Posts Tagged ‘just war criteria’


There are few topics that agitate American Christians as much as pacifism. This reaction is puzzling to Christians who believe that the prima facie reading of Scripture demands pacifism.

This reaction is also puzzling to Christians who advocate a form of Just War theory. Just War theory seeks to articulate criteria by which one may judge whether a war is “just,” and, therefore, is a war in which one may take part. The criteria, however, set a high bar for what is a just war.

The majority of American Christians, based on my observations, however, embrace neither pacifism nor a set of reasoned criteria to guide their decisions on whether or not to participate in a war. Instead, in practice, their guide seems to be an unexamined nationalism, bordering on jingoism—especially when one’s favored political party is in power and urging military action.

In support of this contention, one only need look at how most Christians use Scripture to defend their views on participating in warfare: They don’t. Rather, they assume, without explanation, that Scripture supports their view. They, then, assign to those who disagree with them, the burden of proving the contrary to be true. For example, in response to a positive presentation of opposing warfare based primarily, such as, on the life and teaching of Jesus, one is peppered with questions such as the following ones: “What about war in the OT?” “What about the instruction in Romans 13:1–7?”

However, this “position” reveals at least three hermeneutical mistakes, mistakes that typically are not committed when the topic is less “agitating”: (1) It denies progressive revelation. In this case, it denies that the life, teaching, and atoning work of Jesus may necessitate a posture toward the Hebrew Scriptures that is different from the posture of a Jew who does not recognize Jesus as Messiah. (2) It misreads Romans 13:1–7, by not giving due attention to the surrounding context of this passage. (2) It dismisses Jesus’ teaching on how to treat an enemy on dubious grounds like the following ones: (a) His teaching was intended for some sort of “ideal” living situation, such as a future kingdom age, and is, therefore, impractical and optional in the “real” world. (b) It was intended for personal relationships and not national relationships. (c) It is superseded by apostolic interpretation or revelation.

The only viable positions that the Christian may embrace, then, are either pacifism or Just War theory. My experience, however, reveals an almost universal ignorance of just war criteria among college students. Nevertheless, these same students come to college with detailed convictions on almost every other political issue of which one could conceive. From whom have they been taught these convictions? The same people who have failed to teach them just war criteria? Is it a stretch to conclude that this ignorance of just war criteria among college students reflects widespread ignorance among the general Christian populace?

What, then, are the criteria for a just war? I reproduce below a summary of Just War criteria. These criteria are based on those articulated by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century.

As you read the following list, ask yourself this question: Which, if any, of the wars fought by America meet all the criteria?

Criteria for a Just War according to Just War Theory

Just cause
The reason for going to war needs to be just and, therefore, cannot be solely for recapturing things taken or punishing people who have done wrong; innocent life must be in imminent danger and intervention must be to protect life.

Comparative justice
While there may be rights and wrongs on all sides of a conflict, to overcome the presumption against the use of force, the injustice suffered by one party must significantly outweigh that suffered by the other.

Competent authority
Only duly constituted public authorities may wage war: A just war must be initiated by a political authority within a political system that allows distinctions of justice.

Right intention
Force may be used only in a truly just cause and solely for that purpose—correcting a suffered wrong is considered a right intention, while material gain or maintaining economies is not.

Probability of success
Arms may not be used in a futile cause or in a case where disproportionate measures are required to achieve success.

Last resort
Force may be used only after all peaceful and viable alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted or are clearly not practical.

The anticipated benefits of waging a war must be proportionate to its expected evils or harms.


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