The doctrine defining a just war goes back to Augustine. Augustine was a bishop at a time when the Roman Empire had adopted Christianity as its official religion. Therefore, the Caesar was a Christian, and the question quite naturally arose as to when a Christian emperor could order troops into the battlefield.
This was also a time when northern European tribes (“barbarians”) were invading Rome. Rome had to either wage war or turn the Empire over the barbarians.
The Wikipedia summarizes Augustine’s views simply —
First, war must occur for a good and just purpose rather than for self-gain or as an exercise of power. Second, just war must be waged by a properly instituted authority such as the state. Third, peace must be a central motive even in the midst of violence.
Since that time, many theologians have sought to refine the theory. There’s an excellent article by Arthur F. Holmes that explains the theory.
The sixteenth-century Spanish theologian Francisco de Vitoria develops the theory further. Examining King Philip’s wars against the American Indians, he condemns their lack of just cause. War, he insists, is not justified for religious reasons (to convert the heathen) nor for economic causes (to gain their gold) nor for political reasons (to extend the empire). The Indians, however pagan, immoral and uncivilized, are human beings with rights equal to those of all other persons. The natural law protects them against violence and injustice. …
The Protestant Reformers meantime addressed the problem in similar terms. … The use of the sword, [Luther] argues, is divinely entrusted to governments in order to repel injustice and keep the peace. It can, therefore, be a work of love for the common good. But only defensive war is just, including action to recover unjustly seized property from previous conflicts. This rules out religious wars, aggression and any attempt to revenge an insult. Only the highest governmental authority has the right to initiate military action, so that rebellion is always unjustified. It was on this basis that he opposed the famous Peasants’ Revolt. Yet the ruler, if wrong, should be disobeyed: selective conscientious disobedience is not revolt.
He summarizes the Old Testament record thusly —
These [New Testament] limitations are reinforced when one considers the Old Testament attitude toward war. While military conflict is regarded as a tragic fact of life, one for which God strengthens his people and one which God uses in the execution of justice, it is nonetheless lamented as an evil from whose scourge humanity must be delivered. Israel was instructed to limit the destruction and violence involved in its conquest of Canaan (Deut. 2). David was not allowed to build God’s temple because he was a man of war (1 Chron. 22:8-9; 28:3). The psalmist grieved over violence, looking to the God who makes war cease and destroys its weaponry (Ps. 46; 120). The prophets condemned its fratricide and its atrocities (for example Amos 1:2), mourned its destruction (Lam.), and gloried in the One who will finally bring peace and justice to earth so that none need even feel afraid (Is. 2:1-5; 9:1-7; 11:1-9).
Holmes explains the overarching goal of the theory —
Third, the just war theory does not try to justify war. Rather it tries to bring war under the control of justice so that, if consistently practiced by all parties to a dispute, it would eliminate war altogether. It insists that the only just cause for going to war is defense against aggression. If all parties adhered to this rule, then nobody would ever be an aggressor and no war would ever occur. The basic intention of the just war theory, then, is to condemn war and to prevent it by moral persuasion. But since people will sometimes not be so persuaded, it proceeds to limit war – its occasion, its goals, its weaponry and methods – so as to reduce the evils that have not been altogether prevented.
He offers these guiding principles as summarizing the thought of current just war theologians —
- Just cause. All aggression is condemned; only defensive war is legitimate.
- Just intention. The only legitimate intention is to secure a just peace for all involved. Neither revenge nor conquest nor economic gain nor ideological supremacy are justified.
- Last resort. War may only be entered upon when all negotiations and compromise have been tried and failed.
- Formal declaration. Since the use of military force is the prerogative of governments, not of private individuals, a state of war must be officially declared by the highest authorities.
- Limited objectives. If the purpose is peace, then unconditional surrender or the destruction of a nation’s economic or political institutions is an unwarranted objective.
- Proportionate means. The weaponry and the force used should be limited to what is needed to repel the aggression and deter future attacks, that is to say to secure a just peace. Total or unlimited war is ruled out.
- Noncombatant immunity. Since war is an official act of government, only those who are officially agents of government may fight, and individuals not actively contributing to the conflict including POW’s and [c]asualties as well as civilian nonparticipants) should be immune from attack.
Now, each of these points raises a host of subsidiary questions. For example, under 3, how many people must suffer or die while the diplomats dither? Obviously, evil rulers are happy to use the diplomats to delay war while they consolidate their forces and continue their evil. And under 5, what if the nation’s political institutions are evil? Was it wrong for the Allies to oust the Nazis from control of Germany? Should they have stopped at the borders of the country? Should the US have forced a change in government in Japan?
So I’m not entirely sold on this version of the theory, but, yes, the scriptures give the government the power to defend its people from evil, and this fact leads to a limitation on what wars are truly just.
Where do we go from here?
Frankly, I doubt seriously that many national leaders — even US leaders — give a lot of thought to Just War theology when deciding whether to go to war. The churches don’t teach this in Sunday school or preach it from the pulpit, and so national leaders follow their instincts and feel little reason to concern themselves with what Christians think. We think almost entirely in secular, political terms when it comes to war — as though God has nothing to say about killing people in large quantities.
Part of the solution is for our pulpits and classrooms to teach our members how to think about the daily news in Christian terms. Of course, our preachers and teachers have virtually no training on this either. Indeed, once we suggest that preachers should consider such things, we open the door for preachers to spout whatever their political party tells them to think — which is scary indeed — and this happens in too many churches already.
It’s good, I think, that the Churches of Christ have largely refrained from using the pulpit to discuss politics, unconsciously following the teachings of Lipscomb and others. But I think it’s good because we don’t know how to do it well, not because it’s off limits. Indeed, we need to develop an understanding of God’s will for such things. Just as the Campbells and Stone preached fearlessly against slavery before the Civil War, our preachers should be qualified to at least train us to think about politics in scriptural terms. We are far from ready to take on that task, but it’s not beyond our ability.
And yet there are plenty of questions not clearly answered by scripture, and we should stay out of what the Bible doesn’t answer. Nonetheless, I think it would greatly help the conversation if we begin by acknowledging what the biblical principles are, even if their application is uncertain. At least we’ll be weighing what God says rather than selfishness or nationalism.
So far, I’ve resisted the temptation to lay out my own thinking, largely because I’ve not managed to sort this out for myself — not entirely. And most of the resources on the subject are so uninformed or agenda driven as to be of very little help. Besides, at present, the topic is the Sermon on the Mount, and I really don’t want to go through another 29 posts on the topic at this time.
But if anyone has any recommendations for good resources on Just War theory, please pass them along. I’d be very interested and, I’m sure, I won’t be alone. On the other hand, I’m already very familiar with some of the premier works arguing for pacifism — such as John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus (a marvelous book, especially chapter 7, although he doesn’t convince me on pacifism) and Lee Camp’s Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World, not to mention one of my all-time favorite books, Michael J. Gorman’s Inhabiting the Cruciform God: Kenosis, Justification, and Theosis in Paul’s Narrative Soteriology (essential reading!).