The Christian Answer from the Past for Today: Just War
I’ve spent a lot of time this campaign season thinking about foreign policy and war. With all that’s been going on in the Middle East lately, and with the insane Republican debates, this can’t be a surprise. While thinking about all of this, I decided to go back and study war theologically. I wanted to see what respected Bible teachers and theologians throughout Church history have thought. What is a Biblical way of approaching a just war and military force? The results were surprising. There has been quite a lot of agreement in Church history on war. (There have always been pacifists in the minority, but most everyone else agrees pretty decently.) I can’t think of any other topic in Christian theology which enjoys this kind of consensus. So what did I find?
Most Christian answers about war are summed up in what we now call “just war theory.” Just war theory, if you haven’t heard of it, is a set of strict principles for figuring out when war is justified, and how it can be carried out justly, based on Biblical teaching. It can be traced back at least to Saint Augustine, and has been adopted by many others since then. It’s been accepted all over the board by Baptists, the Reformed, Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, and many others. Given its place as almost the consensus of the universal Church through history, I suspect it’s worth accepting.
Just war theory is divided into two parts. The first part, called jus ad bellum, is about the right to go to war. It gives criteria for when war is justified. The second part, called jus in bello, is about how to go to war righteously and justly. What I’d like to do briefly is go over these criteria, explain them, and see how they apply to modern political debates. Onward, then.
When to Fight a Just War
The principles of when to fight a war are founded on the Biblical convictions that violence is never desirable (Matt. 5:8, 38-41), peace should be the first goal (Deut. 20:10), and that the oppressed must be defended (Prov. 31:9). Here they are, six in all (though the number varies depending who you ask).
- Just cause
- Any war must have a right reason. Not every reason is okay. Going to war just to claim land, punish enemies, or settle rivalries is evil. Generally, most Christian thinkers have said the only certainly just cause for war is defense of the people, or of an allied people, against a foreign enemy on the attack. Only if innocent lives, homes, and rights are going to be taken away can it be right to go to war.
This criteria on its own is essential, of course, but not enough. A lot of things might be justified by possible threats. So we have 6 more to go go through.
- This part means that the suffering expected or already endured must be enough to justify all the violence that will be generated by the war. If you’re not suffering much, it is not right to kill a bunch of people to fix it. For a really simple example, it would not be right to go to war over sinfully high gas prices.
I believe this criteria has a lot to say about the Middle East right now. How many of the interventions we are in now or will be in cause more suffering than was already being experienced by the people we claim to defend?
- Proper authority
- Scripture teaches that God has providentially put our government leaders into their positions of authority and uses them to carry out justice and punish wrongdoers (see Romans 13). Any war, therefore, must be decided and declared by the proper authorities. You can’t just round up a bunch of people with guns and decide on the basis of the other just war criteria that you’re going to start fighting.
This is also a concern for modern foreign policy issues. The Constitution only authorizes Congress to declare war. The President, nonetheless, has for some time now been able to freely use military force without this authorization. Naturally, this is a problem.
- Right intention
- Similar to the first people, the rule of a right intention means that the war must be carried out strictly for the purpose of whatever just cause might authorize it. It is not okay to go to war without someone just because you want a resource they have, even under pretenses of national security.
- High likelihood of success
- There is no sense wasting lives and killing people if you’re not going to succeed. For a war effort to be justified, it must have a significant chance of accomplishing its purpose. People should never have to fight and die for a lost cause.
Even if nothing else did, this rules out the war Saudi Arabia is waging against Yemen. They are destroying the country to no avail at all. Today, they are no closer to success than when they began, yet the U.S. government, especially including Hillary Clinton and Senator Marco Rubio, is supporting them. This also rules out taking any military action to topple Assad. The chances are absolutely huge that our hopes of helping the people will ultimately fail and they will end up under ISIS control (at best).
- Last resort
- Obviously, war should be an absolute last resort. All other options must be exhausted before resorting to death and destruction. This is the rule which God gave Israel when dealing with most general warfare (Deut. 20:10), and I believe it is also common sense. Do not kill when you still have other ways to deal with a problem.
Again, Marco Rubio is not my friend on this, and same with several other Republican candidates (and Hillary Clinton). Most of them are quite willing to jump to military action at the first sign of trouble, and detest using robust diplomacy (see: opposition to the Iranian nuclear deal).
How to Fight a Just War
Of course, it is not enough just to be justified in going to war. We must also behave righteously during war, and reject all notions that “anything goes.” Here are the traditional principles for a just war’s execution:
- It is essential to distinguish between innocent civilians and combatants. It is clearly wrong to attack civilian targets with no military purpose, or to attack neutral places. I don’t think this needs much elaboration, but I should add this also counts against the war on Yemen (and thus Rubio and Clinton), since reports come in by the truckload of Saudi soldiers intentionally bombing civilian targets.
- The negative results/collateral damage of a military action must make sense in relation to what is being accomplished. If your plan to block off one road involves killing 100 kids, you should go back to the drawing board (if not the nuthouse). This is another problem with Yemen, since most of the damage being done to the whole nation is the gradual starvation of the civilian population to little military advantage. Cruz is also indicted by this point, perhaps in combination with the first, for his reckless plan to “carpet bomb” ISIS.
- Military necessity
- Every military action must have an actual military purpose. Never attack without a cause and a clear advantage or goal in mind. This is exactly the opposite of what terrorists like to do.
- Fair POW treatment
- Sensibly enough, one of the rules is to treat any prisoners of war as human beings with God-given rights, rather than as bugs or pond scum. Do not torture, mistreat, or indefinitely detain them.
- No evil means
- Finally, there should be no war means used that are plainly evil. Raping and pillaging is unacceptable. Using uncontrollable, indiscriminate weaponry is forbidden (this includes nukes). A particular nuance of this point combined with the point of distinction means that you can never use civilian deaths. If there is collateral damage, it must be a side effect, not part of the plan. You can’t purposely kill innocents to accomplish a military goal (which is why many strict just war theories condemn the WWII atomic bombings).
Well, that’s the basic outline of just war theory as traditionally and Biblically taught by the Church’s greatest theologians and preachers. You may disagree with a point or two, I suppose, but if so I would advise prayerful consideration. I feel this is a very Biblical model, and because I think so I cannot support politicians who so blatantly trample on some of its key principles, such as Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, and a handful of others. In fact, with just war theory in mind, Rand Paul is probably the only candidate I could like. But anyway, I hope this is helpful or at least thought-provoking for you all.
The Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin, book 4, chapter 20.
The City of God by St. Augustine.
Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas.
“Bahsen on War” – The American Vision