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The Just-War Tradition Today
by J. Daryl Charles
The character of much current religious dissent to the use of military force has been dispiriting. A good number of the dissenting responses lack serious thinking about the role of the authorities in preserving the moral and social order and protecting the citizenry, and many fail to engage in serious moral reflection about our duty to our neighbor.
Many religious leaders seem to hold an overwhelming presumption against the use of military force and to assume that any use of force is immoral in and of itself. They seem to define peace simply as the absence of war. It is thought that the use of force among the nations can be abolished within human history, a presupposition that reflects a secular and optimistic view of human nature and human history rather than a Christian realism rooted in the biblical story.
While American foreign policy is eminently debatable, the purpose of this essay is to bring into focus once more an enduring aspect of the Christian moral tradition—an aspect deemed antiquated by many—and consider its applicability to the challenge of terrorism. I speak of just-war teaching.
The ancient question of how the use of force can serve justice and peace has been a significant part of Christian reflection for the better part of two millennia. Just-war thinking is relevant to the present day precisely because it acknowledges the need of statecraft, seeks to apply consistent ethical norms to domestic and foreign policy, and wrestles with the moral limits of engaging in conflict (traditionally called jus ad bellum), while defining the moral limits of what a nation may do within a conflict (jus in bello).
It agrees with pacifism that some resort to violence is morally wrong, but rejects the notion that violence is always wrong. It is committed to bringing to the world as much peace as is possible, but unlike pacifism, it believes that in this fallen world some resort to force is necessary to bring peace to peoples and nations. At the same time, it recognizes the tendency to violence in peoples and nations and represents an attempt to restrain and regulate this violence.
I will present a brief summary of just-war thinking later in the essay, but first we need to consider three antecedent matters that will put it in context: (1) what might be called the “non-fluid” character of justice; (2) the obligations that inhere in our duty to our neighbor; and therefore (3) the nature of Christian vocation as it applies to resisting evil. The first explains how Christians can resolve the apparent conflict between the biblical call to peace and the requirement to defend the defenseless; the second defines that requirement; and the third distinguishes the duty of the individual, bound to non-resistance, from that of the nation.
Justice is developed philosophically both in pre-Christian philosophy (Plato’s Republic is dedicated to this theme) and in the Judeo-Christian moral tradition. Both describe justice in terms of giving to each person that which is due him. The language of justice fills the entire Bible, and correctly so, since justice describes how people ought to associate with one another and, therefore, how society ought to function.
While Scripture agrees with the pre-Christian philosophical tradition that justice is that which is due to others, it also explains why this is so. In Scripture, the people of God are commanded to execute justice precisely because God himself does so. Human beings bear the image of God. Thus, the Judeo-Christian tradition affirms the inherent morality of punishment. For to be created in the image of God is to be endowed with moral agency, and to be held accountable for our actions is to be treated with dignity precisely because one is a moral agent.
The Hebrew term for justice, mispat, generally refers to God-given principles that govern how people relate to one another. These rules do several things: They discriminate between righteousness and wickedness as well as between guilt and innocence (e.g., Gen. 18:25; Is. 5:20ff); they erect protection for the innocent and those without a voice (e.g., Ex. 23:6–9; Lev. 19:9–10); they seek to prevent injustice from arising (e.g., Lev. 19:11–14); and they rectify injustice (e.g., Is. 10:1–2). This justice, moreover, is to be impartial (e.g., Ex. 23:3; Lev. 19:15). The Pentateuch defines the contours of justice, the Psalms extol God for his inherent justice, and the prophetic literature calls Israel to repent and do justice.
Justice, then, may be defined as the capacity to fulfill one’s moral duties, both privately and publicly. It is thus a moral condition of right relations within a society. It is that moral tissue by which and in which a moral society coheres. It is “non-fluid” because its principles are God-given and do not change (though the principles will be applied in different ways in different societies).
Justice & Love of Neighbor
The virtue of love that is foundational to Christian ethics does not appear suddenly out of nowhere in the New Testament. It is inherited from a moral tradition extending back to the Decalogue. Love of the Creator results in proper love of one’s neighbor (cf. Lev. 19:18). Thus, Jesus can sum up the ethical obligations of genuine faith in the two “Great Commandments” (Matt. 19:16–22; Mark 12:28–34; Luke 10:25–28).1
In the command of Jesus, “Do not resist the one who is evil” (Matt. 5:39), we do not encounter any sort of contextualization. Furthermore, Jesus does not indicate how we might respond in situations that involve a third party. A principal problem with pacifism is that it misidentifies the morality of the individual as applicable to the behavior of the state. Christian nonresistance needs some qualification even of the Son of Man himself, who on occasion is depicted by the gospel writers as showing wrath and indignation, using vitriolic speech, and taking up weapons (e.g., whips) to denounce injustice.
Must Christians “turn the other cheek” of another person’s face in the direction of an aggressor’s blows? Surely not. Indeed, the introduction of a third party transforms the entire moral situation, and thus, Christian ethical obligation. Nevertheless, the motivation remains the same: neighbor-love.
Let us look at the example of the Good Samaritan, presented in Luke to illustrate neighbor-love, to help us understand better the nature of such love and what has been called an “ethics of protection.”2 Were the Samaritan to have come across the actual assault and robbery, would Jesus have advocated waiting until after the thieves’ assault and departure before coming to the victim’s aid? And what sort of “aid” might be appropriate? Is neighbor-love always non-resisting? A further question: Would Jesus have supported the apprehension of the criminals who beat and robbed the victim? While nonresisting love is free not to defend itself, as St. Ambrose and St. Augustine believed, it must decide whether or not to defend others. For both church fathers, defending a third party using proportionate force was nothing less than an expression of Christian charity.
What many religious people are prone to forget, or do not comprehend, is that love and mercy in no way eliminate the need for justice; they do not remove the consequences of ethical violations and the need to restore the moral balance. In the earthly realm, consequences still must be paid, for violations ranging from speeding to stealing to strangulation. The biblical term for this state of affairs is “restitution.”
While most Christians would never think of arguing on the basis of theological justification through Christ that a highway patrolman not issue the speeding ticket they had just earned, many Christians have a tendency to conflate justification and ethics in the sphere of law and public policy. Criminal justice is impossible if standards of justice are not fixed. In the ethical realm, biblical justice requires that payment always be made for a violation and that this payment be proportional to the offense; hence, the catchword “restitution” that occurs frequently in the Pentateuch. Biblically speaking, the only category of ethical offense for which no restitution exists is premeditated murder (cf. Num. 35:1–33, esp. vv. 29–33).
Sobering examples from the last decade witness to this need. In an address titled “Healing Wounded People,” the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda lamented that far “too infrequently” is justice acknowledged as necessary “therapy for victims who cannot really begin their healing process until there has been some public acknowledgement of what has befallen them.” Richard Goldstone noted that
where there have been egregious human rights violations that have been unaccounted for, where there has been no justice, where the victims have not received any acknowledgement, where they have been forgotten, where there’s been a national amnesia, the effect is a cancer in the society. It is the reason that explains, in my respectful opinion, spirals of violence that the world has seen in the former Yugoslavia for centuries and in Rwanda for decades, to use two obvious examples. . . . So justice can make a contribution to bringing enduring peace.
What contributions can the application of justice make? Goldstone identified four: (1) exposing the truth of specific guilt and avoiding general collective guilt; (2) recording the truth for the historical record; (3) publicly acknowledging the loss endured by the victims, who, as broken and terrified people, want and need justice; and (4) applying the deterrent of criminal justice, since human nature and potential criminals are deterred by the fear of apprehension and punishment.3
Vocation & Resistance
Our consideration of the character of justice and its relation to neighbor-love brings us to the third antecedent matter, the nature of the Christian vocation as it applies to resisting evil. Christian ethics do not remove us from our secular duties—even “untidy” duties. What is striking about John the Baptist’s message is that he did not call tax collectors and members of the Roman legion, in their repentance, away from their vocations. He demanded that the former “collect no more than was due” and that the latter not “extort from anyone by threats or false accusation” (Luke 3:13–14). What is more, soldiers should “be content with their wages”—hardly a call to religiously based nonresistance.
Apart from the apocalyptic writings, in which the authorities are always depicted as evil, the New Testament at times presents what seems a shockingly uncritical view of the magistrate. St. Peter seems to reflect the uncritical view of governing authorities (1 Pet. 2:13–17) that we witness in Paul (Rom. 13:1–10). “Respect” is the watchword in 1 Peter—a truly remarkable attitude when one considers the conditions under which the author may have been writing.
Pauline instructions on the magistrate take on a more theological cast—governing authorities are “appointed” by the Sovereign Lord and serve as divine “servants” (13:4,6) in “executing wrath on evildoers” (13:4). The reference to “bearing the sword” would have been patent to the first-century reader: The apostle is here speaking of the jus gladii, in the context of preserving the social order.
