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Just war is just gone

KEVIN HARGADEN :: One of the titles that Christians have given Jesus since the very earliest days is ‘Prince of Peace’. And one of the longest running disputes in the history of the church has been how to live faithfully as a follower of this particular prince in a world marred by war. The story of how Christians came to a compromise with the pragmatic realities of living in societies that go to battle can be described in a short hand: the just war theory.

Developed initially under Cicero, theologians like Augustine, Aquinas, and Grotius have taken the question of the warrant for war and rotated it around the imperative to love. The words of the great Anglican theologian Oliver O’Donovan can appear shocking: “In the context of war we find in its sharpest and most paradoxical form the thought that love can sometimes smite, and even slay” but must be understood as an audacious philosophical protest against the alternative: that anything goes on the battlefield as long as you survive.

It appears on the surface to be an utter repudiation of the Gospel of Peace for Christians to ever have considered war, but at the pinnacle moments in this tradition, it can be clearly seen to be an attempt to love the neighbour. Christians, thus, would argue that in World War II, for example, they were not fighting against Germany, but fighting for Germans, in a situation where there was no other recourse but battle and to have avoided that conflict would have been to abandon their neighbours to a murderous cult that was intent on making hell on Earth.

It is fair to say that the Christian default position about war has, for a very long time, been determined by this framework. The claims for war were judged in advance by a set of questions – do you have a just cause, do you have right authority, do you have the right intention, are your aims proportionate, is it a last resort, do you have a reasonable hope of success, and will your efforts be aimed at a lasting peace, not just a cessation of conflict. The tradition also challenged those who did decide to go to war. The methods of war you pursue must always be proportionate and you must always distinguish combatants from non-combatants and protect those not engaged.

When you lay out the criteria, it is clear that a high bar was, in theory, established. The historical case can be made that rather than offering the surreptitious approval of war, this tradition limited the otherwise endless hunger for violent conflict. This interpretation is supported by the fact that a man who killed in war was still considered to have sinned. In an imperfect world, war may be justified, but it is not therefore righteous.

This defence of just war theory might make sense on its own terms, but any discussion of this tradition has to recognise the ways in which it fell short and it was easily exploited. After all, the same spiritual tradition that created this fine intellectual structure was at the same time setting out on the Crusades! And because the criteria are so open, they are easily manipulated. It would be an interesting project to find out if there was ever a war fought that wasn’t defended on just war terms! In recent weeks, the American Catholic journal even featured a prominent figure in the American church seeking to defend the decision to drop atomic weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The great Jesuit, Pedro Arrupe, survived the Hiroshima bomb. He described the aftermath as a “huge lake of fire” which “blew Hiroshima to smithereens”.

This question is deeply relevant for Christians today because warfare in the last century has shifted to a position where – like with the use of atomic weaponry – fundamental assumptions of the just war theory no longer obtain. In an era of biological, nuclear, and chemical weaponry, when torture is used even by leading democracies, when surveillance technologies are ubiquitous and we are on the verge of machine-led killing, the old theory is showing its age. Whatever merits there might have been in thinking this way when a war was conducted by two monarchs deploying battalions of men in fields at a set time, they are irrelevant when insurgency, counter-insurgency, and total war are the order of the day.

Accordingly, the trend in Christian thinking over recent decades has been decisively towards non-violence. Many prominent church leaders and theologians have articulated a renewed commitment to a pacifism – we might call it “Christological non-violence” if we felt like being pretentious – which is deeply compelling from a theological perspective ». It has seemed at times as if the church is returning to the default position of the earliest Christians encapsulated by Tertullian, who argued, “the Lord, by taking away Peter’s sword, disarmed every soldier thereafter.”

This hunch is substantiated by Pope Francis’ third encyclical, Fratelli tutti, published a fortnight ago. Many have commented on the merits of this letter, but relatively little attention has been paid to the significant emphasis that Francis gives to peace. In 2017, Pope Francis called on Christians to “make nonviolence our way of life” » and in Fratelli tutti we see an implication of that take shape. Granting that a war might still be theoretically justified, Francis is clear that it more commonly justified on counterfeit grounds: “by invoking all sorts of allegedly humanitarian, defensive or precautionary excuses.” Alluding to a famous speech made by Pope Paul VI to the United Nations in 1965 », Francis says “Never again war!”

But he also says the time is now passed for just-war thinking. The age in which we live is marked by “an uncontrollable destructive power over great numbers of innocent civilians.” Because of these historical developments, war can no longer be countenanced as a viable solution. As a result of that judgement, the historical development that is just war theory should now be laid aside. “In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war’” (§258).

These are not abstract ideas. Fratelli tutti was published days after the 19th anniversary of the Allied occupation of Afghanistan. Francis talks in the encyclical of a “third world war fought piecemeal” and whether in Yemen or Armenia, Congo, or Colombia, it is hard to put your finger on the globe and not find outright hostilities or the threats and rumours of war. This week, two men – Colm Roddy (78) and Dave Donnellan (60) – are standing trial in Dublin Circuit Court for criminal damage. The charges relate to an attempt they made in May, 2016, to interrupt the use of Shannon Airport as a way-station for American military transport networks. Armed “with a crucifix” », they allegedly caused €3,500 in property damage by cutting a fence with bolt-cutters and spraying red crosses on the runway ». Whether Roddy and Donnellan are found guilty of a crime – although there is international precedent that recognises the right of non-violent protests similar to the ones they carried out » – remains to be seen. But the witness of such peace activism has testified to the truth of “active non-violence” in so profound a way, we might even suggest it has shifted the global church.

Just war theory emerged as a compromise when the church found itself, quite surprisingly, at the centre of political power. That Fratelli tutti can so resoundingly move beyond that position might have ecclesial implications far beyond non-violent activism against war. A church dislocated from the centre of power is, after all, a church relocating among the marginalised.