On the 24 February 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that a “special military operation” was to be conducted to “demilitarise and de-Nazify” Ukraine. Minutes after the announcement, Russia launched airstrikes across Ukraine, followed by an extensive ground invasion from multiple directions.
In the months that followed, Russia has continued its relentless bombardment of a number of Ukrainian cities, targeting residential estates and civilians, and killing thousands of men, women and children. According to the United Nations (at the time of writing), six million Ukrainians have fled to neighbouring countries, resulting in what some commentators have described as one of the biggest refugee crises in modern times.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been condemned internationally. The United Nations General Assembly demanded the full withdrawal of Russian forces, while the International Court of Justice ordered Russia to cease all military operations.
However, Patriarch Kirill, the powerful head of the Russian Orthodox Church, supported the war. According to The Washington Post, the Russian Patriarch’s sermons “echo, and in some cases even supply, the rhetoric that President Vladimir Putin has used to justify the assault on cities and civilians.”
Patriarch Kirill’s unqualified endorsement of the invasion of Ukraine has caused deep schisms in the global Orthodox Church. Many priests in Europe and the United States have condemned the Patriarch for backing Putin. The Washington Post reports that even low-ranking priests in Russia have decried the invasion and protested against the Patriarch’s action in an open letter.
The war in Ukraine raises many important and serious concerns that merit careful reflection from the standpoint of Christian theological ethics. But Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine also raises the broader question concerning how Christians have responded to the phenomenon of war.
This question will be the focus of this article.
More specifically, in this article I will discuss – albeit very briefly – two enduring Christian views about war, namely, pacifism and the just war tradition (or theory). I will critically examine the theological arguments for these two very different approaches to war, and explain why the just war tradition is, in my view, a more biblically balanced position.
The question of war has always troubled the Christian conscience. The early theologians of the Church reflected on whether Christians, who worship Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, should serve as soldiers in the Roman army.
A view which has a venerable place in the history of the Church, and which is still defended by many theologians, today is pacifism. According to this tradition, war can never be morally justified because any form of violence is incompatible with the Christian faith.
In the early Church, pacifism had the support of many theologians including Hippolytus of Rome (170-235), Tertullian (160-220) and Lactantius (240-320). These theologians categorically condemned military service because they believed that the use of deadly force is patently against the teachings of Christ.
During the Reformation, anabaptist groups such as the Mennonites and the Swiss Brethren advocated pacifism based on their insistence on non-violence. And in the modern period, Christians who have defended this tradition include Dwight L. Moody, Catherine Booth (co-founder of the Salvation Army), Martin Luther King Jr., and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
For Christian pacifists, the Sermon on the Mount is the locus classicus of the Bible’s teaching on Christians and non-violence. In this Sermon, Jesus taught His disciples “not to resist the one who is evil”, adding, “if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Mt 5:39). Most significantly, Jesus commanded His disciples to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (5:44).
There are, however, several problems with the pacifist tradition.
Some Christian ethicists have pointed out that the pacifist tradition is largely based on a literal interpretation of Scripture. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used the hyperbolic mode of speech to get the attention of His listeners. For example, to emphasise the gravity of sin, Jesus said that the lustful eye or hand must be plucked out and cut off (Mt 5:29-30).
The injunction to “turn the other cheek” (Mt 5:39) should also be understood as a hyperbole. This command does not prohibit Christians from all forms of retaliation or from seeking justice when they are wronged. Both Jesus and Paul challenged the unjust actions done to them (Jn 18:22-23; Acts 23:1-5).
A further problem with the pacifist tradition is that it fails to distinguish between private and public duties. As theologian and ethicist John Jefferson Davis clearly explains:
As a private individual, considering only my own interests and standing before God, I may choose to literally turn the other cheek in the face of unjust aggression. When I stand in a relation of guardianship to third parties, as a civil magistrate, a parent, or a husband, however, then the responsibilities of Christian love have a different application. Because of my love for those under my care, and out of concern for their lives and welfare, I must resist unjust aggression against them … My divine obligation to provide for the needs of my own family (1 Tim 5:8) certainly includes, as an irreducible minimum, protecting them from a deadly assault.
