Skip to content

Just War Theory?

June 12, 2007

It seems like a lot of my thoughts on this blog are half-baked, and probably at least slightly controversial. This is not exactly on purpose. The half-bakedness of my thoughts is due to my limited life experience (at a mere 17 years on this Earth, and only 4 of those spent considering at some level a few of the issues I’ve been posting about).

I’m going to start off with a premise. You can disagree with my premise, but if you don’t, then the rest really doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination. Then I’m going to justify the premise a bit, but honestly, if you disagree with the premise, it’s going to be hard to convince you of anything further.

My premise: When a nation goes to war, it is just that: the nation. All of it. Some are more involved than others, but everyone is involved.

For example, in World War II, Americans at home who were not in direct combat situations were helping to make supplies, follow ration guildelines, and (at least) gave moral support to the soldiers fighting in the war–writing letters and such. On the lowest level, each citizen pays taxes to the government. Therefore, they support–albeit indirectly and occasionally unwillingly–the wars which the government wage.

Now, each of these people may be more or lessresponsible for the actions of the government, but each has some stake in the wars. It is not simply the soldiers (called “combatents” in the Geneva convention) who wage a war. There are politicians who authorize it, citizens who fund it and otherwise support it, and support systems (such as medics and supply workers) that are also responsible for the war.

If you agree with my premise, then you must agree with what I am going to say next: There can be no clear disticntion between a non-combatant and a combatant. If there is no distinction between a combatant and a non-combatant, then Geneva has some serious holes (as does Just War theory). Brandon mentioned that Just War theory has to say something about the idea of extra-national forces attacking a nation. I say that it is relatively impossible to make such changes, because of the nature of the non-combatant. Any changes in saying who constitutes a combatant is admitting that there is no clear distinction (which is what I am saying).

When the distinction between a combatant and a non-combatant crumble, other necessary questions arise. For example, under Just War Theory, the use of atomic weapons on Japan to end their resistance in World War II was arguably an unjust use of power. However, if one is to consider the lives that were lost in the number of island battles already fought, and then calculate the number of people who died in those two bombings, the bombings become much more justifiable. This has profound implications in how a Christian should view warfare. Obviously, the Japanese government reacted by ending the war. This most likely saved lives. This matches one of the Just War Theory’s principles that in war any nation must not kill any more people then necessary. Actually Brandon, I am in complete agreement with you. Human life is precious. In fact, it is so precious that the fewer people who die, the better (does it matter if they are a “combatant” or a “non-combatant?”).

A nation goes to war. If the cause is for evil and it is defeated, the nation suffers. Not the army primarily. The nation will suffer economically–as World Wars I and II have shown. there will be social upheaval, as the class in power that brought about the war will be judged. There will be unrest, as new power structures are enacted. All of this would happen primarily to the citizens, not the army. How does Just War theory account for this? The non-combatants are suffering as the aftermath of a war. Is it the obligation of the winning, Just nation to cut down all the ill effects of war for the non-combatants? It all gets irrationally odd if the standard of Just War theory is applied (though you might argue that is post war, and thus all Just War doesn’t apply).

Brandon, taking a life is a weighty matter. A nation must consider whether the war is just or not before it thinks to engage, and during the war it must be careful not to take the life of more human beings than is necessary. Where I differ with you is this: I think that fewer lives have to be taken if–occasionally and with great care–sometimes civilians are involved in warfare. This has been the case historically, and will most likely continue to be the case as we enter the age of extra-national warfare in earnest (that is an issue that I cannot touch on now, but Just War theory fails miserably against the present wave of terrorist warfare, simply because no one is prepared to possibly kill/detain civilians (and the terrorists exploit this and hide as if they were civilians).

Here is the one concession that I will make Brando (from our previous discussion when you were here in Lancaster): some are clearly more responsible than others. The man who orders the combat (the rulers of the nation) have the majority of responsibility, as do the generals. The next responsibility lies with those who are on the front lines and those in supply roles. After them are the civilians supplying the nation’s armies and paying the taxes that make such wars possible.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. June 14, 2007 8:00 am

    A well formulated “half baked” idea 🙂 How does this Just War theory work when a “nation” goes to war with terrorism. Terrorists who act more as virus’ leaching off various nations. They operate without support of the populace or necessarily of a nation state. Some terrorists are American citizens are we then justified in essence of punishing the other citizens of the country (either with war and possible death or with a removal of liberties)

    I would argue that in such a case we need some more thought about the moral obligation to protect the innocent citizens.

