A version of this appeared previously on our website when the war in Ukraine started. Now, many of us have been praying for the people of Israel and the missionaries we know and support who are in close proximity. These circumstances have caused me, like many of you, to again carefully consider how to think about war from a biblical perspective.
We may be able to look at a situation like this and instinctively say, “that’s wrong.” But do we have an answer when our children ask us to explain it to them? Do we have something distinctly Christian to say when our friends and our co-workers ask our opinion or when we find ourselves caught up in a conversation about the issue? In other words, do we have the ability as Christians to go beyond the political implications (important as they are) to the deeper implications for justice, mercy, and faithfulness?
In this article, I will draw together some biblical and historic Christian wisdom on this topic with the hope that you might be equipped to engage this issue with a distinctly Christian mind.
Just War Theory
Justification for going to war has historically hinged on what is known as the “Just War Theory.” Though the theory can be traced back to Cicero, it was Augustine in City of God who is most often credited with articulating and applying the principles as a Christian. His just war principles are typically summarized as follows:
- Last resort: A just war can only be waged as a last resort. All non-violent options must be exhausted before the use of force can be justified.
- Legitimate authority: A war is just only if it is waged by a legitimate authority. Even just causes cannot be served by actions taken by individuals or groups who do not constitute an authority sanctioned by whatever the society and outsiders to the society deem legitimate.
- Wrong suffered: A just war can only be fought to redress a wrong suffered. For example, self-defense against an armed attack is always considered to be a just cause (although the justice of the cause is not sufficient—see point #4). Further, a just war can only be fought with “right” intentions: the only permissible objective of a just war is to redress the injury.
- Reasonable chance of success: A war can only be just if it is fought with a reasonable chance of success. Deaths and injury incurred in a hopeless cause are not morally justifiable.
- Re-establish peace: The ultimate goal of a just war is to re-establish peace. More specifically, the peace established after the war must be preferable to the peace that would have prevailed if the war had not been fought.
- Proportionality: The violence used in the war must be proportional to the injury suffered. States are prohibited from using force not necessary to attain the limited objective of addressing the injury suffered.
- Means: The weapons used in war must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. Civilians are never permissible targets of war, and every effort must be taken to avoid killing civilians. The deaths of civilians are justified only if they are unavoidable victims of a deliberate attack on a military target.
In recent centuries the problem has been that Augustine’s principles have been extracted from their Christian roots. In other words, they have become a kind of checklist for governments who want to justify their war to their citizenry or the rest of the free world. But when Augustine articulated these principles, he rooted them in Christian character.
Specifically, he was asking, “What does it mean for a Christian to love one’s neighbor in war?” That critically important point has been recovered recently in a book by Daniel M. Bell, Jr. called Just War and Christian Discipleship: Recentering the Tradition in the Church rather than the State (Brazo, 2009). Bell is an ethics professor at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, South Carolina and an ordained Methodist minister.
Bell says that Christians have tended to swing between two extremes in their thinking about war, both of which miss Augustine’s important teaching. One extreme is pacifism, the idea that Jesus’s exhortation to turn the other cheek prohibits all aggression, even self-defense. Though I admire the devotion of my pacifist friends who are willing to go to prison, or even die, for their convictions, they simplistically fail to deal with passages in the Old and New Testament which allow for or even prescribe self-defense and just war.
For instance, God blessed Abram for using force to rescue Lot from his kidnappers (Ge. 14:20). After their baptism, John the Baptist sent soldiers back to work with only the warning to be honest (Lk. 3:14). Jesus said there would be appropriate occasions in the future when his followers would need to buy swords for self-defense (Lk. 22:36). And Paul commended State leaders as servants of God who wield the power of the sword (Ro. 13:1-7).
The other extreme is represented by those who think that war is always evil but there are times when a Christian must choose the lesser evil—war over atrocities by despots. But the Bible never concedes that one may do wrong in order to do right. God’s followers must always do what is right (Dt. 6:18) and be innocent in what is evil (Ro. 16:19). In Bell’s book, he dispels the myth that mainstream Christian thinkers like Augustine taught that a Christian must at times do evil in war in order to promote what is right.
A Third Way
Wrestling with the foundational principles of Kingdom living, Augustine proposed a third way between these extremes: there are times when a Christian must go to war not only out of loving defense for innocent victims but out of love for one’s enemies.
The first motive is easily understood. When an innocent party is in danger of harm, then the Christian with opportunity should defend that potential victim, even if it means doing violence against the aggressor. Such was the case with Abram and Lot.
However, that is a rather simple application. The harder question is the one every serious cross-bearing disciple must ask: “How does using force against an enemy express Jesus’s love for our neighbor? Augustine answered that question, too. He said to stop an enemy with force expresses love in at least a couple of ways. For one, it is an attempt to drive him to repentance through defeat. At the very least, it will keep him from storing up more wrath for himself on the day of Judgment. And if he is killed in the process, the Christian must hope that it would stop his comrades.
These principles apply to any the Bible would label “wicked.” The wicked are those who, with malice aforethought, destroy the weak (children, widows, and elderly – Mt. 18:6; Pr. 31:8); interrupt the work of the gospel (2 Ti. 4:10-18); and/or disturb the peace and unity of the Church (those who participate in church splits – 1 Jn. 2:19; Ep. 4:27; Ti. 3:10, 11). In the words of Dan Allender and Tremper Longman, who treat this thoroughly, the wicked must be “given the gift of defeat” as an act of “bold love.”
The Gospel is Here too
As with every ethical issue, the gospel of Jesus Christ provides the only complete and hopeful application. Think about some of the gospel implications for the issue of just war:
Jesus willingly engaged in a kind of “war” with sin and death when he came to save those who put their faith in him, and it came at the ultimate personal cost to him but the ultimate benefit to those saved. More than that, it brought about peace between a holy God and sinful people (Ro. 5:1).
We have the promise that one day, Jesus will return to judge each one according to their deeds (Ro. 2:6) and bring perfect justice. This means that any time we engage in work that combats injustice, we are joining Christ in work he is already doing and will one day perfectly complete.
Though we are promised difficulty in this world, we also have the assurance that Christ has overcome it. And though we may be persecuted, injured, or even killed in this life, united to Christ, we will be raised up with him to live forever, never to experience pain again (John 16:33; Ro. 6:1-4; Rev. 21:1-8).
As those who possess the ultimate hope, let us be those who are always prepared to give a reason for it (1 Pt. 3:15).