Sunday, October 20, 2013

We Dwell on Wars that Settle Ethical Conflicts

I attended a fruitful symposium at Maryville College on the moral meaning of the Civil War.

The best idea I had while taking part in this discussion is that the wars we dwell on - the Civil War, the Second World War, the American Revolution, the French Revolution - settled deeply vexing ethical issues. 

Equally big wars that did not settle such questions, though, we ignore.  The War of 1812 or the Korean War, for Americans.  The First World War for the world. 

The comparison I thought most about at the conference was between the U.S. Civil War and the 30 Years War.  This conference emphasized the moral and theological problem that slavery posed for both sides in the Civil War, a problem that could not be settled by the usual theological means.  The 30 Years War, likewise, grew out of a very deep theological problem that could not be settled by theological means. 

But the 30 Years War ended in military stalemate and ideological exhaustion.  The theological conflict was not settled - instead, the Enlightenment thinkers concluded that religious issues simply had to be removed from politics.

The Civil War, by contrast, settled the ethical problem of slavery when the churches and the parties could not.  That war did not settle the problem of racism, which got worse in the post-war era before it got better.  But the Civil War ended the question of slavery, just as World War II ended the question of fascism.

No war is good, but the wars we dwell on did a good thing in settling an ethical conflict too deep to be handled any other way.