Volume > Issue > The Spiritual Thrust of Just War Doctrine

The Spiritual Thrust of Just War Doctrine


By Richard J. Moux | March 1988
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.”

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