The Spiritual Thrust of Just War Doctrine

March 1988By Richard J. Moux

Richard J. Mouw, a member of the Christian Reformed Church, is Professor of Christian Philosophy and Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, and an editor of The Reformed Journal.

Most people who have ever been given a brief summary of just war doctrine have at least a vague recollection of two of the principles associated with that doctrine: proportionality and discrimina­tion. Or if they don’t remember these actual short­hand labels for the principles, they recall that the doctrine requires that we choose military technolo­gy that fits the goals we are seeking, and that in us­ing that technology we try to distinguish between non-civilians and civilians.

But just war doctrine is not merely concerned with questions about the technological means of warfare; it also wants us to think about who the decision-makers are, and what aims and intentions shape their choices of strategic policy. Just war teaching is not only a perspective on the “how” of military activity; it also tries to get us to focus on the “who” and the “what.” These basics of just war teaching, the basics of the broad sweep of the doctrine, need more attention than we often give them. So I want to look here at some matters per­taining to the spiritual thrust of the just war per­spective.

I am not trying to avoid the difficult and im­portant questions by insisting on this kind of fo­cus. Indeed, a spiritual probing of military perspec­tives is itself a task that is difficult and important. This was underscored for me recently when I was invited to speak to a nuclear policy study group at a major university on the subject of evangelical perspectives on the arms race. My overwhelming im­pulse was to turn down the invitation. “What in the world could I possibly say to you folks that you would find interesting?” I asked my inviter. “You folks have thought more about nuclear issues in one week than I have in my entire lifetime!” He had a quick response: “What we think about, though, are the nuts-and-bolts issues, the hardware questions. We are very short on vision. We need a lot of help in looking at the big picture.”

To be sure, we must not ever give the impres­sion that all of the important questions about war and peace are “big picture” questions. Nuts-and-bolts questions are also very relevant to the moral evaluation of military strategies. But there is also much to be said for attempting to keep the discus­sion of nuclear policy from being totally absorbed by hardware-type discussions. The case for a larger-than-technological focus in dealing with the arms race has been made with much care recently by Joseph S. Nye Jr., in his excellent book Nuclear Ethics. Nye, who was Deputy Under Secretary of State in the Carter Administration and is presently the Director of Harvard’s Center for Science and International Affairs, insists that the hardware-ori­ented discussions desperately need to be informed and shaped by those who attend to the “big pic­ture.” Not that he thinks a concentrated effort to improve our nuclear technology has no relevance to moral concerns. For example, Nye concedes that nuts-and-bolts refinements “that improve discrimination in targeting [do] help to alleviate some moral dilemmas”; but, Nye continues, “targeting doctrines will not alone provide adequate solutions to issues of nuclear ethics. They must be combined with measures to ensure control and reduce risks of nuclear war. Such an approach reaches beyond technology and deep into psychology and poli­tics.”

Nye does not just leave his plea for bigger-than-technological discussion at the level of vague generalization. He argues effectively that it is cru­cial to our efforts at reducing the risk of nuclear war that we promote the kind of “development of transnational institutions and contacts” that will help gradually to “transform domestic attitudes toward sovereignty and the use of violence to defend the state.” These efforts need not be viewed as an idealistic dream about the elimination of “the na­tion-state” — it is enough, Nye argues, to think of ways to “draw its fangs.”

Nye’s point here has a direct connection to matters that ought to be of great concern to Chris­tians. The Bible presents us with an exciting pic­ture of the church of Jesus Christ as a new kind of social entity — a worldwide community of believ­ers called together from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. Christians have a different so­cial identity from that which is provided by those differentiating characteristics that are celebrated by fallen humankind. Our sins have been forgiven by means of Christ’s atoning work, and this fact gives us a glorious reason to sing the “new song” of Revelation 5: “by your blood you ransomed men and women for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and you have made us a kingdom and a priesthood unto our God.” Once we have learned this new song, we may never again sing the songs that celebrate tribal or racial or eth­nic or national identity as if those factors ultimate­ly define who we are as human beings.

When I was a teenager I heard an anti-Com­munist preacher warn his audience that the Devil is very fond of “oneness” and is trying to deceive us into accepting One World Race, One World Gov­ernment, and One World Church. Well, it may be true that Satan has a perverse interest in those proj­ects, but a propensity toward oneness is also at the heart of the redemptive program that Jesus came to institute. The Apostle Peter, in chapter two of his first epistle, applies three Old Testament images to the gentile church that directly parallel the con­cerns my anti-Communist friend attributed to Satanic designs: the followers of Jesus, the inspired writer tells us, comprise a chosen race, a holy na­tion, and a royal priesthood.

