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Borderline: Reflections on war, sex, and Church — Stan Goff

24 February 2017

Christians have no place in war, Rachel Mann learns here

Borderline: Reflections on war, sex, and Church
Stan Goff
Lutterworth Press £33.25


DAVID JONES’s “In Parenthesis — possibly the finest poem of the Great War — attempts to make a case for war’s ultimate meaning. By reading his central character, John Ball, through Greek, biblical, and national myths, Jones suggests that, despite war’s beastliness, it is a place where decency and humanity are possible, and are tested.

Stan Goff’s striking book — part memoir, part theological investiga­tion of mas­culinity, part psycho­dynamic analysis of sex and war — presents a classic counter-claim. Opening with a quotation from his mentor Stanley Hauerwas — “I do have the modest ambition to make every Christian in America aware that, as a Christian, they have a problem with war” — Borderline is a relentless take-down of belief in redemptive violence, and war’s en­­nobling character.

Goff is no lily-livered American liberal, however. He is an ex-­member of US Special Forces (Delta Force) and knows violence in­­timately. This background ensures that his analysis of “war [as] vio­lence organised for collective dom­ination” never tips into lazy anti-war sentiment. His account of a fellow soldier who is revealed to be a serial rapist is shocking, and utterly grounded in an analysis of the structural violence at work in patri­archal cultures.

Goff is clearly a very bright man, and has used his post-military career to re-educate himself in Christian ethics and feminist theory. Influenced especially by the work of Radical (rather than Constructivist) Feminism, Goff makes a potent case for the claim that masculinity’s fragility and need for domination generates a nexus of related prob­lems: war, rape, prohibition of and violence against (male) homosexuality, and so on.

Stylistically, Goff’s approach may not be to everyone’s taste. This is no “pure theory” book. Thus, Goff weaves personal experience through readings of Freudian psycho­analysis, von Clausewitz’s theory of war, church history, and John Howard Yoder’s pacifist Chris­tianity. It’s a heady mix, and re­­quires the reader to change intel­lectual gear quite suddenly. In a sense, then, it’s a classic example of post-modern bricolage writing which, none the less, makes a relentless pre-modern point: Christians have no place or part in war, not if they wish to be faithful to Christ.

Aristotelians such as Stanley Hauerwas and Alasdair MacIntyre are respected, but are criticised for being too generous to the military. Soldiers, for Goff, are less victims and more “the brutalised” who must make humans “others” to kill them.

Goff’s conclusions are made with skill and precision. Indeed, from a critical point of view, issues raised concern his relentlessness and his confidence.

In so far as Borderline is a work of atonement for a life of war-based sin, Goff’s need for clear lines is comprehensible. But at times the book reads as a very mas­­culine text. For example, its account of the Church’s post-Constantinian com­plicity in domination and violence is well argued, but it reads like mod­ernist grand theory: the relentless­ness of Goff’s argument for the peaceable Kingdom of God has all the zeal of the convert to the pacific-feminist critique of violence. At times, there is little room for suppleness, nuance, and muddle.

These are relatively minor quibbles. It is eminently readable, and deserves a place on Christian Ethics, Feminist Studies, and War Studies courses. It also deserves an imprint that is affordable to the general reader.

Goff is an unsparing writer and, in his conclusion — which partly explores the sexual violence towards women of that pacifist Christian manqué, John Howard Yoder — reiterates a point often made: patriarchy is poison for women. Its structural violence forces women to negotiate the con­­stant threat of sexual and emotional punishment. It is not the way of Christ, and, until the Church can throw it off, no one, male or female, is living the fullness of life.


The Revd Rachel Mann is Priest-in-Charge of St Nicholas’s, Burnage, and Resident Poet and Minor Canon at Manchester Cathedral.

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