Saturday, March 01, 2008

The morality of war

I. When is it Right to Fight?

In a fallen world, warfare is inevitable. It’s therefore incumbent on Christians to formulate a principled position regarding the morality of war: what is morally permissible or obligatory—and what is impermissible?

II. The Traditional Options

There are two basic traditions. One is pacifism, as represented by Anabaptism. But most Christians, including most Baptists, generally reject pacifism.

The other, more popular option, is just-war theory. But there are a couple of problems with just war theory:

1) Just-war criteria go beyond Scripture. I’ve never seen anyone successfully exegete each and every just-war criterion from Scripture. In fact, there’s almost no attempt to.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s contrary to Scripture. But it’s not as if God ever told us that this is the only proper way to wage war.

2) Just-war criteria are impractical. In a fallen world with moral ambiguities, precious few conflicts accommodate themselves to the stringent conditions of just-war theory.

It’s not coincidental that just-war theory was formulated by theologians rather than soldiers. It has a bit of an armchair quality to it.

And that’s a serious flaw in just-war theory. Remember, this is supposed to be an alternative to pacifism. It presumes the right of self-defense, of which national defense is a logical extension. If, however, just-war criteria are too restrictive to apply to a real world situation; if a commander can’t win a war under these conditions, then it’s not a practical alternative to pacifism.

III. Deuteronomy 20

1) The Bible has a lot to say about warfare. However, most of what it has to say consists in historical accounts of various battles—both defensive and offensive. These historical narratives are mainly descriptive rather than normative. They tell you who did what, but they don’t necessarily tell you who should have done what.

Mind you, that’s a bit of an oversimplification. They sometimes reiterate divine commands. And it’s possible, at times, to infer moral norms from narrative theology.

2) However, there’s only one place in Scripture where we’re given a set of instructions governing warfare, and that’s Deut 20 (with a few more verses elsewhere). Here we have a set of divine commands governing the conduct of war. Inspired moral norms.

3) But most Christians discount Deut 20. While it was normative for OT Jews, it’s not normative for Christians since it deals with holy war, which is inapplicable under the new covenant—or so the argument goes. Yet there are a number of problems with this facile position:

i) The author of Hebrew commends OT warriors (Heb 11:32-34). They are role models of faith for Christians.

Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that he commends OT warfare as a model for Christians. But it does indicate continuities, as well as discontinuities, between OT ethics and NT ethics.

ii) Deut 20 contains a number of humanitarian provisions which many Christians would approve of: draft deferments or military exemptions (5-9); offering your enemy the option of peaceful surrender as an alternative to war (10-11); sparing (some) noncombatants (12-14); and a prohibition against scorched-earth tactics (19-20).

When Christians automatically discount the relevance of Deut 20 to modern warfare, they thereby deny themselves any Biblical warrant for a volunteer army, diplomacy as an alternative to war, or other restraints on total warfare.

iii) As a result, many Christians cast about for NT Scriptures that hopefully speak to the morality or conduct of war. This usually comes down to Rom 13 or Jesus driving the moneychangers out of the Temple.

In the former case, Rom 13 has a potential application to warfare, but at a very generic level. It offers almost no guidance on the actual conduct of war. In the latter case, this would authorize the use of force, but not the use of lethal force.

iv) Most Christians are half-right about Deut 20. It does involve the cultic holiness of Israel. And we have to make allowance for that timebound aspect. But this doesn’t mean we can’t relegate everything in Deut 20 to the category of cultic holiness (see below).

v) Why does Deut 20 have one set of laws for waging war inside the promised land and another set of laws for waging war outside the promised land? Cultic holiness is one reason. The promised land is sacred space in a way that territory outside the promised land is not. And that’s one reason this section is more unyielding in the scope of the conquest. The cultic rationale is given in v18. As part of the ceremonial law, this rationale does not carry over into the new covenant.

vi) However, that can’t be the only reason. For one thing, the Mosaic law has regulations covering resident aliens. But if cultic holiness were all-important, then foreign nationals would not be allowed to defile the promised land by their presence therein. For contact between Jew and Gentile would render the Jew ritually unclean (unless the Gentile were a proselyte).

vii) Another reason is given in v16. And this, in turn, alludes to a series of commands in Deuteronomy (as well as Joshua), in which Israel is enjoined to take possession of the promised land.

But Israel can’t very well possession of the land as long as the Canaanites occupy the land. For that would lead to chronic civil war. Before they can take possession of the land, the Israelites must dispossess the pagan inhabitants.

So, in addition to the cultic rationale, there is a practical rationale: two hostile groups can’t occupy the same piece of real estate. And unlike the cultic rationale, the practical rationale is timeless rather than timebound.

[Yet another rationale, not given here, is that God is exacting judgment on the Canaanites for their depravity (9:4).]

viii) That interpretation would explain two other features of the Mosaic law:

a) Israel could tolerate a certain number of resident aliens in her midst as long as they don’t pose a threat to her survival.

b) In wars with surrounding nations, the noncombatants are spared because Israel isn’t going to occupy those lands.

ix) Apropos (viii), Israel didn’t have enemies because she was holy. Every nation-state in the ANE had its share of enemies. So Israel’s unique status as a holy nation didn’t uniquely select for enemies. If Israel had been another heathen country, she would still have enemies. So Israel wasn’t a holy nation that happened to have enemies. Rather, Israel happened to be a holy nation that had enemies.

