Just and Unjust Wars

If we accept, as all civilized societies have for the past 2,000 years, that wars should be avoided if possible, and only fought if just, then we must have some way to determine what distinguishes just wars from unjust wars.  Entire books have been written on this topic of course, one being Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars (which I highly recommend).  This humble post is obviously no substitute for a great book.  Rather, it’s intended to be merely a taste of the food for thought.  For a full meal, read Walzer.

Cherie put a bumper sticker on her vehicle that reads:  War is Not the Answer.  My response when I saw it was, “I think that depends on what the question is.”   While I admire those who are comfortable with an ethical opposition to all war under any circumstances, most of us can’t go that far.  Most of us believe that while war is something generally evil, which should be avoided, it is sometimes a necessary evil, which must be accepted.

How then to determine when a war is just (ethical and moral, if you will) and when it is not?

This became a particularly sticky topic when Christianity ceased being an underground sect of persecuted pacifists, and became the state religion of Constantine’s Roman empire.  Christ specifically instructed his followers that they should not resist evildoers and aggressors.  If someone strikes you on the cheek, he said, turn the other cheek so he may strike that one too.  As difficult and challenging as such teaching may be for individuals, if adopted as the national policy of a state, the reasoning went, it would be tantamount to national suicide.   It was necessary, therefore to determine some criteria for when Christianity would permit war.

Before continuing, let me point out that there is not universal agreement among Christians that a state would commit suicide if it followed Christ’s teachings of nonviolence and nonresistance to aggressors.  In fact, many Christians have argued, and continue to argue, that we cannot know that, because we lack the faith as nations to give Christ’s teaching a chance.  If a nation accepted and followed this command, the argument goes, God would bless and protect it.  By refusing to follow the teaching, we refuse to give God the opportunity to bless us.  They may be right.  And if so, we may add this stubborn lack of faith to the many sins and shortcomings for which we need God’s mercy, grace and forgiveness.  Of course, the danger of not defending ourselves is that we’ll be overrun by our enemies.  So, right or wrong, nearly all Christian civilizations have stopped well short of relying exclusively on God for protection, and have chosen instead to wage war to defend and protect themselves, when necessary.

So, returning to the question at hand, a Christian theory of “just war” evolved, which has been generally accepted for close to 2,000 years (although often manipulated and occassionally ignored).  For a war to be just, the theory goes, it must satisfy six criteria:

War should be fought only in self-defense;
War should be undertaken only as a last resort;
A decision to enter war should be made only by a legitimate authority;
All military responses must be proportional to the threat;
There must be a reasonable chance of success; and
A public declaration notifying all parties concerned is required.

I submit that those criteria are as valid today as they have ever been.   A purely defensive war, fought only as a last resort, publicly declared and authorized by a legitimate authority, waged only where there is a reasonable chance of success, and with no more force than is proportionally necessary to meet the threat, is a just war.  A war that fails to satisfy any of these criteria is an unjust war.

Let us resolve to oppose any “wars” that do not satisfy these criteria.  And let us particularly hold accountable those who would seek to have us engage in unjust wars.  Such people are unfit to lead a civilized nation.

Grace and Peace