  2. jon hughes permalink
    June 17, 2007 9:00 am

    Chris –

    Just a thought: try applying your theory to your own family as citizens of the United States. Suppose for a minute that we were at war with Russia. Can you honestly say that you feel that the Russian government would be fully justified in killing your friends and family if it was tactically advantageous? I’m unwilling to admit that for my family and friends.

    Another question: what do you think is the most effective way to combat hatred for the US? Should we selectively destroy whatever is necessary? Is the life of an American more valuable than the life of a non-combatant in a country we’re at war with? Its dangerous to assume that America automatically has some sort of high moral ground so be careful – its really easy for me to slip into that line of thinking. (War is sinners, in a sin-tainted system, killing other sinners in a sin-tainted system.)

    I don’t really have time to post at length, I’ll just leave this one more thought: when and why do you think that its appropriate for someone to be killed? Who has the authority to make this decision and who has the responsibility to carry it out? How is this reconciled with Christ’s teaching, particularly the sermon on the mount (Matt 5:39, Luke 6:27-29, John 8:7, Matt. 5:44).

    Note: In my mind, the war against terrorism is not fundamentally against another government or nation but against an ideology. We have to fight to win peoples hearts and minds – a very difficult task. Selectively killing/detaining high risk terrorists and any civilians in the way may save American lives in the present, but what longterm consequences will this have?

  3. June 17, 2007 1:14 pm

    Thank you for your thoughts. This is a rather new idea from myself, and I really haven’t thought out all the implications.

    A few items:

    I do not think I said (or at least, I did not mean to imply) that American lives are either more precious or more important than those of the citizens of another nation. When I said that the goal of a nation going into war (notice that I did not say “America”–this theory would be for any nation) is to minimize the amount of lives taken, I did not in any way mean just the lives of the nation attacking. I meant all the lives. Americans are just as sinful as any other nation’s citizens, and we have no special rights in the kingdom of God as Americans. We are Christians first.

    To address your first question: death is horrible. It is the product of the Fall. What if my family was all in the army? Would I be grieved if they died in combat? Yes. Would I be grieved if they died in the citizenry? Yes. I don’t think it would be very much more grieving either way. Your question of whether I would think it was fully justified if the Russians did so is slightly unfair, because I am not speaking of gaining a tactical advantage by killing civilians. I was primarily speaking to the idea that if a few civilians had to die to save people on both sides (not just the attacker, and not by any means for any mere tactical benefit), then it would be justified.

    Also, the Sermon on the Mount teaches us how to live as Christians in interpersonal relationships. As far as I can tell, it does not apply to governmental authority, or governmental responsibility (e.g. Paul saying that the government does not bear the sword in vain).

    Finally, I don’t know how this idea practically works out (or if it would be OK diplomatically or anything). I don’t know whether it would hurt the “war on terror” or whatever. I was mainly following a logical progression from one concept that demanded that the next be reached (which all began with the idea that a nation goes to war, not a government, or an army).


  4. Paul permalink
    June 20, 2007 9:33 am


    I can’t help but to chip in on this conversation.

    For the record: I am German and came to faith through my American host parents and am attending an English speaking church here in Berlin and I like Americans.

    I think the sermon on the mount applies to all people in all nations living everywhere. You said you apply this to interpersonal relationships only. The questions is when does an interpersonal relationship start? When I as the sniper see another human being through the maginfying glass and that he’s skratching his head and then pull the trigger? (I know obying commands in the military…)
    Confining the sermon on the mount to only “interpersonal relationships” imo leads to the behaviour told of in the good samaritan where people saw this guy laying at the side and thinking “oh I don’t have a personal relationship with him, so I don’t have to care”.

    I think war is never just. In the end all who engage in war lose (both sides). Think of the families who have lost someone in the Iraq War. I once interviewed an American Veteran from WWII who fought in the Pacific Theatre and he said somethinng like this: “You should do everything politically, economically and humanly to prevent a war. No one wins.”

    I agree with Jon on the winning heart argument.

