Can war be just?

For nonpacifists, a restraining ethic has value

May 23, 2016 by

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The just-war theory is both bad and good. This is not a contradiction. For nonresistant Christians, it is bad. Pacifism is a way of life, not a case-by-case call. For nonpacifists, the principles for judging war are good. If applied strictly, the criteria should almost always rule out war.

Among Christians, the question — Can war be just? — starts a conversation about what Jesus’ peaceful example means for us. Last month in Rome, a group of Catholics gave their answer. For the first time, a conference hosted by the Vatican reconsidered just-war theory — and rejected it. Participants essentially called the Catholic Church to pacifism, saying, “There is no just war.” They urged Pope Francis to write a teaching document on nonviolence and asked the church to adopt “a just-peace approach based on gospel nonviolence.”

Regardless of what comes next, the outcome was historic: an authorized Catholic group affirmed the position that for centuries has forced Mennonites and other pacifist Christians to endure persecution and ridicule.

It is heartening to see the gospel of peace spread as Christians beyond the historic peace churches observe war’s failure. We believe that growing the ranks of biblical pacifists will make the world more peaceful.

But we also expect that the great majority of Christians will not hear Jesus’ absolute call to peace. Thus the just-war ethic remains useful. It calls nonpacifist Christians to live up to the moral standard they claim.

Just-war tradition applies a set of criteria to judge whether violence by the state can be morally acceptable. Is the cause just? Have all other options been tried? Is success probable? Will war do less harm than the evil it tries to prevent? Will noncombatants be spared? Strictly answering these and other questions would avert most military ventures. Modern warfare would rarely pass the test.

Critics point out the just-war theory has more often been used to validate war than prevent it. But we don’t throw a tool away because it’s been misused. We put it to work if we can. If we can make a strong case that a war is immoral, based on criteria that nonpacifist Christians accept, we should do it. We should urge them to take seriously the restraints their own tradition places on warfare.

At the same time, we must leave no doubt that our own opposition to war comes from Christ’s command to live peaceably at all times, without exception. It does not depend on any human theory about how to judge wars.

By rejecting the just-war ethic, we confess that we do not know better than God how to conduct the affairs of life and death. Jesus Christ told us to love our enemies, which rules out going to war with them. He said his kingdom is not of this world; therefore his servants do not fight (John 18:36). The simplicity of these words cuts through all pragmatic and self-righteous objections. It speaks to us with radical clarity, even as it appears foolish according to the world’s wisdom.

Because of Christ, we cannot bless war in any form — not boots on the ground, not drones at a distance. The peacemaking Catholics got it right: There is no just war. But if the just-war theory persuades other Christians to oppose or stop a war, it does some good, too.


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  • Charlie Tinsley

    I agree with this piece. My hold up is how we encounter veterans and active duty in our churches. There seems to be an element of reverence to be administered towards them for such conflicts as World War II and maybe even some of the modern ones.
    I’ve been in contexts where they have been referred to as “enemies” and “murderers” and I think these labels are unfair. We have a hard time remembering that many in the military are in poverty and for some, this is their only avenue to better their lives as conflicting as it sounds.
    I think this piece leaves the door open for discussions on how we interact with veterans and what limits may be needed for veterans turned neo-peace activists that seem to run ideological trains over those serving or who have served while claiming the banner of Christ.

    • Rose M. Berger

      Veterans of wars are some of the best advocates for developing a consistent ethic of peace. As the Catholic church opens up more exploration on building out a well-rounded theology and praxis of peace, it’s very helpful to lead with how this would be a positive contribution to the world wide church, with the assumption that all actions are grounded in the love of Christ and a responsibility not match evil with evil, but with sacrificial good. The conversation in Rome was not about pacifism vs just war. It was focused on developing a third way forward, one Pope Francis describes as “the active witness of nonviolence as a ‘weapon’ to achieve peace.” — Rose M. Berger

      • Charlie Tinsley

        I agree with this. What I’m referring to is that we have a tendency to elevate what I would consider “self hating” veterans who devalue their life worth and the lives of those who served with them.
        I do still think there is honor to be found for people who have served. There is a level of sacrifice given that civilians cannot possibly fathom. We can preach nonviolence and say how ideal it is, but the reality is that the line is crossed and people put their lives on the line who feel differently. That’s admirable in some ways. That doesn’t take away from some of the atrocities of war, but it does appropriately put healthy distance between those who observe from the couch and those who risk death on the field or those who have died.

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