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Just War and Pacifism: The Problems

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Posted Monday, January 08, 2007 by Josh Michael
Categories: Theology  
Having looked at some of the issues which affect the question of warfare/theology, I will offer some observations on the weaknesses of the two central options.


While pacifism does a better job of drawing out the sacrificial aspect of the principle of love, it seems difficult to conclude that pacifism, with its predilection toward non-involvement, is sufficiently concerned about the victims of aggression or oppression.  It is an admirable testimony for a pacifist not to respond to violence with violence, but what if a third-party is suffering violence?  Pacifism only seems to be truly meaningful if the pacifist is the object of aggression; a third-party victim is left somewhat high and dry if any witness operate under a conviction of non-violence.  Even if a pacifist alerts or appeals to the appropriate higher authorities, is that providing meaningful love and compassion to a victim?  It is one thing to sacrifice yourself, but it is another matter to sacrifice somebody else. 

Pacifism operates as an individual ethic without much difficulty, but on a corporate/national level, it seems to lose much of the efficacy of its practice.  How does a nation respond non-violently (and perhaps sacrificially) toward a nation committing aggression against another?  What would be the fate of Kuwait in 1990 or Poland in 1939?  And, for those pacifists of the opinion that the duly situated authorities (UN or League of Nations) are the only ones legitimated to act, doesn’t the act of involvement appear problematic?

 Another problem with pacifism is that it requires a positive view of human nature and human inclinations.  It relies upon the conscience of the aggressor for change.  This supposes a natural willingness to do right or to pull back from doing evil on the part of someone who has already begun the commission of evil.  Pacifism, on both the individual and corporate level, seems to minimize the idea of punishment as a consequence of wrongdoing.  Both punishment for wrongdoing and an awareness of the corruption of human nature seem to be part of a complete Biblical ethic. As a corollary to the preceding, pacifism, by understanding the sacrificial example to be universally efficacious, supposes everyone one else to share the values and conscience of pacifism.  This imposition of a moral order is a serious problem.  An aggressor must be sensitive to the same concerns that a pacifist is if pacifism is to work.  Pacifism therefore, is ideal for a group of persons or corporate entities which all share the same values.  But if the moral underpinnings of pacifism have no meaning for a determined aggressor (and consider some of the aggressors of recent world history), what then? In the previous post, I noted that pacifist and just-war use the same terms but with different meanings.  “Justice” is a good example.  For the just war thinker, justice is the motivation for action; for the pacifist it is the motivation for non-resistance.  However, in the Bible, the idea of justice frequently references the defense of the weak and the helpless.  Pacifism is ultimately unable to provide any defense for them.  As above, sacrifice is well and good if the pacifist is the victim, but if the pacifist is the observer, the third-party victim can have no hope for deliverance. Finally, pacifism, by extrapolating from an individual ethic to a corporate/national ethic, fails to adequately distinguish between the state and the individual.  The Bible clearly does.  The Law forbids murder, but requires capital punishment – this is not a contradiction because we recognize that one is directed toward the individual and the other to the nation.  What the state may do, the private citizen may not.  Therefore, it is faulty to limit the state only to that which is permitted to individuals.  

Just War 

I think there are a number of serious problems with just-war thinking/theories as well.  Fundamentally, wars never solve anything.  The outcomes of warfare differ from prior expectations more than any other human endeavor.  So, WWI was known at the time as “the War to end all Wars” and succeeding only in laying the groundwork for another century of conflict.  So warfare itself can only lead to more warfare rather than no warfare. Another obvious problem with just war thought is that the principles of just war have never been consistently and comprehensively applied in any war.  Basic just war tenets include (a) distinctions between combatants and non-combatants, (b) limited war objectives [no unconditional surrender or victory], (c) proportional means, along with several other criteria.  No war has ever met all of the principles and it is somewhat challenging to find a war that has met even one of the principles.  Most wars violate the principle of limited objectives, and nearly all wars of the past century have failed even to make an effort at distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants. So if the principles of just war are not actually applied, it is hard not to be suspicious that they only exist to assuage our consciences.  After all, at least a pretense is better than nothing. Another fundamental problem is that the principles of just war are useless on an individual level.  While pacifism works from the individual to the state, just war works from the state to the individual.  If the state says the war is just, what is the individual to do?  Should he trust the state or media sources in light of the ubiquity of propaganda, disingenuousness, lies, and disinformation?  On the other hand, we have established through war trials that it is no longer acceptable for individuals simply to obey orders and rely upon their superiors.  Thus, the individual is encouraged both to question and to obey.  Recently, just war has begun to suggest that the individual should evaluate the wars of his nation on a case by case basis.  This is probably due to the individualized nature of ethics (and everything else) in the West, and to the uncomfortable realization that many individuals believed they were participating in just conflict by serving the Central Powers, the Axis, or the Communist Bloc. Since the principles of just war are directed to the state, there is very little or nothing to guide an individual soldier at the moment of ethical decision making.  An order to push a button or pull a lever is in one sense an order simply to push or to pull, but on the other hand it is an order to kill and to destroy (if those are the results of said pushing or pulling).  As warfare is increasingly depersonalized and technologized, the act of killing another human being is redefined in impersonal and technological terms.  Just war may contribute to this problem by casting conflict in black and white terms.  Just/injust give way to good/evil.  Once one side is justified and the other demonized, restraint is that much harder to maintain.  Huns, gooks, japs, chinks, krauts, commies – this is how Americans have recently described their opponents.  Where is justice? 

