War, what is it good for?

Absolutely Nothing.

This is the question, more or less, that I have to try and deal with in a 1000-2000 word essay to be published in a book. The actual question is, “What is Just War theory, and is it still viable today?” As a pacifist by upbringing and personal conviction, my instinct is to answer “no” to the second question. However, the essay has to be 2000 words long, not 1. I feel like the major question I have to deal with is about the protection of the innocent in places like the Sudan where people face brutal violence. One book that is helping me work through this is Against the Nations by Stanley Hauerwas. I haven’t finished all of it yet, but it deals with the issue of a survivalist mentality in Christianity, which I think (I haven’t read it yet)is along the lines of, “Christians should be more willing to lose their lives on behalf of the innocent without taking the life of the aggressor.” That is the position I find myself leaning towards arguing for in my chapter.

Here’s what Hauerwas says are the traditional Just War principles: 1)declared by a legitimate authority; 2)has a just cause; 3)that there can be reasonable hope of success; 4)proportionally more good than evil comes from the war; 5)the war can be fought with a just intention; 6)noncombatant immunity; 7)the object is not to kill the enemy but to incapacitate them, therefore prisoners of war as treated respectfully; and 8)unnecessary suffering is avoided.

From a merely pragmatic standpoint, principles 1,2,3,4, and 5 are problematic, since I can think of no war that actually abides by them. Of course, the logical question is whether or not a war must have all of these or just some to be considered just. In today’s world, a “legitimate authority” is another serious question. Why is, for instance, the U.S. a legitimate authority? Or is it? Would the U.N. be a legitimate authority? Principle #5 is the other biggie. I think that governments are not capable of engaging in war based on just intentions. Governments are by definition self-seeking. God’s justice requires love of neighbor, of putting others ahead of oneself, and a country cannot do that. That’s not to say that a country cannot do something on behalf of another, but only to say that pure justice, and pure, just intentions, are not possible with a government. The U.S., for instance, would not engage in a war where it did not see some profitable gain for itself.

I believe that the primary position of any Christian must be one of nonviolence, and of taking violence on oneself on behalf of another. That’s true imatio dei. I’ll stop here. I think my next post will go more into my actual argument for the chapter.




  1. Ethan · April 11, 2008


    I think I agree with you. Christians need to be more active in peacemaking and witness to the world that there are some things worth risking your health and safety for. I was telling Jason the other day that I can’t stand the talking on a christian radio station that I otherwise like (the music is good) because they always talk about safety and “keeping your family safe” as if that has something to do with Jesus and Christianity.

    Another point is that I do think government has SOME “legitimate” role in protecting people, even with force or better yet the threat of force. For example, UN Peacekeeping teams are good – not Good (as in only Jesus is Good) – in that they try to diffuse situations and protect instead of just kill. I think this is what Romans 13 means for government in particular. When government IS doing what it’s supposed to, “For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong…Do what is right and he [the ruler] will commend you” (vs.3), then this is legitimate. However, as we know, governments ARE self-serving as well, and even the early Christians found that often times this verse was found to be false. I think it follows that WHEN governments truly punish evil and tolerate or support good, they do more good than evil. BUT…Christians have a calling to only do good, to only act out of love, not to have power or coercion over others, and that restricts Christians from partaking in violence.

    Those are my thoughts.

  2. Ethan · April 11, 2008

    And, if done faithfully to Jesus, this will be much more powerful in bringing about peace and changing the hearts of people. The question is, though, how do we do this in practical ways?

    I have been thinking for some time about wanting to do a CPT trip to Israel and Palestine because I feel strongly about that conflict. I think if I spoke to others about this it could begin to seem more real to me (wanting to do the CPT).

  3. Bill Samuel · May 31, 2008


    Pope Benedict (an army deserter on the basis of principle in WW II) himself, before he became Pope, mused that he could not imagine any war today meeting the Just War criteria. And as pope, he has spoken about Gospel Nonviolence, and appointed a Secretary of State who used his first audience with the diplomatic corps to praise conscientious objection.

    There has been talk at the Vatican about revisiting Just War Theory. JWT is a Constantinian conception, and did not exist in the Christian world before Constantine. Perhaps the Catholic Church will return to its roots?

    One of the things Christian pacifists historically usually did, which is not so common today, is make a sharp distinction between the role of the believer and the role of government. So, while Christian pacifists always agreed that Christians were forbidden from participation in war, they did not always assume that governments were wrong in participating in war.

    In that perspective, pacifism and the JWT are not inherently contradictory. One could hold that as s Christian they were forbidden from participating in war but that governments should follow the JWT.

    I always liked George Fox’s statement upon being asked to serve as a captain in the army that “lived in the virtue of that life and power that took away the occasion of all wars.” Are you familiar with the Peace Testimony as understood by Friends (Quakers)?

  4. Chris Beyer · August 25, 2008

    Hi Brian. Hi Bill. Long time.

    Lately I’ve come across some folks who call themselves Christian Anarchists who believe that Christians have no role to play in government, nor should they even vote. Those things that they are coerced to do, like paying taxes, is out of their hands. They claim to use the early church as an example.’

    But the early church was communal in nature and many of these folks are not ready to abandon the benefits (in their case) of capitalism (neither am I, just yet). Even so, the early church did benefit from the infrastructure that Rome had in place (even as they were persecuted by Rome).

    So, for some, we are not to participate in government and yet we may benefit from government. This would also seem to be the case as it pertains to the military. We can enjoy the protections of the armed forces (or police forces) yet we should not be involved in the enacting these protections ourselves. (Not everyone can drive ambulances a) I am reminded of something CS Lewis once said about only societies that use the necessary force to protect liberty are those that can suffer the luxury of pacifism among its citizenry.

    Tough question.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s