Christianity, Islam, & Just War

What does this mean for Christians?  According to the Reverend Jim Sutter, there are opposing views concerning the relationship between Christians and war.  At one end of the spectrum is pacifism.  Pacifists believe that war is always evil and one must never participate in it.  At the other end is of Holy War.  These people believe that fighting for God is always justified and that the end, spreading Christianity, justifies whatever means are necessary to achieve this goal (Sutter).

Christian responsibility during wartime divided the early Christian Church, until Augustine, and later Thomas Aquinas, saw the need to reconcile the two sides.  It is upon their ideas that contemporary Just War Doctrine, found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is founded.  While most of my information comes from Catholic sources, the Just War Doctrine found in the Catechism is nearly universal among Christians.

The taking of human life has been frowned upon in Christianity since Cain struck down Abel (Genesis 4:8-11).  The Catechism states that “human life is sacred” because God created it and no human can end what God began (CCC 2258).  It does, however, say that killing a man is admissible in “legitimate defense” because the intention was the preservation of one’s self and not the death of another (CCC 2263).  It later states that it is the duty of one with authority to protect those under their jurisdiction, even if killing the aggressor is the only way to render the aggressor harmless and protect their charges (CCC 2265).

If we dissect paragraph 2309, we can understand Christianity’s Just War Doctrine. The first requirement is that there must be a just cause and damage that is “lasting, grave, and certain” (CCC 2309). This essentially means that nations can only go to war against an aggressor who not only poses a serious threat to the human community, but has already inflicted serious damage upon it.  The theologians at catholic.com argue that aggressions must be seen with moral certainty.  If moral certainty dictates, by observing troop build-ups or a history of aggression, that the aggressor will strike, preemptive action is supported (catholic.com).  This, however, contradicts Pope John Paul II, who has stated that preemptive strikes are not covered by the Just War Doctrine (Zwick & Zwick).

The next consideration is that all efforts at peace must have failed (CCC 2309).  This idea states that war must be the last resort.  All efforts at diplomacy, economic sanctions, and other international pressures must have been exerted in full and found to be ineffective before war can be justly waged.

There must also be “serious prospects of success” (CCC 2309).  This idea reflects the idea that one man with a knife charging forty troops with guns is not justified because he is committing suicide.  This requirement is interesting, however, as it seems to contradict the nature of war.  The only certainty in war is that nothing is certain.  More than once have soldiers or ships returned from what was believed to be a suicide mission. For this condition to be met, at least as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, there must be the possibility of success.

The final condition of that paragraph states that the war cannot cause damage and strife that exceeds that of the previous condition (CCC 2309).  If a dictator invades and occupies a city, it is not permissible to level the entire city because the people of that city would suffer more from the destruction of the city than they would from life under the dictator.  Just War Doctrine also requires that the decision to go to war must come from the authority that is charged with the protection of the common good.  Modern nation-states have heads of government, and only they may decide to go to war.

All of these conditions are required for a war to be just, not some or even a majority. Once a war begins, moral legitimacy must be maintained (CCC 2312).  The doctrine of limitation is the principle that the United States violates most frequently.  This doctrine states that entire cities or areas and its people cannot be destroyed as the means to an end (CCC 2314).  Indiscriminate killing of civilians is never a just option. General Henry “Hap” Arnold violated this principle during World War II with the idea of strategic bombing, the leveling of an entire city to force the country to surrender.  One million Japanese civilians were killed in the strategic bombing of Japan during World War II. In Vietnam, the United States set up free-fire zones, where anything that moved was killed without first determining whether the victim was friend or foe. In war, civilian casualties are inevitable. America’s recent history with “collateral damage” in Afghanistan and Iraq are mixed at best.

2 thoughts on “Christianity, Islam, & Just War

  1. As a muslim, I found this post (and references) highly informative and well-reasoned. All I see in the world today is one group yelling “they want to destroy Islam” and the other, “they hate freedom”. Both these premises are equally idiotic. It was never about different peoples hating each other – but about different nations competing in a global rat-race.

    Thank you for the clarity you brought into the discussion.

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