The final, and to my mind, most serious charge against just war is that the principles of just war are utilitarian.  Modern warfare is total warfare, at least between equal states.  This completely upsets the context of just, ergo limited, warfare.  Between equal states, the principles of just war are discarded as soon as they become inconvenient.  Sure, we can afford to try and distinguish between civilians and combatants in Iraq and Afghanistan, but only because the US is not truly threatened.  In WWII, when the West was in real danger, that distinction went out the window as British and American airforces both engaged in obliteration bombing of civilian centers.  States will treat just war principles as a convenience and when there is a conflict between national interest and justice, national interest will always win out.


Monday, January 08, 2007 7:21 AM

Josh wrote: Pumping up my stats by commenting on my own posts...

I failed to mention a couple of key things.

(1) My thanks to Adam Mattison for helping to clarify some of the problems mentioned in the above post.

(2) What do you think?  What are some problems you see?  Or, maybe you think the problems I have listed are not really problems - how about a little feedback?

Monday, January 08, 2007 8:23 AM

Brian wrote: Apples vs. Oranges

Excellent thoughts!

Thank you.

You have addressed the problems of the Just-War and Pacifist positions on very different grounds. The problems you addressed for pacifism concerned the improper interpretation of Biblical teaching. The problems you brought up for justified-war concerned the application of the principles of just-war. The inability of nations to actually carry out a just war does not affect the correctness of a just-war theology. It is a separate, additional issue that deserves to be discussed.

Are there problems with Biblical interpretation for just-war theology like there are for pacifism?

Tuesday, January 09, 2007 3:42 AM

Josh wrote: Clever...too clever...


Your insightful observation has identified what I felt was one of the weaknesses of my critique.  I find objections to some Biblical interpretations that are used to frame pacifist thought, while I fault just-war on a applicational basis.

I came to the conclusion that this is due to the relative relationship that each system has to Scripture.  Pacifism tends to move directly from Scripture to conclusion ("turn the other cheek" means don't respond to violence with violence) while just-war is more inferential ("government bears the sword" means they can punish evildoers which means they can punish evil nations which means they can go to war).  Part of this may lie in that the Bible is more often focused on individuals and their responsibilities rather than states and their responsibilities.  Even the OT's focus upon the nation of Israel does not explicitly give much guidance in how states in general (or non-covenental states) should run.  So any critique of just-war theory must address a system which is based upon the Bible but which is formulated as an ethical package constructed on inference and implication.  This is not a bad thing in and of itself since ethical questions are often resolved on inference and implication (i.e. the Bible never mentions genetic testing).


Tuesday, January 09, 2007 4:31 PM

Brian wrote: 

So are you saying that there is nothing wrong with just-war theory?

It does seem that any critique of just-war theory would need a good straw-man or else someone who is willing to be a target by applying Biblical interpretation to just-war theory.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007 7:44 PM

Josh wrote: 

No, I think my critique indicates the problems I have with just-war theory are rather substantial.  I was trying to indicate that one must approach the analysis in different ways.  I am unpersuaded that the classic and current formulations of just-war theory are sufficiently sound.

Pacifism is one option within the category of Prohibiting War and Just-war is one option within the category of Permitting War.  Each are by far the most popular option within their category and so it makes sense to compare them one to another.  But I don't think that their weaknesses lie in the same areas - their weaknesses tend to complement each other.

I don't think you can apply Biblical interpretation directly to the principles which constitute the framework of just war thinking.  Biblical critiques of "limited war objectives" or something like that would be extremely circuituous.  I think a Biblical critique of just-war would question things more on a wisdom basis rather than on a more exegetical basis.  Or, to say it a more different way, we may be dealing with poorly (in my judgment) contextualized application rather than interpretation.  Does this clarify my earlier comments at all?

