Focus – A “Just War”

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by Dr. James Read –
Director – Salvation Army Ethics Center

As I write this column, NATO forces are dropping bombs on Yugoslavia. A few months ago, I hardly knew Kosovo existed, let alone that it has been the scene of racial and religious conflict between Serbs and Albanians for centuries. Now, as part of NATO, my country is at war. To make it more personal: our tax dollars are paying for missiles that our elected representatives are telling our countrymen to drop on Belgrade.

It makes you stop and think, doesn’t it? Is it right to be fighting in the Balkans? Would it be wrong not to be? Christians need to be asking hard questions. But how do we answer them?

For Christians who want to think biblically, going to war is always a challenge. Unlike Moses or Mohammed, Jesus was not a military leader. He talked of turning the other cheek and loving the enemy (Matthew 5). When he was unjustly arrested, he rebuked Peter for using a dagger to defend him (John 18).

Critics sometimes like to equate pacifism with cowardice. They’re wrong! It’s the words and example of Jesus that lie behind the radical pacifism of the Mennonites, Amish and other Anabaptists. I live in the city that is home to the largest concentration of Mennonites in the world. They are here because their forebearers were exiled from various places in Europe for the boldness of their “peace witness.” Some were killed because they would not kill.

Christian pacifism is an ethical position that ought to be taken seriously. According to Colonel Shaw Clifton, who wrote his Ph.D. thesis on the issue, prominent Salvationists from Bramwell Booth and Carvosso Gauntlett on, have either been pacifists or have leaned that way.

It is not the position I hold, however. I am more convinced of another strain within Christian ethics that goes under the name of “Just War.” According to this way of thinking, although armed conflict is always in need of justification, it can sometimes be justified.

The Bible says that God has established government in order to secure and maintain justice in the world (Romans 13). The Bible also says that society is wrong if it does not protect “widows, orphans, and displaced persons” i.e. those at risk for being abused by the powerful (Jeremiah 22:3). In line with this teaching, Christian thinkers have over time articulated seven conditions of a “Just War:”

1. Violations of important rights must have occurred.

2. The war must be declared and conducted by a legitimate state authority (individuals fight, but it is only a group decision that makes the fight a war).

3. In declaring and waging the war, the intentions of the state must be good.

4. Only right means must be used in conducting the war.

5. War must be a last resort; efforts to right the original wrongs by diplomacy, for example, must have been tried and failed.

6. There must be a reasonable hope of victory.

7. The probable good must outweigh the probable evil effects of the war.

As we listen to the reports from the NATO leaders or read accounts in the newspapers, we can detect elements of “just war” reasoning. There is no question that ordinary “ethnic Albanians” whose home is Kosovo have been systematically targeted for abuse and torture (meaning that condition 1 is satisfied). Diplomacy, economic sanctions, and threats of war were tried for years, but seemed only to harden the resolve of the Belgrade government of Milosevic to rid the land of any but Serbs (condition 5). So, NATO, a duly constituted alliance of sovereign states (condition 2), made good on its threat. The reason for doing so is to protect the rights of the Albanian Kosovars (condition 3). Non-combatants are being spared; the bombing is targeted at military installations, not residential neighborhoods, in Belgrade and elsewhere. When civilians are injured or killed by a stray missile, NATO apologizes, for it is their declared intention to spare innocent people (condition 4). Victory, though perhaps longer coming than first estimated, is assured; the “ethnic Albanians” will return from the refugee camps and Milosevic will be unable to inflict more injustice on them in the future (cond. 6 and 7).

To do this analysis I have to count on information given to me. I have to trust. Trust the government. Trust the journalists. We have no other way, since few of us have any first-hand knowledge of what’s happening. Trusting in itself is not a bad thing, but sometimes I get suspicious because the fit between the reports and the theory of “just war” seems too good to be true. I doubt that any war up to now has been perfectly clean, and it would be naïve to think that in this one all the evil is on Milosevic’s side. Or all the good on ours. I found it jarring, for example, to see Serbians gathered in church in Belgrade to celebrate Easter, to confess Jesus’ power over death and Satan, on a morning when NATO bombs fell nearby.

The justification for supporting the war or for taking a stand for principled pacifism is neither an easy matter nor a once-for-all-time thing. Christians need to be thinking these things through as issues of conscience, and where possible thinking about them as a Christian community.

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