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 - Rooted in Christian Love (continued)
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

Before moving on, I want to stress that support of the tenets of just war tradition does not equate to warmongering. The purpose of the just war theory is to limit war, both its undertaking and its execution. Its intent is to prevent war under most circumstances and to then limit the amount of death and damage once it has begun. War must be conducted solely for just causes and only as the last resort. Just war theorists despise war the same as pacifists. The difference is that the former see in Jesus’ teaching a moral call to defend one’s neighbor, peacefully if possible, but by force if necessary.

The problem with pacifism is that it “teaches people to believe that there is no significant moral difference, except in the ends sought, between murder and killing in war.”24 Such an understanding fails to make a distinction between murder, or the killing of innocents, and “the shedding of any human blood.”25 Murder, by its very definition, is never justifiable. But what about the killing of an enemy soldier in combat?

Whether the killing of another human being during war is ever justifiable centers on one’s interpretation of the precepts of Scripture. In order to avoid a contradiction with the Decalogue, those who take a legalistic approach are forced either to displace the responsibility of combat deaths to the governing authorities or make an exception for soldiers to break the commandment “you shall not kill.” Neither option provides a satisfactory answer to the problem at hand. By focusing on the letter of the law rather than the intent behind the law, people who hold to this perspective are left trying to make exceptions in order to justify actions traditionally classified as immoral. They admit the need for Christians to take up arms when necessary to defend their fellow men; they are just unable to reconcile this need with a purely legalistic understanding of Biblical moral precepts.

In order to find a satisfactory answer to our question, we must expand our criteria for determining the morality of a particular act. According to Josef Fuchs, “a moral judgment of an action may not be made in anticipation of the agent’s intention.”26 An act is morally neutral until the purpose of the action is understood. It is only after we consider both the circumstances of the act and the intent of the one committing the act that we can come to some conclusion as to its rightness or wrongness.27

Additionally, we must weigh the good effects against the bad effects that would come about as the result of a particular act. Take, for instance, surgical amputation. The removing of the damaged limb – a bad effect – also renders the good effect of healing the patient. The “rule of double effect” considers this action moral if 1) the intent of the moral agent is to effect the good and 2) the bad effect that results is proportionately justifiable in light of that good. In the case above, the doctor’s intent is to cure his patient. The bad effect – the amputation of the limb – is offset by the greater good that the patient will continue to live. Thus, the amputation is a moral act.

Given this criteria, is the killing of an enemy combatant during war an exception to the commandment “you shall not kill”? Since the intent of the soldier is not to kill but to protect others from harm, Ramsey would say no.28 Rather, he would argue that armed resistance to aggressors in defense of others is the “fulfilling of the meaning of the commandment.”29 The Christian command to love may include the taking of life during combat if it is done to protect the lives of others.

But while it is the expression of Christian love that justifies going to war under certain circumstances, it is this same Christian love that ultimately limits its implementation. Just as it is the duty of a Christian to defend the innocent against aggression, it is his duty to insure that the innocents he is defending are not harmed while attempting to subdue the enemy. The Christian’s call is to save life; he takes up arms only as a last resort to restrain “an enemy whose objective deeds [are] judged to be evil.”30 He cannot, therefore, take the life of innocents in an effort to restrain that evil.

At the same time, it was never presumed that non-combatants would be immune from all harm, “roped off like ladies at a medieval tournament.”31 There is the potential in any conflict that those not actively engaged in military hostilities may be killed. The goal of the just war tradition is not to prevent all non-combatant deaths, only to limit it as much as possible. Non-combatants may never be directly targeted for military action; however, injury and death may result indirectly from such action. For example, the destruction of a weapons depot may effect the deaths of several civilians in the surrounding area. These deaths would be justifiable under the rule of double effect since they were not directly intended and are proportionate to the greater good of ending the war.

The ends, however, do not in themselves justify the means. The bad effect that results must be proportionately justifiable. In the example above, the extension of the target area to include the neighborhood surrounding the weapons depot would be immoral since it would now directly intend the deaths of the civilians in that neighborhood. Military actions must always effect the least amount of death and destruction and direct those effects only towards combatants. The good intent of ending a war never justifies the bad means of directly intending harm to the innocent.

Last Updated on Monday, 23 July 2012 11:36