The origin of ‘Just War’

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As the West pummels and pounds yet another country, this time Libya, purportedly to rescue its people, it is worth revisiting (albeit briefly) the concept of ‘just war’, which has led to concepts such as humanitarian intervention.

The rise of christianity

When the Roman Emperor Constantius died in York on the 25th July 306, his troops declared his son Constantine Emperor in his place. However, in order to assume this position, Constantine had to overcome several rival claimants. It was only in 312 that he engaged his main rival Maxentius at the Milvinian Ridge in the crucial battle. According to tradition, Constantine claimed he had a dream before the battle in which the God of the christians told him to place the christian symbol of ‘Chi Rho’ on the shields of his troops. Constantine duly won this battle and thus became the undisputed ruler of the Western Empire.

Initially, under Constantine’s rule, christianity was made a religion on a par with the other pagan religions in Rome but shortly after it became the official religion of the Roman empire. Many have argued that the transition of christianity, from being a religion of the persecuted to the official religion of the Roman Empire, was crucial in making christianity and christians more open to engaging in war. As the religion of the Empire and its people, christianity had to deal with the fact that Rome was frequently engaged in conflicts with those who either opposed its rule or who stood in the way of its increasing its influence and/or territory.

Indeed, Constantine became not only the leader of the Roman Empire but also to a great extent the head of the christian Church. It was Constantine who summoned an ecumenical council of bishops, the Council of Nicaea, over which he presided as emperor. At this Council he ‘instructed the bishops to compose a formulaic creed which would once and for all resolve certain theological problems that had threatened the unity of the church and hence the efficacy of Christianity as a punitive religion of empire‘. At the same time, Constantine also assumed responsibility for the appointing of bishops, and eliminating competing sects and heretics.

Christianity therefore became adopted as the ‘imperial cult’ by Constantine, which forced christian theologians to deal with the reality of a newly christianised global Empire. According to Michael Northcott:

‘the first true imperial theologian, Eusebius of Caesarea, who was promoted to Bishop by Constantine, described the unipolar world which the Christianisation of Rome was creating as the work of divine providence, which would bring the world through its singular sovereignty to an earthly and universal peace.[1]

In effect, Northcott argues:

The roots of Christian just-war theory may be traced to the new imperial theology that Christian bishops adumbrated in their new role as leaders of an imperial religion. When the Book of Revelation’s prediction of the conversion of the Roman Empire to the cause of the Church eventually came true with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in the third century, Christians found themselves in the strange position of being not an embattled minority but the majority, and this new majoritarian position had the tragic consequence of deforming the faith of the first Christians into a new cult of empire.[2]

However, there is another viewpoint which argues that the transition from being a supposedly pacifist religion to one that accepted and actively embraced the realities of war together with the necessity of promulgating theological arguments to support its new position was not such an abrupt one. As James Johnston argues:

The alternative picture is one that highlights the initial eschatological separatism of the earliest stages of the Christian movement, in which not violence as such but close involvement in the affairs of the world was to be shunned, followed by a gradual adjustment to such involvement in the wake of the realization that the new age was not immediately at hand – an adjustment that took place in different ways and at different rates among Christians in various parts of the empire, and one that did not compromise earlier moral purity but instead sought ways to direct it into life within the world at large.[3]

Furthermore if this ‘interpretation of the development of early christian attitudes toward war and military service’ is followed, one can avoid the necessity of hypothesizing that there was a ‘revolutionary change in the attitudes in the time of Constantine’. Instead it becomes possible to imagine a

‘gradual consolidation of a positive moral acceptance of participation in affairs of the state, including military service and war, which paralleled a rejection of violence in other parts of the Church that…rejected Christian involvement in the wider society in ways well beyond those associated with the military.’[4]

The reality probably lies somewhat between these two views. It is clear that Christianity in its early days was a religion which ‘was far from monolithic, whether in doctrine, social make-up, language, cultural context, political preference, or virtually any other measure one might apply’ and that it was also undergoing a period of serious change both in the definition of its theological tenets and its position in society.

Therefore, it is only reasonable to expect that we would encounter a ‘plurality of attitudes toward war and military service during the first four centuries, and not a universal pacifism that was subverted and compromised in the time of Constantine’.

On the other hand, it would be unwise to underestimate the importance for christianity of having been promoted from a position as an outcast religion, which had often experienced persecution – even from Constantine’s father – to being the official and dominant religion of the Roman Empire and to how this new status provides Christianity with distinct opportunities to spread its message throughout the Roman Empire, with a consequent increase in its influence and devotees as a result.

Augustine

The major theologian of this period is Augustine of Hippo and he also wrote fairly extensively on where and when it would be okay for a christian to engage in war. Augustine was of the opinion that sin played a significant role in history in relation to the fact that the kingdom of heaven on earth had not yet been realised. Augustine felt that war arose as a result of sin and was a ‘tragic remedy’ for sin in the world of politics. Although it arose from ‘disordered ambitions it could in certain instances work to ‘restrain evil and protect the innocent.’:

“War and conquest are a sad necessity in the eyes of men of principle, yet it would be still more unfortunate if wrongdoers should dominate just men.”[5]

The classic example of this was where lethal force was applied in order to deter attacks on innocent victims. When confronted with an assault on the innocent, ‘the presumption that we do not do harm even to our enemy yielded to the command of love’, which was ‘understood as the need to restrain an enemy who would injure the innocent.’

However, Augustine expanded from this particular narrow instance of where war might be justified in defence of the innocent to one where a city might after a certain amount of time ‘seek recovery or reparation’ of the losses it had suffered ‘by initiating war’. Furthermore a city might be justified in going ‘to war not only to defend itself and its friends, and to seek reparations, but also to punish other cities when those cities do wrong and then refuse to effect reparation.’

