Statement on Just War and Its Contemporary Implications

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By: 
George Packard

The following paper was delivered to the Clericus of the Diocese of Vermont
Randolph, Vermont, November 19, 2002 by Bishop George Packard

Before beginning, and for the record, let me list the generally agreed upon basics of 
Just War.

A Just War should:

Be executed as a last resort. 

Waged by a legitimate authority.

Fought with the right intention to redress an injury.

Have a reasonable chance of success.

Have the ultimate goal of re-establishing peace. 

Violence employed must be proportional to the injury suffered. 

Weapons used must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants.

(The above seven tenets are summarized from Thomas Aquinas's position on Just War.

When discussing "Just War", a proposition and set of principles inherited from classical philosophy via Saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, there is always the persistent and accompanying question, "Does it still have a part to play in the contemporary striving of humanity to reduce the risk of war? Can it legitimize a Christian non-pacifist position?"

In the preparation of this statement from our Office we have used a variety of sources. Primarily the Internet will produce any number of materials on Just War. We encourage you to log on to begin your own helpful accumulation. Additionally these three specific resources are extremely helpful:

  • Chapter Four of the book, "Demanding Peace. Christian Responses to War and Violence." by A.E. Harvey, SCM Press, 1999. (This collaboration with members of the Council on Christian Approaches to Defense and Disarmament and the Church Peace Forum, provides a succinct overview of "Just War" in the immediate post Gulf War era.
  • "Just and Unjust War. A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations." (Second Edition) by Michael Walzer, Basic Books, 1992. (A detailed, easy-to-read account of the history and evolution of Just War theory. Though written in 1992, the text seems dated and naïve on the subject of terrorism. Its only flaw.)

There is an erroneous perspective within parts of the Church that scriptural study will yield significant assistance in framing a point of view vis-à-vis war. The Hebrew Testament speaks of the Yahweh God as warlike at times and quite violent. As well, Israel is no model for compassionate conduct in the prosecution of battle.

As Christians we look to the New Testament for guidance yet our Lord says nothing about war, though he indirectly addresses soldiers and uses examples of preparation for battle as examples of being prepared for the Kingdom of God.

For a sense of our Lord's attitude we must "go beyond war" and embrace Christ's message of the preciousness of and need for the redemption of every human being, his/her dignity and essence in God's sight, and the importance of their living out a destiny in God's service. It is hard to think of living out such destiny through the violence of war yet the origins of Just War have the noble origin of conflict on behalf of the innocent.(Thomas Aquinas and his comments are listed under the "Love" section of his works.) It is in these moments that we turn to Just War doctrine, for life, in its ambiguous complexity, might force us to choose to offer life for the saving of life. In short, we always seem destined-short of the Kingdom of God-to frame out the best, worst case scenario with lively discussions about the legitimacy of war.

As mentioned earlier, the Stoic philosophers were primarily responsible for the origin of justice in war principles, an approach which would be "approved by reason and informed by virtue." (Harvey) It is Aquinas who adapted the natural law of human behavior in war linking it to God's continuing revelation. His concern was not so much over the loss of life, the promise of heaven and eternity was ever-present, as it was for an opportunity for redemption in this life. All things were available for that dynamic and so the Thomist position weds God and the infinite variety of natural law. All human action, as it fumbles to do the right thing, is of God. It is God Almighty who is the arbiter amidst the ambiguities of life, and even war. It seemed fit and right, then, reasoned Aquinas, that humankind, by God's grace, should fashion the best way forward into any future, military or otherwise. That which was "approved by reason and informed by virtue" is now watched by God, says Aquinas, and is of His deep concern.

As time passed and the civilized Western world expanded through trade and exploration, so did the concept of war. Now Just War wasn't an agreement only within the Christian "family" but had to accommodate to inform conflicts where infidels were involved. This development brought about the eventual breach in the Thomist synthesis of divine revelation and natural law. It was a new era, one in which natural law, alone, perhaps administered by a growing sense of international law and fairness, would be the inheritor of the Just War legacy.

Earnest conversation about Just War has never prevented a war. Rather it is the source of persistent and reflective questions. Often these questions are continuously posed throughout a society's sense of itself in war and not only in the preparation period. For example, What weapons are being created? When would they be used and to what result? If a trade blockade is instituted, how will it be maintained and what allowances for humanitarian aid will there be? (Ironically this question continues relative Iraq as a leftover from last conflict even as dialogue commences about preparation for the next.) What targets are contemplated in the prosecution of the conflict and do they have impact on the civilian population and will those choices hamper recovery after the conflict?

Modern warfare throughout the world seems to be on a smaller scale, less distinct, and fraught with internal variation. Our current War on Terrorism is confirming that. Often a terrorist movement is the result of a specific grievance by a criminal or revolutionary element in the society. In such instances Just War principles seem even harder to apply. Some fresh thinking has been generated recently to meet the challenge and maybe key as we conceive of pre-eminent responses. (This Office is currently completing an addenda to this paper on this subject.)

The Gulf War, the second conflict with a United Nations commitment (Korea being the first), seemed to rise to the level of a just conflict as the war drama began. A right intention, restoring the order before Iraq's invasion, was satisfied. So too, in novel way, was the principle of legitimate authority undertaking the task, as the Security Council went on record and recruited agent nations-the U S being primary-to prosecute the war. (To this point-that the UN must always apply its decisions through the variability of agents--Michael Walzer maintains Just War principles will always be an obvious, necessary, and moral constant.)

Yet with increased exploitation of technology, the proportional dynamic in the battle area became noticeably one-sided. The firepower employed by the coalition of countries was extraordinary. As Walzer writes, it is hard to apply the measured reponse contemplated in Just War when the battle is a rout and a "turkey shoot." We should note, in fairness, that there was considerable discussion during the air portion of the Gulf War that a concerted effort was underway in the "moral" evaluation of each target. Later, and on the ground, the reality of those strikes was another matter. Nevertheless it does not diminish the interest and energy of trying to abide by Just War standards. It should sound an alarm, however, to our military planners as they endeavor to apply ethical standards of Just War through an integrated approach.

Clearly the single principle of proportionality bears special attention in this era and perhaps beyond. An axiom develops with this view of a proportional response: vigilance for the non-combatant. As referenced earlier, the inviolability of human life is the clear message for our Lord Jesus Christ. Given that, and the ambiguous nature of embracing right behavior, we must become sensitive experts in being advisors on the use of power for noble purposes and just deeds. +gep

Note: A Pastoral Teaching from the House of Bishops on this, and other social issues, will be completed and available prior to General Convention , 2003.