The Business of War: Theological and Ethical Reflections on the Military-Industrial Complex
by James W. McCarty, Matthew A. Tapie, and Justin Bronson Barringer

The Business of War is the inspiration for and first volume in The Business of Modern Life Series. This series explores the ways that neoliberal global capitalism has infiltrated and come to dominate virtually all spheres of modern life including incarceration, healthcare, agriculture, technology, education, non-profit organizations, immigration, and church along with, of course, war. Various industrial complexes have popped up all around us, and this series will grapple with the effects that they have on our daily lives. It will be the first series of its kind — that is, one addressing a variety of theological and ethical issues of the modern world through the lens of capitalism’s pervasive domination. Many books have been published on the areas we hope this series will explore, but for the most part they have neglected how finance capitalism, global markets, and economic philosophy and policy drive, or often eschew, theological and ethical concerns. Each book in this series will take on one of the industrial complexes (e.g., the military-industrial complex, the prison-industrial complex, the agricultural-industrial complex, etc.), all following the same basic format, which first addresses the biblical and theological foundations relevant to the topic, then reflects on the theological and moral state of affairs in history and in the world today, before finally closing with some uniquely Christian proposals for responding to the issues raised.

Introduction to the volume by the author

H. Richard Niebuhr once said that the first question to ask when doing ethics is, “What is going on?” What is going on, since at least World War II, is that war has become big business. Addressing this problem is what inspires and charts the course for this book. War as business is a moral problem that has largely gone underexplored in Christian theology and ethics. We call this the problem of “the business of war.” There have been important works on the theology and ethics of modern economic systems, and the ethics of war and peace have expanded into many subdisciplines in the last century. However, very few people have explored the theological and ethical aspects of the intersections of contemporary global capitalism and modern warfare, and we are unaware of an extended examination of this important area in Christian theology and ethics.

The essays in this book attempt to remedy this problem by exploring the history of Christian teaching on the topics of economics and war alongside the unique historical and contemporary manifestations of the business of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The focus of the book then shifts to suggest ways for Christians to respond to and resist the ever-encroaching moral logics and practices of the business of war. We hope that readers will gain a familiarity with the relevant resources in the Christian tradition on war and economy and that this will prepare them to address the injustices caused by the rise of the business of war. Moreover, we hope Christians who read these chapters will be better equipped to resist the business of war in their local contexts.

Many of the essays in the volume, especially in section four, focus on the United States. Indeed, even those chapters with an explicit focus outside of the United States often refer back to the US and its economic and political policies. This is because the US has been the most dominant driving force of the business of war as a global phenomenon. The US would not have become the global superpower it is if it had not become the best in the world at harnessing war’s business potential. However, the impacts of the business of war are not limited to the borders of the US. The economic, environmental, and human costs of the business of war are felt in every country in the world. The business of war has been central to the growth of international stock markets and the global arms trade. It has produced international wars and weapons of mass destruction. And it has created the conditions that facilitate some of the largest global migration flows in human history—including the contemporary global refugee crisis—and the exploitation of fossil fuels that spurred and are accelerating climate change. 

There is, then, no political, economic, or moral problem more pressing than the problem of the business of war.

There is, then, no political, economic, or moral problem more pressing than the problem of the business of war. This makes the dearth of resources available to help people, including Christians, think critically about this phenomenon even more troubling. This dearth, however, illuminates the difficulty of speaking accurately and with clarity about this complex problem that permeates nearly every aspect of our lives. In light of this difficulty, the present volume is not a comprehensive accounting of the business of war and all its components or every way it might be understood or resisted. It is, however, a first step toward naming the problem clearly, examining it rigorously, and taking steps to resist it, and even transform it.

The volume is organized in four parts: “Theological Foundations,” “The Business of War in History,” “Practicing the Business of War Today,” and “Resisting the Business of War.” The essays build on one another, but each of them can be read as a stand-alone piece as well. The book progresses from the biblical and theological foundations of the business of war to its rise in the twentieth century, before highlighting the contemporary implications of the business of war and suggestions of practices that resist and might defeat the business of war in the future.

Theological Foundations

The first part of the book explores biblical and theological foundations for thinking about the business of war. These chapters address the biblical narrative and the Christian tradition as a way of setting the stage for understanding what resources are available to Christians when considering our contemporary conundrum with the business of war. In particular, this opening section includes overviews of biblical texts relevant to the business of war and an in-depth analysis of the ethics of business and the ethics of war in Christian thought.