Thursday, January 11, 2007 9:22 AM

Brian wrote: 

I will hack a GK Chesterton Quote here, “The Just-war ideal has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”

You said the same thing:

No war has ever met all of the principles and it is somewhat challenging to find a war that has met even one of the principles.  Most wars violate the principle of limited objectives, and nearly all wars of the past century have failed even to make an effort at distinguishing between combatants and non-combatants. So if the principles of just war are not actually applied, it is hard not to be suspicious that they only exist to assuage our consciences.

I would make a distinction between "war" meeting Just-war principles and a nation abiding by these principles - these Geneva conventions. The value of these principles is their power to restrain evil. If our military did not even think about these principles, the destruction, the loss of life would be far greater. I also dispute your assertion that no nation has made an honest effort to wage a just-war, but that discussion should be distinguished from a discussion of the validity of Just-war principles.

Friday, January 12, 2007 9:20 AM

Charlie wrote:  Well, your discussion leads to the obvious question: If both just-war and pacificism do not work and do not accurately reflect biblical ideas, which view do you think is the one that is best?

Friday, January 12, 2007 10:42 AM

Brian wrote: 


It is not time to have an answer yet. We’re just getting this conversation rolling.

Friday, January 12, 2007 2:36 PM

Charlie wrote: 

Ok, Ok, fine. I'll settle for this question.

What are the other views?

Friday, January 12, 2007 2:46 PM

Josh wrote: Other views...

Off the top of my head here is what I can think of (these are only the theologically-informed positions - each would have secular counterparts and there may be other secular-ly-based alternatives).

Prohibitive with respect to war:

Pacifism (with about 10-15 varieties)

Globalist (wants international UN-like body to resolve disputations)

Non-violence (leaves military service to non-believers or will let Christians serve as medics/chaplains)

 Permissive with respect to war:

Just-war (again, many sub-varieties)

Christian Realist (concerned with what is effective but does have a moral element - Paul Ramsey and the Neibuhr who wasn't a pacifist would fall here)

Crusade/Holy War (war is sanctioned by God or warfare can be used proactively rather than only responsively)

Amoral/Total War (warfare is beyond moral suasion, especially modern warfare)

Friday, January 12, 2007 11:52 PM

Brian wrote: Addressing the Principles of Just-War

On of the principles that you listed as part of Just war is limited objectives. By this we mean that  Nation A concludes that Nation B is a dire threat to the safety and security of its people so Nation A invades Nation B in order to eliminate this threat. The successful application of this Just-war principle would be that Nation A doesn't kill any civilians, but decimates Nation B's military.

The question is, "How does this line up with Biblical teaching?"

For starters, this is contrary to how God executes battle. One example from the distant past, and one from the distant future.

When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than yourselves, 2 and when the LORD your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons,  4 for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the LORD would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.
Deuteronomy 7:1-4 (ESV)

On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.  17 Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly directly overhead, "Come, gather for the great supper of God,  18 to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great."  19 And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who was sitting on the horse and against his army.  20 And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur.  21 And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.
Revelation 19:16-21 (ESV)

The principle in both occasions appears to be the same: Utterly destroy your enemies because otherwise they will bring you to corruption. If this seems a little harsh to our 21st century values, take comfort. It seemed too harsh for the Israelites too.

The principle, though, deserves some consideration. You wrote that "warfare itself can only lead to more warfare rather than no warfare." I submit that this is a consequence of tenet (b) limited war objectives [no unconditional surrender or victory].

If war is waged as God wages war there could be lasting peace. Which nation, once it has geared up for conquest, will ever be content to remain sitting within their borders. Annihilation is arguably the only course of action open to Nation A who desires lasting peace.

Sunday, January 14, 2007 4:59 AM

Josh wrote: unconditional objectives and other stuff...


Unconditional objectives/victory has certainly not produced the lasting peace in recent history.  Both WWI and WWII featured unconditional surrender on the part of Central Powers and the Axis.  In each case the imposition of mandated peace terms created vacuums of power and unbalanced geopolitical arrangements that led to subsequent conflicts.  In WWI, the peace treaty at Versailles created so much resentment and hostility in Germany that every author I have seen on the subject cites it as a major factor in bringing about a second global conflict.  It also increased the devolution of governing structures in the Balkans and Africa, two areas where conflict has been pronounced since then.  The peace terms were harsh enough that one element in German society wished to resume conflict.

The unconditional peace of WWII was much better managed but succeeded in allowing the Soviet Union to establish its evil empire with which the United States engaged in conflict hot and cold for 40 years.  Just-war theorists have enuciated these sort of consequences as precisely the reasons why war objectives should be limited and proportional.  In addition, since it is more difficult to establish how justly nations are acting at the time, limited conditions also serve as a damper on unrestrained aggression. 

