The Dove, the Fig Leaf and the Sword
This highly informative, well-researched and systematic approach to historically changing
Christian views around war and peace is an excellent overview that does not flinch from also
facing the contentious contemporary context. Alan Billings is well placed to tackle this theme,
being an Anglican priest, theologian, ethicist and occasional lecturer to military chaplains.
Highlighting historical tensions and change-points within Christianity over the ethics ofwar, he
acknowledges his own position by contending that Christianity was never a “pacifist”
movement in an absolute sense, even though it commits its followers to seek for peace, and
therefore military action may be contemplated in certain circumstances as a “cruel necessity”.
He then skilfully navigates us through four phases of Christian thought beginning with
Christianity’s earliest approach which renounced violence and largely took a pacifist approach
up to Constantine (The Dove). He moves to Christianity’s second thoughts which largely
accepted the necessity of violence and developed the JustWar tradition fromConstantine to the
Reformation (The Fig Leaf). He asserts the third change-point as the embracing of violence in a
righteous cause, covering the post Reformation and the rise of the nation-state to the tragedy of
the FirstWorldWarwhere this approach stumbles and then stops at the end of the SecondWorld
War (The Sword). The great names, and the greatest name, are all here—Thucydides, Plato,
Cicero, Aristotle, Jesus, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Grotius and even the Anabaptists getmore
than a mention! It is a succinct, sharp and erudite survey.
The contentious debate is reserved for the contemporary context. In the fourth section—
Return of the Dove?—the recovery of Just War and the more recent questioning of its
usefulness are debated with vigour in which Billings argues that Christianity will and should
continue to change its mind over military operations and war. Following and adapting
Niebuhr, Billings argues for a Christian realist position, acknowledging that any discussion of
ethics must work with the realities of power or the ethic will either fail or remain irrelevant to
Indeed, with moral ambiguity more present than ever in the complexities surrounding
military operations and war in the twenty-first-century context, a Christian realist position
that accepts a measure of pragmatism to bring the best or least worst out of situations, is a
necessary reality according to Billings. He argues that the Just War tradition in itself is just
not enough in today’s context; especially with a state deciding to take preventive action to
frustrate what it thinks may be a future possibility. He highlights the Middle East in this
regard. Indeed, this position will hold that Christianity will mostly change its mind about
operations and war, depending on the choices available to a nation-state at any given time.
This applies to the combination of motives and reasons behind the more recent emphasis
upon pre-emption and prevention; humanitarian interventions; regime change and the
prevention of terrorism. The choices of when to intervene militarily in humanitarian
circumstances or respond to a violent movement rather than a nation-state are cases in point.
If adult theological education is about serious thinking, this highly readable, informative and
contentious book will deliver on whichever side of the debate you find yourself. With a light
touch, Billings brings additional thinking, especially in the twenty-first-century context, to the
tensions that Christianity has with military operations and war. One thing is clear. Billings
believes Christianity must engage both ethically and realistically if its message is going to have
any relevance in the arena of war and the spectrum of other military operational options with
those who bear the weight of making those life-changing and responsible choices.