Just War and Just Peace: Trying to be Just

Is there such a thing as Just War?

Justice itself

Everyone knows what justice is, but no-one knows how to bring it about. Everyone has some sense of justice, but our ability to enact it is thwarted. Everything gets in the way—our selfishness, our jealousy, our prejudices, our lack of insight, our age and stage of life, our family.

But capital ‘J’ Justice—Infinite Justice, as President Bush originally named his War on Terror before having his mind changed by offended Muslim clerics—would seem a remote ideal for human beings.

Justice is the one concept that can’t be deconstructed, says philosopher Jacques Derrida. In fact, it is easier to point out injustice than to assert precisely what is just; suggesting that Justice will always elude us. Justice threatens to be a metaphysic, to be real, to be the ultimate explanation and goal, but remains just outside our grasp. It’s the value to which a secular society finally appeals, and yet the appeal is for something the shape of which we find hard to imagine.

Would it have been just to leave Saddam Hussein to rule Iraq unchallenged by appalled onlookers? Was it just to do great damage to Baghdad and much of the rest of the country in the task of stopping Saddam? Is it just for a foreign nation to occupy Iraq and rebuild it? What would a just outcome in Iraq look like–and just for whom?

The rule of law and the Just War tradition

The most successful approach to seeking justice that human beings have come up with is to live by the rule of law. That is, we have constitutions which establish legal statements for the good of the community as a whole, and authorities who enforce those laws. It isn’t a perfect way of doing things, but it is about the best thing we have come up with.

There is such a set of laws and regulations about what would constitute a reason to go to war, and how war ought to be carried out. It is known as Just War Theory or Just War Tradition. These laws—they are actually questions in this case—seek to outline what would be required for a war to be just. They start from the position that there is a kind of war that can be just—a position that is by no means accepted by all.

Before I go on to outline Just War tradition, and to explore its strengths and weaknesses, can I say this: justice on its own is a fearful concept, for all human beings are morally fallible, broken-hearted, sin-ravaged shells of their glorious selves as God created them. If justice were administered to us, there would be no innocents. No one would stand.

What we need is justice mingled with mercy. This is the true path to peace. From a Christian point of view, the event in which justice and mercy perfectly intermingle is the death of Jesus the Christ, where God punished sin, but did so mercifully through the willing sacrifice of his only son. At this moment justice is served, mercy delivered, and peace given.

This is not to deny or avoid the real issues of justice, war and peace. As a Christian, I would want to hold on to the notion that peace with God that has been won by Christ on the cross, a peace that is available now, even in the midst of war, and can never be taken away since it is a peace that the world cannot give−so it hardly has the right or power to take it!

Just War and the New Testament

The first thing to say about Just War Theory is that it is not derived from the Bible. Although it draws from and leans on biblical teaching, it is not a view that can be compiled readily from Scripture.

Those who developed it (Augustine, Aquinas, Grotius and today, George Weigel, Michael Novak and James Turner Johnson among many) did so using a mixture of biblical, political and ethical notions.

It is a tradition of moral thinking, which interacts with Scripture, but does not offer a comprehensive biblical approach to war.

However, it is worth looking now at one of the biblical ideas which is important to Just War theory. The Apostle Paul’s writing from Romans 12 and 13 presents what could be perceived as a tension between the command to love and forgive one’s fellow human beings, and the divine provision of government with the power to punish wrongdoing.

“Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:10-21)

Notice in the text the strong elements of peace, non-violent resistance, even passivity, and solidarity—even with one’s enemies! I am struck, too, by the radical confidence of the Apostle in God’s faithfulness and his just character−God will avenge.

Such thoughts are immediately followed by this in chapter 13:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority* does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due to them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honour to whom honour is due.” (Romans 13:1-7)

I am challenged by the surprisingly positive view of empire presented here: obey authorities; don’t resist. God has appointed them; obey God. And the passage contains a confronting verse, that the rightful ruler is God’s avenging servant, administering justice on God’s behalf…by the sword!

