Bearing the Sword in Vain?

sword.jpg[NOTE: This article was originally published at and is reprinted here in light of President Bush's statement today that "all options" are on the table with regard to Iran's nuclear program.] 

An Evaluation of the War with Iraq in Light of the Just War Theory and Scriptural Precept

"Mine is not to reason why; mine is but to do or die!" This is the right and responsible maxim of the military soldier, but must never characterize the attitude of the Christian theologian. There are many believers today, who, due to blind patriotic fervor, never question their country's decision-making when it comes to warfare. They trust their leaders to make the right decision. After all, we don't have access to the classified intelligence documents. The Bible calls us to submit to our governmental rulers.

A recent discussion here at SharperIron reminded me that Christians are quite divided in their opinions about our going to war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. After all, the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) have not been found, have they? Hussein didn't have nuclear capability, did he? Were we duped into supporting a war that could not be justified? Have our soldiers paid the ultimate price for a mistaken decision? Was Iraq really a threat to the security of the United States?

I would like to address this issue from two perspectives: (1) the historical principle of the Just War Theory and (2) the biblical viewpoint on the matter of war. It is my hope that all Bible-believing Christians will hold to principle over partisanship, and that God's truth will triumph in our thinking in this and every issue. Much of the seminal thought and some of the actual content for this article comes from an excellent treatment of war in the book Ethics for a Brave New World by John and Paul Feinberg, published by Crossway Books, the book Can Modern War be Just? by James Johnson, published by Yale University Press, and notes from classes on Christian Ethics.

In the 4th century A.D., Augustine developed the Just War Theory (JWT) in response to a question by a Roman general as to whether he should lead his men into battle or retire as a monk. The JWT has been defended and articulated over the centuries by a wide variety of Christian apologists including Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Vitoria, Suarez, Pius XII, James Childress, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Ramsey.

The JWT distinguishes between jus ad bellum (justification for declaring war) and jus in bello (guidelines to be followed once war is underway). For our purposes in this article, we will look at the jus ad bellum. There are five criteria that must be met within jus ad bellum to justify going to war. The first is just cause. A nation is not justified in declaring war for the creation of additional wealth or to gain new possessions. Rather, just cause would include coming to the assistance of an innocent nation being attacked, punishing an evil country, or defending one's own nation. Just cause allows preventative wars if an enemy nation is clearly preparing to attack one's own country as well as holy wars, or crusades, against nations that are intolerably evil, even if they are not considered a threat to one's own nation. The second criterion is right authority. Just wars are not private revolutions. A third condition for declaring war is just intention. Just wars always have as their end result the realizable goal of peace. Only lasting peace should be the goal of war, never revenge or territorial conquest or ideological supremacy. The fourth factor is the law of proportionality. Both costs and benefits must be evaluated prior to committing troops to battle. No one should prescribe a cure that is worse than the disease. Finally, war as the last resort is an important criterion for jus ad bellum. Diplomatic, nonviolent persuasion should always be employed prior to using force.

In supporting the JWT, Christians follow several lines of arguments. The first is the biblical evidence. God's people fought in just wars many times as recorded in the Old Testament (Josh. 8:1-29; 11:1-23; 1 Sam. 23:1-5). Abraham's war to rescue Lot in Genesis 14 was evidently blessed by God. The Bible endorses capital punishment (Gen. 9:5-6; Rom. 13:4) and thus Christians can rightly act as agents of duly constituted government when they apply the death penalty to murderous armies as well as to murderous individuals.

A second line of argument comes from theological considerations with regard to the biblical views of man, the state, the church, and history/eschatology. Man has been created in the image of God and thus has intrinsic worth and dignity (Gen. 1:26-28; Ps. 8:3-9; Matt. 10:29-31; Luke 12:6; Jas. 3:9-10). However, man is fallen and depraved (Ps. 51:5; Jer. 17:9; Rom. 3:10-18, 23) and this depravity touches every area of human life (Rom. 7:14-23; Jas. 4:1-3). With regard to the state, human government is ordained by God (Dan. 5:21; Rom. 13:1-2; 1 Pet. 2:13-14). Government has the right to use force in self-defense. The church has a positive responsibility to participate in building a more just society. God's ideal is peace, righteousness, and justice (Gen. 1:28-30; Isa. 2:1-4; 11:3-9; Rev. 21:1-22:5). Because of man's sin, human history includes evil and war (Marr. 24:6-7; John 16:33; 2 Thess. 2:3-7; 2 Tim. 3:1-9). Human effort does not bring in God's kingdom. God's ideal will be realized through His intervention into human history at the second coming of Jesus Christ to set up His kingdom, when peace, righteousness, and justice will be established.

