Thoughts about just war

Veteran’s Day is coming up tomorrow, and so this Sunday I decided to preach about the concept of just war as it pertains to religious liberals. That meant I wound up reading Thomas Aquinas on just war, from the Summa Theologica.

What particularly struck me was Thomas’s three criteria for just wars:

In order for a war to be just, three things are necessary. First, the authority of the sovereign by whose command the war is to be waged…. And as the care of the common weal is committed to those who are in authority, it is their business to watch over the common weal of the city, kingdom or province subject to them. And just as it is lawful for them to have recourse to the sword in defending that common weal against internal disturbances, when they punish evil-doers, according to the words of the Apostle (Romans 13:4): “He beareth not the sword in vain: for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil”; so too, it is their business to have recourse to the sword of war in defending the common weal against external enemies. Hence it is said to those who are in authority (Psalm 81:4): “Rescue the poor: and deliver the needy out of the hand of the sinner”; and for this reason Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 75): “The natural order conducive to peace among mortals demands that the power to declare and counsel war should be in the hands of those who hold the supreme authority.”

Secondly, a just cause is required, namely that those who are attacked, should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault. Wherefore Augustine says (QQ. in Hept., qu. x, super Jos.): “A just war is wont to be described as one that avenges wrongs, when a nation or state has to be punished, for refusing to make amends for the wrongs inflicted by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized unjustly.”

Thirdly, it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil. Hence Augustine says (De Verb. Dom.): “True religion looks upon as peaceful those wars that are waged not for motives of aggrandizement, or cruelty, but with the object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good.” For it may happen that the war is declared by the legitimate authority, and for a just cause, and yet be rendered unlawful through a wicked intention. Hence Augustine says (Contra Faust. xxii, 74): “The passion for inflicting harm, the cruel thirst for vengeance, an unpacific and relentless spirit, the fever of revolt, the lust of power, and such like things, all these are rightly condemned in war.”

It’s amazing how current each of these three criteria sounds. I have heard variations of all three used in the ongoing debate about whether or not the Iraq war is a just war. The interesting question in my mind is to what extent can religious liberals feel comfortable with Thomas Aquinas’s thinking, especially given how much he relies on appeals to scriptural and ecclesiastical authorities (which is not really our cup of tea). No answers to that question, but it seems to be leading me in interesting directions….

2 thoughts on “Thoughts about just war

  1. Philocrites

    Shameless plug for something I wrote about varieties of contemporary just war theory: “Two views of just war theory” (10.3.02), which responds to an article by David C. Gushee, “Just War Divide: One Tradition, Two Views” (Christian Century, August 14-27, 2002: pages 26-28).

    If you’re up for a little bit more research and reading, check out Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars: He’s the best-known contemporary secular philosopher of just war principles. Two articles about his book that I bookmarked: “Why War Has Rules” (Boston Globe 5.23.04) and “What Is a Just War?” (NY Review of Books 11.18.04, fee req’d).

    I also found a lot of value in Oliver O’Donovan’s Just War Revisited, which takes up the theological argument in contemporary terms.

    The issue for me is not whether just-war philosophy is rooted in traditional Christian terms but whether — in its contemporary form as a set of principles for nation states to use in deciding how to apply their legitimate monopoly on coercive violence — it keeps us focused on the frequently competing needs for placing humane limitations on violence and implementing or enforcing justice. (This conflict is fleshed out more in the essay I mentioned first.)

  2. Bill Baar

    These “just war” debates have always been too dry for me on decisions with such bloody outcomes.

    I’ve preferred Pope Paul’s warning to Bush discussed by Russert and Rumsfeld March 23, 2002 on Meet the Press

    Russert: There are many in the world asking for more time for negotiations, for diplomacy — the Vatican — the pope issued this statement: “Whoever decides that all peaceful means available under international law are exhausted assumes a grave responsibility before God, his own conscience and history.”

    Rumsfeld: It’s true.

    Russert: And you accept that?

    Rumsfeld: Indeed. It is a fair statement. War is the last choice. President Bush has said that repeatedly, and he has made every effort humanly possible to avoid it.

    Russert: Yesterday in New York City and across —

    Rumsfeld: Indeed, he gave a final ultimatum to avoid war: leave in 48 hours — after exhausting every other step. He is — I am sure very people could disagree with what the pope said.

    Russert: Yesterday in New York City, some 200,000 Americans took to the street and protested — there’s video — across the world. What would you say to those protestors?

    Rumsfeld: Well, I — this is a free country — people can have their own views, and they always have. In every war, there have been protestors. The American Firsters filled Madison Square Garden repeatedly with thousands of people before World War II while Europe was in flames, while millions of Jews were being killed, and the chant was, “Don’t get involved in a war in Europe.” It’s a natural human reaction for people to want to avoid war.

    I believe, really I know, the natural human reaction is to avoid war. Create Democracies that respond the natural human reactions and we won’t need Aquianis or War no more.

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