In fact, the concept of punishment assumed an ever greater importance in this context. According to Jenny Teichman:

“Just wars are usually defined as those which punish wrongs, when the nation or a city that is the target of war has neglected either to punish what it has itself wrongly done or to return what was taken through its injustices.”[6]

Teichman would even go as far as asserting that Augustine argues that punishment and war are essentially similar.

Pangle and Ahrensdorf summarise Augustine’s thinking in this area as follows:

The decent city, then, must look upon its war-making power as analogous to the police powers it exercises in domestic affairs. There is by nature, under the biblical God, a world community with a world order of peace; and in the absence of any other temporal government, each decent nation has a duty to try to enforce that just order in its part of the globe. If Christians go to war, they can and must believe that they are like judges and police while the enemy are like criminals; if they cannot in good conscience act as policemen, then they ought not to fight, even in defense.[7]

However, it is worth remembering though that Augustine, did not regard the resorting to violence as an ideal, as he preferred the ‘world of the spirit to that of the flesh’.

In effect, Augustine added a christian interpretation of moral virtue on to the concept of right intent and authority and the Helleno-Roman legal idea of right causes and ends. From his diffuse comments three familiar essentials emerged: just cause, defined as defensive or to recover rightful possession; legitimate authority; right intent by participants. Thus war, inherently sinful, could promote righteousness. These attributes form the basis of classic christian just war theory.

Justification for War and Old Testament

Augustine tried to find a justification for war by referring to the Old Testament (OT) and the dictum that ‘the commandment forbidding killing was not broken by those who have waged war on the authority of God.’

In the pre-christian era of the OT there was a rich vein of violence and war coursing through the OT emanating from the journey of the ‘chosen people’ right up until the time that Jesus supposedly walked amongst them. One reads how God led the Hebrews into battle, protecting them from their foes and granting them victory over the adversaries. It is hardly surprising therefore if many christians believed that the conduct of war had been permitted in the OT and it was only with the teaching of Jesus that it ceased to be allowed.[8]

However, John Howard Yoder in ‘The Politics of Jesus’ points out that in fact in the OT victory was usually awarded to the Israelites without their really having to engage too much in the actual conflict, as God would provide them with the victory. As Yoder puts it:

One of the traits of the Old Testament story, sometimes linked with bloody battles but also sometimes notably free of violence, is the identification of YHWH as the God who saves his people without their needing to act.[9]

Yoder goes on to claim that:

There is no notion of a warrior God who will lead the people in a historical victory over its enemies in the New Testament. The only war spoken of is found in apocalyptic images of the final moments, especially as they are depicted in the Book of Revelations. Here war stands as image of the eschatological struggle between (end p. 86) God and Satan. It is a war in which the Lamb is victorious (Rv. 17:14)[10]

As history progressed the concept of ‘Just war’ was heatedly debated though in time it did come, particularly in secular terms, to refer almost exclusively to the idea of self-defence. As Michael Walzer writes:

The wrong which war should attempt to right is the crime of aggression, and the only justification for going to war is therefore as defence against aggression.[11]

However, over the past couple of decades since the ‘removal’ of Iraqi forces from Kuwait, we would appear to be returning more to, at least in terms of the justifications being offered by the proponents of humanitarian interventions, the early christian justifications for war, self-defence (or at least defence of one’s compatriots out of love for them), which has been ramped up into a far more aggressive and dangerous dictum of preventative war by the Bush administration, as well as for punitive purposes.

Notes:


The early Medieval image of Augustine refuting heretics is courtesy of Richard Flavin.


[1] Northcott, M. (2004) An Angel Directs the Storm: Apocalyptic Religion and American Empire. I. B. Taurus & Co.: London. p. 149

[2] Ibid. P. 146

[3] Johnson, J. (1987) The Quest for Peace. Three Moral Traditions in Western Cultural History. Princeton University Press: Princeton, New Jersey. p. 44-45

[4] Ibid.

[5] Augustine. The City of God. Book IV, Chapter 15.

[6] Teichman, J. (1986) Pacifism and the Just War: A Study in Applied Philosophy. Blackwell: Oxford. p. 4

[7] Pangle, T. L. & Ahrensdorf, P. J. (1999) Justice Amongst Nations: On the Moral Basis of Power and Peace University Press of Kansas: Kansas. p. 77

[8] Teichman, J. ibid. p. 5

[9] Yoder, J. H. (2002) The Politics of Jesus: Vicit Agnus Noster, 2nd edition (William B. Eerdmans and Paternoster Press, Carlisle, 2002) p. 76

[10] Ibid, pp 86-87

[11] Walzer, M. (1977) Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. Basic Books: New York.

 

2 Responses

  1. Colin Quikre

    April 15, 2011 2:44 am

    As an aside to this very interesting article it is worth noting that there was a strong sense of ‘Just War’ in the pre-Christian Roman world too. Rome, by strict religious decree, could not declare war on its neighbors, and could only wage war in defense of its allies, or in response to attack. Romans, especially during its Republican period, were masters of false flag attacks, adopting embattled neighbors as allies, and escalating grievances into casus belli.

    It is also worth pointing out that, while Rome emerged as the dominant Mediterranean power, for much of its history, it was under genuine threat of annihilation from its equally powerful neighbors, and came close to total defeat on at least one occasion in the BCE era.

  2. Andrew

    May 10, 2011 4:51 pm

    Further to the above comment, just war theory has its roots in Aristotle and Cicero, though the aspect of self-defence in both cases was very much as applied by the latterday US empire – pre-emptive war against barbarians who threaten the integrity of the empire is to be considered an act of self-defence.