The Concept of a Just War

Momentum seems to be building for a war with Iraq. The Bush Administration has been strategically leaking information for some time now. These leaks serve several purposes, one of which is to measure public opinion about the idea. Administration officials are anxious to know what questions a war with Iraq is likely to provoke.

What questions should it provoke? Should we question anything at all? Does being a loyal citizen and patriot require we accept without question whatever our government decides to do—especially in a time of war?


This is a hard matter for anyone to resolve and even more so for people of faith. Communities of faith often find themselves in the difficult position of having to choose between conflicting loyalties.


Christianity has a long-standing uneasiness about war. This uneasiness is rooted in Jesus' identity and teachings. Jesus was, after all, hailed as "the Prince of Peace." It was also Jesus who said, "Love your enemy" and "Turn the other cheek."


Jesus' identity and teachings have not made Christianity a pacifist faith, although there are pacifist sects within Christianity. But it has made Christians cautious about war. As early as Augustine, Christian leaders realized that war was fundamentally opposed to the ideals of Christianity. If Christians choose to participate in war, it can only be under the most stringent of circumstances.


In order to establish these circumstances, Christian leaders formulated over time what has come to be known as the "Just War Theory."


There are three main features to Just War Theory: just cause, competent authority and right intent. A just cause includes self-defense or defending a weaker country from a more powerful aggressor. Competent authority refers to a duly recognized governmental body to make the decision about war. Right intent refers to the motivation for war. If the intent is merely to inflict harm or to seek revenge or gain some economic advantage, then the cause is not just.


As people of faith facing the prospect of a war with Iraq—an action that will put millions of lives at risk—we must consider the issues raised by the concept of a just war.


No one questions the legitimacy of the American government to make the decision. However, to ensure the best decision possible, both houses of Congress should be consulted. This decision should not be left to the executive branch alone.


The other criteria are more difficult to establish. Is our country under direct threat, or are we dealing with a potential threat, or even a likely threat? In short, do we have a just cause for waging war? 


And what is our intent? The stated purpose of the war is to remove Saddam Hussein from power. Is that a legitimate cause? Is any part of our action motivated by revenge for the events of Sept. 11?


If we adhere to our faith's ideals, before we consent to killing our declared enemy, we should strive diligently to be sure our cause is just. If we determine it is not, then we should not pursue it. 


Even if we determine our cause is just, we may only submit to war with a somber spirit and repentant hearts. No cause is so just that we may kill without sorrow.    


James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.

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