Wednesday, June 09, 2004

John Frame on just war theory

Just war theory is not so much a theory as a set of questions we should ask about any war. I think the questions are good questions. But they almost never lead to a consensus. Those who favor a war can usually argue that there it is being fought for a just end, with public declaration, prospect of victory, etc. Those against it can usually find flaws in the argument. Of course a nation going to war never does so from absolutely pure motives, is never sure about the prospect of victory, etc. So these arguments usually end indecisively.

Of course just war theory isn't the Bible. It's a tradition that goes from Aristotle to the Stoics, and it has then been adopted by Christians like Augustine and Aquinas.

But in the end we must make our ethical decisions sola Scriptura. There are some broad biblical principles that bear on war: the sanctity of life first of all. But Scripture is pretty realistic about war. It recognizes that it's not always possible or desirable to protect all non-combatants, for example. Basically, it recognizes that war is hell and for the most part you just have to put everything into the war and end it quickly.

I know of course that arguments about "biblical principles" tend to be as inconclusive as arguments about just war theory. But I think the Bible is helpful in that it loosens things up. It doesn't require the ethicist to micro-manage how many weapons are used, etc.

Obviously a Christian will never advocate killing anywhere unless it is a genuine responsibility of the civil magistrate, carried out with a serious regard for human life, even knowing that some human life must be sacrificed to attain the objective.
And I don't know of anything in the Bible that rules out a pre-emptive strike, though just war theory generally abhors that. (Compare Harold Brown's article with Arthur Holmes in the book War: Four Christian Views, R. Clouse, ed., [IVP 1991]). Certainly in Israel's wars in the time of Joshua, Israel took the initiative.

I think the civil magistrate may sometimes, in order to protect his own people, make a pre-emptive strike. Or: he can neutralize the enemy with less loss of life by a pre-emptive strike, than by waiting for the enemy to attack. So I would support my government in an attack on Iraq. The agreement of the UN would be a nice thing, but it is morally irrelevant.

Regarding the immunity of noncombatants, the distinction between "civilian" and "military" is not made in Scripture itself. It is a distinction that we have made to honor the general biblical principle of the sanctity of life. That is to say, even in war we seek to minimize the loss of life, and the best way to do that while achieving the war's objective is to try to identify those in the enemy country who can be left alive without endangering the war effort. So a "civilian" is someone who is not likely to kill members of the invading army and should therefore ordinarily be spared.

But this distinction is only a rough and ready one. In Viet Nam, children "welcomed" American soldiers and then threw grenades at them. In Israel, teenage girls have been suicide bombers. So coalition soldiers must be wary of "civilians." In many cases they will have no suspicions of civilians and will let them get on with their lives. But in some other cases they should be suspicious. Criteria for those decisions (i.e. of what should create suspicion) are best developed by the military, not by theologians.

When the enemy uses civilians as human shields we have a choice: (1) avoid the encounter and try to achieve the objective by other means, (2) seek by precision targeting to eliminate the military contingent while minimizing civilian deaths, (3) where necessary, carry out a broad based attack, knowing that many civilians will die. I think that we should be biased against (3). But there is no absolute principle (in Scripture or even against just war theory) prohibiting the killing of any civilians. In Israel's wars, many civilians were killed, sometimes by divine order.

There is a corporate principle that people die for the sins of their representatives. There is something tragic about this, but it's inevitable. When a father sins, he endangers his family. When a ruler sins, he endangers his people. Further, the civilian population is not entirely blameless, for a despot often enjoys popular support in his rise to power and martial exploits.

Siege warfare was well known in the ancient world. Deut. 20 describes a siege war in which Israel is the aggressor. God tells them to spare the fruit trees: i.e., no "scorched earth" policy. But withholding means of life to encourage surrender is not excluded. For our standpoint, it may be more humane than to march in with guns blazing.

It is a humane gesture to give soldiers an opportunity to surrender, to encourage civilians to rise against the regime, to give civilians an opportunity to escape from impending attack (as the British have done in southern Iraq). But those who choose to stay, even for morally good reasons, must accept the consequences.

The Bible recognizes that war is a terrible thing, stemming from lusts and anger. In wars, people die who do not personally deserve death. In contrast with just war theory, Scripture does not try to micromanage humanitarianism in time of war. Rather, it justifies doing whatever is needed to achieve a legitimate military objective. There are opportunities during war to minimize killing, and it's good to take advantage of them when we can. But the military objective comes first.


Originally posted at

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