The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in widespread weariness with war among Americans. This is likely the reason why so many Americans don’t want military intervention in Syria.
Many feel (myself included) that we followed misguided idealism about our ability to export democracy to the Middle East. We crushed dictators and radical terrorists, but our hopes for democracy were also crushed by the harsh realism of division and strife in these parts of the world.
But in our weariness, we must not be complacent about the dangers in the world. We should not allow our exhaustion with overseas wars result in delusional isolationism. There is always potential in a reaction to swing toward opposite extremes.
Whether we like it or not, we are living in a global community. Advanced capabilities in warfare like long range missiles and nuclear power have required us to be global in our concerns and activities. We are also the most powerful nation in the world and with that power is responsibility.
So perhaps this is a good time to review our beliefs about war. Is it possible to have a just war? Could a decision to go to war ever be the best and most loving choice?
If wars are viewed as necessary, at best, most people would consider them necessary evils.
Many Christians feel that, “…resorting to force in certain situations is ‘necessary’ to save the lives of victims of injustice (including ourselves). Yet such actions are also held to be ‘evil’ because warlike acts are ‘inhuman’ and do not follow the model of Christian living found in the life of Jesus” (Darrell Cole, Good Wars, First Things, October 2001).
Those who think this way put war in the category of “dirty hands” morality.
“The thought here is that we cannot both follow Jesus in living nonviolently and be ‘responsible’ citizens at the same time, so we go ahead and behave ‘responsibly’ (i.e., we use force), but we admit that in doing so we get our hands dirty, which calls for repentance. There is no such thing, in this view, as a warlike act that does not demand repentance. So, we commit sinful acts when we use force, even when it is employed for the sake of just ends. Thus warfare is viewed not as a possible positive good but as a necessary evil that taints all who touch it” (Cole).
Others believe that it is possible to have a just war that is Godlike in its purpose and implementation.
“Defenders of Christian Just War doctrine typically argue that we ought to be reluctant to fight wars that lack sufficient moral and rational justification. Defenders of the Just War tradition regret that they live in a world where they have to kill human beings in order to restrain evil; that is to say, they regret the Fall. But they find it to be even more regretful for Christians to stand idly by while people are being abused and killed unjustly” (Cole).
Could the decision to go to war be a loving one? Are there occasions when war is mandated under the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39)?
“When just, war can be a form of love. Where an enemy is perpetuating its horrible holocaust, is it not an act of love that intervenes, even militarily, to prevent that holocaust if a nation has the power to do so? And is not restraint in such cases a display, not of loving pacifism, but of lack of love— of the unwillingness to sacrifice anything for the sake of others? Indeed, such a war may be, according to Calvin, a Godlike act, since God himself restrains evil out of love for his creatures. This is not to say that we fallen human beings can manage to conduct just war perfectly, without sin, the way God conducts himself without sin; it is to say that failure to do the good that is in our power to do may reflect not only a want of courage, but a lack of love.” (Love in Hard Places, D. A. Carson)
A Christian Just War theory must be controlled by the command to love your neighbor as yourself. The following principles will govern this type of war:
- The only just cause for going to war is defense against violent aggression.
- The only just intention is to restore a just peace—just, that is, to friend and foe alike.
- Military force must be the last resort after negotiations and other efforts (e.g. mediation) have been tried and have failed.
- The decision to engage in such a just war must be made by the highest governmental authority.
- The war must be for limited ends (i.e. to repel aggression and redress injustice).
- The means of a just war must be limited by proportionality to the offense. There must be no intentional and direct attack on noncombatants.
- War should not be prolonged where there is no reasonable hope of success within these limits. (D. A. Carson, Love in Hard Places)
“The Christian who fails to use force to aid his neighbor when prudence dictates that force is the best way to render that aid is an uncharitable Christian. Hence, Christians who willingly and knowingly refuse to engage in a just war do a vicious thing: They fail to show love towards their neighbor as well as toward God” (Cole).
Some will insist that it is impossible to have a purely just war where sinful humans are involved. Yet it must be asked if the possibility of wrong motives and actions overthrows the necessity to pursue just ends.
Although this is a fallen and broken world, sometimes aggressive violence must be stopped by principled force. In such cases, as Carson concludes, “…war may be the right thing to do, the moral thing, the loving thing—even if, God help us, war is hellish and inevitably casts up some injustices on all sides.”
See also: Answering Questions about War