A good question: Can war be just?
Each month we ask one question and get four answers. This month: Can war be just?
‘War is an ill-informed, outmoded way to resolve conflict’
War is an out-of-date, ill-informed, outmoded and unaffordable way to resolve conflict. War harms and obliterates life and the right to life, and cannot restore them. The violence of war in the interest of peace is a contradiction. War uses the very means it opposes. No war has ended violence. I am committed to supporting nonviolent means to resolve any conflict.
Jesus called on his followers to “love your neighbour as yourself” and also to “love your enemy”. One hundred years ago, and then again in the Second World War, many Christians supported war in the belief that it would advance the Kingdom of God. People of different faiths have seen war as divinely sanctioned. Books such as Unholy Alliance: Religion and atrocity in our time by Marc Ellis reflect well on this.
God is God of all nations and cares for all people and desires nothing less than the “fullness of life” for all. All people are made in the image of God. The Kingdom of God knows no boundaries, and transcends all borders. No adherents of any world faith can rightly claim God to be on their side alone. There is no such thing as a holy war or a humanitarian one…
‘Military response is appropriate, proportionate and justifiable’
I am a woman of God, called to an organisation whose job, when all else fails, is to kill people. I have to balance the accusation that as a “force-enabler”, by ministering to these soldiers, I am somehow colluding in unjust violence – a challenge that has led me to deep questioning and prayer.
I was ordained three years ago, and my 10 weeks of military training at Sandhurst included reflection on the just war theory, first propounded by St Augustine. This theory has been refined over the centuries by theologians including St Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin, and can be summarised in 10 criteria to help determine whether a conflict is ethically justifiable. For example, it must be sanctioned by a legitimate authority (i.e. the government), it must be an act of defence against aggression, it should be the last resort when all other avenues (political and diplomatic) have been exhausted. Such criteria, I believe, ensure that any military response is appropriate and proportionate, and therefore justifiable. It right that the United Reformed Church has discussed the issue, for if the Church abandons these questions – and these people I am called to serve – then I believe it is the Church that is no longer just.
The 800 soldiers and families that I serve also ask searching questions of themselves and the powers that command them. They need pastoral care like everyone else, and so the “incarnational” ministry, shown by the crosses on my collar, carry Christ’s message of forgiveness and love, as I pray that I do too. In situations of violence, of despair, of evil, there’s a need for somebody to be an agent of the presence of God. Christ went into some tough places, some places where he wasn’t even wanted, but he went, and I am called to go too. I cannot promise: “The Church is behind you guys,” but what I can promise is that many people are praying for them. And I have yet to encounter a soldier who did not want or appreciate that…
‘Christian pacifism is a matter of the character of God’
Let’s be clear: “History knows no just wars.” That’s not a pacifist speaking, it’s Oliver O’Donovan, the eminent Anglican political theologian and defender of the just war tradition.
Is war sometimes the “lesser of two evils” then? That’s the silver bullet of most modern just war apologists. Not, however, of traditional Christian advocates, who recognised that such damage limitation is the kind of nihilistic logic that got Christ killed. Unsurprisingly, the pedigree of just war theory is pagan.
Augustine (354-430), who launched the attempt to Christianise this heathen heritage, at least had the theological seriousness to argue that warfare is justifiable only on the basis of the love and reformation of the enemy. Augustine also had the honesty to acknowledge that he could not appeal to the New Testament to support his case, nor to the Church of the first three centuries, which was uncompromisingly pacifist. But times change, he insisted. Indeed: With the conversion of Constantine (313), Christianity had become the religion of empire. Henceforth, the Church would be the state’s military chaplain…
‘I do not oppose the toppling of a brutal fascist dictator’
So who is my neighbour? Did we decide, in the end? I ask up front because I need to frank: some of you, it seems, oppose military intervention abroad because brown people aren’t the same as “us”.
Setting pacifism aside – a principled and noble way of allowing bullies to prey on earth as in hell – most people, most of the time, believe there are just uses of force. You don’t need your street to be bombed, exactly, but the urge to resist comes quickly when “you” and “yours” are threatened.
For a leftie like me – and, I hope, for all Christians – who is “yours” is not a quick assumption about family, neighbourhood or country. We’re internationalists, believing that national borders are constructs: legacies of empire and injustice. Whether we should think less of someone for being on the wrong side of a border or culture was settled pretty conclusively by the Good Samaritan. We do think less though. When Milošević was establishing that the spirit of Herod was still alive in European Serbia, there was strong support for opposing him. And yet when Hutu slashed Tutsi in African Rwanda, eyes turned the other way…
This is an extract from the February 2014 edition of Reform.