Just war principles
This post comes from Bill Muehlenberg’s commentary on current issues, “Culture Watch”.
In a fallen world, war, the use of force, bloodshed, violence and aggression will always be with us. And that is because sin is always with us. So the believer knows that God established civil government to help curb violence and injustice, and maintain a modicum of peace and order.
Thus rulers, judges and the police have delegated authority to use force and the like. This is true of domestic policy as well as of international relations – thus the need for armies. Some Christians have felt that pacifism is the only option for the believer – but that has always been a minority position, with most Christians holding the view that war can sometimes be justified.
We know that war can be biblically justified. Yahweh is a “god of war” for example (Ex. 15:3) and He “trains my hands for battle” (Ps. 18:34). He even gives the Israelites detailed instructions on how warfare is to be carried out (see Dt. 20). If all warfare was morally wrong and sinful, the hundreds of warfare and military metaphors used in Scripture would be highly out of place.
The use of legitimate force differs from violence. A parent, a policeman and a soldier can use force – but that is not the same as violence.
The early church was in no position to be involved in political life. It was a small persecuted minority trying to stay alive, so believers back then were not seeking to hold office or become involved in the military. But when Christianity was no longer a targeted religion in the Roman Empire, Christians then could and did get involved in both politics and the military.
Here are some general principles and thoughts on how war might be fought justly.
Justice in going to war
Just cause. The basic principle here is that self-defence is the main ethically legitimate reason for going to war. Wars of aggression are not, but of course both types of wars are not always so easily defined. And can a pre-emptive strike be used as part of defensive warfare? But the idea of defending the innocent, stopping aggression, and restoring justice are key themes here.
Just intent. This follows on from just cause. The morally legitimate use of war is to maintain justice and restore the peace. Peace with justice, or a well-ordered peace is the aim. The intention is to keep the peace, but a peace where justice is maintained.
Last resort. Peaceful means to end or prevent conflict should be tried first. Jaw jaw is better than war war, as the saying goes. Diplomacy, arbitration and negotiation should first be utilized as far as possible. Of course often aggressors are not interested in diplomacy, and seeking to end hostilities by means of peace talks can often be too little too late.
Lawful declaration, or competent authority. Generally it is insisted that only lawful government can declare a war. Individuals or groups within a nation cannot. But obviously questions arise as to just what a ‘lawful government’ is. For example, is a dictatorship still considered to be a legitimate authority?
Justice while fighting a war
Non-combatant immunity. The aim here – as much as possible – is to avoid civilian casualties. This of course becomes difficult when military targets are deliberately positioned in civilian populations, or ‘human shields’ are used by an enemy. Collateral damage will almost certainly occur in any armed conflict, but the aim is to minimize this as much as possible.
Limited objectives. Usually unconditional surrender is not to be seen as the ultimate objective of war, but the ending of hostilities and the restoration of peace. Questions arise of course as to how far defensive wars must be fought to bring hostilities and aggression to an end.
Limited means. Generally speaking, only sufficient force should be used. Restraint in the use of weaponry is part of this, and various international conventions have outlawed certain forms of warfare, such as using chemical weapons. The use of military means to get the job done, but not resulting in overkill, is the aim.
Most wars hardly are textbook examples of just warfare. For example, many will object to the use of the atomic bomb in Japan. It certainly ended the war in Asia, and many have argued that the use of these two bombs ended up saving millions of lives.
These principles do not support the concept of waging holy wars, and neither does the Bible. They acknowledge that war is not a good thing and are specifically meant to circumvent any violence and mayhem unless it is unavoidable. War is unfortunate and unpleasant. Christian ethics encourage the humane and merciful treatment of one’s enemies.
What about the war in the Ukraine? Is it just or unjust? For many years Russia has supported a civil war against the democratically elected government in the Ukraine. Clearly the war being waged by Russian-backed rebels in the east was unjust. Just ask any of the families of those who were travelling on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 on 17 July 2014 when it was shot down while flying over eastern Ukraine. All 283 passengers and 15 crew were killed. Investigators found that the airliner was downed by a 9M38 Buk (also called SA-11) surface-to-air missile launched from pro-Russian separatist-controlled territory in Ukraine. The missile originated from the 53rd Anti-Aircraft Missile Brigade of the Russian Federation and had been transported from Russia on the day of the crash, fired from a field in a rebel-controlled area and the launch system returned to Russia afterwards. Accordingly, the governments of the Netherlands and Australia held Russia responsible for the deployment of the Buk missile.
But now Russia has escalated their involvement in the Ukraine to an unjust invasion of an independent nation. They are acting like a bully. On the other hand, the Ukraine are defending their country against a powerful aggressor.
Appendix: Scriptural principles relevant to just war theory
According to Got Questions, human beings have intrinsic value (Gen. 1:27) but are also inherently sinful (Rom. 3:10). God instituted human government specifically to maintain order and justice (Rom. 13:1–5; 1 Pt. 2:14). Mankind in general, and Christians in particular, are morally obligated to pursue a more just world (Prov. 21:3; Mic. 6:8; Mt. 5:13–16). This obligation does not, however, imply any use of violence to “advance” the faith (Jn. 18:36). Further, God’s prohibition on killing applies to murder (Ex. 20:13), not to capital punishment (Gen. 9:6) or justified warfare (Ps. 18:34) or legitimate self-defense (Lk. 22:36). At the same time, cruelty, revenge, and hatred are condemned by the Bible (Rom. 12:19; Prov. 20:22; Gal. 5:19–24).
Posted, March 2022
Also see: War and evil