In our last blog post we concluded that it is possible for a Christian to serve in a civil government, and that there is such a thing as a just war. But does this mean that the military in doing whatever it pleases to achieve an objective? It is justified in engaging in wanton slaughter?
Not at all! For the basic moral principle of the sanctity of human life still applies. It is never permissible to take human life unless it is absolutely necessary to prevent even worse consequences. What, then, are the criteria of a just war?
First of all, a war must have a just cause. We are not at liberty to attack another country merely for the sake of territorial expansion or commercial advantage. There must be some immanent threat to our territory, to the lives and property of our citizens; or conceivably, in some cases, gross human rights violations may warrant an invasion from another country; but this should only be done under the sanction of international law. Moreover, the good to be achieved through the war must outweigh the inevitable loss of life and property. Fighting a war with a vague or unachievable objective, or a doubtful outcome, amounts to an immoral waste of human life.
Once a war has begun there are important things to keep in mind as well. All efforts should be made to avoid the unnecessary loss of civilian life. Killing, abusing or neglecting prisoners of war is a war crime. The use of force must be proportionate to the military objective. This makes the use of weapons of mass destruction highly problematical.
It must be conceded that there are grave practical difficulties with the just war theory. Many wars are the result of a failure of diplomacy, and could have been avoided through a little more flexibility on the part of the different sides. Governments are not always transparent in their foreign relations, and the real causes for going to war are often shrouded in secrecy. Once started, a war quickly degenerates into a struggle for survival, and the longer it drags on, the more brutal and barbaric it usually becomes. And subordinates are rarely in positions to question the orders of their superior officers. All of these factors combine to make it extremely difficult for a military serviceman who is a Christian to make an intelligent judgment about the justification for a war or the tactics employed.
The 19th Century American Presbyterian theologian A.A. Hodge made this telling observation about war: “War is an incalculable evil, because of the lives it destroys, the misery it occasions, and the moral degradation it infallible works on all sides – upon the vanquished and the victor, the party originally in the right and the part in the wrong. In every war one party is at least must be in the wrong, involved in the tremendous guilt of unjustifiable war, and in the vast majority of cases both parties are in the wrong. No plea of honour, glory or aggrandizement, policy or profit, can excuse, much less justify war; nothing short of necessity to the end of the preservation of national existence” (The Confession of Faith, p. 296 – Hodge wrote these lines in 1869, only four years after the end of the American Civil War).
Even in our own day we have witnessed the phenomenon of returning war veterans suffering “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” in which in some cases they experience guilt or remorse over things they saw or were forced to do during combat operations. The biblical explanation for this is that God has given us consciences; the returning vets “show the work of the law written on their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness . . .” (Rom. 2:15; NKJV).
The separation of church and state ought never to mean the separation of secular government from morality. And perhaps no weightier moral question will face a civil government than the decision of whether or not to go to war. On this question the church dare not remain silent. It has a solemn obligation before Almighty God to act as a prophetic voice, faithfully proclaiming “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) to a world filled with hatred and violence. To fail to do so is to be unfaithful to God and to do a great disservice to humanity.