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.