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Kenneth R. HimesMarch 12, 2014
Offering Hospitality by Caron E. Gentry

University of Notre Dame Press. 176p $29

Caron E. Gentry is a lecturer in the School of International Relations at the University of St. Andrew’s in Scotland. She is also a student of theology who has taught a course on international relations and Christianity. This volume is the outcome of her effort to join the two disciplines.

The title of the book is more on target than the subtitle, since hospitality is the key theme developed throughout. More than Christian approaches to war, the author’s focus is on a Christian rationale for peacebuilding, although she does not use that word. Instead, Gentry borrows a term from the just war tradition, last resort, and then completely reinterprets its meaning so that last resort is pretty much equivalent to peacebuilding.

Her academic training in international relations informs Chapter 2, in which she discuses the changing face of warfare with the increase in intra-state conflicts: the civil wars that arise in failed states due to ethnic and religious differences or the insurrections that arise because of authoritarian rule by a tyrant or oligarchy. Today, these incidents make up the majority of armed conflicts around the world. Gentry cites research identifying the variables that allow us to measure the likelihood of collapse or conflict in troubled states. We also have a sense of the cultural, political and economic factors that can forestall potential failed states.

For Gentry the just war tradition, if it is to be useful in the new age, requires revision. Central to that renewal is the development of hospitality as a key value through her twist on the traditional just war criterion of last resort. Hospitality, as Gentry uses it, is a call to care for others, even to the point of making oneself “vulnerable.” This idea of “hospitality is intrinsically related to Christian conceptions of agape.” And agape is not only foundational for hospitality but for the way Christians since Augustine have thought about war.

Relying heavily upon Paul Ramsey’s classic treatment of Augustine as well as the historical work of James T. Johnson, Gentry proposes that the idea of a justifiable use of force came about as Christians struggled with the question of how to love the neighbor who was attacked when one had the wherewithal to beat back the aggressor. As Christians grew in numbers and in their influence within the Roman Empire, it became conceivable that one might use the empire’s power to alter unjust situations where a neighbor was violently victimized.

Gentry is quick to caution that the persistent obligation to practice agape must inflect the way Christians understand the idea of a just use of force, for even enemies must be treated with care. Hence, there are normative restraints upon war. Gentry names three figures as representative types of Christian approaches to war: Reinhold Niebuhr for Christian realism, Stanley Hauerwas for Christian pacifism, and Jean Bethke Elshtain for the just war tradition (she is particularly hard on Elshtain).

Her difficulty with Niebuhr is that he is state-centric and less than helpful for discussing the new kinds of organized violence that come with failed states, terrorism, genocides, insurrections and civil wars. He is also so focused on the balance of power that he neglects the powerless in the gamesmanship of great nations. In short, Niebuhr’s approach is inhospitable to the weak and poor people of the globe.

She judges Hauerwas to be insufficiently aware of how his privileged position as a citizen of the United States provides him with the freedom to be a pacifist while “there is a distinct absence and silence in his work surrounding those who are killed or martyred daily” in places where a liberal democratic state does not provide the security Hauerwas enjoys but criticizes. Gentry opposes Hauerwas’s advocacy for a church that is anti-political. “There is not enough emphasis on a truly timely, proactive response to injustices in the world because of how much he values and draws exclusionary boundaries around the church.” So Hauerwas, too, fails the test of hospitality because the marginal and weak are inadequately cared for by his version of pacifism.

When discussing Elshtain, Gentry’s criticism is directed at her move toward neoconservatism after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. She believes Elshtain adopted the prejudices of neo-Orientalism. The cultural critic Edward Said maintained that Orientalism sees the Middle East as “a conquered territory filled with people who are less intelligent, incapable of being educated, and sexually deviant.” Neo-Orientalism is the West’s extension of that prejudice to all people associated with Islam. Elshtain’s writings on the war on terrorism, according to Gentry, adopted a stance that was severely lacking in hospitality toward the other who was not on the side of the United States in its military excursions.

At the end of the book Gentry summarizes her approach to “proactive last resort.” This is an attempt to integrate a political form of hospitality with just war thinking. Within traditional just war thinking, the idea of last resort was to discourage leaders from rushing to war by requiring that alternatives be explored first. Gentry’s proposed “proactive last resort” means acting hospitably, that is caring dis-interestedly, toward others in order to transform situations that are likely places of future conflict. Social science research allows us to target what are the probable trouble spots, and Christian faith should motivate us to act. Promoting authentic human development among the weakest and most marginal is to avoid war through proactive last resort.

“Authentic human development” is not Gentry’s phrase but one I borrow from Catholic social teaching. And this leads to a complaint. Throughout the author’s discussion there is an almost total absence of the Roman Catholic tradition. Not only are classical figures like Aquinas, Suarez and Vitoria not mentioned, but contemporary Catholic authors are also ignored. Nor is there any reference to the entire body of Catholic social teaching on war. Familiarity with Pope Paul VI’s idea that “development is the new name for peace” or Pope John Paul II’s statement that “solidarity is simultaneously the path to development and to peace” might have provided Gentry with additional support for her efforts at establishing a “proactive last resort.”

Despite the inadequate exploration of the broad Christian tradition and the somewhat labored effort to include peacebuilding under the criterion of last resort, this is a work that adds another voice to the chorus calling for Christians not just to avoid war or practice it with restraint, but to build peace. May the numbers increase.

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