This week has brought, to borrow a phrase from Jesus, “wars and rumors of wars.” How do we respond to these events? As a church and as individuals? How do we develop common language to even talk to each other and the world about war and state-initiated violence?
Each of these questions can be answered in a hundred different ways, but for my money, the third question is the most important. How we think about war (and even the potential for war) shapes our ability to talk constructively, despite our political differences. With that in mind, a good starting point for these crucial conversations is “just war theory.” Just war theory involves a number of principles that can, and should, be part of any decision about going to war and conduct within war. These principles are rooted in Christian theology, and although a full survey of the history of just war theory would make this the longest blog post in ASEC history, here are the basic principles of just war theory, as formulated by Dr. Tim Sedgwick, and Episcopal ethicist and scholar.
Just war principles for going to war:
- Just cause: lethal force may only be used in the protection of innocent life
- Just authority: lethal force may only be used when authorized by persons representing the people
- Right intention: the intent (or purpose) must be the protection of innocent life, not a matter of revenge or retribution
- Last resort: all other reasonable attempts have been made to protect innocent life
- Proportionality: the good to be attained outweighs the harm that will be inflicted
- Probability of success: there must be a reasonable chance it will be successful in protecting innocent life
Just war principles in the conduct of war:
- Proportionality: again, the goods that are sought outweigh the harm being done
- Discrimination/non-combatant immunity: lethal force is used only against those who threaten innocent life and never against noncombatants
My hope in sharing this is not to say that adherence to just war theory is the only response a faithful Christian can have to the issue of war. Nor am I saying that this is the official position of All Saints’, the Episcopal Church, or even myself. Rather, just war theory has been one way that Christians have thought and talked about war. It’s a starting point. These principles are rooted in the very Christian commitment to the sanctity of life: all are created in God’s image. All. In a world where nuance and appreciation of complexity seem to be in increasingly short supply, let’s remember that we have a rich tradition of theology and ethics to draw upon as we try to make sense of this ever-changing world.
A more detailed look at just war theory can be found here.