Lesson 5: Just War Theory (Part 1)

Christians have two options when it comes to war. They can either be strict pacifists, or they can espouse a just war theory. The latter is not that easy. Certainly, one of the most difficult ethical issues is drawing up moral guidelines for fighting wars. At every step, you must prevent national self-interest from trumping all other considerations.

Still, most people feel there should be some kind of accountability for actions, even in warfare. That includes rules about entering a conflict, agreements on fair conduct during it, and responsibility after it ends.

Christian theologians usually credit Augustine and Aquinas with laying the groundwork. However, the classic principles have been extremely challenged in a modern technologic society.

Those principles are commonly held to be:

1) Having just cause. The dominant one has always been self-defense. However, the speed and power of technology complicate even that. Acting in self-defense might mean anticipating when you might be attacked.

2) Being a last resort. This pertains to exhausting all possible peaceful negotiations before going to war. In the past, this often meant never making the first strike. Again, the power of nuclear weapons might make the first strike the only option.

3) Being declared by a proper authority. The idea is wars should be fought only after being legally declared by legitimate political governments. Today, the prevalence of terrorism and the mobility afforded by technology finds governments sending their military into the territory of other nations to eliminate terrorists.

4) Possessing right intention. This is the bottom line if we are talking about moral justification. However, it often ends up being public relations. For instance, Russia claims it invaded Ukraine because that nation had become an evil, immoral state that had to be prevented from further corrupting good people.

5) Having a reasonable chance of success. Although this sounds sensible enough, all sorts of wars have been fought on and on without a real resolution. Powerful weapons available to small groups have made endless modern warfare a real concern.

6) The end is proportional to the means used. Considering acceptable weapons and tactics has become critical in our nuclear age. Conventional thinking maintains using nuclear weapons is never permissible and works to keep them out of the hands of bad actors. Yet it is inevitable that more and more groups will eventually possess them. And we have all heard the argument that using the atomic bomb on two Japanese cities was actually a moral act because it shortened the war and saved lives.

I wanted to lay out the traditional principles because I find educated people have never heard of just war theory these days. Perhaps that is because it has become pretty irrelevant in modern warfare. I want to examine more of the problem next week.

Tags: , , , , , ,

1 Enlightened Reply

Trackback  •  Comments RSS

  1. paul wildman says:

    Exactly Pastor – very fair principles/criteria imo.

    These days and from Vietnam No 3) Being declared by a proper authority, has not been met. However that does not disqualify this comprehensive list.

    ciao paul


By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.