It is rare that Christian commentators take together the verses beginning with Rom. 12:17 (“Repay no one evil for evil”) and extending through 13:10 (“Love does no wrong to a neighbor”). Yet the context requires that we place side-by-side the proscribing of vigilante justice (12:17ff) and the prescribing of justice meted out through the authorities (13:1ff). There is no contradiction in Pauline thought, just as there is none in the teaching of Jesus: “Justice” is illegitimate in one context, at the personal level (by which Rom. 12:17–21 equates to Matt. 5:38–42), and legitimate in another, in the hands of the magistrate.
The important distinction to be made is this: Christian ethics dare not conflate the personal and the political.4 While Christians will differ about domestic and foreign policy, that the governing authorities are authorized by heaven to carry out justice in both is not in question.5 It is worth noting that historic religious pacifism, in its Anabaptist expression, while it did not recognize that a Christian could bear the sword or serve as a magistrate, nevertheless confessed that the sword was ordained by God in the hand of the secular magistrate for the twin purposes of punishment and protection (Schleitheim Confession, art. 6). By contrast, much contemporary pacifism—in both its religious and secular versions—mistakenly assumes that power is inherently evil.
Just-war thinking posits a fundamental distinction between retribution or restitution and mere vengeance or retributivism. Whereas the former is public, legitimized by political authority and measured, the latter is private, autonomous, and subject to no form of scrutiny.
Although a formal defense of just-war thinking was first developed by St. Ambrose (A.D. 340–396) and his convert St. Augustine (A.D. 354–430), well before their time Christians had begun serving in the Roman legions. For this reason, Paul Ramsey has warned that it is a serious mistake to regard Christianity’s accommodation to the Empire in this regard as a “compromise” or “fall” from the pristine purity of its ethic.6 Similarly, Arthur Holmes reminds us that the pacifist church fathers neither denied to government the moral duty of self-defense nor denied that Christians actually served in the military.7
Ramsey’s view indeed finds support in the fact that while they formulated a theory of just war, both Ambrose and Augustine continued to teach that an individual has no right to self-defense, and therefore, should not resist “one who is evil.” Their singular concern is public protection. They argue that it is the obligation of Christian love to defend and protect the innocent, and that not to do so is as much an evil as to harm the innocent. The Reformers joined their patristic forebears in the conviction that Christian vocation means secular occupation, regardless of how mundane or odious its duties, as public service to others motivated by love.
In its essence, the just-war tradition emanates from two fundamental concerns in Christian thought: when the resort to force is justified (jus ad bellum) and what kinds of force are appropriate in conflict (jus in bello). The public nature of warfare and the necessity of legitimate political authority are critical when viewed against the backdrop of medieval society, in which princes, nobles, and criminals all engaged regularly and aggressively in combat, and this for private ends.
Hence, it is not difficult to understand why for Thomas Aquinas the matter of just war hinges first and foremost on legitimate authority. Insofar as war is a public and not private matter, it must be adjudicated by political and legal means. Without question, authority can be abused, but this very possibility constitutes a primary reason why Christian thinking over the centuries developed (and found reaffirmation in) a just-war tradition. At the center of this thinking, as Thomas indicates, lie three fundamental moral guidelines: sovereign authority, just cause, and right intention.8
Relying on Augustine, Thomas emphasizes that a war is justified if it seeks to avenge wrongs, that is, when a nation must be punished for wrongs it has inflicted. The nation waging war must pass several prudential tests: It must work for good and not evil; it should have some prospect of succeeding; its anticipated outcome of the war should promote peace; and its going to war should be a last resort. Correlatively, the conditions for jus in bello are equally measured. The use of force must be such that it discriminates between the guilty/enemy and the innocent/noncombatant. And it must be proportionate, i.e., necessary, rather than gratuitous or arbitrary (restraint rather than revenge is intended).
Simply put, the just-war doctrine, in its classically Christian expression, contains no presumption against war or the use of force. Rather, armed conflict is construed as a moral enterprise. This is not to deny that war is horrible. It is only to emphasize that those who use force and prosecute war stand accountable before the Lawgiver and Sovereign of the nations. The pacifist argues that the sheer horror of war renders it incapable of being a moral enterprise.9 (In supreme irony, the primary international organization committed to preserving world peace, the United Nations, is essentially a coalition of power whose decisions are just as likely to sanction injustice as justice.)
But this position fails to make necessary discriminations: One can be horrified at particular evils associated with war and yet morally confront them for the purpose of preventing or limiting a greater evil. Police officers, to their credit, do this all the time. Moreover, if the sheer horror of war renders it immoral, then the God of the Old Testament is beyond horrible. In truth, however, no God-given “rights” to life are absolute or unconditional.
