Can war ever be justified?

Posted by Sam Hailes  ·  2 visitor comments

Whether the Crusades, the American use of the nuclear bomb or modern day terrorism is being discussed, Christian views on war and conflict are divided. How should we approach the subject and what did Jesus believe?

Hiroshima atom bomb

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Having previously served as a senior official in the Ministry of Defence, Dr David Fisher now teaches ethics and war at Kings College London and chairs Council of Christian Approaches to War and Disarmament.

“The duty of love can sometimes lead you to use force,” he tells me.

“If somebody is about to murder an innocent person, you may have to use force to intervene and using force in that way is an expression of Christian charity because you are protecting your neighbor from abuse.”

Dr Fisher is an advocate of the Just War theory. Finding its origin in Augustine's and Aquinas's writings, the tradition lays out criteria wars must meet in order to be labeled ‘just’.

These include having a just cause or reason to initiate war, force being used as a last resort and war being used in self defense or in defense of another.

Dr Fisher believes the two “key tests” are 'just cause' and 'proportion'.

No 'just cause' for Iraq war

Dr David Fisher

Lecturer in ethics and war at Kings College London

Speaking specifically about the Iraq war, Dr Fisher believes there was not a just cause.

“We didn’t have UN support for it and the evidence to there being weapons of mass destruction was dubious."

The other "key test" Dr Fisher believes the Iraq war failed was proportionality.

“One of the things the Just War tradition insists on is because war is going to cause suffering, you have to have a really good reasons to do it and be really confident you can bring about more good than harm. They hadn’t really planned what would happen after we won the military campaign. So they hadn’t thought about whether it would bring about more good than harm."

Dr Fisher acknowledges that the majority of Christians today have discounted and disassociated themselves from the Holy War position that is suggested in parts of the Old Testament and came to pass during the Crusades.

He believes this leaves Christians with two options. Just war or pacifism.

“What’s right about pacifism is it points to the horror and tragedy of war and it is also right to stress there can be non violent solutions available. The problem with pacifism is if you say you can never use force, you’re conceding the monopoly on the use of force to wicked people."

“If you’re a pacifist you can’t take up arms against Hitler, and you then have to allow Hitler to carry on and complete his plans for genocide and world domination. What just war recognises is force may sometimes be necessary to prevent the innocent from attack.”

Dr Nick Megoran currently teaches at Newcastle University. He grew up in a church that taught it was permissible for Christians to support their nation in declaring just wars. But he struggled to reconcile this teaching with Jesus command to “love your enemies”.

“The church’s answer that was the New Testament teaching about loving your enemies was about the private sphere and didn’t have anything to do with politics or international relations. I increasingly began to think if the teachings of the gospel don’t have anything to say to the big questions of our age then that message is irrelevant."

In the late 1990s, Dr Megoran discovered a reconciliation walk organized by YWAM. “It was a plan to walk the length of the first Crusade in apology for it. I thought this was absolutely bizarre. How can you apologise for something that happened 900 years earlier?

“I wanted to find out about it so I went along. I saw the effect this apology had on Muslims who were astounded because their only understanding of the history was Christians hating Muslims. When I saw how people were open to the gospel when they saw people apologising it struck me as very interesting and a different way of Christians engaging in international relations.”

Dr Megoran went on to be inspired by the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King who both argued that Jesus words about being peacemakers applied on both an individual and international level.

“The more I’ve studied, the more I’ve come to conclude what Paul calls the gospel of peace is the only answer to a violent world.”

WW2 - "conclusion to a century of imperial rivalry"

Nick Megoran

Political Geography lecturer at Newcastle Univerity

Dr Megoran also takes a different view to World War 2 than Dr Fisher.

Pointing out that the world had seen the British, French, Russians and Americans attempt to build their own empires, Dr Megoran sees the war as “the conclusion to a century of imperial rivalry”.

“The German population felt they were losing out in this imperial contest and their thinkers and theologians said Germans needed 'living space' to do exactly what the British were doing."

“The British, American and Russian church generally supported the massive imperial violence that went with our building of empires around the world. The German church by and large supported the foreign policies and wars of their governments.

“In the late middle ages a Christian community was founded in Japan and the Shoguns attempted to wipe this out. There were mass crucifixions and murders. So they went into hiding and survived for centuries in the catacombs. In the late 19th century there was political change in Japan and the Japanese Christians emerged from secrecy."

“They established a cathedral in Nagasaki. This was the basis of the Christian community. The Cathedral in Nagasaki was a targeting device used by American pilots to drop the nuclear bomb on Nagasaki."

“What the Japanese pagans failed to do for centuries, the Americans achieved in 10 seconds: Wiping out the Christian population of Japan."

Nick argues that this story throws a "very different perspective" on World War 2, adding that the plane that dropped the bomb was piloted by Catholics. He advocates for Christians to think in terms of their citizenship in the Kingdom of God as opposed to pledging alligiences to individual countries. 

While the two professors disagree on Christian attitudes towards war, they are united by their view that Jesus was neither a pacifist or just war theory. Both ideas came later than Jesus and his teaching.

Dr Megoran argues: “When we see Christians transcend national war and hatreds of their countries, that’s a demonstration to the world of the reality of Jesus.”

Dr Fisher on the other hand holds to the Just War theory, which he claims is becoming more prevalent in society.

“You’ll even find politicians are talking the language of just war. It’s a curious thing that it’s a medieval theological theory that is quite fashionable!”

21st June

June 21st, 2012 - Posted & Written by Sam Hailes

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Jonathan Bush

Jonathan Bush

Posts: 18

I think that both learned men demonstrate how confusing this subject can be. Using Augustine as a starting point is not helpful. He was confused about all sorts of things and helped to bring Greek philosophy into the church. As for YWAM wanting to apologise to Muslims for the Crusades, that's all very well, but Jews were the real victim of the Crusades. Where was the apology to our elder brothers? The point that Jesus brings in, that both men seem to have missed, is that we are in the world, but not of it. The world is a fallen, sin sick place. While authorities are God appointed, they are also flawed, just like anyone else. The Christian response to war is hardly ever about starting one or not, but about how we respond to what is happening in the world. There are things that are clear and unequivocal from the Bible: 1) God does war and send people to make war, e.g. 1Chr 5:22, Rev 19:11 2) God sets us to live in nations. Ac 17:26 3) We, especially as Christians, should obey our worldly masters Rom 13, unless that means disobeying God. Ac 5:29 4) Jesus acknowledged the reality of war Luke 14:31 As to specific cases, I am no better placed to judge than anyone else. Was it right to go into Iraq, or Afghanistan? I don't know. What I do know is that the "just war" tradition is no better a place to start than some kind of humanistic Gaia theory of one big happy human family. Was it right to fight Hitler? Yes. Well if that one was right, that means it is possible for other situations to have the same answer.

Thursday, 21st June 2012 at 10:59AM

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Lisa Russell

Lisa Russell

Posts: 1

Christians are peacemakers. Although we pray for peace and love around the world, it cannot be changed what is written in scripture. This world will ultimately end. It is not what we want so we need to bring as many as we can to Christ before that inevitable day comes. Nobody knows when that is. Jesus upturned tables of those in the temple as they had turned His Father's house into a den of thieves. That was justifiable anger. We are only responsible for what we do, we are all coming up for judgement, so it is up to us to help others come to know the Lord and to not partake in anything the Lord deems evil. "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" and "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil" are just two lines from the Lord's prayer. It is not for us to seek vengeance or make others pay for their sins. That is upto God and Him alone. No war is not justified. Its like suicide and mass murder all in one. Lisa

Thursday, 21st June 2012 at 10:40PM

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