A Personal Reflection on a Just War
by Fr. Jim Hewes
Presidents and others over the years have tried to make the case to the American people (including those of us who are Christian) of what constitutes a necessary war or “just war.” As we form our consciences about war, let us keep in mind several points when someone is talking about a “Just War.”
The Just War Theory was never taught by Jesus (nor does the theory even mention Jesus) who in fact taught a non-violent love of one’s enemies. There is no appearance of the Just War Theory in all of the New Testament. For the first three centuries, those followers who were closest to Christ did not participate in war because they saw it as incompatible with Christ’s life and teaching. Christians in the early Church did not become involved in war because they knew that this life wasn’t all that there is – they knew the reality of eternal life.
Many Christians today would justify defending their family from a violent intruder. This then spills over to defending a wider “family” of their country being attacked, and the justification for war follows. But among the early Christians, men, women and children were being dragged off and tortured and killed. But the early Christians didn’t pick up arms or even form a group (like the Zealots) to defend themselves. They refrained from doing this because of their strong conviction that this life wasn’t all there was, but that there was awaiting them an eternal life (“No one has ever seen this. No one has ever heard about it. No one has ever imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.” I Corinthians 2:9). It wasn’t about merely ethically opposing war in theory; it was the real-life situation that these early Christians faced where they did not defend their loved ones or themselves or engage in a war because of their following what Jesus taught and lived and His promise of eternal life.
If this life is all there is, then justified violence and war make sense, but if there is more than just this life, then one can lay down one’s life rather than pick up a sword. In fact, this Just War Theory does not appear in Christianity until over 300 years after Christ. Christians in that era of the church, if they were ever to participate in a war, knew that these standards would have to be strictly and completely followed. The Just War Theory is not a dogma of the Catholic Church. St. Augustine (after St. Ambrose) in developing the Just War tradition never said there could be a just war, but rather he stated that if Christians were even to consider participation, the moral presumption was always against war and in favor peace.
If there ever were to be a just war, all the conditions for the just war (Just Cause, Proportionality, Serious Prospects of Success, Being the Last Resort after all other means had been exhausted, etc.) had to each be rigorously and completely upheld. The evil that one causes has to be morally certain to be less than the evil that one is supposedly preventing. For example, one of the conditions of a just war is that the lives of innocent civilians must never be taken directly, regardless of the reason for doing so. If non-combatants were targeted in a war for any reason, the war is unjust. It is a sad fact that in the last 50 years, a large percentage of those killed in wars and conflict have been non-combatants.
No Catholic, Protestant, or Orthodox hierarchy has ever declared one of the wars of its own nation unjust while the war was going on. If the Just War Theory has ever been applied at all, it has been selectively applied to justify one’s own position. This is why no nation has ever prepared its military strategy on the basis of these rigorous standards (which would be seen as an unnecessary burden rather than a moral guide). They simply have ignored them. St. Augustine developed the theory to limit Christian participation in war, yet it is continually used to justify and expand the violence of war. For if one was to follow these standards exactly and fully, one would conclude that in reality a just war is impossible.
The notion of a just war is an illusion that has seduced and lured Christians to try to appropriate a divine approval (God is on our side rather than God is God for all nations and people) that is clearly contrary to the life and teachings of Jesus. The idea of a just war has allowed Christians to be major destroyers of life in wars in the last 1700 years. In fact, it was just this type of teaching, pervasive in the Christian Churches of Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, that justified the horrible violence that took place during that time. The increasing use of justified violence creates insensitivity to the dignity of life and impairs the efforts of those who might try to apply the Just War Theory the way St. Augustine intended it. In our modern times Martin Luther King, a follower of Christ, put this well: “The choice today is no longer between violence and non-violence. It is either non-violence or non-existence.”
I have great respect for individuals who are veterans. I am in awe of the courage and dedication that they have displayed, as well as their willingness to sacrifice so much, even their lives. Our president and congress send soldiers to war in our name. But Christians must form our own consciences as followers of Christ in order that our loved ones will not be sent to war or commit violence that will not only destroy an enemy, but destroy themselves as well. A “necessary” or justified war is merely a way to perpetuate the cycle of violence that moves us farther and farther from the nonviolent way Jesus lived and taught.
For more of our posts from Fr. Jim Hewes, see:
For more of our posts reflecting on war not being justified, see: