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Home » Just War Theory: Often Ignored, But A Necessary Compromise with The World As It Is
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Just War Theory: Often Ignored, But A Necessary Compromise with The World As It Is


Published in the issue.

Last year’s sudden withdrawal from Afghanistan and the eruption of war in Ukraine have led me to conclude that the Christian tenets of Just War Theory, first propounded by Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE), have become irrelevant.

Etching of the Sermon on the Mount

Sermon on the Mount, Etching by Jacques Callot, 1635. “But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington,DC.

The New Testament is mainly negative toward war and violence. The decisive statement by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (5:38-48) is the clearest example: “But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” In Romans 12:14-21, Paul affirms Jesus’ teaching, and Peter does the same in 1 Peter 2:21, 23. However, Jesus accepts the Centurion’s request for healing (Luke 7:1-10), and Peter does not deny Cornelius because of his military service (Acts 10:1-33). We may rightly conclude that individual military service is permissible, but that the Christian community as a whole is called to higher ground. As Richard B. Hays writes in The Moral Vision of the New Testament, “The church is called to live as a city set on a hill, a city that lives in light of another wisdom as a sign of God’s coming kingdom” and is also to “stand as God’s sign of promise in a dark world.” Moreover, Hayes notes, “The only weapons that the  church wields are faith and the Word of God.”[1]

Just War Theory considers when, if ever, it is nevertheless God’s will that we should use violence as a means of rendering justice. The theory has two parts: justification for entering war (jus ad bellum); and the actions of combatants in war (jus in bello). There are six principles for entering war: just cause; proportionality; right intention; legitimate authority; last resort; and reasonability of success. The two battlefield principles are discrimination between combatants and non-combatants and proportionality. While scholars hold differing views regarding the theory’s application and technical definitions, its overarching tradition works to prohibit indiscriminate state-authorized violence.

During the 20th century, Just War Theory aligned with many American Christians’ values. For the most part, they could feel comfortable that their government waged or supported wars in line with its criteria—and could be satisfied, too, that those criteria were a worthy basis on which to determine if a war were just. Starting with the Vietnam War, however, and furthered by the Gulf War’s “WMD” premise, many leaders ignored the theory. The 21st century’s military actions have furthered its irrelevance.

Two of the theory’s principles demonstrate how it is no longer a tool used by our government.

The first of these is the last resort principle, which the US violates by sending weapons aid to Ukraine (though unarguably in every other way a deserving recipient as the victim of unprovoked aggression) without a significant and continued push for a negotiated settlement. The US administration has cut off ties with Russia and Vladimir Putin—and has supplanted negotiations with severe economic sanctions. The administration and other politicians argue that causing the Russian citizenry to suffer should compel it to overthrow Putin. In authoritarian systems, however, sanctions rarely create such an outcome; as in Cuba, North Korea, and Iran, they will not likely change Putin’s current gambit and, thus, they will fail as a last resort. Sanctions are an open attempt to punish Putin and Russia.

The second principle against which US actions run regarding Ukraine is that of reasonability of success. A country cannot wage a just war, whether with its own troops on the ground or by supporting others, without a clearly articulated statement of an intended outcome—but the US and other allied governments have sent aid to Ukraine without any obvious route to success or even a clearly articulated idea of what a successful outcome would look like. The US strategy on Ukraine seems, in fact, to be somewhere between simply “doing something” and the removal of Putin from office. Such ambiguity was also evident in the Afghanistan conflict, which our military left without achieving any stated strategic success. Without a clear understanding of a war’s intended outcome, military forces languish, soldiers lose moral purpose, and a justifiable exit becomes elusive.

In previous wars and military conflict, US leaders felt compelled to justify their actions morally and explain them to Congress and the country. President Roosevelt’s December 8, 1941, speech to Congress is a clear example. Today, the US government’s eagerness both to wage war itself and to support the wars of others has not only caused it to fail repeatedly to meet the criteria for Just War, but flies in direct opposition to its self-proclaimed aspiration to be a force in the world for good and for peace. In short, the US government feels no compulsion to adhere to any Just War principles.

War may be a necessary political tool for a state, but that does not mean that the Christian community can justify its indiscriminate use. It is a calamitous event that causes unimaginable suffering to combatants and non-combatants alike.

The value of Just War Theory is found in its attempt to curtail indiscriminate military actions, ameliorate human and environmental suffering, and promote moral conduct of combatants. In recent decades, US leaders have discarded the theory’s tenets, and have engaged our military for amoral reasons. As Christians living with the world’s most powerful military, we must demand of our national leaders the highest ethic when authorizing weapons of war. Our leaders must not make amoral decisions when it comes to military action.

[1] Richard B. Hays The Moral Vision of the New Testament: A Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethics. HarperOne. 1996. See Chapter 14: Violence in Defense of Justice