More Like Prayer 2

Just war is the game nations play today. Can a war ever be just? Can a Christian participation in a war ever be just?

John Howard Yoder’s last book, published posthumously on the basis of his lectures in Warsaw (Poland), Nonviolence – a Brief History: The Warsaw Lectures , devotes a lecture to the just war theory.

Modern cultures, but only in degree, have created massive machines of violence and over top those machines of violence have a “facade” (his word) to justify the violence, that facade being the just war theory. It is a “surface appearance which is not the same as what goes on behind the justification” (50).

Yoder is famous for anchoring many Christian views of the State in the “Constantinian alliance,” and in this lecture he sees three elements of that alliance:

1. The state sovereign is “welcomed as an agent of divine providence” (51).
2. Everyone in the state, except Jews, was obliged to make public Christian allegiance.
3. Moral obligations became more connected to nature and less to revelation. In his words “philosophical generalizability” replaced “covenant fidelity” (52).

It is simplistic to think just war theory was downloaded into Christian consciousness by Augustine, and Yoder sketches five layers of development:

1. Ambrose and Augustine saw civil violence as regrettable but did not give sufficient theological attention to it.
2. Church canon law developed ideas on disciplining the use of violence.
3. Aquinas articulated moral justifications of war/violence into intention, authority, and weapons.
4. Canon law and Aquinas’ theology combined to form later civil law that developed just war ideas on permissions and prohibitions of strategies and weapons in war.
5. Hugo Grotius, in the Netherlands, was in part responsible for applying just war theory to international law.

It is important to see that holy war — war at the command of God — was not the same as just war. Just war was politically discerned, and: needed a finite political cause, it was the last resort, it had to be winnable, and it had to respect the moral rights of the adversary (53). Just war thus also set aside the view that might in war makes right — the Machiavellian realism theory at work for many. Thus, just war rejects both holy war and cynical realism. It is the application of the lex talionis to warfare. [Therein, I say, is its undoing for the Christian in light of Matthew 5:38-42. SMcK.]

And the size of battalions and wars, the power of bishops to restrict things, etc., restricted the regions of violence, but Yoder says this: in spite of these kinds of restrictions,  “I do not affirm that it is theologically acceptable from a biblical or ecumenical or contemporary perspective” (54). But these restrictions cast light on how just war theory has changed.

He sees changes in the Reformers. It was written into the fabric of the creeds for Protestants (but not Catholics). Due to changed church-state relations, the bishop can no longer reprimand the prince as his son in the church. Religious affiliation was mandated by state and a reason for war itself. And categories of exemption from war were restricted. All of these continued to be developed leading to less authority for the church in society. This led in some places to the divine right of kings and to making nation states absolute in power.

Instead a war being waged by soldiers, war became “total”: all people and all sectors of society were caught up into the war.

Just war theory masks — is a facade for — totalization. What just war was originally designed to restrict became justified by just war theory. But Christian resistance, though present in the middle of the 19th Century, was ineffective and weak. Attempts to adapt just war theory were not pervasive and not strong enough though some steps were taken. This occurred much more prominently when many young American men refused to participate in Vietnam.

Last resort is therefore gaining ground. King and Gandhi provided an alternative: spontaneous acts of noncooperation and resistance. War now is so violent it is unjustifiable, and the last resort doctrine needs to be pressed harder.

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  • Robin

    So, are you saying that all wars in history, or at least all wars in modern history are unjust? Revolutionary War, Civil War, WW2…all unjust?

    The more pressing issue is the responsibility of individual christians living in a democratic society that has advanced an unjust war.

    I am presuming that voluntary military service would be off the table, but what about paying taxes? What should you do if drafted?

    I am open to the possibility that Yoder is right, but the trick is in the consistent application of his principles. It also doesn’t help that most historical conscientious objectors were just looking for any way possible to avoid fighting (understandable) and their conscientious objections to war were about as serious as my conscientious objections to exercise.

  • Scot McKnight

    Robin, your comment appears aimed at the previous post. Yoder would say just that — for the follower of Jesus, participation in violence and war as a means to resolve conflict or to bring about peace is both never right nor will it even measure up to the measures used to determine a just war. But this chp of Yoder sketched what has happened over time to just war theory.

  • Diane


    I’m convinced the Revolution could have been avoided in favor of peaceful evolution to independence on the model of Canada … I agree, however, that the Civil War and WWII create very difficult moral dilemmas for the conscientious objector because of the evils inherent in the systems of the “other side.” Both those conflicts tipped into points of no return–a war was going to happen, regardless. The lesson from them is “what is the church doing, today, and always, universally, to advocate for peace?” Christian churches need to stand above the state and preach a gospel message of peace, imho. Part of the reason WWII was able to start (I just happen to be reading about this and it, as well, common knowledge, so forgive me for repeating what you already know) was the “volk” “blood and land” theories of German nationalism that asserted Germans had a “right” to use warfare to expand. These theories were supported by many churches. What if the churches had simply rejected this line of thought? Would that have sufficiently cut off support for Hitler or another warmongering leader such that he couldn’t have seized power…?

