Science in Christian Perspective



When War is Undertaken in Obedience to God:
Just War Theory and the 1980's
Theodore R. Malloch
Political Studies
Gordon College
Wenham, Massachusetts

From: JASA 35 (March 1983): 47-50.

General Omar Bradley purportedly once said: "Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about killing than we know about living." I believe he was correct in his assessment, and I think it is time that we begin to seek ways to redress the current imbalance, and speak to the life and death issues of disarmament and arms control.

There are at least three crucial questions for our consideration. (1) When can war be undertaken in obedience to God? (2) Using a Just War framework, we need to consider limitations, agreements, and our perceptions of the Soviet Union (3) It is mandatory that we evaluate the cost of defense, again from the perspective of a Christian who, working within the Just War tradition, believes it needs to be radically re-interpreted for the 1980's.

Augustine's Just War Theory

"When war is undertaken in obedience to God, who would rebuke, or humble, or crush the pride of man, it must be allowed to be a righteous war."1 Augustine permits war only if it is pursued as a command from God. He maintains that a state can, on its own decision, wage righteous or "just" wars.

Augustine's idea of war is basically a negative one: war is misery. Augustine had an intense hatred for war and a strong dislike for those who believed that campaigns and military victories were acts of glory. Even with this substantial distaste for war and the machines of war, Augustine rejected pacifism and antimilitarism. He claimed that wars would be fought as long as man in his fallenness is driven by selfish desires. For Augustine, it is erroneous to think that a time will come when all men will finally and forever beat their swords into ploughshares. To quote the wise church father, "Whoever hopes for this so great good (i.e., permanent peace) in this world, and on this earth, his wisdom is but folly."2

In order to articulate his Christian views, Augustine developed what we call today, "Just War Theory." For him, a just war is undertaken when a transgressor state has overstepped its bounds and broken the laws of temporal justice. As Augustine states, "Those wars are normally called just which avenge injuries."3 It is the duty of another state or group of states to impose punishment on the aggressor state.

This punishment in the form of just war should, however, take place only after all other methods of persuasion have failed to stop or slow the unruly state's course of action. According to Augustine, the reason a just war is fought is not to gain more territory, possessions, or glory, but rather to punish the wrong-doer and to have them make restitution for their actions.

Augustine lays out certain definitive criteria for a just war, whether a war of defensive or offensive nature. A defensive war is always a just war since it aims at protecting land, lives and property; a lesser evil (war) is allowed so as to prevent a greater evil (conquest by an aggressor). Augustine further allows certain offensive wars to be just if they are fought against a state that has committed wrongs and refuses to make reparations, or if a state has taken possession of land illegally and refuses to return it.

Good rulers wage only just wars. If the state is a Christian state and observes Christian principles in its wars with the intention of punishing wrongdoing, peace with other states is more easily gained and kept. Peace should be the end sought for in every war, not glory, revenge or conquest. In their waging of just wars, rulers strive to attain peace, punishing the evil-doers in the process while not being inhumane or excessive. The interests of the conquered must be considered as well as those of the conquerors. (As an aside here, I would insist that the United States is not a Christian nation at present, nor in its founding. America has only a civil religion based on a civil theology which proclaims the sovereignty of man.)

Augustine goes on to remind the soldier that his strength comes from God so he should not use his body against God. He states, "Peace should be the object of your desire; war should be waged only as a necessity, war is waged in order that peace may be obtained."4

The role that the soldier plays in the just war is therefore an innocent one. He is not responsible for the death he deals; he is commanded to deal death and must obey the law. The soldier's position requires him to be obedient and he can be punished for neglecting to do what he has been ordered to do. Outside of orders it is wrong for a soldier to kill, but as soon as the order (in a just war) is given it is wrong not to kill. According to Ausustine there is no room for disobedience on the part of a soldier's conscience once he has been asked to perform a just deed. Augustine states,

And, accordingly, they who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, 'Thou shalt not kill.5

Action taken against "unjust" states is for the good of those states, as well as for the good of other states. If these states are punished by war, they will serve as an example to all states like them who might change their policies and act according to God's standards of justice. Augustine holds that the state engaged in a just war is acting lovingly and thus fulfilling Christ's bidding.

