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Just War in Summary

March 6, 2013

Just War Theory is one of the two positions typically held by Christians towards war. Endless books and articles have been written on this topic. Any treatment in this media will be far from exhaustive. The focus today will be a brief overview so in the weeks to come we can attempt to reflect on specific events with this theory in mind.

The Just War Theory is a set of ethical guidelines to apply during the decision-making process before, during, and after an armed conflict with another nation-state. This theory has largely been the work of Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, and Aristotle. During the Reformation the voices who took on the interpretation and commentary of the Just War Theory were Martin Luther and John Calvin. Lisa Sowle Cahill helps differentiate their roles from the earlier voices, “The major sources of the Reformation thinking about discipleship, the social order, and just war are Augustine and the Bible. However, both Luther and Calvin are more dedicated than Augustine to the literal sense of Scripture, which is another way of saying that they are more attentive to the biblical narrative itself as a primary source of social ethics.”[1] These were all men who understood there was a coming Kingdom yet to be fully realized. This left a fallen world in conflict with itself and needed some ethical guidelines in an effort to slow the mutual destruction of war. This theory defines the ultimate goal of a war to restore peace. Therefore, conflict must be conducted in a manner to encourage a healthy resolution for both parties as soon as possible.

The two major pieces of the Just War Theory are jus ad bellum and jus in bello, war making decision and war conduct law respectively. Ad bellum ultimately dictates war should be a tool of last resort and only used after all possible avenues to continued peace have been exhausted. Some would state it must be a defensive war and not a preemptive war. In ad bellum there is a legitimate authority to do right. This duty continues after the conflict is over by conducting peace building efforts. War must include a plan to not only repel an attacker, but it must also aim to reconstruct peace, justice, and security for both sides.

The second piece of Just War Theory, in bello, deals with the just conduct of war. This addresses such issues as the proportionality of the force used and avoiding/minimizing the toll to non-combatants. For example, the mass execution of a village to attempt a surrender of the enemy would not be valid as a just war action under in bello. Others would say requiring an unconditional surrender of an enemy to be a violation of in bello, and possibly ad bellum, as it is not aimed at peacemaking, but at total domination of the enemy.

Again, these rules were originally intended to prevent, and then properly rule conflict between nation states. When they were created they were not imagining the issues faced in the world today. Conflicts such as the intrastate genocidal massacres in Rwanda, and Sudan were not on the minds of the theologians and ethicists who created these rules. Nor did they consider individuals following a radical form of religion would fly airliners into buildings, killing people in a terrorist effort. They could not have envisioned the technology advances which allow for unmanned aerial vehicles and remotely operated machine guns. Nor could not have imagined combatants hiding within the civilian population as a tactic to abuse the just war rules.

How do these rules apply to these situations? Modern warfare has stretched the boundaries of just war and created an extraordinary number of proverbial gray areas. Most nations have chosen to exploit the gray areas. Terrorists, whether of the political, religious or narco sort, have seen these as weak points in a nation’s will and ability to respond to their hostile activities. Yet, the Just War Theory is a time proven base to start at in a nation’s thought process in preparing to move to armed conflict and how to ethically prosecute a war.

This is a gloss of the concept of just war, by no means has it covered all depths of the topic. It is enough to give you a general idea of this concept. When observing current events in the world you can reflect on these concepts making an assessment of the ethicality of the reported conflict. I hope it has raised some questions for you regarding current world events or created a desire for you to look at this topic more deeply than you ever have.

As promised, I would like to follow-up on the scenario from the February 27th post regarding drones. Now that we have looked at the Just War Theory, does the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, or drones, in striking terrorist leadership meet the in bello requirements of proportionality of the force used and avoiding/minimizing the toll to non-combatants? Why do you feel the way you do?


[1] Lisa Sowle Cahill. Love Your Enemies: Discipleship, Pacifism, and Just War Theory. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1994. 116-117

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