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Christian Ethics and the “Problems” of Business and War

Above all, the Christian tradition urges us to reject the application of war metaphors to the market, as if it were a bloody realm of unavoidable tragedy and exclusively self-focused interest. It is not—or should not be—and the temptation to accept economic “tragedy” is really just the temptation to fail to love God and the neighbor, theologically speaking.

The following reflection is an abbreviated account of McRorie’s chapter, “Christian Ethics and the Problems of War and Business” in The Business of War: Theological and Ethical Reflections on the Military-Industrial Complex.

Business and war are two very different “problems” for Christian ethics—if it is fair to even label them both as such. In fact, it probably isn’t; while the essence of war is organized violence, business is based in the private and voluntary exchange of goods and services. One of these is necessary for life and—at least when all goes well—arguably even allows humanity to collaborate with God’s own creative activity in the world. The other, not so much; even the most justified war is still necessary only as a result of and response to sin, and something in which no human should truly delight. With this in mind, let’s face it: if there is a “business of war,” something has gone very, very wrong indeed.

In order to explain what I mean by this, in what follows I break the Christian tradition’s treatment of these two themes into a rough typology: rejection, embrace, and ambivalent or judicious restraint. This isn’t a perfect typology, but it will do to illustrate some of the interesting points of convergence in Christian thought and practice around these “problems.” More than this, it will reveal important differences in how Christians ought to think and act with regard to these areas of life, and why treating war like business (or perhaps just as bad, treating business like war!) is incompatible with Christ’s command to love the neighbor.

Rejection, and withdrawal

This was very clearly the earliest Christian response to war. As best as historians can tell, Christians avoided military and civil service in the first 200 years. This was based in part on the assumption that Christian askesis required abjuring all forms of violence; as Tertullian reminded his flock, “Christ, in disarming Peter, unbelted all soldiers.” It was also grounded in the early Christian conviction that following Jesus meant living in opposition to “the world” which was passing away, and rejecting the logic of prudential self-preservation animating worldly pursuits.

Alongside military service, disavowing this worldly logic also seemed to require setting aside the pursuit and perhaps even private ownership of wealth. At least, this is how the record of the early church has often been read; the book of Acts records the Jerusalem churches as engaging in a radical economic sharing in which “no one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had” (Acts 4.32-35).

To be sure, neither Jesus’ parables nor the history in Acts forbid business, per se, and even the earliest Christians still worked in trades—St. Paul, for example, by making tents. Indeed, the church’s earliest resources have much more to say about wealth and money than commerce itself. The New Testament consistently portrays wealth as a serious “peril and obligation,” and the tradition certainly inherited from antiquity a suspicion of profit and finance that was not dislodged until the Reformation. Instead of an actual anti-business ethic, however, this anxiety about wealth translated into the moral expectation that within the believing community, the stratification and inequality of the external world should be overcome.

Although this early ethic was eventually diluted during the expansion of Christianity (and eventually both wealth and military service were widely permitted), the radical witness of the early churches continues to influence Christian thought on both business and war today. In particular, it can be seen in what is now called the “counsels of perfection,” which take their name from Christ’s advice to the rich young man in Mark 19: “If you wish to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give the money to the poor.”While such commands (including the instruction to turn the other cheek) are taken literally in the ethics of asceticism and in religious vows, Christians have generally interpreted these as supererogatory, and not binding upon all Christians. (A clear exception to this, of course, can be found in pacifist denominations, such as the inheritors of the Anabaptist legacy.)


On both war and business, a totally unambiguous and enthusiastic posture of “embrace” is a minority position within Christianity, by far. This is clearest in the case of war, with the only true outlier being found in the bizarre and terrifying history of the crusades. The next closest instance of this attitude might be in Martin Luther’s “two kingdoms” theology, which separated the life of the inner Christian living in the kingdom of Christ from the outer (and still sinning) Christian living in the world. Like Augustine before him, Luther held that Christians owe obedience to earthly rulers for the sake of preserving order, and that state-sponsored violence was thus a divinely ordained concession to sin. On this theological reading, war may be unfortunate, but nonetheless could be entirely morally justified.

A Christian embrace of business is slightly less uncommon, but still not the norm. It certainly would have been unthinkable in the early church, and only became possible after the gradual emergence of a more accepting attitude toward wealth in the modern era. As Max Weber famously noticed, this attitude came to play a particularly central role in Protestant (and especially Calvinist) thought in the Reformation. As he identified it, the “Protestant work ethic” centered on the claim that all believers have a calling, and that the diligence with which one attends to one’s vocation in the world may be a sign of election. As proof of this diligence, profit was viewed as a potential sign of grace, and God’s favor.

Today, the prosperity gospel movement links financial gain with divine favor even more directly. The theology of this movement centers on the belief that God wills physical and financial well-being for Christians, and will reward faithfulness with prosperity. In an interesting twist on the Protestant ethic Weber identified (in which profit was to be acquired through industry and frugality, and never to be spent on luxury), prosperity theology emphasizes the power of belief and God’s miraculous provision, instead of human labor. Scholars have suggested that this provides an empowering sense of agency to the disadvantaged populations among whom the prosperity gospel is especially popular (90-7); in this sense, a movement that would seem to wholeheartedly embrace business is, in the end, not necessarily or particularly about business at all.

The only other theological perspective counting as a possible “embrace” of business can be found in scholarship claiming that free markets operate according to providential design—or, more modestly, that markets are compatible with a society based on Christian ideals. This particular claim has no analogue in the ethics of war. In fact, it is premised upon the view that market activity is the exact opposite of war: it asserts that markets turn self-interested and competitive activity toward public peace and prosperity. The doux commerce thesis that commerce civilizes and the “invisible hand” thesis that economic self-interest promotes communal prosperity has existed for some time, but was not originally cast a Christian register. It entered Christian ethics through thinkers like Michael Novak in the 1980s, in part as a defense of capitalism against liberationist critiques of global markets. Even these enthusiastic endorsements, however, admit important caveats, including the claim that individual Christians must remain virtuous in their business dealings. In short, while pro-marketers may suggest that the demands of discipleship are fully consonant with profit-maximizing economic rationality, even they tend not to hold that “anything goes” in business.

Judicious restraint

Over the centuries, the vast majority of Christian thought and practice has fallen somewhere in between these two ideal typical approaches—they’re both much more ideal than typical. Most analysis characterizes both business and war as means through which it is appropriate to pursue good ends, but which may also present grave temptations to sin, and thus areas in which Christians must exercise prudential restraint. Interestingly, it is possible to hear the language of “tragedy” used in discussions of both (as in, not only is war tragic, but sometimes there are regrettable consequences in business, and so forth). Looking at the different nature and stakes of this tragedy leads to the heart of the question of how business and war are and are not alike—and whether there can be a Christian business of war, or war in business.

In war, the language of tragedy is more visible given that Christian ethics now tends to begin from a fundamental presumption against killing. This was not always the case; on Augustine’s view, for example, the “real evils in war” were all dispositional in nature, such as a “love of violence” (117). In its earliest forms, the just war tradition so emphasized the justice of a leader’s intentions and the importance of maintaining order that it assumed that war and killing itself was morally neutral. More recently, however, Catholic teaching on war has been reframed within a commitment to peace, and now evidences what could be considered a prima facie principle against killing. In the pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace,” for example, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops developed the concept of “comparative evil,” in order to keep the essential tragedy of all violence in view. As they write, “The question in its most basic form is this: do the rights and values involved justify killing? For whatever the means used, war, by definition, involves violence, destruction, suffering, and death” (92).

Clearly, if there is a tragedy at stake in business, it is not quite as, well, tragic—which is not to say that markets don’t matter. Liberationists have introduced the concept of structural violence into Christian social ethics, and developing this line of thought Pope Francis has lamented that an economy of exclusion “kills” (53). However, such critiques of unregulated markets are usually directed at larger, structural questions of political economy, and not premised on the assumption that engaging in a trade or profession—or even starting an enterprise in pursuit of profit—is itself a tragedy to be minimized akin to killing. Rather, with regard to business itself, the assumption is that the pursuit of profit and possession of wealth is tempting, and thus morally dangerous.

