One problem (among many) with the just war theory

[Ted Grimsrud]

Though I am strongly committed to pacifism (hence the name of this blog!—here are links to many of my writings on pacifism), I am finding myself more and more intrigued with the just war theory. For one thing, the theory provides our language for thinking about war morally, especially for thinking about specific wars. I also think that just war thought has potential for encouraging opposition both to specific wars and to war preparation in general. However, I say “has potential” intentionally, though, because I think the potential has largely been unrealized.

I think one of the big problems most writers on just war have that makes understanding the tradition more difficult is acting as if the two basic options in the Christian tradition in relation to war have been pacifism or just war. What is left out (a huge elephant in the room) is what has been by far the majority view towards war: what I will call (following John Howard Yoder, see Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution) the “blank check.” The blank check is the basic attitude that when it comes to war a citizen should essentially simply obey one’s government (i.e., give the government a blank check in relation to responding to war).

Perhaps we could say that someone such as Augustine argued for “just war” in relation to (a precious few) governmental leaders, though not at all in a rigorous way. By the time of Machiavelli, the overt argument for “realism” mainly simply stated what governmental leaders actually did much more than suggest a change from “just war” to straight self-interest. But from the start (meaning from the time in the fourth century when Christians began thinking of their ethics in terms of being responsible for the state), for ordinary citizens the basic stance toward war was “blank check” not “just war” (Augustine himself insisted that Christians should obey their governmental leaders, leaving discernment of the justness of war to those in charge of the society).

For this reason, we find next to no emphasis throughout the history of Christianity on what people should do when being expected to fight in unjust wars. And the just war theory has mainly played the role of providing bases to evaluate the relative justness of wars after the fact in totally non-binding ways.  Continue reading “One problem (among many) with the just war theory”