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When is war just?

“Take heed how you …awake our sleeping sword of war; we charge you in the name of God take heed: for never two such kingdoms did contend without much fall of blood.” William Shakespeare, Henry V.

            With those words, King Henry V warns the Archbishop of Canterbury to ensure the English cause is just before they unfurl their flags for war against France. Shakespeare’s play shows the behind the scenes moral justification which was standard procedure for war in the Middle Ages. No doubt, many a sovereign sought the slightest excuse, and named it a just cause for expanding their power and influence. Nevertheless, wars had to be justified before they could be prosecuted.

            Is any war just? Can Christians justify violence, if the intent is peace and reconciliation? Or is history in God’s hands alone, leaving us with no obligation to make everything work out? These are questions which Christians have struggled with in divergent situations from universities to foxholes. I think it’s worth looking at how Christians have thought through issues of war and justice over the centuries.

            Wars were not always seen as just in Christian thought. Pacifism seems to have been the norm for Christians for the first few centuries. Few Christians were soldiers and violence was to be endured rather than opposed.

In the early centuries of the church, Christian thinkers began to point to scripture which could justify use of force. Paul’s words to be subject to those in authority in Romans 13:1-7 were cited as seeming to give authority to governments to use the sword. Others noted Jesus using a Roman Centurion as an example of great faith, while not also criticizing his profession.

Further change in Christian thought was necessitated by the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity in the fourth century. By 416, only Christians could serve in the Roman Army. Some began to question what responsibility a Christian nation might have to protect the peace of its citizens from invaders. Surely, they reasoned, even a Christian nation needed soldiers to defend its citizens. The discussion then broadened to consider whether there was any justification for attack.

Most scholars agree that Just War Theory began with Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the influential North African Bishop. The Bishop held that a just war was one declared by the right authority for a just cause and right intention.

For Augustine, right authority meant the persons responsible for public order, not individuals or private groups. Augustine’s idea of a just cause for using lethal force was to prevent aggression against innocent victims and he saw peace and reconciliation as the only right intentions for war. Augustine wrote, “We do not seek peace in order to be at war, but we go to war that we may have peace.”

Augustine’s categories of authority, cause, and intention held sway in Christian thought for centuries. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) continued Augustine’s work by seeking to hone the definitions of just cause and right intention. For Aquinas, a just cause required that those being attacked were at fault. Right intention was limited to furthering the good or avoiding some evil.

By the end of the Middle Ages, three more criteria had evolved in Just War Theory: last resort, probability of success, and proportionality. A just war could be prosecuted only as the last possible means of resolving a problem. As war sought to promote peace, it could only be considered worthwhile if there was a good chance for success, otherwise the loss of life would be for nothing. Finally, the response in war must be proportionate with the offense the war seeks to redress. Will the damage incurred be proportionate to the good expected? Does the response exceed the nature of the attack?

All of the above relates to war, defined as a conflict between sovereign nations. Civil wars and riots were not part of just war thought, much less the threat we face in terrorism. As such, attacks against an individual or a group within a nation were not considered.

I offer this rehearsal of Just War Theory not to offer any set answers to questions of war. Instead, I want to introduce the questions that developed over nearly 2,000 years of Christian history. While we may feel free to disagree with Christian thinkers of the past, particularly when we see them as being at odds with scripture, I do not feel that we should pass over these considerations lightly. Questions of authority, cause, intention, alternatives, probability of success and proportionality are worth asking.

As Henry V warned the Archbishop in Shakespeare’s play, we should take heed how we awake the sword of war. The cost of war is too high not to make sure first that we know why we are paying the price.

(The Rev. Frank Logue is pastor of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland.)

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