The just war debate you may have missed

Jan 19, 2006 at 3:02 pm

Spirituality by John Lackey

Understandably, there has been much debate over what should be a Christian’s response to war. On the one side you have Jesus telling his disciples that if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other cheek; to love your enemies and do good to those who harm you; and, in the example with Peter, to put away his sword, for those who live by the sword will die by it.

On the other side you find Paul’s advice in Romans to submit to the ruling authorities “who do not bear the sword for nothing”; the author of Hebrews extolling the warriors of the Old Testament; and countless Old Testament references to God’s intercession on behalf of the Israelites in war, even to the extent of advising Joshua on how to lay an ambush for the city of Ai, and to exterminate its inhabitants.

Before A.D. 300, Christians were almost all pacifist. Out of 4,700 inscriptions on early Christian tombstones, only seven were members of the military. In A.D. 298, Marcellus, a Christian centurion, refused to continue his military service. In front of the emperor he claimed he “could not inflict wounds.” He was executed for defying the emperor.

Emperor Constantine, the first Christian emperor, refused to be baptized until his deathbed because he felt his faith conflicted with his duty to wage war for the empire.

Later saints of the church, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and others, wrote long and tortured treatises explaining when war was “just” and when it was not. But Thomas More and St. Francis of Assisi argued that while one might support war as justified in theory, in reality no war in history could ever be justified. In the 13th century, even as the Crusades were being preached, peace marchers numbering in the hundreds of thousands crossed Italy to Rome to protest. (I find that absolutely remarkable).

In modern times, with nuclear capabilities, Roman-Catholic popes especially began to return full circle to the absolute pacifism of the early church. In the 20th century, Benedict XV opposed war in any form and rejected outright the theory of just war. Pius XII said that “the enormous violence of modern warfare means that it can no longer be regarded as a reasonable means of settling conflicts.” John XXIII wrote, “In this age of atomic power, it is irrational to think that war is a proper way to obtain justice.” War, he argued, is justified only in defense of attack.

Following this line of thinking, Pope John Paul supported America’s response in Afghanistan as a defensive war, but condemned the attack on Iraq as our own aggression. Basing the argument on the standards of Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, the 60-member American Administrative Committee of Catholic Bishops wrote a 1,500-word letter to President George W. Bush on why their church could not support the attack, and urged the administration to step back from the brink of war. Significantly, this letter, using the ancient criterion of just cause, asked the president to come forth with his evidence of a connection between Iraq and 9/11, and his proof of the existence of weapons of mass destruction. And it argued, on the equally ancient criteria of proportionality and probability of success, that any beneficial effects were far outweighed by the likelihood of long-term suffering, both for Iraq and for America. It was a beautiful analysis of when war is “just.”

To our profoundest loss, the Bishops’ letter was hushed up and went virtually unpublished in the media.

John Lackey is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples) and a former state senator. He currently lives in Richmond, Ky. Contact him at [email protected]