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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Ethics and War

War, or the possibility of war, brings up grave ethical questions.

In the Old Testament, God directed the Israelites to attack and destroy some nations. One aspect of Saul's rebellion against God was his reluctance to completely destroy the Amalekites--he didn't kill Agag, their king, or their cattle. Samuel finished the job that Saul didn't. God sometimes ordered non-believing nations (including the Assyrians, precursors of the Iraqis) to attack the Israelites in the Old Testament.

Things had changed in the New Testament. Jesus did not come to set up an earthly kingdom, and He doesn't seem to have preached against the actions of the Romans any more than He preached against the actions of everybody else. John the Baptist didn't tell Roman soldiers to leave the army, but to be content with their wages. The Romans, lest you forget, were a conqueror occupying the Holy Land. Although Christ didn't advocate against the military, he clearly didn't mean that his Kingdom should be brought by military force. He said, in the Sermon on the Mount, "But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also." (Matthew 5:39) 

Matthew 5:39 is not the platform that George W. Bush, nor John Kerry, both avowed Christians, ran on. (It is not clear to everybody that Christ's command here is for nations. Perhaps it is only for individual Christians.)

Some Christians believe that no war is justified. They are pacifists.
Some Christians believe that striking first is never justified, but that responding may be.

Some Christians believe that the U. S. is God's people, and can fight anyone who gets in our way, with God's blessing. After all, we haven't been beaten on our own soil by an outside force in our history, which must prove that God is on our side. Maybe God was on our side once, but that doesn't prove He is now. Maybe it's geography on our side, not God. We are more difficult to invade (other than by Canada and Mexico) than most nations, because of geography. God's people, in the 21st century, are Christians, not the U. S.

Other Christians believe that some wars are justified, and some not. The idea of a just war goes way back in Christian history, at least to Thomas Aquinas. The standard position is that there are certain criteria that must be met, in order for a war to be just:

“For a war (bellum) to be just,” Aquinas writes, “three things are necessary”:
sovereign authority, just cause, and right intention. ("Just War, As It Was and Is," James Turner Johnson, First Things, January 2005)

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy's article on "Just War Theory." has almost the same wording. See also the article on "Just war," by the Wikipedia, which points out that there are conditions for a just war after it starts, including that treatment of prisoners should be just.

If there can be just wars, that means that some wars are surely unjust. Even fighting a just war, by Augustine's criteria, may lead to ethical problems. How so?
Here are a few general problems with wars:
Governments which perceive themselves as under threat of war or terrorism almost always begin to do things which are questionable ethically. One not-so-shining example was the imprisonment of many innocent Japanese-Americans during World War II. Some who were arrested shortly after the September 11, 2001 event are still in custody, not granted the usual hearings and other legal rights. There have been recent moves (The Patriot Act) to institutionalize some kinds of invasion of privacy, like e-mail monitoring and being able to find out who had checked out what library materials. Governments usually distort the truth to make their cases, and there are some indications that our present government has done that, for example in over-claiming ties between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, or in defining torture in ways that allow it to say that we have not tortured anyone.
Wars cost money, which might be used for other things, by governments, or by the citizens, if there hadn't been a war. We have gone, in a few short years, from actually paying down the U. S. deficit to increasing it greatly. Much of this is because of military spending.
Another ethical problem with a war is that wars, or threatened wars, often become an excuse for the ruler or government to ignore other problems. Castro has run Cuba for many years, with much of his policy directed toward hatred of the U. S. Belief among many of the citizens that the U. S. is a monstrous enemy has probably strengthened Castro's grip on power. If the perceived threat were not so large, the people might have asked themselves if they wouldn't be better off with some other leader, or some other type of government, or some other relationship with the U. S. The U. S. is the "Great Satan" to all too many poor, ignorant Muslims. Hating the U. S. makes them feel that they don't need clothing, food, education, etc., as much as they probably would if they weren't concentrating on the hatred so much.

Although it would seem that war isn't directly related to environmental and medical ethics, there are connections. Wars do cause harm to the environment, do cause injuries, illnesses, and death, and wars take resources which might be spent on protecting the environment, providing health care, or both.

Innocent civilians, including children, almost always get killed in wars.

War brings up many serious ethical questions, and usually leads to serious unethical behavior by at least one side. One of the things I ought to pray for more is that the current war, and wars that may happen, will not lead me, my loved ones who are in the military, other Christians, or government leaders, to do wrong things.

Thanks for reading!

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Dave Hansen said...

Dr. LaBar,

Many give Augustine the credit as being the originator of the "Just War" Theory.

Augustine wrote, "It makes a great difference by which causes and under which authorities men undertake the war that must be waged"

Thanks for your BLOG I read it often

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks. You're probably right. At any rate, considering the ethics of wars has a long history in Christendom.

Jeremy Pierce said...

Just war theories were around long before Augustine. He was the first to formulate it in a distinctively Christian manner, removing some elements that make no sense to a Christian and adding some that pagans wouldn't have endorsed. The most sophisticated pre-Christian just war theory is probably that of Cicero, though philosophers before Cicero had discussed principles of just war.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for reading. I stand corrected.