A third argument is Romans 13:4. Human government is to be a terror to evildoers and is granted the right to bear the sword. By the way, the Greek word for sword in Romans 13:4 (machaira) is not referring to a ceremonial sword or symbol or authority, but rather a lethal weapon. Check into the Septuagint in Genesis 34:26 and Judges 3:16 to see this sword in action!

I want to quickly add here that the JWT is not a settled doctrine by any means. Some interpret it more narrowly and others broadly. However, it does provide a matrix through which we can make some objective evaluation with regards to war. I also want to add that war is evil. Augustine thought it so as do I. War is ugly, vicious, and unforgiving but, in my opinion, is also sometimes necessary.

Now to apply the JWT to our current war with Iraq: did we meet the criteria necessary for a just war?

1. The War with Iraq Meets the "Just Cause" Criterion. We, in effect, were punishing an evil dictator and leadership by removing and in many cases destroying them. I know there will be some that will say, "We wanted their oil" or "Bush called this a case of self-defense because of the WMD's which are not even there"; however, we do know for a fact that this is a dictator who gassed hundreds of thousands of Kurds and Shiites living within Iraq. The cause was just.

2. The War with Iraq Meets the "Right Authority" Criterion. The United States Congress authorized President Bush in September of 2001 and October of 2002 to use armed forces against any nation harboring terrorists and specifically against Iraq for non-compliance with United Nations' resolutions.

3. The War with Iraq Meets the "Just Intention" Criterion. This has been demonstrated in the reconstruction efforts, military training, and peaceful transfer of authority as well as democratic elections that have taken place in Iraq.

4. The War with Iraq Meets the "Proportionality" Criterion. It is true that 1,623 Americans have died to date in this war. It is true that we have spent an estimated $170 billion on this war to date. However, a despot has been deposed and 50 million Iraqis have been freed. In my opinion, the benefits outweighed the costs dramatically, although we mourn every single loss of life.

5. The War with Iraq Meets the "War as the Last Resort" Criterion. For more than a decade, the world had waited while Saddam Hussein ignored 16 United Nations' resolutions and circumvented economic sanctions. He was given every opportunity avoid war. He chose his end.

I fully recognize that some will disagree with my arguments and conclusions. I would be especially interested, however, in a dialogue on this topic with regard to Scripture. Is the JWT scripturally defensible? Am I interpreting the passages accurately? Let's sharpen each other in this very contemporary and controversial topic!


2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by josh stout on October 19, 2006 at 12:11 pm

    You make the standard arguments for a just war, which are arguments that could also be made to avoid “turning the other cheek”. However, in discussing proportionality your argument breaks down within its own logic. How can it be “proportional” to kill over 600,000 Iraqis, most of them civilians because the leader of the country killed 180,000? At what point would you consider the war “disproportional”? The whole “proportionality” argument seems very Old Testament in nature, and just the kind of “eye for an eye” approach to justice that Christians are supposed to avoid. It could be argued that our torture of Iraqis is “proportional” because we are probably doing it less than Sadam, but is that an argument you really want to make? I would say that while the war may have appeared “just” in its inception, it has become more unjust on a daily basis. Now the question is whether the harm in pulling out is greater than the harm in staying. This is the true question of proportion in the war, and one I wish we didn’t have to ask.


  2. Proportionality is one of several tests to determine the justness of a war. All five criteria must be met to fight a just war.

    I would like to see your substantiation for the charges that we killed 600,000 mostly civilian Iraqis in this war. I would also like to see evidence of our torturing of Iraqis–not the actions a few rogue soldiers but widespread, approved torture by our military.

    I’m afraid that I fail to see your point regarding proportionality. We don’t evalute proportionality based on how many we will kill against how many Saddam killed. We evaluate it based on how much it will cost us (both in $$, resources, and lives) in exchange for how much it costs them. Sure, it’s a cold calculation, but it’s all part of “counting the cost.”


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