JUST WAR? – A Valid Concept

By Jack Cottrell

To my knowledge, in Christian history no one has ever tried to defend war as such, or to justify indiscriminate participation in warfare. However, for centuries many Christians have believed that in any given war, usually one side of the conflict is evil while the other side is righteous or just. In the most basic terms, those who hold this view generally say that the aggressor (the one who starts the war) is guilty of sin, while the defender (the one fighting to repel the aggressor) is not. From the standpoint of the latter, the cause is just and participation in the conflict (even to the point of killing the enemy in self-defense) is morally justified. This is the concept of a “just war.”

Understanding Limitations

We must be careful not to oversimplify this concept. Just war advocates usually delineate several limitations that must be present for participation in warfare to be considered just. The following representative list (along with the quotations) comes from Arthur F. Holmes, War and Christian Ethics (Baker, 1975), pp. 4, 5.

1. A just war must have a just cause, i.e., there must be a just reason for entering the war in the first place. And according to the just war view, “The only morally legitimate reason for going to war is self-defense.”

2. A just war must have a just intent, in terms of what it attempts to accomplish. “The only morally legitimate goal in war is the restoration of peace, with justice for both friend and foe. Vengeance, subjugation, and conquest are unjustifiable purposes.”

3. A just war must be the last resort for resolving a dispute. “War should be entered upon only when negotiation, arbitration, compromise, and all other paths fail.” Of course, when a nation comes under attack, these more preferable solutions may be impossible.

4. A just war must have a lawful declaration by a recognized governmental body. “Only lawful government has the right to initiate war, for the use of force is limited to the state and its legally authorized agents; it is never the prerogative of individuals or parties within the state to use force on their own authority.”

5. A just war acknowledges the immunity of noncombatants. Every effort must be made to avoid involving the nonfighting and nonparticipating population of the attacking nation in actual combat where casualties may occur. “Those not officially serving as agents of the government in its use of force, including POWs and medical personnel and services, should not be permitted to fight and are not to be subjected to violence.”

6. A just war must have limited objectives. “If the purpose of war is peace, then unconditional surrender is an unwarranted objective, as is the destruction of the enemy’s economy or political institutions.”

7. A just war must be fought with limited means. “Only sufficient force should be used to resist violence or restore peace. The criterion for ‘sufficient’ is not decisive victory but the restoration of a just peace.”

These principles for a just war seem to be a very neat and reasonable set of rules. All of them, however, are fraught with ambiguity and are subject to individual interpretation. For example, what counts as self-defense? Does this include preemptive strikes? Who qualifies as a combatant? Does this category include civilians who work in munitions factories? How can atomic weapons avoid harming noncombatants? How can such rules be applied in the age of terrorism, when enemies are no longer defined in terms of political boundaries?

Despite such difficulties in application, the concept of a just war is still valid. The presence of these difficulties, however, makes it all the more crucial that a nation’s leaders—those who must interpret these principles—be men and women of good will who have no private agenda.

Studying the Bible

One might be willing to grant that the just war concept sounds reasonable and just, when considered in the context of secular moral philosophy and international politics. But we are Christians, and our conclusions concerning this and all other issues must be grounded in the will of God as given to us in the Bible. Thus we ask, how can the idea of a just war be embraced by those who accept the Bible as God’s inerrant Word, and who are fully aware that it teaches us not to murder1, to love our enemies, and to turn the other cheek when attacked?

My contention is that participation in a just war (as defined above) is consistent with all the teaching of the Bible. This can be shown as follows.

We note first that God himself has ordained civil government (the institution, not individual governments) for the express purpose of protecting innocent citizens from being treated unjustly (Romans 13:1-4; 1 Peter 2:14). This includes the legitimate use of lethal weaponry to bring retributive justice upon those perpetrating evil upon the innocent (Romans 13:4). In other words, the God-given purpose of government is to protect the innocent by punishing the guilty. This is the basic foundation of the just war concept.

Second, we must recognize that God’s Word makes a distinction between what is required of individuals when they are subjected to attack, and what is required of governments when such attacks occur (either upon individuals or upon the nation as such). This distinction is emphasized in the Old Testament, especially in the Law of Moses. The government (judges and civil leaders) was intended to apply eye-for-eye justice against evildoers. The three eye-for-eye texts (Exodus 21:23-25; Leviticus 24:17-21; Deuteronomy 19:21) refer not to individuals but to courts of law. This extended to warfare itself, which was of two kinds: defensive (e.g., Exodus 17:8-16) and judicial (e.g., Numbers 31:1ff.).

At the same time the Law of Moses establishes a different standard for interpersonal relationships: neighbor-love is commanded, while hatred and retaliation are forbidden: “You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart. . . . You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:17, 18)2.

Many Christians have assumed that such teaching was first given by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (see Matthew 5:38-48), but this is simply wrong. The distinction between governmental retributive justice (as exercised in defensive warfare) and the prohibition of individual vengeance has always been God’s purpose for his people.

We see the same distinction in Paul’s teaching in Romans 12 and 13. His teaching about government as God’s instrument of justice in Romans 13:1-4 is immediately preceded by the prohibition of personal retribution in Romans 12:17-21. He says it very clearly in verse 17 (“Never pay back evil for evil to anyone”) and verse 19 (“Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord”). Paul then explains that God exacts such vengeance—his own vengeance—through civil government (Romans 13:4).

When Jesus teaches in Matthew 5:38ff that we must not resist evil but must turn the other cheek, he is not repudiating the justice principle meant to be used by civil government but is repeating only what God has always required of individuals when personally attacked. He is not introducing some new teaching, a so-called “higher law of love.” He is reminding us that it has always been wrong to use the rules that apply to governments as a license for personal revenge. So said the Law of Moses, and so says Paul. This is God’s will for us as individuals, but we make a grave mistake when we try to apply it to governments. It is perfectly consistent with the concept of a just war.

Our third point is that both of these standards (the one for individuals and the one for governments) are holy and right. Contrary to the teaching of many Christian pacifists, there is no hint that God’s will for governments, even the part about applying the sword, is somehow evil. Such pacifists grant that government’s use of force is sometimes necessary, but they regard it as a necessary evil which as such cannot be participated in by Christians. Thus the sphere of God’s kingdom and the sphere of civil government are mutually exclusive. Only the Christian way of nonviolence is right, while the government’s use of force and violence is evil—a necessary evil, to be sure, but evil nonetheless.

This is simply wrong. God himself has ordained government and appointed it as his own instrument for dispensing his own wrath and vengeance upon evildoers. God’s stated will for governments is no less good and moral and righteous than his stated will for individuals. When government is carrying out its divinely specified functions, it is doing what is holy and righteous, especially when it is dispensing God’s retributive justice upon evildoers. And if it is right as such, then it is right for any human being to be a part of it, even a Christian.

Love . . . and More

Someone may object that participating even in a just war seems to contradict the whole ethic of love and the very nature of God as love. Two comments may be made. First, God is love (1 John 4:8), but he is not love only. He is also a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29; see also Hebrews 10:30, 31), the fire of wrath and vengeance and retribution. Many pacifists forget this aspect of God’s nature.

Second, the main point of the just war is not to maim and kill the enemy, but to protect the innocent and law-abiding. What is this but an expression of neighbor-love?

“Responsible love” is thus the ultimate basis for a Christian’s endorsement of the just-war concept, says Paul Ramsey. This doctrine, he says, is actually the “product of agape in Western thought,” a “creation of the Christian love ethic itself” (War and the Christian Conscience [Duke University Press, 1961], xvii-xx).

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1The sixth Commandment (Exodus 20:13) should never be translated “You shall not kill,” but rather, “You shall not murder.” The Hebrew verb is ratzach, which refers not to killing as such, but to the deliberate, unlawful taking of innocent human life. This commandment applies neither to capital punishment nor to just warfare.

2All Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.




Jack Cottrell is professor of theology at Cincinnati (Ohio) Bible Seminary, the graduate division of Cincinnati Christian University.

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