Myles Werntz provides a survey of Old Testament and New Testament scriptures that highlights the ambiguous account of the intersection of economics and war in the Christian Scriptures and points us toward understanding. Werntz argues that the interrelationship between the military and economics has an ambiguous scriptural lineage. Exploring the contours of the canon, he finds that these two elements of political life are envisioned as running together faithfully, with the people of God called to exercise faithfulness in both their political and economic affairs, as these elements are intertwined. But what it means for the people of God to live faithfully at the intersection of these elements of political life changes over time. Werntz not only attends to the typology present within both Testaments but looks toward present possibilities of faithful practice in these intersecting elements of political life.

Christina McRorie walks the reader through the history of Christian thinking on economic life and the ethics of war to highlight the historical resources available to Christians and the historical uniqueness of our contemporary situation. McRorie’s chapter provides a brief overview of the range of perspectives on business and war found within Christian thought and practice, highlighting points of congruence and contrast in the modes of moral reasoning used to respond to the concrete issues these distinct fields raise. McRorie proposes that theological reflection on each subject can be loosely plotted along a spectrum ranging from “rejection” to “embrace,” and that the recurrent disagreement over the ethics of wealth and warfare reflects a deeper ambivalence on these issues within the tradition that can be found even within Scripture itself. McRorie concludes by suggesting that this ambivalence has been productive of modes of analysis and habits of critical and prudential judgment that may be useful in facing the new questions that the business of war itself raises for Christians today.

The Business of War in History

The next section of the book provides several case studies that trace the historical impacts of the business of war around the globe. In this section, we learn about the rise of the business of war, its unique impacts in Latin America and the Korean Peninsula, and its global impacts on peace, justice, and sustainability. 

The business of war is integral to economic globalization, but it is costly. Pamela Brubaker argues that military spending produces fewer jobs than other areas of the economy and reduces funds for job creation in other sectors, such as education, healthcare, infrastructure, and clean energy. It is a major contributor to the international arms trade and climate change, which harm people, the planet, and peace. 

David Swartz offers a historical survey of evangelical debates related to business and war. In the 1970s, several discourses emerged to challenge the mid-century evangelical consensus around free enterprise, anticommunism, patriotism, and missionary work. An evangelical left, marshaling New Left critiques of the neoliberal consensus, argued against the military-industrial-corporate-university complex. International evangelicals argued against American cultural, economic, and political imperialism. While this pacific stream of the evangelical movement did not win the day in the context of 1980s America, the debate suggests a striking “ambivalence of the sacred” at work even within American evangelicalism.

Matthew Whelan looks for clues regarding the functional and ideological interdependence of economics and warfare by examining Latin America’s Cold War and how it became what Greg Grandin calls “a workshop for empire.” The chapter concludes by reflecting upon the fact that there are now martyrs of the Church among the countless victims of this period, which raises the question of how we should approach the business of war in Latin America given that one of its products is martyrdom.

Wonchul Shin critically examines the key factors in the competitive militarization of North and South Korea — highlighting the US-Republic of Korea (South Korea) military alliance rather than the so-called threat of North Korea — and points out the ways that the US military-industrial complex is one of the greatest beneficiaries of the arms race between the two countries. This chapter then contextualizes this critical analysis of the militarization through the recent case of the controversial deployment of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system on the Korean Peninsula. Finally, this chapter calls for moral imagination, liberating people from fear and envisioning the peace of Christ, reflected in the peace movement led by the National Council of Churches in Korea. 

Practicing the Business of War Today

This third section brings us more explicitly into the present by examining the impacts of the business of war on the education of engineers in the United States, and in the evolving practice of state-sponsored violence through the use of private military contractors. These essays expose the increasing privatization and corporatization of war in our world. They also reveal to us the ways that the logics of business and war have permeated each other, and our educational practices, to such an extent that their intermingling has ceased to raise eyebrows.

[These essays] also reveal to us the ways that the logics of business and war have permeated each other, and our educational practices, to such an extent that their intermingling has ceased to raise eyebrows.