    As for conscientious objection, I would see that as different from exercising. (Also, many WWII CO’s did not have an easy time, being used for things like starvation experiments.) Whereas exercising (or not) helps or hurts only myself, killing hurts another human being. Killing says preserving my life is more important than preserving another person’s life. If we say we kill to protect our wives, children, mothers and sisters … why are their lives more important than the lives of the wives, children, mothers and sisters of those we kill? Jesus says we should die that others may live. I admit that this is supernatural teaching … it defies human nature and commonsense. But it’s there.

  • Jerry

    Total war as described here is actually rarely applied by Western powers. The U.S. actually engages in limited war applying the priciples of jus ad bellum (the justice of going to war) and jus in bello (law in war). True, we may not apply these principles perfectly and often have mixed motives but we are learning lessons from Sun Tzu’s Art of War: defeating the enemy without battle requires greater skill than wining on the battlefield.

  • Jeremy

    If Yoder maintains that there can be no just war, is he not also maintaining that there can be no justice? Sure, we often ignore or willfully interpret things to fit our desires, but if we let that decide our actions, we would never get anything done. It seems a blanket directive towards Christians and pacifism is overly simplistic.

    We should be always aiming for peace, love, and another way. However, we also need to recognize that Christians on the battlefield can also act as the conscience of the unit. They discourage hateful dehumanization, encourage measured and rational response, and stand as guardians against atrocity. Their hands may be bloody, but is the pacifist that stands by or does little more than protest any less bloody? When does principle give way to sin of omission?

    Jesus’ statements regarding violence in the garden and later to Pilate make it clear that violence for the Kingdom is quite out of bounds. This, however, is quite different from saying that violence is out of bounds for all reasons entirely.

  • E.G.

    Jeremy #5: “If Yoder maintains that there can be no just war, is he not also maintaining that there can be no justice?”

    Well, one could argue that Holy war… i.e., war waged by the Lord alone… is acceptable. That would be just, of course.

    But, your question brings up another question. Namely, can humans wage war in a just fashion? From history, I’d answer “no” to that. And, I believe that Scripture supports that “no.”

  • #1 I pastor a church full of conscientious objectors from WW II era going forward (we’re Mennonite). Your sweeping generalization that “most historical conscientious objectors were just looking for any way possible to avoid fighting (understandable) and their conscientious objections to war were about as serious as my conscientious objections to exercise.” seems more that result of govt propaganda from the Viet Nam era, than what I experience. Those that I know who didn’t fight did other things that were necessary for maintaining a just and stable society. They didn’t sit at home on their coaches, they served – they just refused to kill others directly.

    #5 Justice and war are not the same. It seems to me that if we worked more for justice there would be little use for war. So non-violence is not a call to be passive and disengaged, it is a call to engage in justice work here and now.

    What Yoder is getting at is how just war theory obscures reality. It takes something that is violent, self-serving and indiscriminate and makes it seem like the only right thing to do. Just war theory does not function as a guideline for military strategy. It functions at the popular level as a propaganda tool used to get widespread support for government actions against “enemies”.

  • Did the Civil War solve anything?

    Yeah, we (US citizens) can all quote our high school history books and waive the flag in proud memory, but it did little to change hearts and minds, and worse entrenched hatred in the defeated and in the minds of many of the “victors” — especially when conditions akin to slavery continued for the next ~100 years until the Civil War. Just read Douglas Blackmon or past writers like W.E.B. DuBois

    WWII? On the surface, looks like a “just war” but it uncorked a host of evil in its aftermath. Not to mention, the firebombing of civilians (which violated honor of war code) and dropping of atomic bombs on Japan that killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. Then the lies that justified those targets as “military” — when TBTB knew quite well those targets were not “military” in nature. And there are examples of non-violent resistance in WWII. And who put Hitler in power? Why did other countries refuse to speak out due in large part to Nazi alliance with corporate interests?

    The only people on earth who do not see Christ and His teachings as nonviolent are Christians. ~Gandhi

    People try nonviolence for a week, and when it ‘doesn’t work’ they go back to violence, which hasn’t worked for centuries. ~Theodore Roszak

  • PaulE

    “It is the application of the lex talionis to warfare.”

    But is this the case? I haven’t read any just war theory proponents calling for a holocaust against the Germans, for example. It seems to aim at rather less than strict eye-for-eye justice.

  • Jeremy

    Naum – You’re oversimplifying history significantly and washing out all nuance. In the case of WWII, a policy of peace at any cost contributed significantly to the horrors that followed. I like you am unhappy with the conduct of both parties, but to insinuate that war has never brought about any good is a bit unnuanced.