Jesus has his own fondness for oneness. And to realize that God is putting together, through the blood of the Lamb, a new kind of race and nation and priesthood, is to take on social concerns that are unavoidably transracial and internationalist and ecumenical in nature. Thus, when Nye says that establishing transnational institutions and contacts can play a crucial role in changing human attitudes toward national sovereignty and the use of vio­lence, he is pointing to an area of interaction to which Christians should instinctively resonate.

There is a strong sense in which my own “conservative evangelical” community has been ex­tremely active in creating transnational institutions and contacts. Like Roman Catholics, we have been enthusiastic supporters of, and participants in, the missionary enterprise. Indeed, the intensity of that involvement means that we evangelicals are very much immersed in transracial and internationalist and ecumenical projects. At the same time, howev­er, we have typically been some of the more ardent supporters of the American nation-state and of domestic attitudes toward sovereignty and the use of violence associated with militaristic proclivities. Why is that? Where have we failed to make the proper theological and spiritual connections? These are significant questions.

When I first began dealing with the issues of war and peace I took it for granted that the just war perspective was the majority viewpoint of the Christian community. I am no longer as sure of that as I once was. When, for example, evangelicals, even rather articulate evangelicals, begin to spell out their thoughts in this area, they seem to jump around quite a bit: some of their emphases sound like just war considerations, but they are also capa­ble of expressing views that are more typical of “national interest” utilitarianism and even “holy war” crusading.

This is not an area where we evangelicals have engaged in much careful reflection. Indeed, given the undisciplined approach that most denomina­tions take to this world of discourse, it is curious that we still talk about a just war teaching or doc­trine. Except for the detailed efforts of the Catho­lic bishops, very little pedagogy has occurred in the U.S. in this area.

The doctrinal aura that still lingers in the vi­cinity of evangelical attitudes on warfare is a legacy from a time when Christian thinkers did give care­ful theological and pastoral attention to the call to peace-making. Let me illustrate this point by re­turning to my earlier discussion of the basics of just war doctrine. This body of teaching, I suggest­ed, has three crucial foci: on the “who” of deci­sion-making, on the substantive “what” at which that decision-making aims, and on the “how” of technological means.

In recent years Christians have often restrict­ed their opinions about military matters to issues relating to the third focus. And our views have not been very reflective even on this narrow topic. Of­ten our strategic recommendations have come to little more than the observations that we live in a world where violence is unfortunately a necessity and, given this reality, we might as well do what we have to do to win.

This pattern of argument shows very little sensitivity to those more-than-technological ques­tions that, as Nye puts it, reach “deep into psy­chology and politics.” If we are to correct our in­adequacies here we must recover the historic sense that the requisite psychological and political con­siderations cannot be divorced from theological probings. Our assessments of the strategies and in­struments of warfare have crucial links to a theolo­gy of human nature and to a theology of peace and justice. Only by recognizing this can we properly link that “how” to both the “who” and the “what” of military decision-making.

Let me illustrate my case by a brief look at two thinkers whose views on war and peace ought to be of continuing interest to both Catholics and Protestants: Augustine and Calvin. I begin with the latter, citing a passage where John Calvin com­ments on the kinds of attitudes civil authorities must bring to their deliberations regarding military policy, an area of activity which Calvin sees as jus­tified insofar as it is a legitimate extension of the magistrate’s task of punishing wrongdoers:

“It is the duty of all magistrates here to guard particularly against giving vent to their passions even in the slightest de­gree. Rather, if they have to punish, let them not be carried away with headlong anger, or be seized with hatred, or burn with implacable severity. Let them also (as Augustine says) have pity on the common nature in the one whose special fault they are punishing. Or, if they must arm themselves against the enemy, that is, the armed robber, let them not lightly seek occasion to do so; indeed, let them not accept the occasion when offered, unless they are driven to it by extreme necessity….. [And] let them not allow themselves to be swayed by any private affection, but be led by concern for the people alone. Otherwise, they very wick­edly abuse their power, which has been given to them not for their own advan­tage, but for the benefit and service of others.”

Here there is an important reversal of the usu­al ways of dealing with the us-versus-them realities of warfare that we find among contemporary American evangelicals. Instead of celebrating “our” virtues as over against “their” vices, Calvin asks civ­il authorities to look very carefully at their own sinful tendencies while at the same time focusing on the humanness of the enemy.

Lest we allow this point to slip by too easily, let me translate Calvin’s general comments here in­to some concrete advice that Calvin might have of­fered President Reagan prior to the bombing of Libya: “Be careful,” he would say, “to guard against giving vent to your passions in this situa­tion, even in the slightest degree. If you must pun­ish Kadaffi, do not be carried away by headlong anger, or be seized with hatred, or burn with implacable severity. Work hard at having pity on the common nature that you share with the one whom you are attacking — do not be carried away, for example, by that sinful rhetoric about ‘mad dogs’ and ‘evil empires’ that so easily dehumanizes the enemy. And do not lightly seek occasions to at­tack; indeed, do not accept the occasion when of­fered, unless you are driven to it by extreme neces­sity, trying every other means of resolving the con­flict before resorting to dropping bombs. Above all, seek to honor all human beings, for if you are swayed by private affections — say, the desire to be tough or to appear to be in charge — you very wickedly abuse the power which is given to you by the Sovereign Ruler of the universe.”