Bradley Burroughs’ chapter begins by tracing the rise of private military and security contractors (PMSCs), who have come to play a critical role in staffing recent wars, particularly the United States’ wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite its growing prominence, Burroughs argues that Christians should regard this trend toward increasing use of PMSCs as problematic, because it reduces the possibility of justice in war. Christian communities should respond to such challenges by seeking to cultivate individuals who recognize that, even if it might in some cases be justified, war is full of tragedy and anguish and thus must be placed under clear limits — and not simply reduced to a business.

Articles in the popular press regularly proclaim “our” need for graduates trained in the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Kara Slade asks who is the “we/our” in these accounts, and what needs are engineers and others in technological professions being expected to fulfill? This chapter addresses the extent to which engineering education in the United States is tied to the anxieties of the nation-state. It also explores the implications of this relationship for those who teach, and those who learn, in the contemporary university.

Resisting the Business of War

In the final section several authors examine ways of resisting the business of war in a variety of contexts. These essays propose individual, ecclesial, and policy recommendations for resisting the business of war. Justin Barringer explores possible Christian responses to modern warfare. Christians have employed a number of tactics to demonstrate opposition to war, including public protest, destruction of military property, prayer services outside weapons manufacturing sites, draft dodging, and signing petitions. With the face of modern warfare changing, it is pertinent to ask how Christians might adapt our peace witness in response. By combining insights from the work of scholars such as James William McClendon and Andrew Bacevich, and the example of activists such as the Berrigan brothers and Bayard Rustin, the essay attempts to map possible Christian responses to the increasingly complex business of war. These possible Christian responses include the Christian virtues and practices of simplicity, community, charity, and spirituality.

James McCarty draws on the example of Martin Luther King Jr.’s resistance to the Vietnam War to propose ways of resisting the cultural and moral logics of war in conjunction with resisting racism, poverty, and classism. These injustices are interrelated and dependent upon one another, King taught us, and McCarty provides us concrete examples for resisting them in exactly those places where they overlap and reinforce each other. 

Tobias Winright and Nathaniel Hibner show how the just-war tradition recognizes the costs of war. In preparing for war and in conducting war, there are costs. But just-war theory holds that these costs should be limited and minimized. In recent decades, as just-war theorists have expanded their attention to postwar justice, there are even more costs to be weighed for war to be considered morally justified, justly conducted, and justly concluded.

Finally, Stan Goff explores how the military-industrial complex is not a fixed establishment but a meshwork of power relations, which has expanded over the last fifty years into something more akin to a military-industrial-financial-digital media complex. His essay discusses how the military-industrial complex is embedded in economic, political, sociological, psychological, and ecological contexts. He then addresses the challenges facing the church, especially the need to unlearn what he refers to as popular discourses on the relation between war, church, and policy. 

We pray these discussions lead to greater clarity about the problem of the business of war in our communities and empower Christians to act faithfully to resist this business wherever they find it.

We hope this book provokes what we believe are vital conversations among religious leaders and scholars on the ways in which governments and various institutions in civil society benefit financially from the business of war. We also hope the book contributes to a larger discussion in seminaries, and in our universities, about the relationship between modern neoliberal global capitalism and attitudes to war in local, national, and global contexts. We pray these discussions lead to greater clarity about the problem of the business of war in our communities and empower Christians to act faithfully to resist this business wherever they find it.♦

James W. McCarty, Ph.D. is Executive Director for Equity and Inclusion and Affiliate Instructor of Education at the University of Washington Tacoma. A co-editor of The Business of Modern Life series with Cascade Books/Wipf and Stock, he has published essays at the intersections of Christian ethics, racial justice, and peacebuilding in journals such as the Journal of the Society of Christian EthicsTheology and SexualityJournal of Law and Religion, and Practical Matters. 

Matthew A. Tapie, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Theology, and Director of the Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies at Saint Leo University, FL. He is the author or co-editor of several books, including Aquinas on Israel and the Church (2014) and Reading Scripture as a Political Act (2015).

Justin Bronson Barringer, Ph.D. is co-editor of The Business of Modern Life Series, and the author or co-editor of numerous books and essays including, A Faith Not Worth Fighting ForThe Business of War, and Practicing the Kingdom, as well as forthcoming books, The Business of Incarceration, and Theology and Country Music. He teaches for Ashland University’s Correctional Education Program. 

Recommended Citation

McCarty, James W., Matthew A. Tapie, Justin Bronson Barringer. “The Business of War: Theological and Ethical Reflections on the Military-Industrial Complex” Canopy Forum, February 9, 2021.