In summary, justified armed conflict consists of “the use of the authority and force of rightly ordered political community (and its sovereign authority as minister of God) to prevent, punish and rectify injustice.” As I said earlier, it represents an attempt to restrain and regulate violence.10
The Spectrum of Resistance
Whereas most people tend to think of war or the use of force in terms of two opposing perspectives, the pacifist and the just-war positions, it is more accurate to see the just-war tradition as a mediating position between the two poles of pacifism and jihad/crusading.
At one end, the pacifist position assumes that participation of any kind in military force, whether direct or indirect, is immoral. This view has both religious and nonreligious advocates. The strengths of the pacifist perspective should be noted. It recognizes diverse—and in many respects, creative—avenues for political and social action. It is sensitive to the effects of violence that all too often pervade the human experience. And in its religious form, it takes seriously the demands of Christian discipleship, while sensitive to the distortions of faith that can attend an uncritical view of the state.
Among its weaknesses are the following. In giving insufficient account of human depravity, it in practice bestows upon evil and tyranny an advantage in the present life. It denies or underestimates the fact that an ethics of protection issues out of Christian love, thereby overestimating the effectiveness of nonviolence and nonresistance. It conflates the realms of personal and political obligation. It posits a nonexistent divide between the sacred and the secular. And it contributes, whether intentionally or not, to a withdrawal of the Church from the world, thereby preventing responsible Christian involvement in cultural institutions. While pacifism may be the dictate of the private conscience, the Catholic theologian John Courtney Murray was correct to argue that it cannot be public policy.
At the other end, the crusade or jihad position (using the term “jihad” in its derivative sense of divinely sanctioned warfare, not in its narrower sense of “striving in the path of God”) views war as justifiable, absolute, and unlimited in its scope and means. Typically fueled by religious conviction, this position, whether in its medieval or present-day Islamic expression, rests on the conviction that God/Allah wills the warriors’ existence and success.
While it may be difficult for most people to acknowledge strengths in the crusade or jihad position, that position nevertheless understands that fundamentally moral and religious reasons stand behind the conflict of nations. Among its weaknesses are its failure to distinguish between religion and statecraft (that is, between the duties of the individual and of the state), its inadequate understanding of God, its disregard for natural law, its overly simplistic approach to morality by which it reduces all things to a clear conflict of good over evil, and its indiscriminate attitude toward human life. (By disregard for natural law, I mean that it does not accept that some actions are wrong in themselves, not right or wrong as God wills them; for example, that the killing of the innocent is always wrong and that God will therefore never order it.)
As the survey of the pacifist and crusade poles suggests, far from being a contradiction of the Christian primacy of peace, just-war thinking represents a moderating position on this spectrum, as clarified by its fundamental assumptions:
• Evil exists and must be resisted this side of the eschaton. (This we may call “Christian realism,” which takes evil quite seriously and therefore does not interpret international conflict or terrorism as merely the product of deficiencies in politics, diplomacy, foreign policy, or economics.)
• There is a “peace” that can be immoral because it leaves the innocent unprotected.
• The just-war position, buttressed by natural moral law, is universally applicable as an ethical guide to all peoples in all eras.
• War is a public function of the state and not the domain of private individuals, groups, or the religious community.
• Both going to war (jus ad bellum) and prosecuting war (jus in bello) are governed by moral limitations.
Let me close by asking how just-war thinking might help us respond to terrorism. Terrorism is “an act or threat of violence against noncombatants with the objective of exacting revenge, intimidating, or otherwise influencing an audience” and “the deliberate creation or exploitation of fear through violence in the pursuit of political change.”11 Because terrorism constitutes a type of moral depravity—it is not unreasonable to suggest that if terrorism is not a moral evil, nothing is a moral evil—it presents us with unique political and moral challenges. And because it seeks to undermine the very notion of a just and ordered society, upon which it typically lives as a parasite, it poses a threat to the moral order.
In the end, it confronts states and nations, not merely individual citizens. When individual citizens look to the governing authorities and discover that those authorities either cannot or choose not to protect them, the citizenry becomes dispirited, and self-governing society is radically undermined. To fail to respond to the mass murder of innocents is a moral abomination, whether justified for religious or nonreligious reasons.
The principles of just-war thinking—proper authority, right intent, just cause, last resort, proportion, and discrimination—which constitute the backbone of the just-war tradition, commend it as a response to the challenges of terrorism.12 These principles instruct us that terrorist acts are morally abominable and never acceptable under any circumstances and that the chief moral justification for the use of military force is the protection of society’s innocents. To acknowledge or recognize the presence of moral evil and do nothing is irresponsible. If there is significant evidence of imminent danger, Christian charity—with its love of the neighbor, the innocent third party, according to Ambrose and Augustine—calls us to use preemptive or retributive force. This may find application in, though not be limited to,
• assessing the morality of using military force in armed conflict with terrorists who violate international boundaries and law;
• implementing and supporting war crimes proceedings against terrorists;
• discerning whether to use intervening military force to aid victims of tyrants, as well as offering humanitarian assistance, as John Paul II himself has recognized;13 and
• post-war nation building.
