Pacifism: Just War and Christian Politics, Part 1

pacifismI’m finding myself in the just war camp. I’m not 100% comfortable here, but it makes better sense to me than anything else I’ve heard.

The doctrine defining a just war goes back to Augustine. Augustine was a bishop at a time when the Roman Empire had adopted Christianity as its official religion. Therefore, the Caesar was a Christian, and the question quite naturally arose as to when a Christian emperor could command troops into the battlefield.

This was also a time when Northern European tribes (“barbarians”) were invading Rome. Rome had to either wage war or turn the Empire over the barbarians.

The Wikipedia summarizes his views simply —

Augustine developed a theology of just war, that is, war that is acceptable under certain conditions. First, war must occur for a good and just purpose rather than for self-gain or as an exercise of power. Second, just war must be waged by a properly instituted authority such as the state. Third, peace must be a central motive even in the midst of violence.

Since that time, many theologians have sought to refine the theory. There’s an excellent article by Arthur F. Holmes that explains the theory. Speaking of Augustine, he writes,

He tells the Roman General Boniface, who was later to defend Carthage against the Vandals, that war is not a matter of choice but of necessity, forced on us by the need to control violence in a fallen world. It is waged only to restore peace, so he should preserve the spirit of a peacemaker, limiting violence to what is needed in resisting and deterring aggression, and extend­ing mercy to the vanquished and the captive.

Holmes offer some further history of the teaching —

The sixteenth-century Spanish theologian Francisco de Vitoria develops the theory further. Examining King Phil­ip’s wars against the American Indians, he condemns their lack of just cause. War, he insists, is not justified for religious reasons (to convert the heathen) nor for economic causes (to gain their gold) nor for political reasons (to extend the empire). The Indians, however pagan, immoral and uncivilized, are human beings with rights equal to those of all other persons. The natural law protects them against violence and injustice.

Vitoria also asks whether the soldier who doubts the justice of a cause should fight. Ordinarily, one should trust the lawful government to do what is lawful. But if justice is seriously in doubt, and if careful inquiry does not allay those doubts, then the soldier should refuse to fight. Selec­tive conscientious objection is the corollary of a just war ethic.

The Protestant Reformers meantime addressed the problem in similar terms. … The use of the sword, [Luther] argues, is divinely entrusted to governments in order to repel injustice and keep the peace. It can, there­fore, be a work of love for the common good. But only defen­sive war is just, including action to recover unjustly seized property from previous conflicts. This rules out religious wars, aggression and any attempt to revenge an insult. Only the highest governmental authority has the right to initiate military action, so that rebellion is always unjustified. It was on this basis that he opposed the famous Peasants’ Revolt. Yet the ruler, if wrong, should be disobeyed: selective con­scientious disobedience is not revolt.

He builds his case from Rom 13 as well as —

(1 Pet 2:13-14)  Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right.

He summarizes the Old Testament record thusly —

These [New Testament] limitations are reinforced when one considers the Old Testament attitude toward war. While military conflict is regarded as a tragic fact of life, one for which God strength­ens his people and one which God uses in the execution of justice, it is nonetheless lamented as an evil from whose scourge humanity must be delivered. Israel was instructed to limit the destruction and violence involved in its conquest of Canaan (Deut. 2). David was not allowed to build God’s temple because he was a man of war (1 Chron. 22:8-9; 28:3). The psalmist grieved over violence, looking to the God who makes war cease and destroys its weaponry (Ps. 46; 120). The prophets condemned its fratricide and its atrocities (for example Amos 1‑2), mourned its destruction (Lam.), and gloried in the One who will finally bring peace and justice to earth so that none need even feel afraid (Is. 2:1-5; 9:1-7; 11:1-9).

Holmes explains the overarching goal of the theory —

Third, the just war theory does not try to justify war. Rather it tries to bring war under the control of justice so that, if consistently practiced by all parties to a dispute, it would eliminate war altogether. It insists that the only just cause for going to war is defense against aggression. If all parties adhered to this rule, then nobody would ever be an aggres­sor and no war would ever occur. The basic intention of the just war theory, then, is to condemn war and to prevent it by moral persuasion. But since people will sometimes not be so persuaded, it proceeds to limit war – its occasion, its goals, its weaponry and methods – so as to reduce the evils that have not been altogether prevented.

