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Saint Augustine
The Call to Arms: Christianity and the Just War Tradition - Rooted in Christian Love
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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
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Rooted in Christian Love

But how can any participation in war be the “Christian thing to do”? Did Jesus not command us to love our neighbor?

The pacifist movement, which also has its roots in Scripture and tradition, holds that war is never justified under any circumstances. Christians who fall into this camp take a legalistic approach to Scripture and see in Jesus’ moral teachings “a rejection of all violence.”12 They focus on the literal meaning of such passages as Matthew 5:39, where Jesus instructs us to “turn the other cheek.” For the pacifist, Jesus’ command to love seems to rule out any possibility for a Christian to take up arms against his fellow man.

But “while Jesus taught that a disciple in his own case should turn the other cheek, he did not enjoin that his disciples should lift up the face of another oppressed man for him to be struck again on his other cheek.”13 Our Lord commanded us to love one another. How is it love to allow another human being to be harmed when we can take action to prevent it?

It is only a misunderstanding of Jesus’ teaching, and the Sermon on the Mount in particular, that leads one to entirely rule out a call to arms. In his article “The Universal Claim of Biblical Ethics,” Eberhard Schokenhoff argues that the Sermon is not intended to serve as a new moral law. Rather, it provides an upper bound that attempts to transform the heart and not just limit evil action. The Sermon achieves this aim through an elaboration of Old Testament ethics. The Decalogue provides a set of precepts designed as a lower boundary against evil. It provides behavioral guidance that, if followed, protects one’s neighbor and one’s self from harm. But while the Decalogue sets up boundaries against evil, it does not provide a solution to combat its source. A person is fully capable of adhering to the precepts of the Decalogue and yet possess an evil heart. Jesus criticized the Pharisees for law observance without a heart truly conditioned towards God, a piety that outwardly fulfilled the precepts of the law but inwardly did not fulfill the intent of the law: that is, love of God and love of neighbor.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus transforms the Decalogue precepts from a lower boundary designed to prevent wrong actions into an upper boundary designed to change people’s hearts. According to Schokenhoff, Jesus accomplishes his goal through a series of “antitheses as illustrations of the greater righteousness.”14 Through antithesis, Jesus expands on the meaning of the Decalogue by creating what Heinz Schürmann calls the “apparent paradoxes in which he puts commandments in an extreme form.”15 An example can be found in Matthew 5:27: “You have heard it was said, you shall not commit adultery.” Jesus amplifies the commandment by equating even lustful desire with adultery. He does likewise with the commandment “you shall not kill,” likening anger towards one’s brother with murder. In so doing, he “uncovers the original meaning of the Ten Commandments afresh by demanding their ‘radical’ fulfillment out of a spirit of undivided love.”16 Jesus here is attacking not just the sinful acts themselves but the “‘evil impulse’ which must be overcome within us.”17 His aim is to go beyond the law and requirements of the Old Testament towards a transformed heart based on love of God and love of neighbor. It is only when one understands this purpose that sense can be made of the Sermon’s ethical call.

It is this upper bound that is to shape our Christian actions. Jesus is teaching us that we are to strive towards “unlimited service towards one’s neighbor in love.”18 And it is this unlimited service that, under certain circumstances, may require us to use force against another human being. Ramsey illustrates this point through a provocative retelling of the parable of the Good Samaritan:

It was a work of charity for the Good Samaritan to give help to the man who fell among thieves. But one step more, it may have been a work of charity for the inn-keeper to hold himself ready to receive beaten and wounded men … By another step it would have been a work of charity, and not of justice alone, to maintain and serve in a police patrol on the Jericho road to prevent such things from happening. By yet another step, it might well be a work of charity to resist, by force of arms, any external aggression against the social order that maintains the police patrol along the road to Jericho. This means that … it may be a work of justice and a work of social charity to resort to other available and effective means of resisting injustice: what do you think Jesus would have made the Samaritan do if he had come upon the scene while the robbers were still at their fell work?19

It is from this understanding that, according to Ramsey, “the western theory of the just war originated … from the interior of the ethics of Christian love.”20 While he is the first to admit that “this is no proper way to interpret a parable of Jesus,”21 the retelling tells us something about the intention behind the teaching. Love of neighbor extends beyond just helping a man once he has been attacked. It works also to prevent the attack from happening and, if necessary, to defend the man from his attackers. One can see from this example how “a social ethic emerged from Christian conscience formed by this revelation.”22 War is in some instances the justifiable answer to the moral call to love our neighbor. The military personnel of an aggressor nation, still our fellow men, may be killed only because they oppress an even greater number of God’s children. “The Christian is commanded to do anything a realistic love commands (and so sometimes he must fight).”23

Last Updated on Monday, 23 July 2012 11:36