In regard to the Scripture passages you cite, I don't think that the passages have much of anything to say to nations, other than ancient Israel.  I would suggest that the principle is God utterly destroys His enemies because it is just for Him to do so.  If we were to offer the principle of annihilation as a tenet of a theology of warfare, I fail to see how this restrains violence and promotes justice. 


In response to one of your previous posts, your distinction between judging whether judging a war or a nation is just is helpful.  Just-war theorists have typically responded to criticisms by noting that their principles are met to degrees, rather than absolutely, and that this provides the basis by which to determine who is actly more justly.

By saying that nations don't implement just war theory, I did not intend to imply that nations do not attempt to act justly.  While I don't believe nations actually practice just-war theory in warfare as it is formulated, I do think that nations have tried to act morally and justly in war. 

A problem is, each may operate from different bases of justice and morality.  For the Islamic terrorists, they understand videotaped beheadings, the targeting of innocent civilians, and other abhorrent things to be just.  The US military's attempts to operate in a just fashion are commendable, but they do not attempt to implement just-war theory.  And, since the US military is under the authority of the civilian government, it is really a question of whether the government is using the military in a just fasion.  What is considered to be just changes over the course of a nation's history.  The Spanish-American war at the time was considered by most to be a just intervention on behalf of a suffering oppressed people.  Now it is looked on by a majority of interpreters as media-induced, colonialist aggression.

Sunday, January 14, 2007 1:39 PM

Charlie wrote: War Laws In response to Brian's thoughts about unconditional surrender, Deuteronomy 20 refers to attacks on nations that are far away as different than attacks in Canaan. Those who are far away will only have their warriors killed, while the women and children are kept alive. They are enslaved, but they are still alive. So the unconditional aspect is tightly bound up with the promise of the land.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007 11:01 PM

Brian wrote: Who argues for just-war?


I am trying to understand your criticism of the just-war ideal. You harshest assessment is that “it is hard not to be suspicious that they only exist to assuage our consciences.” This seems to stem from a confusion about who frames just war ideals and their stake in the decision(s) to go to war. Those who are hawks for war, who desired revenge for 9/11 are not bothered by their consciences. They have no inner need to justify waging war. Those who argue for just-war principles recognize the necessity for war, but they seek to constrain the passion for revenge. They have the wisdom to act to remove a threat to the lives of their children, but they want the children of their enemies to live and prosper in peace as well. The just-war ideal is not framed to entice pacifists to embrace the war. The just-war ideal is framed to preserve the character -the humanity- of our fighting men and women who must engage the enemy.

Friday, January 26, 2007 9:33 AM

Josh wrote: 


Thanks for you careful attention to my posts and your continued interest in this topic.  I think that just war theory honestly has the goal of seeking to reduce violence, restrain evil, and protect good.  And it is true that much of my critique of just war focused on poor implementation or application of just war principles.  My comment about the principles "existing to assuage our consciences" was made in reference to the many failures of nations in recent history to be serious about applying principles of just war theory (or even justice) on a consistent basis.  In studying history, it seems inescapable that nations in warfare will sacrifice principle, restraint, justice, or any other ideal in order to achieve victory.  In the affairs of nations, geo-political realities always trump ideals.  So if nations only reference just-war when it is convenient, it is hard not to be cynical.And, I think we can question whether just-war is still applicable to the modern world order.  Just war theory was initiated by Augustine in the context of a universal empire under some degree of Christian influence confronting the aggression of generally pagan barbarian peoples.  Just war was further refined by Augustine who lived in the context of many kingdoms, principalities, ducal holdings, and fiefdoms with no national consciousness and a temporally powerfully church whose word and will could be effective as law.  Just-war theory has only undergone the most cosmetic of changes since then and now we live in a world of nation-states of divergent culture and beliefs.  Is just-war, as traditionally formulated, still meaningful in such changed circumstances?  For instance, just war theory has always forbidden preemptive attacks – it allows defensive engagement only.  So, the Iraq War violates one of the tenets of just-war theory in how a nation might enter into war, yet many would hold that just engagement can be maintained through preemptive engagement.

My criticisms of just-war theory do not mean that I think principles of justice should not be applied to warfare.  I think on both that national and individual level, principles of justice and humanity must be maintained.  I am not persuaded that the traditional formulations of just war theory can accomplish this satisfactorily.

Thursday, March 15, 2007 5:34 PM

Anonymous wrote: Contradictory?

"The Law forbids murder, but requires capital punishment – this is not a contradiction because we recognize that one is directed toward the individual and the other to the nation.  What the state may do, the private citizen may not.  Therefore, it is faulty to limit the state only to that which is permitted to individuals."

Capital punishment is not murder; it is killing, just as killing in self-defense is not murder. This is the reason that capital punishment and murder are not contradictory.