Therefore, the need to defend herself against neighboring states embodies a timeless element rather than a timebound element. Having to defend her borders was not an experience distinctive to the theocratic state of Israel.

x) Finally, Deut 20 is relevant in another respect. Whatever God commands is morally obligatory. And whatever is obligatory is permissible in the sense that if it’s obligatory, then it can’t be intrinsically evil. Therefore—to take one example—killing noncombatants is not intrinsically evil.

Of course, there may be, and undoubtedly are, many situations in which it would be evil to kill noncombatants. But Deut 20 presents a limiting case. As such, it’s useful in setting the moral parameters for what is intrinsically permissible or impermissible.

And that’s is important because the immunity of noncombatants as a wedge issue for pacifists. They say that any war is unjust because any war carries with it the risk of civilian casualties. But, according to Deut 20, that’s not a valid argument.

Likewise, war as a last resort is not a moral absolute. In Deut 20, war was either the first resort, or the fallback.

So one cannot argue, as a matter of principle, that war must always be a last resort. Of course, one can still argue, on a case-by-case basis, that we shouldn’t go to war unless the peaceful alternatives have been exhausted—although I, myself, wouldn’t go quite that far.

VI. Reason & Revelation

1) However, someone might object that since Deut 20 wasn’t directed to our own situation, we can’t say for a fact that, even after we make due allowance for the timebound elements, what was permissible for OT Jews is also or equally permissible for Christians. God hasn’t issued a new set of commands regarding the conduct of war under the new covenant.

All I’ve done is to establish the possibility that some apparently timeless elements of Deut 20 are transferable to Christian conduct in time of war. And I’ve left the lines a bit fuzzy.

2) There’s some truth to that objection. Yet it cuts both ways. If God didn’t specifically extend the timeless elements of Deut 20 to the New Covenant, then it’s also true—by the same token—that he didn’t forbid their extension.

If Deut 20 contains some apparently timeless elements, and if God has said nothing to rescind them, then I don’t see how a Christian would at fault if he took them into account. If anything, there’s a certain presumption to that effect.

3) Of course, Deut 20 is not the only passage of Scripture which is relevant to the conduct of war. I focus attention on this passage, both because it’s neglected, and because it’s the most informative passage we have.

But another verse is the 6th Commandment. The reason we should try to minimize the loss of innocent life is out of deference to the 6th Commandment. Wanton slaughter is mass murder. So the 6th Commandment supplies another parameter in the ethics of warfare.

4) And, up to a point, the 6th Commandment can also underwrite some other just-war criteria. But at the same time, the 6th Commandment also made allowance for OT holy war. These two passages belong to the same law code.

And, of course, the dilemma which a soldier may often find himself in is which lives to save. Action will cost lives and inaction will cost lives. Saving some lives will come at the loss of other lives. That’s the problem with pacifism.

5) So the Bible doesn’t rubberstamp just-war criteria. It’s more realistic. More permissive. Even a bit ruthless. And Christians should resist the temptation to be more idealistic than Scripture.

To the extent that Scripture doesn’t tell a Christian soldier exactly what he can and cannot do in every conceivable situation, then that’s left to his own discretion. He should make prudent choices within the moral framework of Scripture.

The witness of Scripture, along with the Protestant theological method, enables us to be somewhat more flexible and adaptable than just-war criteria permit. All things being equal, we should try to meet as many conditions of just-war theory as we can—but all things considered, it’s often impossible to fully comply with each and every condition, and these criteria are not interchangeable with Biblical prescriptions or proscriptions.

6) If modern nation-states like the United States can afford, in some respects, to be more humane, that’s only because our wealth and power give us more options than men living in the ANE. If our socioeconomic conditions reverted to theirs, the laws of war would revert accordingly.

7) What is merciful or cruel can also be deceptive. For example, to be a war bride is not ideal. But it’s not as if Canaanite women were better off in Canaanite culture. A war bride had rights under the Mosaic Law. And she could learn about the true faith. And raise her kids in the true faith. That was a mercy compared to her ungodly existence outside the community of faith.

8) Remember that if you think the OT is irrelevant to modern warfare, then you’re left with absolutely no specific, divine guidance on the conduct of war. And in that event, there are no inherent moral restraints on the prosecution of a military conflict.

I don’t see that we can go too far wrong as long as we take care to isolate the timeless elements of OT law. But we’re bound to go wrong, and badly wrong, if we conduct our military operations without the directives and correctives of Scripture.


  1. Steve

    What about self-defense? What would be justified when it comes to protecting the home?

    Many questions come to mind. What about outside the home? Would it be ok to carry a concealed weapon? Assuming one lives, as i do, in a country with a certain measure of gun control - would it be Biblically justified to carry teargas, clubs, knives etc.?

    Some of the suggestions above might be a little extreme but i sometimes wonder about these things now that i have a family.


  2. You have a right to defend yourself and a duty to defend your dependents (e.g. wife, children).