How to Determine When War is Just or Unjust


Soldiers march to a helicopter after searching in Afghanistan for Taliban fighters and illegal weapons caches. (Photo: Staff Sgt. Kyle Davis, U.S. Army)
On Dec. 1, President Obama addressed the nation and made a case why more war was needed to bring the present war in Afghanistan to a close. Immediately, many ethicists charged that Obama's proposal failed the "just war" litmus test.

 

Just war is a Christian concept used mainly by Euro-Americans to validate wars as either being morally acceptable or immoral. It is not my intention to analyze Obama's proposed surge of 30,000 troops, but rather to examine the analytical tools used by ethicists who determine if this particular war is just or unjust.

 

Traditional just war theory is based on six jus ad bellum principles that are concerned with establishing the moral justification for engaging in violence. These principles are:

 

1)      Just cause

 

2)      Legitimate authority to declare hostilities

 

3)      Just intention

 

4)      Reasonable chance of success

 

5)      Proper announcement of beginning hostilities

 

6)      The means used being proportional to the desired objective

 

Two jus in bello principles on the use of violence also apply. They are:

 

1)      Determining legitimate targets

 

2)      How much force is morally appropriate

 

Just war theory is based on the assumption God condones wars conducted to destroy evil and rectify injustices. But we must ask: Who gets to define evil and injustices?

 

This just war theory is a medieval concept, embedded in international law, that was formulated by St. Augustine in the early fifth century (and expanded by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century) to provide guidelines for "Christian" rulers of empire to determine when the presence of evil and injustice justified the use of violence.

 

Just war theory was not created in a vacuum, but arose from a particular political context. Augustine of Hippo, who witnessed the disintegration of the Roman Empire, was concerned that the fall of the empire would also mean the fall of Christianity. In 410 CE, he lived through the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths. Stunned, he shortly thereafter wrote "The City of God."

 

According to Augustine's argument, the ultimate moral response for those living in the earthly city of man is a life lived in faith, awaiting the heavenly city to come (19:4). He suggests that if we remain loyal to the heavenly city through faith, all other aspects of living a moral life will ensue. Regardless that he was writing from the shadows of Rome's political vulnerability, he still looked to the civil structures to provide peace and order for this moral life to ensue.

 

While salvation is solely achieved through the church, the state was a necessary evil that, although usually corrupt, maintained law and order (19:14). Acknowledging the empire's injustices and advocating their redress, Augustine still insisted that correcting injustice could never occur at the endangerment of the social order and peace of the empire.

 


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This social order is arranged according to a hierarchy where husbands rule over wives and masters rule over slaves so that peace could be maintained. For him, the Christian empire protected Christians from barbarism by providing a hierarchical Pax Romana where the church could flourish. Just war theory justified Pax Romana.

 

Empires, then and now, need Christian guidelines for maintaining the empire, through violence if necessary, and the influence of Augustine on Western Christianity continues to be felt today.

 

Some ethicists of the dominant culture warn of the danger of upsetting some necessary equilibrium in society while ignoring that the equilibrium Augustine advocated for is based on hierarchical oppressive structures. Even though ethicists today are using just war theory to curtail Pax Americana, I'm still concerned that the very theory is corrupted by an assumption of moral superiority of the empire – then and now.

 

I am left wondering what just war theory would look like if conducted from a different context than the one Augustine wrote from – specifically, from the margins of society.

 

I begin by asking if any war can be just. If war represents Satan's triumph over the love called for by Christ, then how is the life-destroying praxis of war reconciled with the Prince of Peace's message? Are all wars morally reprehensible but pardonable? Can the conditions for a just war ever be obtained?

 

After all, the imago Dei (the image of God) of the enemy must be recognized at all levels of conflict, for the enemy is also created in the image of God and thus has dignity and worth. This is as true for the Afghan solider as it is for the U.S. solider.

 

Regardless of moral discussions that take place within the dominant culture, one fact remains constant: Those on the periphery of power are seldom consulted, even though they are disproportionately on the receiving end of the violence of war. To go or not to go to war is determined in the halls of empire, with an eye toward the geo-political gains of such an encounter.

 

It is not the American Indian living on a reservation, the African-American relegated to the urban ghetto or the Latina or Latino of this country's borderlands who is calling for more missiles, aircraft carriers or the latest fighter jet. Ethical debates concerning what makes a war just may have validity among ethicists of the dominant culture, but for the masses living under the strain of racism and classism, such debates appear irrelevant.

 

It seems today that while pacifism is an ethical option, absolute pacifism may be unattainable. There are differences between killing someone as an offensive strategy, defending oneself from violence inflicted by an oppressor, or protecting the most vulnerable from certain death at the hands of an oppressor. If forced to engage in violence, maybe it is better to recognize it for the evil it is and its inability to ever be just or justified.

 

All that is left is to recognize that participation in violence is a sin with no redemption, but to rely on God's grace for forgiveness. Such recognition is more truthful and honest than using the gospel message to try to justify warlike actions by using just war-type theory.

 

Miguel A. De La Torre is director of the Justice and Peace Institute and associate professor of social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver.

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