What do you mean by "one is directed toward the individual and the other to the nation?"  You use this statement to lead to your next premise that the state may do what the citizen may not. Then you state that it is faulty to limit the state to only that which is permitted by individuals. With this logic, the state may do anything that is illegal for a citizen, including rape, genocide, etc. So, if I alone wanted to take your wife by force, that would be stealing, kidnapping, and rape, and illegal. But if I were the king of a monarchy, and therefore the head of the state and the maker and exector of all laws, then I could make a lw and legally take your wife. This is legal only because the state (the king, in this case) has powers that I as an individual do not possess. And, by the way, kings and lords did this sort of thing on many occassions. Also, the form of government is irrelevant. This could happen in a democracy as well, and it has.

Monday, March 19, 2007 12:15 PM

Anonymous wrote: Just War is a Myth There is no such thing as a just war. Are not all aggressive acts of violence that result in death considered murder? Only defensive violence is justified. All wars have and aggressor, therefore, all wars are unjust. All aggressors are unjust. On the other hand, self defense is just. No one, not even Jesus, expects Christians to offer their heads rather than defend themselves. The idea is ludicrous. My point is that you can't look at a war as a whole and say that it is just or unjust. You can only say that in any particular war the aggressor is unjust, and the defender is just. The aggressor is trying to use force to get what he wants, and this is wrong. Just and unjst are really other words for right and wrong, or good and bad/evil.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007 11:29 AM

Eric wrote: A few thoughts

I thought that I might add a few thoughts which I think are relevant here.

First is that the Bible does not really address war, either for or against.   It merely makes the assertion that there will be war and that it is and will be used for God's purposes.  This really burens those that want to justify war and seek to soften its impact.  The reality is that war, by definition, is antrocity and I think it may well fall under the same moral category as a natural disaster.  

I do think that some positive strides have resulted from Christian thinking.  While Josh noted above that despite ascertions to the contrary, little distinction has been made between combatants and non-combatants.  This is patently false.  Great effort has been made by many combating nations to minimize collateral damage.  The fact that not every nation participates does not mean that strides in this area have not been made.  For example, every American soldier is required to carry "Rules of Engagement" which serve to minimize injury to non-combatants.

I think it is also important to indicate that one of the great challenges in current conflicts is in the fact that they do not fit into the categories we want them to.   Iraq today is not at war, nor are we.  We are in the midst of armed conflict, which is very different.  One of the key differences, and the biggest challenge, is that we do not have defined combatants.  The insurgency specifally violates the articles of the Geneva Convention and the Law of Land Warfare.

In response to the last blogger, no, not all acts of violence resulting in death are considered murder.   In fact, few are.  If a child kills an adult in self-defense, it that murder?  How about an adult; is self defense resulting in death murder?  By extrapolation, is preventing genecide resulting in the deaths of many soldiers, justifiable?  We cannot loose sight of the fact that our faith is in part based on the idea that the horror of death is sometimes required for the salvation of many or one. 

Thursday, March 22, 2007 12:36 PM

Anonymous wrote: Justifiable?

"the Bible ... merely makes the assertion that ...war ... is and will be used for God's purposes."

Which, of course, is not true. Most wars are made to plunder wealth. 

 "The reality is that war ... may well fall under the same moral category as a natural disaster."

 Meaning what? That war is unavoidable? Or that war is a disaster made by man, who is part of nature and therefore man and his creations are natural?

"Iraq today is not at war, nor are we. We are in the midst of armed conflict, which is very different."

Then, please define "war and "armed conflict." I assert that we are at war. We do have defined combatants, but they are not playing by our rules. They hide within the civilian population and use guerilla tactics, much like the colonists of the American Revolution. They also use terror tactics, much like the British in the American Revolution.

"In response to the last blogger, no, not all acts of violence resulting in death are considered murder."

I'm glad we agree here. 

"By extrapolation, is preventing genecide resulting in the deaths of many soldiers, justifiable?"

Ah, yes. THAT is the question! Are we justified to attack a sovereign nation in order to free its people from an unjust government? I submit that it is the responsibility of oppressed people to fight for their own freedom. It is their civil war, not ours. 

Thursday, March 22, 2007 9:02 PM

Eric wrote: 

You bring up some interesting points, but I think you are off on some things. 

If you look at Scripture, you find numerous instances where God uses war.  He uses war in Joshua to bring His people into their new land.  In fact their failure to follow God's instructions fully led to problems in the future.  God used war later to correct Israel and bring them back into a right relationship with Him.

The comparison between war and natural disaster stems from our viewpoint, which is decidedly lacking.  I cannot explain why God would create a volcanoe and allow it to destroy so much of His creation because I am not God and cannot define good or evil for myself.  Nor can I understand why God would allow the devistation of war to exist.  I can only assert that God is good and all things can and do serve His purposes in spite of our best efforts to the contrary.