We can assume there is no contradiction or tension for the writer, Paul, in these two passages. There is no textual hint of such a problem. Paul insists on the brotherly acts of blessing and forgiveness, and the social acts of obedience and citizenship.

And yet, we can feel a tension. How can I love an enemy, and bomb the daylights out of him at the same time? How can I leave vengeance to God, while siding with a war on terror? We must have misunderstood something of what Paul is saying.

Just War thinking goes some way towards helping us sort this out.

Just War Theory?

In brief, Just War Theory is the accumulated and organised thinking on how to restrain the human instinct for violence, vengeance and oppression. In the second century, Tertullian had argued that Christ’s command to Peter to sheath his sword in the garden of Gethesemane, since ‘those who live by the sword die by the sword’ (Matt 26:52), meant that all Christians ought to abandon military service and avoid all association with it. But it was Augustine who looked more broadly at the Bible’s teaching and started to tease out the differences in the attitude of individuals to injustice, and the attitude of instituted authorities to injustice.

Whereas the individual is commanded by Christ to ‘turn the other cheek’ and to ‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Matt 5:39,44), Augustine saw that other biblical teaching revealed a place for properly appointed authorities as protectors of the people, that is, acting on ‘behalf of the peace and safety of the community’.  Part of the Christian duty to one’s neighbour was to defend and protect them. You could deny the right of self-defence to yourself, said Augustine, but not to others (a kind of personal pacifism but interpersonal activism).

Back in the first century BC, Cicero had developed a kind of Just War Theory, which allowed combat either in self-defence, OR to avenge a dishonour. Augustine’s achievement four centuries later was to see love, not honour or vengeance, as the key. As we read in Romans 12, vengeance is to be left to God.

In the Middle Ages, the great systematizer Thomas Aquinas shaped Augustine’s thinking into a more coherent theory of Just War. Aquinas, too, emphasized the idea that Christians are trying to find a way of loving God and loving neighbour, not seeking vengeance or payback. In fact, in his grand organisational schema, Aquinas discusses the questions of Just War in the section about Christian charity.

Around the time of the Reformation, the issues of church and state were of course receiving great attention. Hugo Grotius, in 1625, managed to separate Just War thinking from religious traditions, instead arguing in his book On the Rights of War and Peace, that it was part of universal, natural law. Grotius tackled the issues in depth, and was the first to seriously consider the problem of pre-emptive strike, which has been so prominent in the war in Iraq.

How can I love an enemy, and bomb the daylights out of him at the same time? How can I leave vengeance to God, while siding with a war on terror?

There has been a flurry of recent activity aimed at rethinking Just War Theory to adapt it to the needs of the age. Issues such as nuclear warfare, globalisation of arms supply, the scrutiny of the media, the role of the United Nations, and the post-sovereign state environment of world conflict (e.g. the war on terror not opposing a nation in particular) have all been integrated into the theory, with mixed success.

So what are the principles? In summary: they are two kinds

1. Justness of war, before the fact (jus ad bellum)

i. Is the cause just? This needs a theory of what justice is, and whom it is for.
ii. Is the only intention to restore just peace?
iii. Is the war a last resort? Have all other reasonable avenues been explored?
iv. Is the decision to war made by the highest authority?
v. Is there reasonable hope of success? Or is the situation hopeless?

2. Justness in war, during conflict (jus in bello)

vi. Is the war proportional to the offence?
vii. Is non-combatant immunity respected?

Strengths and weaknesses of the Just War tradition

i. Just Cause

This question has probably received the most attention recently, because it covers the issue of whether a nation can make a pre-emptive strike as a form of self-defence.

The classic position is that a just cause is self-defence. However, Augustine believed a just cause for war was to administer a justice where another state had neglected to do so−to act as the ‘sword of government’ for another state. The ‘only in self-defence’ argument prevents states from becoming the ‘world’s policemen’; but it means that a corrupt state remains sovereign over its affairs as long as it doesn’t involve other states. Under those conditions, it is hard to defend the poor and oppressed, and evildoers get away with it.

If we accept the broader understanding of just cause, we are left with some issues. Who will say the cause is just? Obviously, it is the call of the government–they are the ones who declare war. However, we have learned in our age to adopt a hermeneutic of suspicion towards authorities, and to expect that they are making power bids rather than acting justly. This suspicion is often warranted, and we tend to find out about government deceptions thanks to the power of the media in a liberal democracy.

The second issue relating to just cause is whether it allows for a pre-emptive strike. The tradition recognises that justice is not always done by waiting for the offence to occur. In an age of extraordinary military intelligence, there may be almost unassailable evidence that the offence is imminent and defensive actions are justified. Was this the case with Iraq? I didn’t see the evidence—did you?—rather, what we did see was rather unconvincing. I believe the public needed more information to justify this pre-emptive strike on Iraq, but I am also willing to defer to the authorities’ need to maintain custody of data for security purposes. However, if this is the case, they shouldn’t have tried to win us over with hazy photographs and so-so research documents.

ii. Intention

We need to distinguish here between the intentions of a military operation, and the motives of those involved. If you are a Christian, you believe that the motives of the human heart are unsearchable and wicked. ‘The intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth’, the Lord told Noah (Gen 8:21). We won’t be able to pursue justness in war based on human motivations.

But intention is different. It refers to the plans of the military to right the wrong which occasioned the war. It should be clearly expressed. To his credit, President Bush has done this: he said that the intention of this war was to disarm Saddam Hussein and liberate Iraq for its people. The first of these goals seems clear; the second, I suggest, is where things have become more complicated. Will American occupation eventually liberate the people of Iraq? So far, it doesn’t look promising.

But let’s return to a place where motives and intentions might overlap: How much of US foreign policy is theologically driven? I ask this as a genuine question, for I really don’t know the answer. We know the importance President Bush places on prayer; we know he claims a personal relationship with Jesus; we know he reads the Bible.

Is it fair to expect that his decision-making regarding the Middle East is powerfully influenced by a premillennial dispensationalist eschatology?

To unpack that just a little for those who are not familiar with the terms: do we have grounds to believe that somewhere behind US foreign policy is a view that Jerusalem needs to be recovered for the true Israel, and that the Book of Revelation prophesies the judgement of Arab nations? (For more on this see Mike Thompson’s article on Christianity and U.S. Foreign Policy in Historical Perspective.)

Where an authority is acting within its God-given place to bring about order and peace and present justice, we are to be in line with it. Where it is stealing from God, we may oppose it and end up in prison or worse.

I ask these questions so that someone here will pursue them and find answers, because if it is the case we can throw Just War theory (at least, the jus ad bellum, justness of war aspects) out the window. If a particular way of reading biblical prophecy and the Book of Revelation is behind US foreign policy on the Middle East, then this is indeed a religious war of enormous proportions.

But I don’t know this. It needs to be examined.

iii. Last resort

The obvious aim of this restriction is to prevent the rush to war out of expediency or bloodlust. It means that nonviolent means of pursuing justice must first be exhausted before war is even considered. It prioritises war last on the list of ways of dealing with an offender. It resonates with God’s character–patient, merciful, tolerating wrongdoing for as long as possible.

However, there is some confusion over this requirement. How do you determine when the ‘now or never’ moment has come? There was obvious disagreement at the UN over whether the moment had come for Iraq. In fact, last resort language can be used to enforce a war, by setting up conditions on the suspect party that must be met by a certain time. There may have been elements of such a dynamic at play in the lead up to war in Iraq.

iv. Legitimate high authority

This question restrains revolutionary groups and vigilantes–but I have a problem with it. If a high authority is acting unjustly, it would seem to me that it ought to be ignored. Isn’t this the Bible’s teaching: authorities are instituted to do good and punish wrong? What do we do when the authority itself is corrupt? I think Jesus offers the way forward, by teaching, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’ (Mark 12:14). Where an authority is acting within its God-given place to bring about order and peace and present justice, we are to be in line with it. Where it is stealing from God, we may oppose it and end up in prison or worse.

We saw problems with this question of legitimate authority in the debates of the UN over Iraq. Was the authority of the UN respected by the US? Did the US reconstitute that authority by appealing to the ‘Coalition of the Willing’? Was this a case of the highest authority in fact being the most powerful and coercive nation? Legal authority is a fragile phenomena and the UN has always been a very fragile expression of it. It seems that we are witnessing some kind of re-development of an authority based on nationhood and alliance, with the US in control. In fact, we seem to be seeing an act of empire—as ex-President Jimmy Carter put it, an attempt to establish ‘Pax Americana’ in Iraq and the Middle East.

The higher authority question did not help to resolve the issue of whether invading Iraq was just.

The principles of Just War have sprung out of strong biblical concepts without being themselves a thorough exposition of what the Bible has to say about war.

v. Reasonable hope of success

Even Jesus recognised that a sensible general counts the cost before going to war (Luke 14:31). Count the cost, he says, using a military metaphor for Christian discipleship. It is a check against overly optimistic and eager rulers who will wage war without a business plan, without a sense of how it could be won. If the obstacles to a campaign are unlikely to be surmounted, there is no justice in starting it.

It also needs to have some degree of certainty that the war will bring about something better than is now the case. These are very difficult things to assess: it would seem fair to suggest that Iraqis can be better off in a democracy than under a cruel dictator. But has US occupation of Iraq lead to stability in the region, or merely caused mass destruction and loss of life while providing grist to the mill of anti-US sentiment, and thus potential for further conflict?

vi. Proportional to the offence

This is perhaps an Old Testament idea, which has not been sufficiently read through a gospel lens. It seems to be the notion of ‘an eye for an eye’, rather than a leg for an eye, or a head for an eye. It is also undermined by pre-emptive strikes, unless the history of the suspect group is taken into account. For instance, if Saddam Hussein’s history of violence against the West was taken into account, and if he had been linked to the 9-11 terrorism, and if it had been proven he was planning to destroy cities with Weapons of Mass Destruction, then a wholesale war against his nation could perhaps have been justified.

If, if, if.

And some of these ‘ifs’ have shown themselves not to be the case.

vii. Non-combatant immunity.

One of the hopeful developments of military research is the accuracy of missile deployment. The so-called ‘smart bombs’ have made collateral damage even less excusable. And yet, General Tommy Franks expressed concern prior to the war that many military targets were close to homes, schools and hospitals. These targets were bombed anyway. It is hard to know from the reporting just how accurate the bombing was, but of course many civilians were killed and injured.

Economic globalisation and modernity itself further complicate this issue. For example, are those who launder money, those who build weapons, those who willingly sell weapons to antagonistic countries, those who knowingly provide intelligence equipment to enemies … are they not combatants of sorts? Who is in fact innocent in these situations? But I’m probably stretching this question too far.

Early in the war I was encouraged to see Iraqi troops surrendering, and not being gunned down or tortured. I had hopes of a graciousness and kindness even midst the violence – perhaps we would see a war less hateful and more tempered than the Vietnam conflict. Then the Abu Ghraib story hit the headlines, and subsequent events have left me feeling more cynical about early claims of restrained and civilised fighting. War tends to make casualties of all involved – even the victorious.

So where does this leave us with regards to the idea of Just War? I have tried to argue that the principles of Just War have sprung out of strong biblical concepts without being themselves a thorough exposition of what the Bible has to say about war.

I’ve also tried to show that these principles have throughout history, acted roughly to restrain violence and to support the notion of defence rather than attack. I’ve suggested a whole battery of problems with the theory, with its rubbery interpretation and application. It is a manikin that needs to be redressed so as to remain presentable amidst the realities of the 21st century and the global era.

Dr Greg Clarke is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity and Macquarie Christian Studies Institute.