There are three ethical traditions related to war: pacifist, just war, and crusade. Pacifists are committed to nonviolence and generally oppose war in any form. People who adhere to the just war tradition believe that wars can be just if fought within limits in order to stop or prevent a greater evil or injustice. Those who justify all-out war as a battle between the forces of good and evil are following the crusade or “holy war” tradition. These three approaches to the ethics of war are each rooted in Christian history.
Until the fourth century, almost all Christians were pacifists. They refused to serve in the Roman army, choosing instead to follow Jesus’ nonviolent example. Many were persecuted for refusing induction. Some were martyred.
In the fourth century, the Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity and made it the state religion. By A.D. 403, only Christians were allowed to serve in the Roman army. This new situation brought about a major change in the way Christians looked at war.
Some believe that when the Rome was Christianized, it helped to spread the gospel. Others believe that this change was the downfall of the church. Theologian Walter Wink said, “For a faith that lived from its critique of domination and its vision of a nonviolent social order, the shift was catastrophic, for it could only mean embracing and rationalizing oppression.”
In the Roman Empire, war was a tool of imperialism, as it had been used countless times throughout the ages. Still, some people believed that war was at times necessary to protect the weak or to enforce national stability. This was the view of Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (“St. Augustine”), who laid the foundations of just war theory. Theologians and ethicists have refined and expanded Augustine’s theory through the centuries to the present day.
Just war theory has been used to support many wars during the past 1,600 years. Historical analysis shows that in retrospect, many of these wars were not just; they were fought for unjust purposes and with unjust means. Even the Crusades were blessed by the Church and considered just by participants despite the slaughter of many innocents. These wars against “infidels” were actually in the crusade or holy war tradition. Indeed, many wars that have been called “just” cannot be supported by just war theory at all, but are actually crusades, unlimited wars waged to vanquish an enemy that is seen as utterly evil.
In contrast, says Wink, just war theory is “a very rigorous and complex ethical discipline.” Most Christians claim to support certain wars based on just war thinking, but few Christians have actually explored the concept, and fewer still can name the conditions under which a war might be considered just. In order to decide what we think about war, we should know what traditional just war theory entails.
Traditional Just War Principles
Various ethicists and theologians have different lists of conditions under which a war can be called “just,” but they are based on two main considerations: why the war is being fought and how the war is being fought. In other words, just war principles are intended to help people determine whether the cause for waging a particular war is just, as well as whether the means that are being used to wage war are just.
According to just war theory, conditions that might justify deciding to go to war are these:
just cause – for instance, self-defense;
just intent – to correct the wrong and bring about peace;
last resort – all peaceful means of resolving conflict must be exhausted;
legitimate authority – individuals and group do not have this authority;
reasonable hope of success – not a hopeless cause;
discrimination between combatants and noncombatants – civilians and innocent people are to be immune from attack and every effort must be made to avoid killing them;
proportionality – the violence used in a war must be proportional to the injury suffered and to the limited goal of redressing the wrong.
All of these conditions must be met in order for a war to be considered just.
Does Modern Warfare Make Just War Theory Obsolete?
Just war theory sounds reasonable, but these principles are extremely difficult to apply in concrete situations. For example, who decides when a particular war is just? The United Nations could play that role, but neither the Church nor governments have an official way to make that determination. Furthermore, governments always claim that the wars that they wage are just; if the media does not tell the whole story, the people do not have adequate information and have no way to determine that the cause is just.
In the document In Defense of Creation, the Council of Bishops concluded that nuclear war would be unjust, since it would violate at least three of the just war principles: discrimination, proportionality, and hope for success. Do modern wars that employ high-tech weapons of mass destruction violate these principles as well? Wars in the 20th century killed 53.9 million people, more than all the people killed in wars in the preceding five thousand years combined!
Augustine assumed that war would be waged against standing armies, and that
civilians could be protected. Civilians make up most of the casualties in today's wars because modern, high-tech weaponry cannot discriminate between combatants and civilians. Some claim that civilian deaths are justified if they are unavoidable victims of a military attack. In the 1990s, 90% of war casualties were civilians.
Modern warfare also challenges the condition of proportionality, due to the massive damage done by modern weapons. Modern warfare kills thousands of innocent people, destroys a country's infrastructure, and pollutes the land for generations. Can this be called proportional? Can this kind of war present a reasonable hope of success? Just war theory presupposes that war will be formally declared and waged between two legitimate states, but this presumption fails to address the issue of guerilla or revolutionary wars within nations. Furthermore, it doesn't take into account what constitutes a “legitimate state.” Finally, if a legitimate state becomes an ally of a brutal dictatorship during a war, how is it possible to fight a just war with them?
The "Third Way" of Jesus: Nonviolent Engagement
Theologian Walter Wink looks to Jesus as the inspiration and example of his vision of active, engaged, disciplined nonviolent action as an alternative to violence and war. He points to successful nonviolence campaigns, including Gandhi in India, the American civil rights movement, the relatively peaceful overthrow of the apartheid regime in South Africa, the Polish Solidarity movement, Danish resistance to the Nazis during World War II. Wink came to the conclusion that “pacifists have seemed irresponsible. Just War theorists have appeared accommodating.” He asks, “Is there not a third way...one that affirms the pacifist’s nonviolence and the just war theorist’s concern for moral accountability even in war? His answer is “yes.”
The United Methodist Council of Bishops’ study agreed. In 1984, the study said that neither the pacifist stance nor the just war tradition was acceptable. The Bishops’ study, too, lists these and other successful campaigns of active nonviolence, and encourages churches to undertake a special study of “nonviolent defense” and “peacemaking forces,” as alternatives to violence and war. The Bishops “affirm peacemaking as a sacred calling of the gospel, especially blessed by God, making us evangelists of shalom (peace) that is overflowing with justice, compassion, and well-being.”
People working together for peace, justice and sustainability.