In the end, there is nothing in just-war thinking that is inconsistent with peace and peacemaking.
Peace & Justice
I have attempted to present just-war thinking as a mediating position on the spectrum of military force and to ground it in a Christian ethics of protection and love of one’s neighbor. Given the Christian obligation to protect the innocent in the face of moral evil, retrieval of this valuable part of the Christian moral tradition is urgent. And given the priority assigned to proportion and discrimination in just-war thinking, the tradition commends itself in the face of proliferating terrorism in various theaters around the world.
Hereby Christian faith reaffirms its commitment to an ethics of protection and neighbor-love. Failure to distinguish between the criminal and the retributive act, with or without religious motivation, is morally abominable and a denial of the Christian moral tradition. For without justice and moral order, there can be no peace. Far from being a negation of peace, the just-war position, undergirded by Christian realism, works to affirm and preserve peace, since it acknowledges human dignity and justice as the highest values of society.
1. Consider, for example, John Paul II’s commentary on the Good Samaritan in his important apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris (1984), in which the Samaritan becomes the model for the Christian community in learning to suffer with others.
2. A fuller treatment of Christian social ethics and the ethics of war is found in Ramsey’s later works, War and the Christian Conscience: How Shall Modern War Be Conducted Justly? (Durham: Duke University Press, 1961), and The Just War: Force and Political Responsibility (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1968).
3. The address was delivered at the US Holocaust Museum on January 27, 1997. The transcript of the address was published in the Washington Post, February 2, 1997, p. C4.
4. Unhappily, this basic fallacy undergirds the exegesis of not a few Christian ethicists. Consider Richard Hays, for example, who remarkably bases his somewhat limited critique of the just-war tradition on one New Testament text—Matt. 5:38–48 (The Moral Vision of the New Testament [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996] pp. 319–346). For a helpful and sustained critique of Hays’s exegesis, see James Skillen and Keith Pavlischek, “Political Responsibility and the Use of Force: A Critique of Richard Hays,” Philosophia Christi 3/2 (2001), pp. 421–445.
5. See Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics, Volume 2: Politics (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1969), pp. 519–538, esp. 532–533.
6. Basic Christian Ethics (New York: Scribner’s, 1950), pp. 166–184. See also chapters 4–8 of William Werpehowski and Stephen D. Crocco, eds., The Essential Paul Ramsey: A Collection (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1994).
7. Arthur F. Holmes, ed., War and Christian Ethics: Classic Readings on the Morality of War (Grand Rapids: Baker [3rd ed.], 1991), p. 35.
8. Summa Theologica II-II q. 40.
9. This is an underlying premise, for example, of Stanley Hauerwas’s Should War Be Eliminated? (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1984), p. 21.
10. Thus James Turner Johnson, “The Broken Tradition,” The National Interest (Fall 1996), p. 30. Elsewhere I have sought to underscore the critical distinction between retribution and revenge/retributivism in the context of criminal justice. See J. Daryl Charles, “The Sword of Justice,” Touchstone (December 2001), pp. 12–16.
11. Jessica Stern, The Ultimate Terrorists (Cambridge/London: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 11; Bruce Hoffman, Inside Terrorism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), p. 43.
12. For a lucid critique of contemporary religious pacifism that simultaneously argues for the contemporary relevance of the just-war tradition in the light of terrorism, see Keith J. Pavlischek, “Just War Theory and Terrorism: Applying the Ancient Doctrine to the Current Conundrum,” Witherspoon Fellowship Lectures 21 (2001), pp. 1–21.
13. The issue of humanitarian intervention has been thoroughly and most helpfully treated in chapter 3 of James Turner Johnson’s Morality and Contemporary Warfare (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 1999), pp. 70–118.
A longer version of this essay was presented in September 2002 at From Death to Life: Agendas for Reform, a conference sponsored by the University of Notre Dame Center for Ethics & Culture.
J. Daryl Charles is an associate professor of ethics and culture at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. He is the author of Virtue Amidst Vice (Sheffield Academic), The Unformed Conscience of Evangelism (InterVarsity), and most recently, Between Pacifism and Jihad (InterVarsity, 2005). He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.