This Journal is sponsored by the Assn. for Christian Conferences, Teaching and Service.

ISSN: 2354-8315 (Online)



Saint Augustine
The Call to Arms: Christianity and the Just War Tradition - Just War Theory
PDF Print E-mail
Article Index
The Call to Arms: Christianity and the Just War Tradition
Just War Theory
Rooted in Christian Love
Rooted in Christian Love (continued)
The Relevance of the Tradition Today
All Pages

The Just War Tradition

Before we continue, let us define what constitutes the just war theory. First, it is important to note that the theory, perhaps better referred to as a tradition, has changed and developed over time. Theologians in different times and places have chosen to emphasize different aspects of the tradition. As such, I will focus on those tenets with which most just war theorists agree.

Traditionally, the just war tradition has two sets of criteria: jus ad bellum, or the right to go to war; and jus in bello, or the just conduct of war once it has begun. The main concepts of jus ad bellum include the following:2 1) Just Cause – a nation must have a just cause to go to war, such as defending itself against an aggressor nation; 2) Legitimate Authority – only duly appointed public authorities have the right to wage war; 3) Right Intention – one may go to war only to correct an injustice, not for material gain; 4) Last Resort – a call to arms should be undertaken only when all other means of settling a dispute have been exhausted; and 5) Proportionality – the benefits of going to war must outweigh the evils that will result. In other words, going to war must not “do more harm than good.”3

Jus in bello, the just conduct of war, “historically … appears in terms of two sets of legal or customary restraints.”4 The first is distinction. A military force must distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate targets, between combatants and non-combatants. The principle of distinction protects non-combatants from being directly targeted for military operations and limits the amount of harm, if any, that may be done to them as a result of indirect actions. Illegitimate targets include any persons or facilities that do not directly serve a military purpose such as civilians, hospitals, and religious centers.

The second restraint is proportionality. Proportionality, or the “prudential balancing of effects,”5 dictates that “the proportionately greater good or lesser evil in one effect of such action must justify producing a lesser evil effect.”6 In other words, a military attack cannot be undertaken if the expected civilian casualties from such action would exceed the anticipated tactical advantage that would be gained. This concept also limits the types of weapons that may be employed. Weapons that would result in disproportionate suffering, such as biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, are immoral and cannot be used.

The Necessity of the Just War Tradition

The aim of the doctrine of deterrence is to prevent the outbreak of war through the fear of destruction by nuclear weapons. But while it purports a solution, in reality it creates an insupportable system. Mass deterrence does not put an end to war. Rather, by ignoring the principles of the just war tradition, it produces a condition whereas the only option available, should war arise, is the immoral destruction of non-combatants. By removing the distinction between combatants and non-combatants, all restraints on warfare are abolished.

For Ramsey, unrestrained warfare cannot be the answer. It attempts to force peace through unjust means. “The traditional teaching about the conduct of war taught us that it is never right to intend or do wrong that good may come of it.”7 Military actions that directly intend and effect the deaths of non-combatants are tantamount to murder.8

In order for warfare to be conducted in a just manner, to be “enclosed again within the political purposes of nations from which it has escaped,”9 a return to the principles of the just war tradition are necessary. Limits must be placed on the execution of warfare. Otherwise, “military force becomes senseless violence.”10 The just war tradition provides these limits by distinguishing between legitimate and illegitimate targets. Warfare must shift away from people-counter-people warfare and back to force-counter-force warfare.11 This, Ramsey contends, is the Christian thing to do.

Last Updated on Monday, 23 July 2012 11:36