He offers these guiding principles as summarizing the thought of current just war theologians —

  1. Just cause. All aggression is condemned; only defensive war is legitimate.
  2. Just intention. The only legitimate intention is to secure a just peace for all involved. Neither revenge nor conquest nor economic gain nor ideological supremacy are justified.
  3. Last resort. War may only be entered upon when all negotiations and compromise have been tried and failed.
  4. Formal declaration. Since the use of military force is the prerogative of governments, not of private individuals, a state of war must be officially declared by the highest authorities.
  5. Limited objectives. If the purpose is peace, then un­conditional surrender or the destruction of a nation’s eco­nomic or political institutions is an unwarranted objective.
  6. Proportionate means. The weaponry and the force used should be limited to what is needed to repel the aggression and deter future attacks, that is to say to secure a just peace. Total or unlimited war is ruled out.
  7. Noncombatant immunity. Since war is an official act of government, only those who are officially agents of government may fight, and individuals not actively contributing to the conflict including POW’s and [c]asualties as well as civilian nonparticipants) should be immune from attack.

Now, each of these points raises a host of subsidiary questions. For example, under 3, how many people must suffer or die while the diplomats dither? Obviously, evil rulers are happy to use the diplomats to delay war while they consolidate their forces and continue their evil. And under 5, what if the nation’s political institutions are evil? Was it wrong for the Allies to oust the Nazis from control of Germany? Should they have stopped at the borders of the country? Should the US have forced a change in government in Japan?

So I’m not entirely sold on this version of the theory, but I have to agree from a broad perspective. Yes, the scriptures give the government the power to defend its people from evil, and this fact leads to a limitation on what wars are truly just.

15 Responses

  1. Indians “pagan immoral and uncivilized”? I undrstand your point, but, want to add a point to yours that is seldom thought of.

    That is the first step in creating a justification and attitude that will allow men to perform war.
    First dehumanize the enemy and then no ones conscience will bother them when they kill them or take what they have.

    Remember the wars in our lifetimes and what we have called the enemy?

    Side note:
    By the way, the Indians had over 200 nations in the Americas when the invaders came here and those nations were civilized and did worship The Great Spirit much like we worship The One God. Wonder if Christ came to the Indians when he apeared to many afar off? How do we know He wasn’t in contact with the Indians all along in the 30 years missing from our history of Jesus, but God chose for His people those in the mideast instead of the America’s as it was much more populated among other reasons?
    Check out the Iroquios Federated Nations (which included many of our SE Tribes including the Cherokee) rules of living and see if the United States didn’t copy it in our Declaration of Independence! Just had to add this as we have such a goofy picture of the Indians that is not true.Excuse me please!

    Good post Jay, very thoughtful and accurate.

  2. “How do we know He wasn’t in contact with the Indians all along in the 30 years missing from our history of Jesus, but God chose for His people those in the mideast instead of the America’s as it was much more populated among other reasons?”

    Isn’t that what Mormons believe?

    Anyways, I largely agree with the post regarding just war. The problem is that a leader can make any war sound just. Lots of people strained to do it regarding Iraq. I don’t believe that qualified as a just war but, like politics in general, it only serves to divide people as we quibble over the definition of just war and if it accurately defines any current conflict.

  3. Oh, and after saying “Isn’t that what Mormons believe?” I meant to add, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, not that there’s anything wrong with that. 😉

  4. Ha, ha, ha, Chris

    I was going to post your 2nd post until you beat me to it.

    I didn’t know that is what the mormons believe, but do know many American Indians believe that.

    Throughout history, God has been called by many different names.

  5. The concept of a just war is interesting. The problem, of course, is the practice. There are few nations of this world that could not present their military actions as being just. Only God himself can determine what is just and what is not.

    Of course, if we follow these principles, there have been very few just wars in the last 200 years or so. Maybe that’s why people always fall back on WWII in these discussions.

    “Yes, the scriptures give the government the power to defend its people from evil…”

    I’m still less than convinced by some of these broad statements about what the scriptures say. There are also times when God’s people are to “suck it up” and take their punishment from the evil people, like when the Babylonians, and later the Romans, destroyed Jerusalem. God’s directives were to not oppose either of those forces. Like Habakkuk, we may find that disturbing, but we rarely have divine insight into what God is doing at a given moment.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  6. Tim said: ‘We rarely have divine insight into what God is doing at a given moment”

    How true and that’s why when in doubt, pray, then kick butt!