I was asked to define war and to draw a distinction between that and armed conflict.  War is essentially a declared state of agression between two or more recognized political entities with uniformed military personnel.  Our initial status with Iraq was one of war, but that ended with the destruction of their political system.  An armed conflict is any ongoing conflict involving weapons.  The differences between these two states are extreme.  The role of the soldier in Iraq today is not to conquer but to protect the people of Iraq, the infrastructure and the new political body.  You are incorrect to say we have a defined combatant, because we don't.  To the soldier in Iraq, the enemy can only be identified as the one that is shooting at you.

 You are also incorrect about Revolutionary War.  America did have standing armies.  There were atrocities committed on both sides, as there always are in wars, but the battle for independence was legitimately fought for the most part.  Soldiers at the time did not use human shields, they did wear uniforms and their attacks were directed at military targets. 

The insurgents in Iraq fail on all of these counts, but there is also one other key difference; their goal is simply to horrify people into submission.  The goal of a soldier is military defeat.

 Civil war is tragic, and I would agree that it is probably not a good idea to get involved unless real national interests are resting on the outcome.  Genecide is not, however, civil war.  Genecide is the attempt of one racial, political or religious group to wipe out another that is incapable of their own self defense.  Standing by to let it happen is no less cowardly and morally repugnant than watching a little old lady be beaten on a street corner and walking away.

 But most of this is a digression from the real goal of this blog which is to develop a Biblical understanding of war.  So what does the Bible say of war in your mind?


Monday, March 26, 2007 11:05 AM

Josh wrote: in response...

Having been absent for quite some time, I will endeavor to respond to a couple of points/posts.


This is an egregious example of ripping material out of context (capital punishment was obviously not the issue in question).  The original point (still valid) is that Christian pacifism equates the ethical parameters of both the state and the individual.  The Law gives the state permission to kill but denies that permission to individuals (with the "avenger of blood" exception in Num 35), thus suggesting that the preceding is an invalid or questionable premise on which to base Christian pacifism.

 Just war is a myth...

Aggression must be a myth too since even the "aggressors" justify their action on the basis of defensive/response principles.  Hitler claimed the Danzig incident justified invading Poland.  Serbia claimed the assassintation of Ferdinand justified invading Montenegro.  These responses in self-defense led to World Wars I and II and perhaps 200 million deaths.  Determining right and wrong on the basis of self-defense in this way will often turn into a question of who has the more believable story.

And, with respect to the claim that "self-defense is just...and not even Jesus expects Christians to offer their heads rather than defend themselves" - we might recall Mt 5:39 "But I tell you not to resist an evil person, whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also."  So Jesus does expect us to offer rather than defend.  The question is when and how much.  A Christian pacifist would of course say always and everything - self-defense is never morally acceptable within that framework (at least for the more rigid forms of pacifism).

A few thoughts...

There are some good observations here.  The Bible does not address warfare explicitly, especially through our categories and questions.  It is also worth noting that there is a lot of conflict language and imagery and the Bible does not deny the reality of war as a part of the world in which we live.  You are right to note that the current state of affairs in Iraq and perhaps in other late-20th and early 21st century conflict is that it doesn't fit the traditional categories.  This has proven to be a major challenge for classic just war thinking and is in large measure responsible for the need to consider the traditional alternatives to see whether they retain their validity.

I do think you are throwing in a red herring by maintaining that we are engaged in armed conflict and not a war.  That sort of distinction is pointless.  War/conflict takes on many forms and its refusal to abide by definitions or standards does not change the questions or our moral obligations.

Also, with respect to combatant/non-combatant distinctions, I originally stated that "we can affored to distinguish between civilians and combatants in Iraq and Afganistan..." so I recognize that we are making an effort to avoid non-combatant casualties.  But this is a case of the discussion being warped by reference only to current events.  Regardless of what occurred on the level of the individual, we often have opted on the strategic level to void distincitions between combatants and non-combatants.  The most obvious examples are the use of obliteration bombing and atomic weapons during WWII.  Nuclear weapons being entirely indiscriminate, any use of them denies distincition between soldier and civilian - our entire strategic outlook from Eisenhower on was based upon the potential use of these weapons.  And, we might consider the use of poison gas during WWI and Agent Orange during the Vietnam War to be other examples of the usage of non-discriminating weaponry.

My point was that we can afford to distinguish between combatant and non-combatants in Iraq because we do not perceive the survival of the US to be at stake, despite the loss of many human lives.  In the other cases I have cited, such distinctions have been dropped as the stakes rise.  If this war was at our border and not the other side of the world, we would drop the "Rules of Engagement" in favor of a better chance at survival.  National self-interest or pragmatic considerations will trump moral concerns.