Traditional Christian "Just War Theory," which as we see has clear Augustinian roots, can be summarized in these seven conditions. Wars are just when:

I . All means of non,military settlement are exhausted;
2. the harm done is seen as less than the offense to be corrected;
3. the resulting order is to be more stable than the previous one;
4. the aims of war are defined so that the enemy knows on what
terms he may have peace;
5. there is sufficient strength so that there is a definite probability of
6. the cause is not self-aggrandizement;
7. a hostility is undertaken by a legitimate government.

Once a conflict begins, Just War teaching applies two other criteria:

1. The principle of proportionality; all warlike actions must be commensurate with their consequences; and

2. the immunity of noncombatants.

It has been suggested by many "realist" commentators on international relations,' and less directly by numerous politicians, that the "Just War" criteria postulate a world that does not exist. If the world is truly a jungle of secrecy, malfeasance, brutality and deceptionthe criteria may be quaintly irrelevant. But where does that leave us? I believe that Christians have something to say about the reality we experience because we have a special view on the world-who made it, sustains it, preserves it, and what justice is necessary to maintain life in it. A Christian perspective, a "Just War" perspective is, I suggest, timely and different from the liberal notion of individual or national self-interest, the Conservative argument for a balance of power, the Marxist claim of class warfare, and certainly, from the Fascist glorification of the nation.

Moral choice is woven into the very fabric of foreign and strategic policy making and choices must, and always are, evaluated in terms of some ultimate principles. The question is, which principles?

Limiting War Against an Unsure Enemy

The Soviet Union is a global power whose central geostrategic position on the Eurasian land mass, growing capability to project military power, and its readiness to exploit regional conflicts has made its policies crucial determinants of war and peace. The Soviet perspective on the world has two themes: a "Russian" theme as a nation, with a long history of goals and conflicts before communism, and a "Communist" theme based on ideology-a rigid system of Marxist-Leninist beliefs. Certainly, the revolution of 1917 was motivated more by Communist ideology than by Russian nationalism, but since Stalin's Socialism in One Country, there has been an appreciable renewed emphasis on national interests. To come even close to understanding the Soviet view of international relations and arms limitations, it is necessary to intertwine the basic tenents of Communist ideology with the historical interests of the Russian nations.8

As the noted journalist Harrison Salisbury suggests,

Much of Soviet present day behavior is a conditioned reflex to a 700 year old catastrophe-the Mongol invasion. After the Mongols, Russia was beaten by the Turks, Poles, Lithuanians, Swedes, English, French and Japanese. These centuries of struggle have caused one Russian ruler after another to value guns above butter and explain why this world power which rockets cosmonauts into space cannot provide enough eggs and milk for its people.9

Avoiding the preconceived, and ever too common traps, and learning from the Soviet legacy, four propositions can be gleaned from the Kremlin's long-term record:

I . The Soviet leadership believes in the utility of force to preserve and promote its interests, internally and externally.

2. The Kremlin is wedded to maintaining its own imperial system.

3. The Soviet leaders have always respected the honest use of power, and have distained American weakness and inconsistency.

4. The Soviets want peace but have a different view of stability, with different values from our own. This feeds a rivalry based on perceived fear of the other.

Added to this is the view expressed by a recent International Institute of Strategic Studies publication which suggests:

The Soviet Union is weak. Indeed it might well be argued that her military strength is a function of her weakness in other spheres ... Since she can hardly play a forceful part in a world system in which economic and political considerations interact constantly, her political influence is, in fact, restricted.

In other words, although dangerous, the Soviet Union is not 20 feet tall.10 Negotiating with the Soviets has been, and is therefore possible, once you know with whom you are dealing. In fact, the exact moment when the bipolarity of the cold war began to change into a state labelled in the west as "detente" is difficult to pinpoint.11  The Russian word for the process is raziadka, or "unwinding." Most of those who watched dated it from 1957, when the Soviet Union tested its first ICBM, and thereby greatly enhanced its capacity to strike the U.S. It was clearly certain after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis when both parties realized how close they had come to stepping over the brink, and signed a limited test ban treaty in 1963.

