

The Gist

Paul Ramsey was one of the most prominent Christian ethicists in the 20th century. In general he represents the perspective of Christian Realism, which tends to take very seriously the corrupted nature of our world and the humans who live in it. What sets Ramsey apart in this perspective is his tendency to reject a means-end justification of action/policy. Rather, Ramsey often argues for “exceptionless” rules that no consequences can justify.

For the purposes of this sketch, I read three essays that are basically portions of two of Ramsey’s major books: Basic Christian Ethics and The Just War. These essays were entitled: “Christian Vocation and Resistance,” “Justice in War,” and “Making ‘Just War’ Possible.”

In the first essay, “Christian Vocation and Resistance,” Ramsey wonders how a neighbor-centered ethic of love (as Christianity surely represents) could indeed really do without some provision for violence in defense of a victimized third party. As he would say in a later essay, it’s not about finding exceptions to the commandment “thou shalt not kill,” it’s about responding to the distress of a neighbor from a Christian point of view. Ramsey suggests that Jesus’ injunction to “turn the other cheek” is fine in its own right because it is the simplest of ethical situations—that between oneself and another. The problem is that this teaching doesn’t seem to really take into account or apply to cases where there is a third party. What might Jesus have done had he come upon the traveler in the story of the Good Samaritan, had he arrived at the moment he was being attacked?

This essay then recalls the ancient theory of ‘Just War’ as found in St. Ambrose and St. Augustine in order to revise them for the purposes of a defense of Christian physical resistance in the modern world. Augustine supposes that if it’s just a matter of oneself and another, then there is no good reason for violence, but if the question turns to the defense of the defenseless, then there are cases where violence is necessary and justified. Ramsey revises this basic claim to suggest that there are even ways in which self-defense would be justified. He appeals to the complexity of some situations that realistically occur in and out of crises like war that suggest that self-preservation could itself be a result of a neighbor-centered ethic of love.

In “Justice in War” and “Making ‘Just War’ Possible,” Ramsey turns his attention from individual circumstances to political entities engaging in war—and ostensibly the support and participation of individuals for such a thing. Perhaps his most unique contention here is the issue concerning causing direct harm to innocents. For Ramsey, the ends do not justify the means. Innocents (non-combatants) are never allowed to be directly attacked no matter how convenient or proficient such an attack might be. This sets him apart from other Christian Realists like Reinhold Niebuhr. We might note, however, the “directly” part of this argument. Ramsey does not suppose that innocents will not be harmed in war, just that any direct and purposeful attack on innocents is irrevocably immoral and blatantly unsupported in Christianity.

A remarkable feature of the first essay in particular is Ramsey’s criticisms not only of questionable practices in war—such as the nuclear bombing of Japan—but also the kind of war-mongering attitude that makes posturing at war a basic feature of political relationships. Although in other places Ramsey seems conflicted on this issue, in the first essay Ramsey insists that using the threat of violence to ensure peace is a self-fulfilling prophecy that will eventually result in either having one’s bluff called or having to make good on one’s promises. Either option is politically bad and ethically wrong.

What Stuck

One particular turn of phrase that Ramsey uses throughout all the essays is that “Jesus did not teach that his disciples should lift up the face of another oppressed man to be struck again on the other cheek. (71) Its inclusion in all of his essays suggests that this thought in some way cleverly represents his more detailed arguments. It’s hard to deny he has a point here. Jesus’ example doesn’t include a third party, and a true neighbor-centered love seems to include some provision for physical protection if necessary.

The other thing that stuck wasn’t a particular argument, but rather the way in which Ramsey maintained that love—agape—is the driving force behind legitimate Christian use of physical force. And he does this in a way that does not feel illegitimate, as if he’s just using love as a banner. Ramsey’s perspective does seem to take love seriously as the chief virtue of Christian ethics. Sometimes this even leads him to criticize the politics of his day, which is commendable. In arguing for justifiable violence and war, Ramsey is not just spewing propaganda for some nationalistic war-machine. He’s sincerely calling upon Christian thought, Scripture, and tradition in order to discern in what ways and by what means Christians ought to take up arms against another human being.

Memorable Quotes

[Any interpretation] which seeks to moderate the extremity of Jesus’ requirement [to turn the other cheek], cannot be correct, because Jesus spoke this saying merely as an illustration of his strenuous teaching “Do not resist one who is evil,” than which nothing could be more severe. . . . Nevertheless. . . . Jesus deals only with the simplest moral situation which blows may be struck, the case of one person in relation to but one other. He does not here undertake to say how men, who themselves ought not to resist at all or by any means whatever when they themselves alone receive the blows, ought to act in more complex case where nonresistance would in practice mean turning another person’s face to the blows of an oppressor. We are not at all uncertain what Jesus’ ethic was in bilateral, two-party situations. When his life alone was concerned Jesus turned the other cheek, when smitted he smote not again, and he died quite without defending himself. (45)

When it was a question of injustice done to persons other than himself, especially  when he confronted the huge burden of fossilized religion fastened upon the people of the land, Jesus did not remain at his ease lifting up their faces to additional blows or supporting by silence their compulsion to go the second mile. (46)

[B]oth St. Ambrose and St. Augustine continued to teach that when a man himself is alone is concerned he ought never to resist “one who is evil.” Both combine their justification of war because of a Christian’s responsibility for public protection with an utter denial that under any circumstances he ever has any right of private self-defense. (49-50)

