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4 Reasons Just War Just Doesn’t Work

4 Reasons Just War Just Doesn’t Work
Posted by Patrick Miller

If you advocate for Christian non-violence, expect to be charged with idealism. As one friend told me, 

“If you look at the real world, you’ll have to admit that there will be no end to violence. If Christians remove themselves from the military, that violence will only get worse. Moreover, there is nothing Christian about standing aside while innocent people are slaughtered by unjust rulers and individuals. You just want to benefit from the security that violence provides without getting your own idealistic hands dirty.”

Ouch. I take these accusations seriously, and wrestle with them in our latest episode (link to third just war episode).

But given that my friend’s view seems self-evident to the average Christian (it seemed to be the obvious truth to me for a long time), I think it’s important to turn the verbal cannon in the other direction and explore the alternative: Just War theory. Does it weather the charge of idealism any better than Christian non-violence? Is Just War theory the realistic option for committed Christians?

What is Just War Theory?

Just War theory is a set of principles laid out by early(ish) Christian thinkers, beginning with Ambrose and Augustine, which articulates the circumstances in which a nation or individual may justly go to war. The goal of just war is the establishment of a just, ordered society. Generally, theorists say nations or groups should make these five considerations before they go to war.

  1. Just cause: A just war must rectify or prevent injustice. 
  2. Right intention: A just war must advance good or resist evil. A just war cannot be waged in the name of national pride or wealth, or for the sake of territorial expansion. 
  3. Proper authority: Private citizens cannot declare war, only state authorities.
  4. Reasonable chance of success: Wars cost tremendous loss of life, so it is important not to waste lives by starting a war you cannot win.
  5. Last resort: All non-violent options have been exhausted, and warfare is all that remains.

Just War theory also shapes how nations go about warfare in two key ways.

  1. Proportionality: The degree of force should never be greater than what is necessary. 
  2. Avoid noncombatants: In all wars, noncombatants will be killed, but just warfare does everything it can to prevent it.

4 Reasons Just War Theory is Idealistic

Now it’s time to get practical. Do the ideals laid out in Just War theory actually work in real life? No. Here are four (of many) examples:

  1. There has never been a just war. As any Just War theorist will admit, no war has ever met all seven criteria. This is for the simple reason that warfare is carried out by sinful humans. Noncombatants will die unnecessarily. Force will be out of proportion at times. 

    But theorists will point out that these are principles, not a checklist. They are guideposts, not ethical standards. But where exactly do those guideposts point, if you’re free to leave any one, two, or three of them out? How useful is a wall over which anyone may hop? How many principles may be ignored before the war turns unjust?

    If no war fully qualifies as a just war, then isn’t just war an ideal? A theory? Yes, it is. Because in reality, there is no such thing as a just war.

  2. Just War theory is highly subjective. One of the problems is that every category of just war is open to interpretation. Let me offer two examples:

    A) A just war can only be waged by a proper authority. So was the American Revolution an unjust war? Did the American revolutionaries have the legitimate authority to wage war against the Crown? Most Americans today feel they did, but King George III would’ve disagreed. The truth is in the eye of the beholder.

    B) Do drone strikes avoid non-combatants or kill them at an unacceptable rate? Again, it depends on who you’re talking to. Some people celebrate drones for minimizing death by targeting individuals. Others point to the fact that 500 children and 2,200 civilians died in strikes that took the lives of 14,000 combatants. So how many civilians can drones kill before we declare drone warfare unjust? Again, it’s in the eye of the beholder.

    Every principle of Just War is subjective. This means that there is no such thing as a just war; there are just people arguing about whether their war is just. In other words, it’s an ideal, and a dangerously subjective one at that.

  3. Just War theory often defends both sides of the trench. Whether it’s the American Civil War or World War II or the Gulf War, Just War theorists have admitted that both sides could make the case that they were executing a just war. Of course, this doesn’t mean that they achieved all seven principles—remember, no one does that—but subjectively, they might have achieved four out of seven.

  4. Just War is rhetoric, not substance. Christians did not invent Just War. It came to us from Aristotle, through Roman orator Cicero. The orator understood that Roman wars were not always popular, and thus sought to justify them to the populace. He used Aristotle’s principles to do just that. Conversely, when he did not like a war, he could use Just War theory to resist it.

    Cicero understood the truth about Just War theory: it’s useful for making an argument to defend your actions. Why? Because it doesn’t actually exist in reality. It’s a Play-Doh theory that can easily be molded to fit the situation. 

Anyone who advocates for Just War theory must seriously consider whether they’ve bought into a rhetorical game. They must consider whether their theory actually works in reality, or if it creates an unreachable ideal that quietly justifies the horrors of war.

Want to hear the rebuttal from a Christian Just War theory supporter? Then check out our recent episode where Keith presents his argument for the defense of just war.


Posted by Patrick Miller

Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth Over Tribe, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.

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