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Pacifism and Just War: An Introduction

April 22, 2013
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I went to college with a number of members of the Church of the Brethren and Mennonites, both pacifist denominations.  The issue of just war versus religious pacifism was one that I discussed and debated extensively during my time at college but largely moved away from (leaving the issue unresolved in my mind) afterwards.  Recently I was prompted by a college friend to return to this issue.  At the time I had little to say that I had not already said but as I began to think more about the subject I realized that there were angles I had not fully investigated.  These articles represent my current attempts to answer these questions.

There are two main issues to deal with: the Biblical evidence for each position and the large-scale arguments for each position.  The Biblical data are sparse and not always entirely helpful while the large-scale arguments are inherently constructed in part out of interpolation.  Ideally one would read the Biblical data and construct a large-scale argument from these data.  However, we all have a tendency to construct large-scale ideas while reading the data and allow these ideas to shape the reading of further data.  Moreover, the construction of large-scale ideas from disparate data points can be time-consuming.  In this case I believe it makes most sense to present two already-constructed positions in large-scale format and then work to the individual data points so that the data can be understood within a large context as it is read.

However, prior to reviewing the large scale ideas there is some basic groundwork to lay that define our options in both logical and historical terms.  I will handle the options from the logical end first: what are the “bookend” positions between which one can argue?  Radical pacifism is one obvious bookend since it is impossible to go further than the complete rejection of violence.  Just war seems like a good opposite bookend.  One could argue that holy war should be the opposite bookend because it is considerably more violent but even holy war does not represent the maximum violence possible.  (The maximum violence possible would be a position that everyone in the world should be killed, a position that may not be held by anyone currently alive and which if it is held can be held only by someone who is insane.)  However, modern Christianity has no tradition of holy war.  Indeed, even medieval holy war was generally framed outside of that context – the Crusades were framed as protection for Christians against Muslim aggression.  Real incidents of holy war are perhaps best represented by Charlemagne’s “convert or die” campaigns but even these do not represent a position of the church but a position of a single individual.

Just war, on the other hand, is a theory to which a great number of Christians pay at least lip service to.  In reality it is not uncommon to run across just war proponents who understand just war to mean something like “war is not inherently wrong” and little else.  However, modern just war theory has a number of specific demands that it places on participants in a conflict.  Christian versions of modern just war theory are perhaps most refined amongst Catholic theologians who raised the theory from its Augustinian infancy1.  The modern Catholic Catechism states:

The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. the gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:

– the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

– all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

– there must be serious prospects of success;

– the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine. The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.

It is hard to argue (as a Christian) that one should be more violent than these criteria.  Who can argue plausibly that Jesus would have us fight wars over trivial matters or when other means to end the conflict are still available or when fighting will not succeed in doing anything but killing more people or when a successful war will do worse things to humanity than losing?  I’m sure someone will argue against one of these points simply because there are a lot of people out there but until someone does just war as framed in these points will serve as our more-violent ideological bookend.

Just war theory is susceptible to some common-sense objections.  The simplest of these is one that in the Catholic Catechism appears as a note at the end but in some other formulations is accorded the status of a full point: who gets to make these decisions.  The Catechism states that “The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good,” thereby placing the burden of making this decision on governments in most situations2.  One simple and direct objection to this is that every Christian is responsible for their own decisions and so every Christian must be convinced that the just war criteria apply before participating in a given conflict.  While there are counter-arguments to this objection as well it is certainly a live issue in just war theory, especially when those responsible for the common good are not Christians and are not considering these criteria at all.  This is one reason that I regard just war theory and pacifism as bookends to a range of arguments.  One could easily take a more pacifist stance than just war theory as described here or a more warlike stance than complete pacifism.  What is hard to imagine is a Christian argument for being more warlike than just war and what is literally impossible to imagine is a way to be less warlike than the complete rejection of violence.

A historical note is worth making before moving on to the meat of these articles.  A common version of Christian history among pacifists is that early Christians were all pacifists and that when Constantine converted some Christians sold out and invented just war.  Not only is blaming Constantine a terrible Christian cliché with little basis in history but the evidence does not line up so neatly in support of ancient Christian pacifism.  Certainly pre-Constantinian Christians were unlikely to be Roman soldiers (although there are graves of Christian Roman soldiers from before Constantine) but a significant amount of the reasoning given for avoiding the army in pre-Constantinian Christian writings is the level of active idolatry present in the army which had a number of pagan oaths as well as standards for each legion that were associated with pagan practices.  The rejection of the violence of the army is much less frequent in the ancient Christian writings although direct references of any sort are fairly rare.  What is clear is that Constantine’s pro-Christian policies made it significantly easier to be openly Christian in the Roman army, removing a major barrier to Christian participation in the military.  It is historically unclear whether the expansion of Christian thought about just war came because Christians liked the Empire better when it had a Christian Emperor or whether Christians had not given much thought to ideas of just war when the Roman military machine was too deeply pagan for most Christians to consider joining.

Whatever the exact historical trajectory that brought the Church to this point as it now stands Catholic officially hold to just war (although some individual Catholics are notably pacifist or pacifist in practice, believing that modern warfare can never satisfy the conditions for just war), Protestants are (as always) a mixed bag with some notably strict pacifists in the Anabaptist denominations, and the Orthodox are neither just war advocates nor total pacifists having taken a different theological path that avoided any significant interaction with just war theory.  These historical considerations provide additional reason to place the bookends of Christian thought at complete pacifism and just war.

In the next article I will deal with some of the big ideas that frame pacifist and just-war worldviews.


[1] Augustine often gets the credit or blame for just war theory but Augustine merely stated that it was possible for a Christian to fight in a war and do so morally.  (Although Augustine did not believe that killing in self-defense was moral.)  It required centuries of thought, including some significant expansions of Augustine’s thoughts by Thomas Aquinas, to reach something like the modern theory of just war.

[2] Those responsible for the common good might not necessarily be the leaders of a nation-state.  If, for instance, an ethnic minority were being oppressed by the government of a nation the community leaders of that ethnic minority might qualify as those responsible for the common good.  However, this clearly excludes some people from making these decisions.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 22, 2013 7:24 am

    Completely agree with you about blaming Constantine for everything. In my experience, the more someone uses that kind of argument, the less likely they are to be educated about church history. Have you read “Defending Constantine” by Peter Leithart? He deals with the military issue there.

    • dylanwolf permalink
      April 22, 2013 12:22 pm

      “Blaming Constatine” is a subset of the larger “blaming the early Church” argument (i.e., “the church made up this doctrine so they could assert ___”). It often seems to be rebelling against an unpleasant, almost-fundamentalist tradition that taught you to oversimplify church history.

  2. Eric permalink
    April 22, 2013 8:44 pm

    I have not read “Defending Constantine” but it’s on my list.

  3. June 10, 2013 10:39 pm

    “Augustine merely stated that it was possible for a Christian to fight in a war and do so morally. (Although Augustine did not believe that killing in self-defense was moral.)”

    This last point/sentence is one that has had strong consensus throughout Church history, though modern Christians in America, especially, have forgotten it.

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  1. Pacifism and Just War: What’s the Big Idea? | The Jawbone Of an Ass

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