With the Christmas season in full gear, and with the newly passed U.S. Senate resolutions ending U.S. support for the war in Yemen, American Christians should pause to reflect upon a genuinely Christian approach to war and peace.
No Christian—and for that matter, no “soldier worth his salt” (as General Schwarzkopf put it)—should be “pro-war.” We should desire peace. And yet there is disagreement on how to achieve the peace we desire.
At one end of the spectrum, pacifists refuse to participate in wars of any kind, for any reason. At the other end of the spectrum, crusaders seek final peace by waging war on any state or non-state actors they deem “evil.” In the middle of the two views are just war proponents. Unlike pacifists, they are willing to wage war, but unlike crusaders, they will do so only when very specific criteria are met.
The Criteria for a Just War
Just war proponents provide certain criteria that must be met before going to war. A just war must be waged, for example, with just cause (defending against an unjust aggression), with right intention (to restore the tranquility disrupted by the unjust aggression), as a last resort (having exhausted all realistic nonviolent options), and in the right spirit (with regret rather than with glee, hatred, or a lust for power or glory).
Just war proponents also outline certain principles that must be followed while fighting a war. Among those principles are proportionality (no more force than necessary), discrimination (distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants), avoidance of evil means (such as rape and pillage), good faith (treating POWs with civility), probability of success (fighting only until there is not a hope of victory), and right spirit.
10 Signs that a “Just War” is Really a Crusade
Unfortunately, there are far too many political leaders and commentators on the Left and Right who use “just war” language to mask crusading intentions. For that reason, I am providing a list of ten contrasting characteristics that help us distinguish between just wars and crusades. These characteristics are adapted from a public paper delivered by Daniel Heimbach, a former White House staffer, ethicist, and just war theorist.
- Crusade treats war as an unconditional effort of good against evil, whereas just war treats war as a morally restrained effort to restore a just peace.
- Crusade treats war as a matter of religion and is led by some religious authority (or ideological authority that functions in the place of religion). In just war, war is treated as a responsibility of civil government and is fought under the conscience of the one who heads the civil order.
- Because crusade is fought for the sake of that which defines good and evil (God, the ideal), there is in a crusade little place for moral restraint in war. Anything that serves God (or the ideal) is right by definition, so wars of crusade are “total” wars. By contrast, just war places moral limits on what can be done in war—force must be limited only to what is necessary and used only on military targets.
- Because there can be no compromise between good and evil and because war is “total,” crusade has little place for surrender. Enemies, because they personify evil, deserve no mercy, those who give up need not be spared. By contrast just war spares those who surrender and protects the rights of those taken as prisoners of war.
- In crusade, the objective of war is to impose an ideal, whereas just war seeks a limited good–the restoration of recognized borders or a balance between conflicting rights.
- Crusade seeks to conquer or punish, whereas just war seeks only to rectify the injustice that warranted entering into conflict.
- Crusade opposes the whole social order and value system of an enemy, so there is no distinction between combatants and noncombatants. In just war it is important to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants.
- In crusade, soldiers go to war with zeal; war is a vocation for saints and soldiers fight a war of religious vision (or ideology) as well as a war of flesh and blood. In just war, soldiers regard the use of force as a tragic necessity and a last resort, and are not agents for religious or ideological transformation as such.
- Crusade requires no declaration of war, whereas just war must be declared by those responsible for the civil order.
- In crusade, the state of war tends to become permanent (because the ideal can never be perfectly realized), whereas in just war hostilities cease when the specific infraction of justice that led to war has been rectified.
Inevitably in our broken world, nations will engage in unjust wars, attacking one another in order to enlarge their kingdoms. The early church father Augustine recognized this sad reality when he wrote:
“Does it displease good men…to provoke with voluntary war neighboring kingdoms (though most wicked) who are peaceable and do no wrong (to neighboring kingdoms), as a way to enlarge one’s own kingdom? If good men feel this way, they are right and I praise them.” (City of God 4.14)
Let us, American Christians, agree with Augustine and make clear to our political leaders that America must not go to war with other nations, no matter how wicked we perceive them to be, unless we are defending an unjust aggression and otherwise meeting the specific criteria for waging a just war. After all, we cannot be crusaders who follow the Prince of Peace.