Editorial - Just War


History, as I remember it taught in my high school days, used to be little more than a recitation of wars and battles, with dates attached. I had thought those days long gone, with a more informed recognition of the complexity of human affairs enriching our contemporary view of events. But it seems we are back to basics on Baghdad and the recycling of a medieval rationale of "just war."

What must be remarked upon is the curious fact that this renewed national militarism takes place in the context of a certain fervor in some religious circles to redefine the United States as a "Christian nation" in the consciously structural sense. This, of course, in opposition to a great deal of historical evidence that while the United States was constructed out of an overwhelmingly Christian society, it was quite consciously set up to act apart from religious oversight, control, or coalition.

Christian militarism surely cannot derive from the teachings of Jesus Christ. Jesus taught peace and nonviolence–and indeed, a certain disinterest in secular state matters. At His arrest His disciple Peter seized a sword and struck out at a Temple guard. It is possible to connect Peter's act with figures of speech Jesus used even that same night to underscore the need for action. However, Jesus' response to that act of violence is without ambiguity: "Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword" (Matthew 26:52, RSV).* And later, before Pilate, Jesus gave a hint of the logic behind His pacifism: "My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over" (John 18:36, RSV).

To their credit, many church leaders have seen the incipient militarism in invoking a theology of just war for our contemporary struggle with terrorism and Iraq. It was most telling that the same weekend Congress passed enabling legislation for an executive war against Iraq, a group of approximately 50 church leaders publicly demonstrated against it. Unfortunately, at the same time the Christian Coalition's Road to
Victory rally raised the tone of militancy by extended triumphalist rhetoric about defending Israel. As always, that support derives from a particular view of prophecy that does indeed pit us against the "axis of evil" and give moral justification to some for military adventures.
But can any war ever be just in the absolute sense? Is it seemly, or ever acceptable, for Christians to bay for the blood of others—even despots such as Saddam Hussein? After all, "Vengeance is mine," says the Lord. "I will repay."
A little investigation into the history and development of the just war concept is revealing.

Augustine, bishop of Hippo (A.D. 356-430), author of The City of God, is credited with defining the terms of just war. But it was the Roman Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) who systematically applied Augustine's view and formulated it into specific criteria for military action. Both Augustine and Aquinas rightly saw that this whole issue could not remove the clear biblical prohibition against an individual acting violently, even if in pursuit of eliminating a wrong. However, a state has higher authority in their view, and if the response to evil and aggression met specific criteria, it would be deemed just, and the individual could participate.

Certainly, theologians so inclined have shown that one can morph the clear Christian call to righteousness and peace into a call to arms against evil. But the real explanation for the development of the just war theory is more to be found in history. A few years ago Pope John Paul II stunned many observers of church history by apologizing for the sack of Constantinople in 1203. A curious remembrance of Christianity hijacked by politics.
The Fourth Crusade, declared by Pope Innocent III, was originally intended for Egypt, then the center of Islamic power. But the need for funds and a plotting Venetian power soon had the Crusaders in siege of once-great Constantinople, still the center of Eastern Christianity at the time. They did so with the encouragement of the papal legate and the concurrence of Innocent. The motivation then, and the lingering need for an apology, had to do with a power struggle for control of Christianity. Rome, of course, won.

A very interesting article by Stanley Harakas, of the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts, examined "patristic sources, Byzantine military manuals, and contemporary Orthodox statements about war," and found that "virtually absent is any mention of a 'just' war, much less a 'good' war." The author concludes that "peace, in its multifarious dimensions, was central to the ecclesial, patristic, canonical, and ethical concerns of Orthodoxy."
(The article quoted first appeared in the Winter 1992 issue of American Orthodoxy.)

But such a view did rapidly develop in the Western Christian church. And it had more to do with justification of expansionary acts than with true theological proof. It had more to do with the presumed primacy and semideification of the pontiff, and, indeed, other rulers, than theological authority. The abrogation of divine authority that lay behind the development of a theology of just war lingered for centuries—indeed, colored the attitude of the American revolutionaries as they reacted to the monarchial demands of England.

The just war rationale was at its most formal during the Crusades, which began by church pronouncement. But it worked its way into the entire system of medieval statehood, whereby the ruler had a divine right that could be directed on earth only by the head of the church. It took the excesses of the French Revolution, the regicide of the English Puritan rebellion, and a novus ordo seclorum in the New World to escape the Western dynamic of divine war.

And when the source of authority for just war is shown to be a usurpation of true Christianity—the theory itself stands as specious.
The corrupt and self-serving church leaders of Jesus' time justified their action thus: "It is better that one man die than the whole nation perish." They framed the issue with false logic and a moral relativism that our day knows only too well.
Indeed, stripped of false logic, the just war theory is little more than situation ethics writ large. Can the end justify the means? The Allies of World War II felt that firebombing German cities, with little to gain beyond widespread civilian death and destruction, was justified by German atrocities–-today we recognize that we too had been sucked in by the evil spirit of war and killing.

And in the aftermath of Nuremberg and Milosevic we know that the ordinary soldier, the supportive civilian, is not released from moral guilt just because orders come from on high. It is a fearsome thing to live in a world that long ago embraced the principle of mass destruction. But the boundaries of such weaponry are not geographical; they are moral. And it is worth considering that killing on an organized scale, no matter how urgent the need for action, is never just war—it's always just war.

*Bible texts credited to RSV are from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright
Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."