Just War Theory – What’s it good for?
An earlier version of this column first appeared in the September issue of the Baptist Studies Bulletin, a monthly online publication of the Baptist History & Heritage Society. You can subscribe here.
By Aaron Weaver
Just War Theory. What’s it good for?
With the fragile situation in Syria and the continued possibility of military intervention in Syria in the future, this is a question that I’ve been asking myself lately.
Many Christian ethicists must believe Just War Theory is, indeed, good for something. Christian Post recently ran an article titled “Would US Intervention in Syria Be a Just War?” Both Jim Wallis, president and founder of Sojourners, and Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a conservative think tank, answered with an adamant “No.”
Numerous Catholic leaders have spoken out too, declaring that U.S. military action in Syria does not satisfy the criteria of Just War Theory. Several Baptist ethicists have also weighed in.
Russell Moore, the newly-inaugurated president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, told Jonathan Merritt of Religion News Service: “The first principle of a just war, that of a just cause, has been met in this case. Assad’s regime is lawless and tyrannical, and rightly provokes international outrage. That said, there are other principles missing here, both to justify action morally and to justify it prudentially….Saving national credibility is important but it does not make a war just.”
Daniel Heimbach, senior professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., actually disagrees with Moore. He does not feel that the first principle of just cause has been met. “I see here no legitimately interpreted just cause sufficient to justify the United States going to war with Syria merely because parties in a civil war are doing bad things to each other,” Heimbach said.
Since the Iraq War, I have grown increasingly skeptical of the value of Just War Theory. While I find immense worth in the principles laid out in the theory itself—just cause, just authority, last resort, just intent, probability of success, proportionality of cost, just means, clear announcement—I don’t see the usefulness of Just War Theory as an ethical creed to test whether military action in a specific situation is morally acceptable.
I can’t name a war in my lifetime—30 years—in which prominent Christian leaders have not publicly utilized Just War Theory to reach polar opposite conclusions. When the U.S. and NATO began its bombing campaign that launched the Kosovo War, Richard Land, then president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, invoked Just War Theory to support military action, just as he had done during the Persian Gulf War almost a decade prior. “I believe this is clearly a situation where just-war doctrine is met. This is a last resort,” Land said.
But, some Baptists did not agree including leaders of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA). BWA General Secretary Denton Lotz released a statement expressing hope that his fellow Christians would “make a strong statement to the world that only in Jesus Christ can the world find peace. We worship him who said that they who use the sword shall perish by the sword. We are called upon to be peacemakers. Therefore, of course, we want the bombing to cease, for refugees to return, for an end to violence and ethnic cleansing.”
Notable Christian voices once again applied Just War Theory differently during the Iraq War or “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” While Parham outlined how the pre-emptive war did not meet just war criteria, Land and other Christian conservatives did the exact opposite. The “Land Letter” articulating support for the war using Just War Theory was signed by Bill Bright, D. James Kennedy, Charles Colson and of course, Richard Land. That letter did much to help give moral legitimacy to the 2003 invasion.
And more recently, moderate and liberal Protestants have differed on military action during the Obama presidency. In 2011, Parham argued that President Obama “bypassed the time-honored rules of just war” in attacking Libya. Yet, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary, contended that the attack on Libya was indeed just according to the international security and human rights norm known as “Responsibility to Protect.”
Given the varied interpretations and applications of Just War Theory, why should I, as a Baptist who cares deeply about social justice and Christian ethics, cling to a theory that seems to have lost its usefulness?
How does Just War Theory really remain “time-honored”? From my vantage point, it seems that Just War Theory has been sorely dishonored.
Perhaps it’s time for more Christian ethicists to start invoking a new, fresh set of criteria, and begin utilizing Just War Theory less as a rigid test, in which a perfect score is required, and more as a set of moral principles to help guide us through the complexities of the age we live in.