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Saint Augustine
Just War in the 21st Century - The Just War: Augustine
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The Just War: Augustine
In the fourth century worship of the Christian God replaced the traditional worship of Roman gods as Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. This prompted one practical difficulty for the Roman emperors and those in authority: how to maintain the might of the Roman Army, upon which the security of the Empire depended, when many Christians would not, or felt they could not, serve. In the centuries since Jesus lived and died the Roman army had been used on a number of occasions as a tool with which to persecute Christians. Even Christians who served as soldiers had been persecuted. Perhaps not surprisingly, the legacy of this abuse was reluctance on the part of many Christians to serve in the army. In addition, some of the early Church Fathers emphasised the aspects of Jesus teaching that promoted non-violence (‘turn the other cheek’ and ‘put your sword back in its place’ already mentioned above), and many early Christians supported their views. Matters were complicated even further when, in 410, Alaric and his army of Visigoths sacked Rome: resulting in criticism by many citizens of the Christian God’s ability to protect Rome as the traditional gods had in the past. In this complex political, military and cultural environment, Augustine – Catholic Bishop of Hippo and theologian – defended Christianity against charges that God was failing to protect Rome and her people, as well as addressing the issue of whether or not Christians could serve in the army.

In his book City of God Augustine addressed the challenge to God’s authority by those who accused God of being unable to protect the city and people of Rome. Based on a biblical understanding of the kingdom of God, as well as Jesus’ statement that his followers ‘are not of the world, even as I am not of it.’20 Augustine described the two cities that define human existence: the Earthly City and the City of God. These refer to an earthly, physical existence and an eternal life with God. He also set out how citizenship or membership of either city was to be determined: 'I classify the human race into two branches: the one consists of those who live by human standards, the other of those who live according to God's will'.21 The priority for the Christian was to seek to belong to the City of God through both faith and good action, while those who did not know God, or rejected him, belonged to the Earthly City. Christians were therefore not to worry unduly about the city of Rome but instead focus on the City of God, the place where they, through faith, would ultimately reside with God for all eternity.

Possibly the most important of Augustine’s ideas for Christians in both the fifth and twenty-first centuries, and for anyone else who would serve in the military today, is his argument that there is such a thing as a just war. The purpose of a just war, as opposed to an aggressive war fuelled by greed or ambition, is the pursuit of a better state of peace: ‘Peace is not sought in order to provoke war, but war is waged in order to attain peace’.22 Such wars are fought against tyrants or other power-hungry rulers that would threaten their neighbours:

The desire for harming, the cruelty of revenge, the restless and implacable mind, the savageness of revolting, the lust for dominating, and similar things – these are what are justly blamed in wars. Often, so that such things might also be justly punished, certain wars that must be waged against the violence of those resisting are commanded by God or some other legitimate ruler and are undertaken by the good.23

According to Augustine, the pursuit of a better state of peace must therefore be for a good cause – such as overcoming the ruler who has demonstrated a savage lust for domination and a desire to harm others – and must be authorised either by God or a legitimate, and good, ruler. We can also see here the beginnings of an influential distinction Augustine makes in separating the moral responsibility of the king or ruler who takes a nation or empire to war from the responsibility of the soldiers who fight those wars. Of the moral responsibility of soldiers Augustine wrote:

Therefore, a just man, if he should happen to serve as a soldier under a human king who is sacrilegious, could rightly wage war at the king's command, maintaining the order of civic peace, for what he is commanded to do is not contrary to the sure precepts of God ... perhaps the iniquity of giving the orders will make the king guilty while the rank of servant in the civil order will show the soldier to be innocent.24

There are two aspects to Augustine’s argument about the moral responsibilities of the soldier. Firstly, Augustine was not primarily concerned with war per se, he was concerned with producing good Christians who would spend eternity with God and whose conduct on earth should reflect the values of God’s kingdom on earth. Therefore, as a general principle, individuals could only be held morally accountable, before God, for actions that they are directly and individually responsible for undertaking. Since the soldier has no say, and this remains as much the case today as it was 1600 years ago, in whether or not a war will be undertaken (because that decision is taken by the ruler or sovereign) the soldier cannot be held morally accountable for the decision. It is only for actions on the field of battle that the soldier will be judged by God. In the quote from Augustine here he goes further: even if the decision to go to war is wrong and taken by a sacrilegious king, the soldier remains morally innocent because he has upheld God’s civic order. This part of Augustine’s argument is based on Paul’s command in his letter to the Romans mentioned above: ‘Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established’.25 While the modern political structure of the UK bears little resemblance to that of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, the idea of submitting to the authorities is one that is still relevant to all soldiers.

The United Kingdom’s armed forces do the bidding of the civil authorities: the elected government of the day. In turn, junior ranks submit to the authority of senior ranks. Submitting to authorities is not merely an ancient, Christian, irrelevant notion; it is set out very clearly in the Queen’s Regulations for the three Services—as are the punishments to be handed down for breaches such as desertion or insubordination or refusing to carry out a legal order. No matter how strongly a serviceman or servicewoman feels about some act of violent injustice, either in his or her own country or elsewhere, such individuals have no right to take up arms and intervene under their own volition.

We should not think that Augustine happily tolerated those who made bad, or immoral, decisions to go to war. He was as concerned for the soul of the ruler as he was for everyone else’s soul. On making the decision to go to war he writes: ‘But the wise man, they say, will wage just wars. Surely, if he remembers that he is a human being, he will lament that fact that he is faced with the necessity of waging just wars; for if they were not just, he would not have to engage in them’.26 Central to Augustine’s concept of the just war, an idea that remains as important to just war thinking today as it has in every century since, is the idea that a war should only be pursued for a just cause: the most important of which is defence of which Augustine calls ‘the common well-being’27, or what we might refer to today as defence of the realm or national self-defence. He wrote:

…it makes a great difference by which causes and under which authorities men undertake the wars that must be waged. The natural order, which is suited to the peace of mortal things, requires that the authority and deliberation for undertaking war be under the control of a leader, and also that, in the executing of military commands, soldiers serve peace and the common well-being.28

The most important of Augustine’s ideas on the just war, which were largely unstructured and scattered throughout his extensive writings, were later taken, added to, and presented in a much more concise and coherent structure by Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century.


Last Updated on Thursday, 17 February 2011 14:46