THE JUST WAR TRADITION
In contrast to pacifism, which categorically prohibits Christians from supporting and participating in war, the just war theory maintains that in some circumstances war may be justified.
It must be immediately clarified that Christian just war theorists do not favour war or see it as a good. For them war has always been and will always be an evil.
However, the theologians in this tradition are of the view that in this fallen world, where human relations are fractured and conflicted, war is unavoidable. Thus, in a situation where war is inevitable despite all attempts to prevent it, the focus must be on how it can be conducted in a just manner.
The theologians who have defended this tradition include Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and the magisterial Reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin. The Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Methodist ethicist Paul Ramsay are among the modern proponents of the just war theory.
Advocates of the just war tradition refer to the numerous divinely sanctioned wars in the Old Testament to show that not all wars are prohibited. David, for example, was one of the great warriors of Israel who led God’s people to fight against their enemies.
In the New Testament, Hebrews refers to the military exploits of the judges and David, and even interpreted them as demonstrations of faith in God. These men of God, asserts the writer of Hebrews, have “through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice … became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight” (11:33-34).
There are also theological arguments for the just war position. Theologians in this tradition argue that fallen human beings cannot escape the curse of war because of sin. This implies that until the kingdom of God is fully consummated in the eschaton, human history will continue to be plagued by evil and war (Mt 24:6-7; John 16:33; 2 Thess 2:3-7).
The theological realism that undergirds the just war tradition is somewhat absent in pacifism. Since wars are unavoidable, the concerns of Christian just war theorists then address how they can be fought justly.
According to just war theory, the criteria for a just war falls into two parts: jus ad bellum, which is concerned with the ethics of declaring war, and jus in bello, which has to do with the conduct of war.
There are five criteria for the right to go to war (jus ad bellum):
Wars must be fought only on legitimate authority. In the medieval period, only the king had the right to declare and wage a war. In modern times, this authority belongs to the head of state. In other words, war is the prerogative of governments, not individuals.
The cause of the war must be just. Just causes include resisting aggression, protecting the innocent, or supporting the rights of an oppressed and marginalised group.
The war must be fought with the right intention. For example, wars should not be waged for revenge or just for the sake of killing. Wars must advance the good, and peace should always be their supreme objective.
War must always be the last resort – when all other attempts at peaceful resolutions have failed.
There must be reasonable hope for success. This is to prevent pointless wars.
There are five criteria for the right conduct for a war (jus in bello):
The objective for waging the war must be limited to the restoration of peace.
The immediate objective of the war is not to kill or even injure the enemy, but to restrain them. This means that enemy soldiers should not be wantonly massacred, but taken as prisoners of war.
There must be discrimination in that non-combatants should not be intentionally attacked.
Unnecessary suffering should not be inflicted.
Actions must be justified by the principle of proportionality, namely, the aversion of evil and the achieving of the good. As John and Paul Feinberg put it emphatically: “Total and unlimited war is immoral.”
The just war theory is not without difficulties because its rules are always subjected to interpretation, which in turn is influenced by the historical circumstances and the prevailing socio-political atmosphere.
Be that as it may, the just war theory (in its various permutations) has been widely accepted today. The United Nations is among the many organisations that have appropriated the Just War Ethic and served as an instrument for its implementation.
The just war theory reminds us that because the world in which we live is fallen and sinful, war is unavoidable. More significantly, it insists that war should always be the last resort, and that it should always be conducted justly and with much regret or remorse.
THE TASK OF PEACE
The followers of Christ, the Prince of peace, are called to be peacemakers (Mt 5:9). Their lives must be invested in making peace, not in inciting war. Above all, their lives should be the sacrament of peace – reflecting the spirit of the prayer of that saintly Catholic friar, Francis of Assisi:
Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor at the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
(This article was published in Vol. 46.4 issue of Impact magazine)
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