The change, which implies a degree of trust, came about because the superpowers found ways for increased cooperation; the rival blocs loosened; many nations appeared to be non-aligned with either superpower; and, because of the awareness of the danger of confrontations-they were as Oppenheimer put it, "two scorpions in a bottle." In short, both had every reason to avoid stinging each other. The choice was co-existence or non-existence; as Eisenhower said "there is no alternative to peace."

The arms race led by the 1960's to fruitful negotiation, the dramatic result being the ratified SALT I and unratified SALT 11 treaties. Has it worked? I think there are mixed blessings from detente.12 The benefits include relative peace between the superpowers; an atmosphere for frequent consultation and negotiation; a number of treaties and agreements; a German settlement; increased trade and probably the resumption of American relations with China. On the other side, the arms talks did not go far enough, and a new cycle of terror was unleashed. Human rights violations, Soviet and American adventurism, tensions in well-known hot spots, Cuban troops as surrogates, not to mention Afghanistan, and now Poland, impinged and eventually overcame detente.

Overall the trend toward cooperation, which I believe must be revived, away from intense hostility and confrontation, is to be applauded. Detente did not mean entente, complete friendship and harmony; it meant a lower level of tension, not the absence of tension. Surely it is better that the superpower rivalry continue in ice hockey than in strategic weapons.

I agree with W. Averell Harriman when he decrys those who contend that any relaxation of tensions must benefit the Russians, to our disadvantage. "It seems to me," he said, "we have no choice. In this nuclear age, war is unthinkable. Our interest is bound to be served by relieving tensions as much as we can, by working for peaceful, competitive coexistence."13

We must continually remember that our tensions occur within the constraints of a mutual desire to avoid a nuclear clash. The purpose of any detente, which itself has now become a dirty word, is to make my-your-their--our lives in this world safer. We live in a highly combustible situation. We have enough deployment. to blow each other up hundreds of times over. Is that necessary? 14

As Christians, using those very "Just War" criteria I have elaborated, we must assess this question carefully. I do not see how it is possible to adapt classical Augustinian categories to fit present reality. There is no just nuclear war. Look at each point, one by one, and you will be hard pressed to construct a plausible, coherent moral argument for even a limited exchange of nuclear weapons. I have tried, and cannot!

Here we must remember that sin is not only an individual calamity but is also attributable to nations as a whole." What the biblical language refers to as powers and principalities also experience and commit sin. Nations "live in darkness." As former Senator William Fullbright said, "Nations struggle not only with each other but also with their perceptions of each other." Misperceptions are not easily changed.16 Only God sees all. There are no final answers here on earth.

Perhaps the prospects for Soviet-American relations are best summarized in a fable I heard recently. It seems Hua Go Feng, Reagan and Brezhnev were talking to God. Hua asked, "When will China become a modern industrialized nation, a superpower?" "In fifty years," God said, and Hua started to cry, because he would not be alive to see that glorious day. "When," asked Reagan "will the U.S. become independent in energy and again be recognized as the undisputed leader of the entire world?" "in fifty years," answered God, and Reagan started to cry, because he knew he would not live to see that day. Then Brezhnev asked God, "When will the Soviet Union and United States be friendly, working together in a spirit of cooperation and mutual recognition of each other in a way designed to strengthen international peace?" . . . and God started to cry.

How did we get ourselves into this dangerous mess? The winner of the Albert Einstein Peace Prize, long-time expert on East-West relations, George Kerman answers,

It is primarily the inner momentum, the independent momentum, of the weapons race itself-the compulsions that arise and take charge of great powers when they enter upon a competition with each other in the building up of major armaments of any sort.17

Kennan has therefore called the President, after consulting Congress, to propose to the Soviet government an immediate acrosstbe-boards reduction by 50 percent of nuclear arsenals on both sides.

The Russian-American cleavage is growing. Many believe that detente has in fact lapsed back into an unrestricted cold war. In my view, this trend must be turned around. The stakes are too high. History has proven that arms races lead inevitably to war. In more than one study, researchers have demonstrated that arms races are either a prelude to war, or a significant cause of war.18

What Constitutes Enough?

