A Christian View of War

war“War does not determine who is right… only who is left.” – Bertrand Russell

It may seem strange to open a piece entitled A Christian View of War by a quote from a noted atheist. I too find it strange, but likely for a different reason. I find it strange that there are too few Christian voices speaking on this subject with anything other than political talking points. To be sure, there is always a political side to war; but for the Christian, that should always be secondary. We should approach all topics first as followers of Jesus.

This topic (and reality) of war is fraught with competing tensions. Instead of pretending they aren’t there, let’s name a few of them and try to wrestle well within a biblical framework. First, and perhaps the most glaring and left un-talked about, war means ending another person’s life. We have to include this in our conclusions or we are being unrealistic. Second, there are times when war is necessary. Whether it’s to defend our own freedom or to go on the offensive to hold others accountable, sometimes we must fight. And finally, I find thought streams such as Just War theory helpful in knowing the appropriateness of war in a given situation.

War Means Ending Another Person’s Life
I find it more than slightly ironic that some of the most vocal proponents for the right-to-life movement cease to share the same zeal when related to matters of war. For some religious groups this part of the discussion has caused them to choose pacifism. At very least, this part of the reality should cause us unrest and true sorrow. Jesus clearly valued all life equally – friend or foe. We must do the same.

War Is Necessary
Just as I am stricken by the gravity of war, I am equally aware that unfortunately – at times – war is unavoidable. When we are attacked there comes a tipping point at which if we do not defend ourselves we invite even more pain and destruction. Pearl Harbor comes to mind. There are also discussions within this part of the conversation that are more difficult to navigate. For example, at what point is war the humanitarian thing to do? Is it when chemical weapons are used? Is it after a certain number of people are killed? I think these are harder waters to tread, but fair questions to ask related to the necessity of war. The New Testament reminds us that the last days will be filled with wars and rumors of wars.

Just War Theory
Just War theory was founded by religious people like many of us who were trying to figure out a Christian view of war. St. Augustine, perhaps the first to use the phrase, said,

“But, say they, the wise man will wage just wars. As if he would not all the rather lament the necessity of just wars, if he remembers that he is a man; for if they were not just he would not wage them, and would therefore be delivered from all wars.”

While there is a certain subjectivity that accompanies Just War theory, it is at least, a place to start. And while it demands the objectivity of those who would answer its questions, its principles lead those of us who follow Jesus to a biblical mindset and approach. Here are the main tenants of Just War theory:

  • Just Cause
    The reason for going to war needs to be just and cannot therefore be solely for recapturing things taken or punishing people who have done wrong; innocent life must be in imminent danger and intervention must be to protect life. A contemporary view of just cause was expressed in 1993 when the US Catholic Conference said: “Force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic human rights of whole populations.”
  • Comparative Justice
    While there may be rights and wrongs on all sides of a conflict, to overcome the presumption against the use of force, the injustice suffered by one party must significantly outweigh that suffered by the other. Some theorists such as Brian Orend omit this term, seeing it as fertile ground for exploitation by bellicose regimes.
  • Competent Authority
    Only duly constituted public authorities may wage war. “A just war must be initiated by a political authority within a political system that allows distinctions of justice. Dictatorships (e.g. Hitler’s Regime) or deceptive military actions (e.g. the 1968 US bombing of Cambodia) are typically considered as violations of this criterion. The importance of this condition is key. Plainly, we cannot have a genuine process of judging a just war within a system that represses the process of genuine justice. A just war must be initiated by a political authority within a political system that allows distinctions of justice”.
  • Right Intention
    Force may be used only in a truly just cause and solely for that purpose—correcting a suffered wrong is considered a right intention, while material gain or maintaining economies is not.
  • Probability of Success
    Arms may not be used in a futile cause or in a case where disproportionate measures are required to achieve success;
  • Last Resort
    Force may be used only after all peaceful and viable alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted or are clearly not practical. It may be clear that the other side is using negotiations as a delaying tactic and will not make meaningful concessions.
  • Proportionality
    The anticipated benefits of waging a war must be proportionate to its expected evils or harms. This principle is also known as the principle of macro-proportionality, so as to distinguish it from the jus in bello principle of proportionality. In modern terms, just war is waged in terms of self-defense, or in defense of another (with sufficient evidence).

The principles of Just War theory, when spoken to carefully and honestly, seem to best reflect the spirit of Jesus as it relates to this topic. May Christians be active in this type of consideration as it relates to discussions of war.

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