Regardless of human motivations for engaging in conflict, the purposes of God will be accomplished.  It may be in the same category as natural disasters because it represents the outbreak of disharmony that is a consequence of a fallen world.

The comments about the American Revolution repeat some of the pernicious myths associated with that conflict.  The Americans, as Eric noted, field standing armies throughout the conflict and engaged the British with European style tactics in European style battles.  They sought out trained European military instructors so that their armies could engage the British in open warfare.  Guerilla warfare actually dates from the Spanish uprising against Napoleon from 1808-1814 (it being the diminuitive form of the Spanish guerra meaning 'war', hence guerilla meaning 'little war').  Terror tactics were primarily employed by the non-regular forces on both sides both patriot and loyalist, primarily in the South where support for the revolution was only about 50%.  Of course, terror tactics were employed on the frontier (Kentucky, western PA and NY) both by and against the Indian forces allied with the combatants.

Guerilla warfare and civil war are both interesting but complicated questions within the larger category of war, so answering those requires a construction of an ethic of warfare first.

Monday, March 26, 2007 12:15 PM

Anonymous wrote: Cheek Slapping Are you saying that Christian pacifists base their belief in pacifism on Jesus saying "when slapped, turn the other cheek?"  Is cheek slapping a euphomism for "all agressive acts?" I don't believe this is true. If it were true, why did Jesus tell his followers to buy swords to protect their purse?  Also, why do we take an "eye for an eye?" When Jesus was talking about a "slap," he meant a slap, not a beating with a stick, not an attack with a knife, etc. Jesus said what he means, he did not use euphomisms. This is what I believe, and therefore, I believe pacifism is not a Christian-based belief, nor a Jesus-based belief, but a belief of the liberal-left.

Monday, March 26, 2007 5:08 PM

Eric wrote: 

Josh, I appreciate your comments.  You are wrong about the red herring though.  There are some really big differences between an armed conflict and declared war.

    1. Armed conflict may involve anyone, war is specifically between soldiers and countries.

    2. The goal of war is destruction of the enemy to accomplish a diplomatic goal.  There is no such goal in armed conflict.  As frequently as not, one party is a completely innocent civilian.

    3. The missions are radically different.  The mission sets for war include occupation, destruction of assets and siezure of land.  The mission sets for Stability and Support Operations are things such as protection of civilian personnel and assets, presence patrols and the rebuilding of key utilities.

    4. One is a sword and the other a scaple.  In other words, the goal of movement, for example, in war is shock and awe.  You want to overwhelm the opposition.  The goal of movement in armed conflict (or SASO) is often to lend comfort to the civilian population and to supress potential lawlessness.

    5.  The rules of engagement are radically different.  In war, if it moves, you shoot it.  In the SASO context, the rules of engagement may say, shoot if person presents a weapon or shoot only if shot at.  

While it may seem like symantics to a civilian, to a soldier the difference between these two is extreme.  One of the problems with the coverage of modern day military conflict is that the media fails to make such distinctions.  Those distinctions make a big difference in the justification of presence.  It is one thing to say that we need to leave because we are in a war we cannot win, but quite another to say that we cannot leave these people to the dogs. 

Friday, March 30, 2007 7:39 AM

Josh wrote: Pacifism and the liberal left...

Christian pacifism, of course,  predates the liberal-left by about 17 or 18 centuries depending on your reference points.  And, most importantly, those of the liberal-left that advocate pacifism certainly do not advocate Christian pacifism.  Just because I oppose abortion and Pope Benedict the 16th? (I am a little fuzzy on the number) opposes abortion does not make me Roman Catholic.  Any sort of familiarity with the literature on the early church's attitude toward warfare will indicate that the majority of the references from the 2nd or 3rd century are in opposition to military service.  Now, it is certainly true that a coherent pacifist ethic was not in existence at that point, neither was any alternative.  Christian pacifism legitimately traces its roots through the early church.  So,historically speaking, pacifism (for lack of a better term) is a valid and long-standing option for Christians. 

Christian pacifists base their pacifism on a wider foundation that "turning the other cheek", but that expresses the sort of ethic that is at the heart of pacifism.  If you happen to believe that turning the other cheek is applicable only to those situations when we find ourselves the recipients of a slap, then it is curious to cite Jesus' instruction to buy a sword for protecting our purse.  I presume you mean that this means for self-defense 21st century Christians can only own edged weapons of between 24 and 48 inches (since Jesus doesn't use euphemisms and says what he means).  Also, since Jesus says "if someone strikes you on the right cheek" we can do whatever the heck we want if we get slapped on the left cheek.  And I would have to assume that most Christians are living in disobedience by not plucking out their eyes and cutting off their own hands (10 verses earlier in the passage from Matthew 5).  And an eye for an eye - are malpractice partitioners subject to shoddy surgeries or do vandals get graffeti sprayed on their possessions? 

