WHAT IS A JUST WAR?
by Bob Wheeler
In my last blog post I suggested that it might be proper, under certain circumstances, for the United States to go to war with the so-called “Islamic State.” But that raises a question that has vexed Christian theologians for centuries: when is a war ever justified?
On the one hand Jesus’ own teaching on the subject seems to be unequivocal: Christians are forbidden from taking vengeance. “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44; NKJV). But does that preclude the government from taking up the sword? Or Christians from serving in the military?
Jesus’ remarks must be understood in their broader context. Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount He made it clear that He was not out to subvert the essence of the Old Testament law. “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (5:17). And what did the Old Testament law say? “Thou shalt not kill” (Ex. 20:13; Dt., 5:17). The word rendered “kill” in the old King James Version is the Hebrew word “ratzach,” and is used as a technical term to refer specifically to murder or manslaughter – the private taking of human life. Most modern versions render the commandment “You shall not murder.” Thus does not preclude, however, capital punishment. Exodus 21:12-17, for instance, lists several capital crimes and uses the Hebrew phrase “mote yumat” (“put to death”) to describe the punishment. The civil magistrate, in the exercise of his office, is to administer justice on the principle of “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Ex. 21:23-25). In other words, what is called for here from the civil magistrate is strict retributive justice.
The basic principle behind all of this is stated in Gen. 9:6:
“Whoever sheds man’s blood,
By man his blood shall be shed;
For in the image of God
He made man.”
Taking the life of a fellow human being is not like deer hunting. Human beings are made in the image of God. Therefore murder is tantamount to sacrilege. There is something especially sacred about human life. But if life has been taken, if murder has been committed, then it must be punished by human means: “By man his blood shall be shed.” This is why murder is morally wrong, but capital punishment is not.
Significantly this statement was made in the context of the “Noahic Covenant,” a solemn agreement God made with Noah in the aftermath of the Great Flood. What had occasioned the Flood was the fact that “the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11 – interestingly the Hebrew word for violence is “chamas,” similar to the name of the radical Islamic Palestinian group – the word can also refer to non-physical forms of aggression as well). After the Flood, God having told Noah and his family to be fruitful and multiply, He then promised never again to destroy the whole earth by flood. The covenant was made with Noah, his descendants, “and every living creature” (Gen. 9:10). In other words, the covenant is universally binding upon the entire human race. When we commit murder we invite divine judgment upon ourselves.
Nor does anything in the New Testament negate what the Old Testament says on the subject. In Romans 13 Paul says that the civil magistrate is “God’s minister” who “does not hear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (v. 4). Far from being inherently evil, civil government has been ordained by God.
It was in this context that medieval theologians worked out the just war theory. According to Thomas Aquinas, in order for a war to be just it must meet three conditions: 1) it must be authorized by a duly constituted sovereign; 2) there must be a just cause – some crime committed by the enemy; and 3) there must be a rightful intention – the advancement of good or the avoidance of evil. War should not be the pretext for cruelty, oppression or hatred.
The basic idea is that human life is sacred, and that blood by shed only when absolutely necessary. All steps should be taken to avoid the unnecessary loss of life. We must avoid killing non-combatants and prisoners of war. For these reasons weapons of mass destruction are immoral by their very nature and should never be used in actual combat.
It must be said that most of the wars in which the United States has been involved probably do not qualify as just wars. We have been blessed to have two wide oceans on either side of us and friendly neighbors to the north and south. Only once in the past century has a foreign power launched an attack on our soil (not counting 911, which was by a shadowy terrorist group). In most cases we have intruded into foreign conflicts in we had no direct interest, and too often there has been no clear beneficial result. Will not “the righteous Judge of all the earth” (Gen. 18:25) hold us accountable for the blood that was shed?
The president has now embarked on another military campaign in a conflict in which we were not directly attacked and in which it is hard to see how his strategy could work successfully. The situation is liable to be fraught with unforeseen consequences. May God have mercy on us all.