It is unfortunate that so many people make a facile connection between security and armaments. Certainly a level of military preparedness is necessary for survival in the face of powerful adversaries. The question is, what constitutes enough?

The 150 governments of the world spent over $450 billion last year on armaments. The U.S. was number one, the Soviet Union not far behind. "Mutually Assured Destruction" (appropriately MAD) does more than deter both the Superpowers from initiating a nuclear war. Why do we go ahead with overkill-the U.S. arsenal now contains approximately 31,000 nuclear bombs, 22,000 tactical nuclear weapons, and 9,000 strategic devices? Under deterrent philosophy those numbers just do not make sense. The very existence of so many weapons implies a more sinister doctrine-Counterforce.

In a "Just War" framework we do not allow the state to prevent murder by threatening to kill the family and friends of every murderer. But we allow the corollary strategic policy. Is this not immoral? Immoral in the threat itself? Paul Ramsey puts the case very well: "Whatever is wrong to do is wrong to threaten, if the latter means 'mean to do."19 We must condemn the commitment to murder as well as the physical and economic harm it does to our societies. When we "threaten evil in order not to do it,"20 because doing it would be so terrible that the threat seems almost defensible, something is badly wrong.

My argument, realizing the inapplicability of Christian "Just War" theory to current nuclear arms deployment on the basis of proportionality and harm to noncombatants, is to ask what constitutes real material security? Has the defense budget made us secure? Would a higher defense budget make us more secure?

Hosea, an old-fashioned prophet, once warned that those who place their trust in chariots and in their warriors would be razed.21 More recently, the Brandt Commission echoed this saying that "More arms do not make mankind safer, only poorer."22 The Presidential Commission on World Hunger also suggested that "military security is ultimately useless in the absence of the global security that only coordinated international progress toward social justice can bring."23

In a sense, the guarantee of our safety has become the final criteria of what we as a nation have chosen to do. We have become dependent on the technological means by which we think we can guarantee our security. These means, of great expenditure in economic terms, determine what we have to do. Only one item is sacred in the budgetary process.

This is very similar to what the Gospel calls idolatry. Idolatry is having a final trust in what you have made with your own hands. But idols do not lead to happiness; rather human beings become slaves when they place trust only in the security of their weapons.

A religious trust in weapons means that other societal needs are relegated a lower priority. We continue to justify excessive defense spending even, as in the case of nuclear weapons, they are not usable at all. In terms of justice, these means cannot possibly have a justifiable use. Nevertheless, we continue to want them in larger and larger supplies.

Jesus once said, "If you want to maintain your life at all costs, you will lose it. But if you are prepared to lose your life-because you give prevalence to justice and stewardship--you will find it." It is altogether possible that we have lost that final trust in God by trusting in our weapons systems.

The statistical reality is mind-boggling:

$1 million = I helicopter or 66 new medical clinics;
$9 million = I A 6-E Intruder plane or 257 low income apartments;
$5 billion = C-5 A program or the elimination of hunger in the U.S.;
$11.4 billion= B-I bomber program or 3 equipped schools with 1000 teachers in each of 500 communities

and, the MX missile program is the most expensive item ever in human history.

For my money, and because of my faith confirmed by reality, peace depends on arms limitations that can lead to substantial disarmament. Limitations: not to perform certain actions; not to keep more than a fixed amount or no weapons of a given kind; not to use certain weapons, or not to use them save in certain ways or under certain conditions-and preeminently on the settlement of political issues.

Within the "Just War" framework, arms agreements may be said to: decrease the probability of war; limit damage from war; inhibit the start of an accidental or unwanted, unintentional war; and most importantly, in the present context, to reduce the cost of providing so-called "security."" In the final analysis, weapons are not very productive; we cannot use the ones we presently have, and we cannot eat them either.

It is useful to remind ourselves of the not so well known, yet very candid, farewell speech of President Carter. As Eisenhower had done 20 years earlier, he addressed himself foremost to the threat of nuclear destruction and said, "the danger is becoming greater," and "it may only be a matter of time before madness, desperation, greed or miscalculation lets loose that terrible force." He noted that a nuclear war in the 1980's would last only half a day. Yet "more destructive power than in all of World War Il would be unleashed every second." And more people-most of them civilians-would be "killed in the first few hours than in all the wars of history put together."