  • @Jeremy, #10, wrote: …to insinuate that war has never brought about any good…

    I did not assert this. Just that it’s impossible to cast out darkness with darkness. That warfare, in the service of “good”, casts evil and seeds of future evil in its wake.

    But the Myth of Redemptive Violence is so integral to dominator society ethics, it even unravels the deeds and words of Jesus, that followers cast out his words and opt for conditionals, loopholes, and robust rationalizations why they can’t sway that way in the “real world”, and thus pledge allegiance to King, nation, and/or empire, instead of the Kingdom Jesus pronounced.

  • Jeremy

    Naum – There is no redemption in violence. You’re oversimplifying again. There is the question of love: How does love act? Does it never defend because doing so would force it to choose between two objects of love? Matthew 5 is clear when the one of those objects is ourselves, but not so clear when we move that object outside of ourselves. What is the Christian response in the case of Libya? Stay out and let them slaughter each other? Talk to not-listening parties while innocent people die by the thousands?

    There are a lot of questions that have no easy answer and accusing anyone that doesn’t see it as so simple or your particular interpretation of scripture is more an action of empire than the belief that love sometimes requires a less than gentle response.

  • @Jeremy, don’t take it up with me (as I struggle against fleshly “common sense” in this matter, myself) — that’s what Jesus said and did…

  • Kierkegaard

    @Jeremy #12, I am aware of the problems that being an absolutist can make, but I also am growing more aware of the fact that there are always those who stand prepared to rationalize war. I am by no means convinced that war for humanitarian purposes accomplishes its objective. Military intervention in Libya may very well produce a long stalemate where no clear victor emerges and, over time, a greater number of people are caught in the crossfire than would have been if the military had not intervened. I think it is time that we put the onus on war advocates to prove why their way is better.

  • Jerry

    Interesting to note that Lew Ayres (famous for “All Quiet on the Western Front”) was a CO but also served with distinction in the Medical Corps in WWII. Many COs have served in noncombat roles in the military.

  • Jeremy

    14 – I agree with you for the most part. I watched a lot of people justify Iraq in ways that frankly, made no sense whatsoever and even justify civilian deaths because they weren’t Americans…all that in Christian circles no less. This was a terrifying realization for me about just how much nationalism can sneak in. However, it seems to me that this only reinforces a need for “peace at any cost.” However, in this case, I have to disagree.

    What would you propose be done differently? How would it put an immediate, or near immediate, stop to the intentional targetting of civilians by the current regime? How would you respond to the very public cries for help from the Libyan people and the region’s leaders? How would you prevent the situation from spilling over into Tunisia and Egypt, upsetting what could be great examples of (mostly) nonviolent regime changes?

    In cases like this, the onus is not on the “hawks,” but on the “doves” to provide a coherent and effective alternative. There is little time for ivory tower theorizing when neighborhoods are being shelled.

  • Kierkegaard

    @Jeremy 16, Here is what I would propose differently – admit that war is messy and that there are serious limitations on what an outside party can accomplish, other than blowing things up. We can intervene to oppose Qaddafi, but there is a very good chance (see Iraq and Afghanistan) that by foisting our will on Libya, we will end up with years of low-level, guerrilla, suicide-bombing style war. Is that prospect so remote? Will we have helped the Libyan people by doing that? As far as other countries are concerned, I see more potential for a negative reaction by surrounding Arab countries to an imposed “American” or “NATO” solution. Evidence: when our bombs started falling, the Arab League began to backtrack in their support for it, because we are doing way more than imposing a “no-fly” zone. We are creating our own additional civilian “collateral damage.” I would stop our foreign aid program, by which: (1) we call Qaddafi our friend in the “war on terror”; (2) in the case of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Bahrain (among others) we have paid for the weapons that are used against civilians.

  • Jeremy

    I don’t think anyone has said war isn’t messy, and last night, Obama clearly admitted there are severe limitations to what we can accomplish. I don’t see the connection to Afghanistan and Iraq, nor the “foisting” since action came at explicit request and there is no ground troop invasion. UN diplomats met with both sides of the conflict before getting involved and we are not invading. The key to this conflict is limited response. We cannot overstay our welcome and putting troops on the ground will very likely bring about something like what you fear. We aren’t there yet though, so you’re largely arguing from incorrect assumptions and nonexistent connections.

    Civilian deaths, are of course, a risk and to be avoided. Considering the alternative though, I don’t think that’s much of an argument.

    That said, I agree completely with your last bit. I’m deeply saddened at how we’ve propped up horrible men in search of our own interests, selling them the very weapons they use against their own people. In this instance though, that’s pining for a past that never was. What we should have done has no bearing on what we do now. However, we can and should fight to end this practice and bring about a real commitment to American values that doesn’t turn into isolationism.