When is War 'Just'?
Dr. James Emery White
- 2013 Sep 09
Thinking, biblical Christians can certainly disagree about Syria. And do. All lament the loss of tens of thousands of lives, coupled with the millions of displaced refugees, the civil war has produced. And without a doubt, all denounce the use of chemical weapons, and agree there should be serious consequences.
But should there be direct military intervention?
Forget about the “red line” of promised retaliation that many feel is forcing our hand to act. Let’s also put aside whether we should act alone, seek a resolution from the United Nations, or attempt to solicit wide support from allies and the Arab nations of the Middle East. Let’s overlook the implications a military attack on Syria would have for Turkey, or Israel, or even the risk of inciting a regional conflict. Let’s even bracket off what the United States can and can’t do against the many fronts of injustice and rank evil, as the most powerful nation on earth.
Those are serious and important considerations, but not the foundational one.
The foundational one is whether war is ever just for those who are called by Scripture to be peacemakers.
One of the clearest passages related to a Christian’s commitment to peace and peacemaking comes from the teaching of Jesus as recorded in the fifth chapter of Matthew. Jesus taught that we should love our neighbors as ourselves. We should not seek personal revenge on someone, or be filled with hatred toward another person. We should even allow ourselves to be disadvantaged rather than retaliate.
From this, many early Christians were pacifists, believing that a Christian should not engage in war of any kind.
Some simply took Jesus’ words at face value – you should love your neighbor, but issues related to politics and war were a different matter. They contended that Jesus’ teaching was about personal relationships, but that when it came to corporate or national issues, other verses and factors came into play.
By the second century, many Christians were serving in the Roman army, some as high-ranking officers. When the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian, making Christianity an acceptable, even favored, religion in the Roman Empire, even more Christians entered into public service.
Suddenly, Christians found themselves in positions where they were responsible for the welfare of everyone in the Roman Empire. When Barbarian tribes began to attack Roman citizens, Christians had to decide how best to respond – not only as Christians, but as Christians responsible for the welfare of non-Christians, too.
The church father Augustine (354-430) was the first to provide clear, biblical guidance for Christians in this matter. His ideas were refined over the centuries through such leading thinkers and figures as Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, but Augustine’s central ideas have stood the test of time, and continue to inform Christian thinking to this day.
Those ideas have become known as the just war theory.
Can War Be Just?
The just war theory has to do with how Christians interact with government (the reality of the need for governance and being governed) and international relations. In essence it takes the great commandment of Jesus in relation to peace, which is to love your neighbor as yourself, and applies it to the responsibilities of government.
While owning the fact that Jesus taught that it would be wrong for an individual Christian to defend himself or herself against attack, based on such passages as Matthew 5 (in other words, there is no private right to kill), they said that it was the duty – and responsibility – of Christians who had public responsibility (a magistrate, a soldier, a police officer, a king or president) to use discriminate and proportionate force to defend and protect their fellow human beings.
In essence, the passage in Matthew was seen as addressed to the scribes and Pharisees who had taken the legitimate rule of retribution that was given to governing authorities, and made it active and legitimate on a personal level. They had taken it from the law courts, where it belonged, into the personal realm, where it did not.
From this, Christians developed the just war theory to allow for the personal peace that Jesus admonished us to live by, as well as the civic responsibilities we’ve been charged to keep. We are not to take the law into our own hands, but that does not mean that the law cannot be taken up. Indeed, law must be established. To love our neighbor personally, and to love our neighbor corporately, sometimes can involve the use of force, police action, courts, punishments, prisons, and even war.
From this, the conditions for a just war were spelled out.
Now that is a very quick journey into the rationale of a just war. There’s much more that could be stated, such as the Bible’s mandate to live at peace with others as much as it depends on you, intimating that someone could make it impossible for you to live at peace with them by their actions.
There are also the great heroes of the Bible who were warriors, who had been commanded to go to war by God; people such as Joshua, David, Samson, Deborah and Gideon.
Going further, when you study the life of Jesus, you notice that He never called a soldier who came to Him in faith out of his military duties. Never once did Jesus say to a Roman Centurion, “Leave the Army!” And in His own life, He was known to use force such as when clearing the temple.
As a result, the idea of a just war has been with Christian thinking from the beginning. But it has been very carefully spelled out. So here are those historic conditions:
*There must be an urgent and imminent threat;
*It must be an act of defense against aggression – never simply for conquest or as an act of aggression – only a defensive war is defensible;
*It must be ordered by one who is in authority to do so;
*It must be for a just cause;
*It must have the right intention – it should not be based on revenge, but as an act of neighbor love and protection, with peace as its goal;
*It should be the last resort; peace and resolution should have been attempted;
*The force used must be proportionate to the desired ends – meaning that the evils caused by the war are less than the evils to be righted;
*It must seek to minimize non-combatant (civilian) casualties;
*It must have a reasonable chance of success.
When this is carried out by those in civic authority, it could be considered just and should be supported.
Even if preemptive – meaning striking first.
If the threat was urgent and imminent, then striking first to prevent that threat was considered an act of neighborly love. To fail to engage in a just war, to fail to use force to aid our neighbor when force is the best way to render that aid, is to refuse the love of God to another person and thus a failure to love your neighbor as yourself.
For example, in the Old Testament, God told Joshua to go to war against the Midianites because they were being oppressive, and committing all kinds of atrocities, including throwing young children into huge, burning fires. In Numbers 32, God reveals His anger, and not just at the Midianites. He is also angry that two of the tribes of Israel wouldn’t go to war against them to prevent such atrocities.
Attitudes Toward Leaders
According to Romans 13, we are told that one of the responsibilities of God-appointed civic authority has to do with aspects of just war. They bear the sword against evil and injustice and wrongdoing; they have the responsibility to be God’s instrument to restrain evil on earth. The civil state has been instituted to reward good and punish evil. It’s appropriate for them to have the sword, and to use it when called for.
Which means those who wield it are not murderers, but instead are acting on God-given, God-established authority as they carry out His moral order. That this is the meaning of Romans 13 has never been seriously questioned throughout Christian history.
Martin Luther, the great leader of the Reformation, wrote: “every lord and prince is bound to protect his people and to preserve the peace for them. That is his office; that is why he has the sword.”
Karl Barth, writing to Christians in Britain, then under siege from Hitler’s Germany, agreed, writing: “The State would lose all meaning and would be failing in its duty as an appointed minister of God ... if it failed to defend the bounds between Right and Wrong by threat, and by the actual use, of the sword.”
So the question is not whether war can ever be justified – it can; or whether war can ever be just – it can. At least that is where, with very few exceptions, Christians have landed for 2,000 years.
Which brings us full circle.
Does the situation in Syria meet the threshold of a just war?
Again, thinking Christians might disagree. But we should do so within the parameters of what constitutes a just war, as opposed to emotion, nationalism, or the attempt to save face.
Because doing what is just is all that matters.
James Emery White
Karl Barth, A Letter to Great Britain from Switzerland (The Sheldon Press, 1941).
Theodore G. Tappert, ed. Selected Writings of Martin Luther: 1529-1546 (Fortress Press, 1967).
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.