With this in mind, Christian business ethics urges individuals to approach business as a calling, and to order private goals toward the common good. In particular, it speaks to the temptation to engage in a partitioned thinking that would separate business from faith (and therefore allow for pure utilitarianism in economic matters). Keeping spirituality and work together may require a certain level of sacrifice, as Christians decide to refrain from certain practices and forgo some possible profit. Organizations such as the Economy of Communion provide illustrations of corporations and entrepreneurs putting their faith into practice.

Business as war, and war as business?

At the same time that the tradition has moved more sharply toward the ideal-typical pole of renouncing war, then, it has also moved closer than it once was to embracing business (although a transformed, Christ-like business, to be sure).

Both still require Christians to exercise judicious restraint given that business and war have their own dangers, and even their own momentum that can seem to resist the ‘imposition’ of ethics by suggesting that any attempts to organize them are misplaced moralism.

In business, this restraint is as much conceptual as it is practical, and rooted precisely in Christianity’s refusal to accept secular narratives about the “acceptable” human costs of making a buck. Above all, the Christian tradition urges us to reject the application of war metaphors to the market, as if it were a bloody realm of unavoidable tragedy and exclusively self-focused interest. It is not—or should not be—and the temptation to accept economic “tragedy” is really just the temptation to fail to love God and the neighbor, theologically speaking. The Christian vision of economic life thus rejects the language of tragedy, and instead affirms business as a chance to deal with the neighbor justly, and to collaborate with God in promoting human flourishing.

Entirely the opposite is the case with war: here, the Christian response is not to banish the language of tragedy, but to keep it front and center. Here, tragedy is no misunderstanding—instead, it is the fundamental essence of war, and to think otherwise by being overly confident in the justice of our causes—as Christians clearly often have—is the real failure. Here, to love God and the neighbor requires that we never forget that killing, unlike business, can only ever be a response to sin, and a tragedy to be minimized.

For all their interesting similarities, this is the heart of what separates these two “problems” in Christian ethics: the one is actually problem, while the other is, in the end, not. To link them together too casually is to let ourselves off the hook in either domain. If we are to truly follow Christ, we certainly cannot approach business as war. Nor should we allow ourselves to be comfortably reconciled to thinking of war as a business—and certainly not “business as usual.”

Christian Ethics and the “Problems” of Business and War

Above all, the Christian tradition urges us to reject the application of war metaphors to the market, as if it were a bloody realm of unavoidable tragedy and exclusively self-focused interest. It is not—or should not be—and the temptation to accept economic “tragedy” is really just the temptation to fail to love God and the neighbor, theologically speaking.

Justice and the Use of Private Military and Security Contractors

Transforming war into a capitalist imperative, the expanded use of PMSCs makes it more difficult to place democratic checks upon military power, commodifies war in a fashion that obscures its tragedy and misery, and threatens to further constrict the role of justice in determining military engagements.

Transformative Justice is Resistance to the Military-Industrial Complex

By working to abolish policing and prisons as we know them today, prison and police abolitionists are engaging in the kind of activism that can resist and dismantle these interconnected evils at the same time. In other words, transformative justice and prison abolition are ways to resist the military-industrial complex.

Response: The Business of War, the Labor of War

A full-scale war might spectacularly display the deaths and violence that immediately bring people’s attention. However, an excessive profit-driven business may also kill as many people as war does, while in many cases, these deaths are invisible.

Response: The Inversion of U.S. Society’s Militarism

A transformative justice approach with restorative mechanisms works to break this logic of de-humanization and build more humanizing social processes. Accountability, as distinct from punishment, is about better understanding the harm, growing in empathy, acknowledging responsibility, and moving in the direction of changing harmful behavior.

Response: Frameworks of Meaning, Identity, and Resistance

The language of the imago dei has the capacity, in my view, to subvert the legal and ethical justifications for war, and focus dialogue and conversations on the ways in which killing, tragically, allows us to glimpse the diminishment of our own humanity in the death of another.

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