When Christians have employed theological categories in discussing military policies, the doc­trine of original sin has figured prominently. But it has usually been appealed to in a selective manner, applied mainly to our enemies: we have to use stern measures against Nicaragua because of Nica­ragua’s sins; and we need large nuclear stockpiles because the Russians are so untrustworthy.

Calvin rightly points us to the need to apply doctrines dealing with human depravity more even-handedly. We too are sinners, and the exercise of military might is all too obviously the kind of ac­tivity in which our depraved natures are easily lur­ed into unrighteous schemes. Sinful people do not need to be told to look for faults in their enemies. But we do need to be encouraged to engage in care­ful examination of our own motives and inten­tions. For Calvin, the just war doctrine clearly is an important pastoral instrument for encouraging this sort of self-examination.

Given some common conceptions about Cal­vin’s theology, it is perhaps even more surprising that he admonishes rulers to “have pity on the common nature in the one whose special fault they are punishing.” But this is a very serious matter for Calvin, who believes that all human beings, saved or unsaved, continue to be bearers of the divine image; to desecrate that image is to insult the God in whose likeness each human being is created.

It is on this important matter of theological anthropology that Calvin appeals to the authority of Augustine. And Augustine is no less forthright on this matter in his letter to Marcellinus, to which Calvin is alluding. There is a danger, Augustine warns, that in punishing evildoers the civil authori­ties will conquer their external enemies only to be destroyed by “the enemy within,” namely, by our own “depraved and distorted hearts.” We can avoid such corruption only by developing “those kindly feelings which keep us from returning evil for evil.” If these requirements are observed, Augustine ar­gues, “even war will not be waged without kind­ness, and it will be easier for a society whose peace is based on piety and justice to take thought for the conquered.”

Why am I insisting on the importance of these matters? Because the wrong aspects of just war teaching often get emphasized in Christian discus­sions. There is a tendency for the argument to de­velop along these lines: the pacifist says no killing is permissible and the peace-through-strength advo­cate says a lot of killing is permissible, and then the just war theorist says, “No, you are both wrong — God favors a modest amount of killing.” Or the pacifist says no bombs are good and the strength proponent says that very big bombs are good, and then the just war theorist insists that we should try to live with middle-sized bombs. And in many elite settings, the audience goes away with strong sym­pathies for just war doctrine. It is easier to take than pacifism, yet it has a more moderate tone to it than calls to support increasingly larger military programs. But when these are the lessons of just war theory we focus on, most of the theory’s pow­er has been ignored.

Not that I am afraid to defend a position that calls for more modest programs of lethal violence and smaller bombs and more moderate tones in public debate on military policy. I am, in the final analysis, a just war theorist.

But there are deeper spiritual forces at work in discussions of war and peace that often do not get touched upon by the normal sorts of defenses of the just war doctrine. I am convinced that the system of teaching associated with the just war tra­dition was formulated with these deeper spiritual concerns in mind. The just war perspective, understood in its full richness, has many spiritual lessons to offer Christians. By seeing the fundamental questions to which just war doctrine is a proffered answer, we can see how a proper understanding of it requires us to be much clearer than Christians have been in the 20th century about the theologi­cal groundwork for what Augustine describes as “peace based on piety and justice.”

The better-known and easily memorized ten­ets of just war theory can, if properly reflected up­on, prod us in the direction of a better theological understanding of the “how” of peace-making. We could do worse, for example, than to think long and hard about how to employ only those military technologies that are proportionate to the goals we seek. And there is much of value to be gained from weighing our strategies with reference to the degree to which they discriminate between civilian and non-civilian targets. Even these tenets, I say, have significant power as instruments of moral peda­gogy, if we use them properly.

But there are deeper questions we must also probe — questions raised by people like Augustine and Calvin. Who are we and who is our enemy? To what degree are our actual military policies shaped by the promptings of the depraved “enemy with­in,” who wants nothing more than for us to look for vices in the external foe rather than to examine our own motives and passions? How have we decid­ed who our enemy is? And what are we doing to preserve the necessary awareness that our military foes continue to bear in their persons the image of the God who has drawn near to us in Jesus?

The piety necessary for a healthy grappling with these questions must draw heavily on the sing­ing of the “new song,” by which we declare that we are incorporated through the work of the Cross into a new network of transracial, international, and ecumenical relationships. We are called to join in a worldwide, yea, even a cosmic, choir composed of persons who rejoice in the fact that our salva­tion required that the Savior be willing to die for us while we were yet his enemies.

DOSSIER: Just War Theory

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