Mr. Carter concluded: "The survivors, if any, would live in despair amid the poisoned ruins of a civilization that had committed suicide."26 Justice, "Just War," demands that we avoid nuclear war so that we may obey God. The root of the problem goes beyond the weapons themselves, and demands that we ask what religious world views are behind the insane arms build-up and our conception of national security.


1Henry Paolucci, ed., 'The Political Writings of St. Augustine. South Bend, Indiana: Gateway Editions, Ltd., 1962, p. 165.

2St. Augustine, City of God. Trans. Gerald G. Walsh, S.J., New York: Image Books, 1958, Book 17, chapter 13.

3St. Augustine, Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiatkorum Latinorum, XXVIII. 

4St. Augustine, Eplstuta CLXXXIX, 6,

5. Augustine, City of God. Book 1, chapter 21.

6See Paul Ramsey, The just War: Force and Political Responsibility. 1968; War arid the Christian Conscience: How Shall Modern Way be justly Conducted? 1961; Martin A. Kaplan, ed., Strategic Thinking and Its Moral Implications. 196a; Kenneth Dougherty, General Ethics: An Introduction to the Basic Principles of the Moral Life According to St. Thomas Aquinas. 1959; William Clancey, ed., The Moral Dilemma of Nuclear Weapons. 1961, and John C. Bennett, ed., Nuclear Weapons and the Conflict of Conscience. 1962.7The list is too long to mention here, but includes the likes of Thucydides, Hobbes, Clausewitz, Morgenthau, Kissinger, Hoffman and others.

8The classical work is James H. Billington, The Ivan and the Are- An Interpretive History of Russian Culture. New York: Vintage Books, 1966. 

9Hatrison Salisbury, Russia. New York: Atheneum, 1974, pgs. 7-8.

10Philip Windsor, a paper of the International Institute of Strategic Studies, Oxford, England, September 1978.

11See Paul Y. Hammond, Cold War and Detente. New York: Harcourt, 'Brace and Jovanovich, Inc., 1975; and Adam B. Ulam, The Rivals. America and Russia since World War  . New York: Viking Press. 971. 

12his topic is the theme of Fred W. Neal, ed., Detente or Debacle. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1979.

13W. Averill Harriman, quoted in The New York Times, September 24,1980, p. 13.

14A good answer to this question can be found in Richard Barnet's, Real Security; Restoring American Power in a Dangerous Decade. New York: Touchstone, 1981.

15For illumination see William Stringfellow, Conscience and Obedience. Waco, TX: Word Books, 1977.

16The conclusion of Richard Barnet in The Giants: Russia and America. New York; Touchstone, 1977.

17George Kerman, "To Check the Danger of Nuclear Arms," The Christian Science Monitor. June 1, 1981, p. 23.

18Samuel P. Huntington, "Arms Races: Prerequisites and Results," in Robert J. Art and Kenneth Waltz, eds., The Use of Force. Boston: Little, Brown, 1971. For another view see Brownlee Hayden, The Great Statistics of War Hoax. Santa Monica, CA: Band Corp., 1962.

19Paul Ramsey, "A Political Ethics Context for Strategic Thinking," in Morton Kaplan, ed., Strategic Thinking and its Moral Implications. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1973, p. 134.

20Michael Walzer, just and Unjust Wars. New York: Basic Books, 1977, p. 274.

21Hosea 10: 13-14.

22North-South: A Program for Survival. The Independent Commission on International Development Issues, Boston: MIT Press, 1980.

23Quoted in "Hunger and Global Security," New York: Bread for the World, 1980.

24See Ruth Leger Sivard, World Military and Social Expenditures 1980 . Leesburg, VA: World Priorities, 1980.

25Two helpful essays are Lester R. Brown, "Redefining National Security," Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, 1977; and Robert C. Johansen, Toward A Dependable Peace. New York: Institute for World Order, 1978.

26President Carter as quoted in The Christian Science Monitor, January 22, 1981, p. 22.