    Jesus never advertised violence in order to carry the Gospel (or substitute this for “democracy or freedom or liberation”). In fact he told he desciples to not take a sword with them. I admit: I still do not understand why God so violently and consequently had whole towns and peoples killed (including children, babies, life stock) in the OT. Yet we are not in OT times but in NT times. In my humble opinion using violence as a means to spread “freedom” or democracy or even the Gospel is negating the core of each of them. It is like saying I will dry you with water.

    I don’t think anyone has the right to take lives but God and I strongly doubt that he would command any nation today to take the lives of thousands of others. He killed those nations in the OT because they were so sinfull yet now there is no need for this anymore because he has already paid the perfect sacrifice for the sinfullness of this world. (Do you think we are more righteous than say the Amorites? I don’t think so).

    I think our mission is to love people to Christ not to sword (or for that matter to bomb, burn, detonate, etc.) them to Christ. The conviction and showing of sins is the Holy Spirit’s job.

    Now I will finish my comment with a very controversial statement of a wise older southern baptist pastor I once knew (who had strong convictions on Paul’s teaching on the authority of gonvernments etc and you would not expect this kind of statement from him): “If America would stick its nose in their own affairs and get their oil from Alaska or Texas we wouldn’t have these Arabs bombing us and hate us.”

  5. Paul permalink
    June 20, 2007 9:34 am

    After such a rather critical comment I would like to say this: yall got a great blog and I marvell at your committment to God and His way!

    In Him,

  6. June 20, 2007 11:54 am


    Thank you for your thoughts. I (and I think I speak for my brother on this one!) enjoy criticism, because it sharpens my convictions and brings new light on my thoughts (which are incredibly fallible). One of the reasons I posted these thoughts on Just War Theory on here was to get thoughtful criticisms from fellow Christians.

    I agree that no one wins in a war. However, sometimes there is no alternative, and when that happens is when my idea about war comes into play. Do what you can to limit the amount of lives taken, without wantonly killing civilians or soldiers (both are in the image of Christ).

    The reason I say that the Sermon applies to interpersonal relationships is that political relationships are qualitatively different than personal ones (you can disagree with me on this). Your example of the Good Samaritan would be interpersonal, not political, relationship (considering that it was not two political parties interacting. Even when it is two political parties interacting, the Sermon would still apply, I think, but in a different way).

    As disciples of Christ, we are definitely in “New Testament” times. However, to create a dichotomy where there isn’t necessarily one between OT and NT can be slippery. God had one plan of creation and redemption. The Cross was not Plan B in any way. Christ did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill (and in many cases clarify) it. All that to say that the OT government policies may not be condemned completely by NT teachings…


  7. October 22, 2007 2:38 pm


    I know I am weighing in late on this topic, but I only today found your blog. In these times of the newly empower global menace of terrorism, we can still apply the Just War Theory. For reference, I will quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 2307-2309.

    The fifth commandment forbids the intentional destruction of human life. Because of the evils and injustices that accompany all war, the Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war.

    All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war.

    However, “as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed.”

    The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

    * the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

    * all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

    * there must be serious prospects of success;

    * the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

    These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine.

    The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.
    So, we must consider the War on Terror especially in light of CCC 2309. In section (a), I think the only question even up for debate is the “certainty” we have that the aggressor will inflict damage upon our nation. My degree of certainty is quite high, and so I would posit “yes” to all conditions of section (a).

    Section (b): “other means… impractical or ineffective”. Again, most probably yes.

    Section (c): “must be serious prospects of success”. This one is tougher. How do we define success in this war against terror? We could define it as every month that jetliners aren’t used as killing devices against our own people. We could define it as creating a suburban paradise with golf courses and air-conditioned shopping malls in Fallujah. In essence, we must carefully define “success”.

    Section (d): “…must not produce evils and disorders graver…”. Again, careful consideration is required.

    All that being stated, I believe that the U.S. is justified in going after the terrorists who seek to do us lasting, grave, certain harm, in the manner in which we believe most likely to produce success, and without producing greater harms than the terrorists already do.

    And be sure to petition Almighty God every day for peace in the world! Bring to mind the words of Jesus Christ in Luke 18:7-8

    “Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night? Will he be slow to answer them? I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily. But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

    The kernel lies in the final statement query: Will He find faith on earth? Let’s be true and faithful to God, and He will take care of us and bring us into His Everlasting Kingdom.


Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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

%d bloggers like this: