How Christians went to war

How Christians went to war


Among the remarkable side effects of the conflict between the United States and Iraq has been the revival of the just war theory, the set of ethical reflections specifying the conditions under which a "just war" may be declared (jus ad bellum) and how it must be waged (jus in bello). Catholic moral theologians, accustomed to talking shop primarily to their students and to one another, enjoyed a short but intense heyday in the media spotlight during Operation Desert Storm and again, briefly, during the recent U.S. bombing of Iraq.

As the conflict unfolded in 1990 and early 1991, these theologians authored innumerable articles and appeared on talk shows to discuss the criteria for a just war-namely, that war is the last resort, taken only after all other measures have been exhausted; that the cause is just (e.g., self-defense against an aggressor); that the war is waged with the right intention (not to exact vengeance or confiscate territory); and that the war is declared by the proper authority and with a reasonable hope of success in attaining its objectives.

Had the Bush administration and the international coalition satisfied these criteria? Once Desert Storm was under way, did it satisfy the jus in bello criteria: Were noncombatants reasonably protected from attack? Was the damage and suffering caused by the war in proportion to the moral benefits gained (e.g., the defense of Kuwait)?

As they clarified these concepts and applied them to the situation in the gulf, theologians were suddenly "relevant" again. "It is not too much to say," wrote Russell Sizemore, "that for a brief moment just war rhetoric served as the lingua franca of American moral reflection." Indeed, the sight of government and military officials, politicians, educators, and pundits taking seriously a moral tradition rooted in Christianity was striking.


Saint Augustine must be pleased. The famous convert, who was consecrated bishop of Hippo (in North Africa) in 395, was perhaps the church's most influential thinker on the subject of the relevance and applicability of Christian ideals and values to the so-called "real world"-that den of iniquity, power politics, and remorseless, take-no-prisoners warfare we call home. It was Augustine's singular achievement to provide an elaborate theological rationale for Christian participation in the affairs of the world, not least in its governance. From Roman political theory and Christian eschatology (the divine plan for bringing history to fulfillment) he fashioned the classic statement of the just war tradition.

Christians of the early church had set themselves apart from the fallen world, standing both in judgment of it and in literal imitation of Jesus. Rejecting "an eye for an eye" morality, as the Lord had done, many practiced pacifism, refusing to serve in the military or take up arms, even in self-defense. No war could be considered "just" in their eyes.

Once the emperor Constantine ended the Roman empire's persecution of Christians in 313, however, the radical witness of the few was eclipsed by the worldliness of the many. The church made room for thousands of new members who were quite at ease in the old dispensation. As Christians gradually moved into positions of civic authority, they developed a more flexible attitude toward the world and its foibles. Their enhanced sense of responsibility for public affairs necessitated the kind of theological justifications for "public Christianity" that Augustine and other theologians provided.

Augustine, not one to shy from big ideas, developed a philosophy of history that captured the ordinary Christian's sense of divided loyalties that arose from living spiritually under Christ's reign but physically in a dissolute and declining empire. In his masterpiece, The City of God, written toward the end of his life, Augustine ruminated on ways of bridging the vast gulf between the "City of God" and the "City of Man," the two realms vying daily for the loyalty of the Christian. In so doing he articulated a powerful form of moral reasoning that translates abstract Christian values into concrete norms for living in the rough-and-tumble world of realpolitik.


Part of Augustine's brilliance as a theologian was his uncanny ability to incorporate and subtly transform lessons learned from his intellectually charged (and somewhat checkered) past. Specifically, he borrowed elements from Manicheanism, the pagan philosophy of his youth, which divided the world into duelling absolutes, realms of pure light and impenetrable darkness. Behind this dualism of spheres, however, lies an encompassing order of love and justice, the mature Augustine-the Christian Augustine-now asserted. This divine ordering of reality is the standard by which partial realizations of love and justice are measured.

In a sublimely practical move, Augustine refused to allow the perfection of the heavenly city to undermine striving for its semblance in the earthly. Christians are only passing through the City of Man, he acknowledged. Yet even on earth they may taste some of the happiness of the heavenly city. Partial and imperfect realizations of the eschaton, the final age of fulfillment, would have to suffice. Achieving them would be the burden of Christian politics.

Politics, Christian or otherwise, is the art of compromise. If the definitive peace of the heavenly city is beyond the power of earthly rulers to deliver, he reasoned, they must strive for the next best thing-the provisional sort of peace and social order that is necessary for the cultivation of personal virtue and piety. Peace expressed as order, however imperfect, provides people with the opportunity to maintain or restore relationships threatened by turmoil in the political or ecclesial community. For Augustine, the Catholic ethicist Lisa Sowle Cahill comments, "social order as a form of peace is also a form of love."

To preserve order, however, the proper authorities must be able to control the violent and anarchic behavior that fuels wars of conquest and revenge. And they must do so without adopting the tactics of the marauders and mercenaries bent on escalating the violence. Use compelling force, in other words, but don't get carried away with it. The just war theory lays down the guidelines for achieving this delicate balance.


Augustine's writings on the justified use of force-the core of the just war theory-commended the use of violence under certain conditions. The violence must be deemed necessary to punish crime or to uphold the peace. The goal in using potentially lethal force, further, must be the establishment of justice rather than the punishment of enemies. Most important, only the legitimate civil authority could make the decision to employ violence. Obedience to just war criteria, in fact, was considered one sign of the ruler's legitimacy before God.

Confronted with the growing acceptance of just war reasoning, pacifists invoked Jesus' "hard sayings" about turning the other cheek and loving the enemy. Augustine responded that Christians should heed these "counsels of perfection" in their personal affairs, but they should apply a different calculus when translating them to the complex arena of public governance. To kill selflessly for the common good may be the highest form of self-denial and love.

Each age has its own Saddam Hussein. For Christians of late antiquity, whose faith had flowered under the peace of Constantine, the barbarians who sacked Rome and set about to dismantle Christian civilization embodied the anarchic violence that the just war theory compelled legitimate civic authorities to resist. It's perhaps harder for us to understand that heretics who threatened the unity of the African church also qualified, in Augustine's book, as candidates for "tough love" of the most lethal kind.

Many Catholics, including scores of bishops, have recently questioned whether there can still be a just war of "right proportion" in our era of nuclear and biological weapons. Others continue to defend the instrumental use of deadly violence to preserve peace and avert greater evils. Augustine's logic of war remains relevant, they contend, in a world where peace must be understood not as the absence of violence, but as the preservation of a minimum standard of order within which Christianity might flourish.


Saint Augustine may have to be held accountable, nonetheless, Cahill observes, for "his willingness to allow considerable leeway in history for Christian compromise with secular and civic values and 'necessities,' deferring eschatological transformation of major dimensions of Christian practice from history to heaven." Heaven can wait, in other words. But can we?


About the author

R. Scott Appleby

R. Scott Appleby is a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and the director of the university’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

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