 Real language involves the frequent, almost constant, use of figures of speech, metaphors, and expressions.  The Bible is written in real language and includes all the characteristics of reall language.  Figurative language is really difficult to wade through and determining its application is rather challenging.  There are much better points on which to critique pacifism (its response to 3rd party victims being the most notable).  I think that Matt 5:39 - "Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other cheek" - sets a challenging critique for contemporary American Christianity, particular in how quick we are to take offense, both on an individual level and a community level.  We have all these Christian legal foundations that are more than willing to bring lawsuits over any issue that arises.  We are unable abide a church policy that doesn't accord with what we want. 

Wednesday, April 04, 2007 6:40 AM

Josh wrote: War vs. conflict...


I should have clarified my comment a bit more perhaps.  I was attempting regardless of distinctions in mission, objectives, rules of engagement, etc., armed conflict and declared war both occupy the category of warfare and the ethical and moral obligations stemming from a Christian ethic or position will be the same for both.  That is, generally speaking, a pacifist theology will allow participation in neither, and a just-war theology would permit participation in either sort as long as the criteria for just-war are met.  In fact, I think that the just war criteria are typically formulated in such a way as to be applicable to either of the two above as well as nearly any other variety of warfare.

A Christian theology of warfare must be able to handle any sort of conflict/war, regardless of specific variety.  An article in a recent First Things suggested that there have been 4 separate conflicts in Iraq of which two are still ongoing.  I don't know if that sort of parsing is accurate or helpful, but it did play into the distinguishing-between-types-of-conflict idea that you raised.

Regarding the points of distinction that you raise - it may be worth noting these are based on current American military definitions or responses so we might want to consider to what extent these are or need to be universalized.  For example, very few nations (primarily Western ones and then not always consistently) have chosen to err on the side of caution when it comes to identifying combatants.  Many have opted for the approach of no distinction - believing that bringing hardship and terror upon the civilian population is efficacious at causing them to turn on those combatants hiding among them.  So in armed conflicts (often labeled counter-insurgencies) like the Philippine-American War, the Algerian War of Indepence, the Spanish Insurrection against Napoleon, the various resistance movements in occupied Europe and Russia in WWII, portions of Vietnam, and most African wars of the past 50 years, civilians have actually been more at risk than during "declared-war" conflicts.  And, a war can often include multiple elements (declared war, armed conflict, others) perhaps distinguished by chronology (Philippine-American War) or geography (US Civil War - compare conflict in Missouri and Kansas especially in 1863-1864 to the rest of the war).

With respect to #2, I think we can say that the goal of both is victory or success, but that such success is defined differently.  And, destruction of the enemy is probably better labeled as an objective rather than a goal (with the goal being victory and understanding objectives to be ways of reaching a goal).  Just-war tradition has historically been very careful about ultimate goals and purposes in war (emphasizing restorative justice) and I think that a very strong case could be made that destruction of the enemy is not a legitimate goal within the framework of just-war thinking.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007 9:57 AM

Eric wrote: 

Josh, your responses are elightening as always.  I really appreciate the thoughtfulness that you bring to the table. 

 After I had posted that response regarding the definitions of Armed Conflict vs War, I realized that I had forgotten to put into the response why I felt that distinction was relevant for the discussion at hand.  I believe that there is a significant moral difference between the two.  

In Armed Conflict, the soldier is typically armed and prepared, but is not actively engaged in combat.  Essentially, beyond presence, this is one of the lowest levels of threat.  Other than the fact that the soldier is uniformed, he is as neutral as a civilian would be.  

In warfare, the soldier is morally obligated to kill the enemy, and to expect the enemy will try to do the same.  Those are the rules of the game.  By the rules of warfare,  the person doing the killing is morally justified in the action.

In Armed Conflict, however, there is no such obligation.  When a soldier is killed in this case, it is murder.  If the soldier kills in this case, it would typically be morally classified as self defense.

 These distintions are not based on American military definitions, but they are, as far as I know, Western.

Does this make more sense?

There are certainly forms pacifism do not allow for self defense.  Am I correct in assuming that most do allow for self defense?

You are correct to point out that the distinctions that I raise are not universally recognized.  The Geneva Conventions and the establishment of the Laws of Landwarfare on not accepted by militants being faced in the Middle East today.  This is one of the points that has been raised by many current writers in regards to the military challenges being faced by America and most Westernized nations.  We are essentially playing by two different rules books with two different goals.  But that raises the level of conversation here to a new level that may be beyond the scope of this blog.

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