  7. Tim, I’m not saying I disagree or disagree with your viewpoint right now; I’m still working on this issue myself – and that might take til long after these discussions are done here. But I wanted to point out (hopefully gently and with Christian love) a double standard it seems to me you’re using.

    Over and over again you’ve told those who use it that the OT example of the Israelites as aggressors cannot be used to support a non-pacifist viewpoint because the OT deals with a physical nation chosen by God as opposed to the spiritual kingdom we are part of today. However, you readily use the non-Israelite agressors of the OT such as the Babylonians to help make your point about ‘sucking it up’ as Christians.

    It just seems to me if you allow that there are times when one must submit to ‘punishment’ such as that delivered by those OT examples (which are supported and ordained by God Himself), then you have to allow that there are times when one can engage in a ‘just’ war using those same examples, and have it still be supported by God. After all, why would God find wars by non-Christians ‘pleasing’ in the sense of using them to accomplish His will and absolutely detest agression by Christians – who one would think would fight in a more humane way (is that any oxymoron or what? Hopefully you understand how I mean that). 🙂 What say you?

  8. Brad, that’s a good point. I hope that I’m not using a double standard, but I may be open to that charge.

    I would point out that I’m not only saying that God’s kingdom was physical in the Old Testament, but also that the wars had to do with that physical kingdom. Once that kingdom was established, wars were fought within her borders. At least I can’t think of any examples (though I’m not sure where Amalek was; I relate that fight to the conquest, but I can understand if others wish to dispute that).

    Israel was not sent to Nineveh to destroy that city, even though God condemned it. Israel was not sent to destroy Babylonia, to destroy Egypt, to destroy Edom, Tyre, Sidon, etc. Prophets denounced those countries (and cities), announced their doom, yet God didn’t send his people to fight that “just war.”

    Israel fought a war of conquest, taking the land that God had ordered her to take. Then she defended that land. And that’s it. God’s people were not sent out to fight any more battles after that.

    Why does God use the ungodly to punish? I don’t fully have the answer for that. Again, that’s one of the great questions asked by Habakkuk. Maybe someone smarter than I can find the answer.

    Grace and peace,
    Tim Archer

  9. Jay,

    Romans 13 has been referenced numerous times as a text justifying one nation taking up arms against another. However, doesnt’ the text have more to do with the actions of the state with regard to it’s own people, rather than it’s actions towards other states and their people?

    Also, do you have a rough layout of where you plan on going with the remainder of this series? I have refrained from making several comments thinking that the topics might come up more fully later.



  10. thinkpoint,

    Thanks for the links. I’m a big D. A. Carson fan, and I appreciate your quotation from him —

    In Love in Hard Places, D. A. Carson wrote, “When just, war can be a form of love. Where an enemy is perpetuating its horrible holocaust, is it not an act of love that intervenes, even militarily, to prevent that holocaust if a nation has the power to do so? And is not restraint in such cases a display, not of loving pacifism, but of lack of love— of the unwillingness to sacrifice anything for the sake of others? Indeed, such a war may be, according to Calvin, a Godlike act, since God himself restrains evil out of love for his creatures. This is not to say that we fallen human beings can manage to conduct just war perfectly, without sin, the way God conducts himself without sin; it is to say that failure to do the good that is in our power to do may reflect not only a want of courage, but a lack of love.”

  11. John,

    The statement that American Indians are “pagan immoral and uncivilized” comes from the sixteenth-century Spanish theologian Francisco de Vitoria. It’s remarkable that he was willing to condemn the abuses of these people at the time he wrote — and his knowledge of their culture would have been severely limited. He was actually arguing in opposition to warfare against the Indians.

  12. What Brad said …

  13. Zach,

    I have one more post on just wars. And then a post re avoiding the confusion of the US with the Kingdom — which both sides can be guilty of. Then I have 5 posts on the Sermon on the Mount. That’s as far as I’ve gotten. I think the SOTM posts will be just a little outside the conventional interpretation. And then … I don’t know.

  14. Where an enemy is perpetuating its horrible holocaust, is it not an act of love that intervenes, even militarily, to prevent that holocaust if a nation has the power to do so?

    Where a (race) is perpetuating its horrible (injustice) (against another race), is it not an act of love that intervenes, even (violently) to prevent that (injustice) if a (race) has the power to do so?

    Carson’s quote, when subtly reapplied, makes Gandhi and King rejectors of the loving way.

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