Care for others for whom a person is vocationally responsible, closely and obviously bound in with protecting himself, may also require more positive action, actually taking away the lives of others. . . . (54)

[T]he Christian nevertheless must adjudicate and decide one way or another among the claims and needs of neighbors he is to serve. . . . No doubt a man stands always in grave peril of choosing only the manifestation of love which pleases him best. He faces the same peril of deceiving himself and others and loving no one but himself even when he sacrifices himself and others. . . . Men who are always surrounded on every side by complex relationships delineating their vocational obligations, and whose moral decisions can never escape from these bonds. . . . need some St. Francis to walk by their side troubling them. (56-7)

Searching for an explanation, we may be driven to reflect that both the pacifism of early Christians and their shift over to resistance in the light of increasing responsibility were basically grounded in Christian love, while in contrast a good deal of contemporary pacifism is grounded in horror and revulsion at the sight of violence or bloodshed and an ethic which values life above everything else. (58)

Since, however, the porcupine-nations are unlikely soon to be banished, since they are armed with massive nuclear weapons, and since somewhere, sometime, a nation is likely to find itself so vitally challenged that it will believe that even in the atomic era war can be an instrument of its justice, we are today forced to reexamine an ancient set of teachings which many people thought was out of date. This is the doctrine of the “just war,” or the morality governing a resort to arms which is only an elaboration of the morality governing the use of power generally. (61)

Instead, it is the work of love and mercy to deliver as many as possible of God’s children from tyranny, and to protect from oppression, if one can, as many of those for whom Christ died as it may be possible to save. When choice must be made between the perpetrator of injustice and the many victims of it, the latter may and should be preferred-even if effectively to do so would require the use of armed force against some evil power. (62)

To summarize the theory of just or civilized conduct in war as this was developed within Christendom: love for neighbors threatened by violence, by aggression, or tyranny, provided the grounds for admitting the legitimacy of the use of military force. Love for neighbors at the same time required that such force should be limited. . . . This means that nuclear war against the civil centers of an enemy population, the A-bomb on Hiroshima, or obliteration bombing perpetrated by both sides in World War II were all alike immoral acts of war; and that Christians can support such actions only by dismissing the entire Western tradition of civilized warfare that was originally born in the interior of that supreme compassion which always seeks if possible to wound none whom by His wounds Christ died to save. (64)

The desperate attempt to maintain the current state of non-war by indiscriminately aiming weapons at people, and a fervent attempt to abolish war by declaring it in any shape to be a wickedness to which no moral limits can or should be applied lie down peaceably together in the declaration by both parties that there is no moral economy that should or can govern the use of armed violence. (66)

The traditional teaching about the conduct of war taught us that it is never right to intend or do wrong that good may come of it. Nuclear weapons have only added to this perennial truth a morally insignificant footnote: it can never do any good to intend or do wrong that good may come of it. (67)

Too frequently the just war theory is said to be assuredly false or irrelevant or outmoded by people who would not confront the actual policies of their nation with these criteria even if proved true. (69)

The justification of warfare and of Christian participation in it was not actually an exception (certainly not an arbitrary one, or a compromise from the purity of Christian ethics), but instead an expression of the Christian understanding of moral and political responsibility. (70)

Instead, intrinsic within the new foundation laid by Christ for the entire conduct of his disciples was the conviction that love and mercy are the fulfilling of the law, of natural justice, and of the meaning expressed in the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.” When in doubt as to the actual action required by this command, one had simply to consult again the requirements of compassion incarnating itself in serving the concrete needs of men. (70)

The Christian is commanded to do anything a realistic love commands, and he is prohibited from doing anything for which such love can find no justification. (72)


I really lean toward the perspective of Christian nonviolence, but I’m not sure I swallow all of that kool-aid. The perspective of nonviolence is extremely helpful at cutting away a lot of uncritical, un-Christian modes of violence in our world. And in a perfect world I don’t think there is a place for violence at all (and I don’t know many who would disagree). But I wonder sometimes that Christian nonviolence makes too arbitrary a distinction between physical violence and violence/power/force broadly construed. Is there a real distinction, for instance, between using physical force to make someone comply and establishing a law for the same purposes? I use all sorts of non-violent force as an essential means of raising and training my kids all the time. Whether Jesus hit people with his whip or not, he’s still implementing a kind of ‘violence’ that makes people do what he wants whether they want to or not. But, more importantly, when the issue involves my family, my neighbor, really any other human being in need—that changes things for me at a personal level beyond the theoretical level. Without the need to engage in needless, excessive violence, there is something to be said about taking the necessary measures, including defensive physical resistance, to protecting one’s neighbor.

At the same time, I can’t go all the way with Ramsey either. As I read his arguments I kept feeling like the Kingdom of God was being traded for our desire to save ourselves and our neighbors from any suffering altogether. I found myself gravitating to the ancient argument for Just War—when it is just an individual matter then we are obligated to view our enemy as a neighbor even to the point of death. But if our neighbors are brought into the equation there are places for neighbor-centered violent resistance, though it is largely defensive and aimed at doing the least possible damage.

The tendency to want to stretch this line of reasoning, as Ramsey does, to cases of flat-out aggression and self-preservation is the point at which I feel like the Kingdom of God is slipping away. Still, I think everyone can and should benefit from reading a theologian like Paul Ramsey who argues his position carefully and from the perspective of love and compassion, critical of the poor defenses and uses of violence in the world.

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