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Is Christian Just War Just Like Jihad?

But it turns out that the Qur'anic and classical Islamic limitations on war-making happen to parallel in many ways the Christian JWT. In fact, John Kelsay, who has done perhaps the most work in the U.S. comparing the Christian JWT with classical Islamic teaching, calls the parallels "striking," and maintains that a notion of justifiable war is "an aspect of the foundational narrative of Islam."

So perhaps it is true that the mainstream Christian conviction regarding war-making is more like Muhammad than Jesus. 

But there is even yet a more important question, which I think is terribly important in our late modern, western context: Do we American Christians even take seriously this so-called Just War tradition and the limits it places upon war-making?

Consider the limit found in both the Christian and Muslim mainstream limits on war: civilians are not to be targeted. This limit has been, in gross ways, ignored in the West. It was General William Tecumseh Sherman who in the U.S. Civil War popularized the notion that war is an engagement not merely between two armies, but between two societies. Thus Sherman burned and destroyed his way to the sea in order to "make the South howl."

Ironically, this logic developed steadily in the arguments of Osama bin Laden: early on he argued that his gripe was not with the American people as such, but with the U.S. government. But increasingly, bin Laden obliterated that distinction: a democratic citizenry is responsible for the deeds of its government, and thus become legitimate targets.

This very logic was at work in Churchill's willingness to target residential areas and burn German cities with firebombs, intentionally killing hundreds of thousands in their homes. Though Churchill expressed scruples against such wholesale destruction, he believed a higher justice to be at work, "that those who have loosed these horrors upon mankind will now in their homes and persons feel the shattering strokes of just retribution." The logic leads, in similar fashion, to the U.S. destruction of Japanese cities through systematic firebombing of civilian populations, and ultimately the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The same logic led to certain U.S. diplomats justifying the economic warfare waged against Iraq between the two Gulf Wars, that according to the U.N. led to the deaths of some 500,000 children aged five and under.

So we come to a doubly troubling possibility: First, that the mainstream Christian Just War tradition may, in fact, be closer to the teaching of Muhammad than that of Jesus. Second, that we American Christians have too often failed to live up even to the ethic of the Just War tradition: we seem pleased with its logic that war may be justified, but ignore the limits it imposes upon the ways we fight.   

Perhaps the question with which we began is not such a bad one to ponder at great length this September, as we grieve the violence that continues to mar God's good creation.

8/25/2011 4:00:00 AM