Can war ever be justified?

The example of Jesus is central to Christians’ attitude to war.  He was presented with an opportunity to lead an armed uprising, but he refused.  Instead he chose to endure brutality without resisting.  It was this choice, Christians believe, that set him on a path that led to the salvation of humankind.

However, Christians find their opposition to violence is challenged when they are confronted with evils that are so great that the only way to bring them to a close seems to be military intervention.  This has intensified in recent decades because of the rise of nuclear weapons and terrorism.

Over the centuries Christians have developed guidelines to help them think about whether they might have to set aside their usual rule of non-violence.  They were first proposed in the fourth century by an African bishop called Augustine.  His theory of a ‘just war’ still shapes the way Christians think about these dreadful circumstances:

  • There must be a just cause.  War can only be tolerated to defend people in response to tyranny.  It is forbidden to wage war in order to dominate others, increase territory or gain mineral resources.
  • The decision must be made by the highest government authority.  In recent decades Christians have looked to the United Nations for this.
  • Every possible means of resolving the crisis by peaceful means must have been attempted first.
  • It must be judged that the war will not unleash an even greater evil than the one currently being suffered.
  • The war must be fought with specific constraints:  civilians must be protected from attack, there must be a reasonable prospect of success, it must cease when justice has been restored, and the level of violence must match the severity of the evil that is being addressed.

During the first centuries of the Christian church, all followers of Jesus were absolute pacifists.  A significant number of Christians still hold to those principles, led notably by the Society of Friends (Quakers).  They point out that Jesus did not tell his followers to submit pitifully when confronted by evil.  Instead he showed a way to be non-violent that was active, defiant and sacrificial.

What the Bible says about it

An extract from the Bible:

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.  If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.  If someone takes your cloak, do not stop him from taking your tunic.  Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.  Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Where to find it:

Luke 6:27-31

About these words:

These are words of Jesus urging his followers to resist evil, but without resorting to violence.

And they said…

Martin Luther King jnr, North American clergyman and civil rights campaigner, 1929–1968:

Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.

Martin Luther, German theologian, 1485–1546:

No Christian shall wield or invoke the sword for himself or for his cause.  But for another he ought to wield and invoke it, that wickedness may be hindered and godliness defended.