Just War Theory and the House of Bishops’ Theology Committee

By George Clifford

General Convention 2003 resolution D068 tasked the House of Bishops (HOB) Theology Committee to study Just War Theory in view of modern warfare developments:

Resolved, That the Theology Committee of the House of Bishops be urged to prepare a study on new warfare situations which may not be adequately addressed by the Just War Theory, such as non-declared wars, asymmetric warfare, pre-emptive strikes, invitations to intervene by legitimate foreign authorities, international terrorism without boundaries, and other forms of military intervention not imagined in past centuries.

The “Blue Book” for General Convention 2009 contains the Report from the HOB’s Theology Committee. The report ably summarizes the Just War tradition. However, the Report fails to address non-declared wars, asymmetric warfare, invitations to intervene by legitimate foreign authorities, and other forms of military intervention; preemptive strikes receive a paragraph.

The report also ignores the question of ethical perspectives germane to military responses to international non-state terrorism, in spite of the word terror appearing in the document at several places. The U.S., for example, has employed its special forces in covert military operations – undeclared wars – in dozens of countries over the last few decades, covert military operations that intentionally receive little public notice. From a Just War Theory perspective, what is a Christian response to those operations? Or, is Just War Theory silent about that type of operation? More broadly, what, if anything, does Just War Theory say about the Global War on Terror that former President Bush declared?

In the report’s presentation of Just War Theory’s jus ad bellum portion (the criterion for deciding whether a potential war is just), the distinction between clear basic principles (legitimate authority, just cause, right intention) and prudential guidelines (last resort, relative justice, proportionality, reasonable hope of success) seems contrived in the twenty-first century. All seven criteria require prudential judgment; historically, a just war must satisfy all seven.

The Just War Theory tradition, in fact, provides a paradigm – a checklist, in the Committee’s dismissive language – for determining when military intervention is morally justifiable from a Christian perspective. Christians in a secular, pluralistic society must speak two languages, one to the Christian community and another in public discourse on policy issues. Just War Theory’s roots in the Christian tradition and its subsequent adoption by western philosophers and international legal scholars facilitate that conversation. Christian citizens, as the Committee rightly argues, have a responsibility to participate in the ongoing public discourse intrinsic to living in a democracy.

Just War Theory, thanks be to God and contrary to what the report implies, is dynamic, not static. For example, the report notes that some momentum is emerging to define legitimate authority in terms of international bodies rather than national leaders. Subsequently, the report largely ignores that observation and focuses on national leaders. (Tangentially, the report reads as though the U.S. Constitution vests war making powers in the President rather than Congress.) Yet as the world becomes more interconnected, the Just War tradition that began with feudal societies and then progressed to nation states, must progress to a global approach. Furthermore, the addition of jus post bellum (just peacemaking) as a third set of criteria complementing jus ad bellum and jus in bello (criteria for waging war justly) represents a major improvement in Just War Theory. Jus post bellum both recognizes ways in which modern war differs from war in previous eras and more assertively moves the paradigm in the direction of building peace.

The platitudes of the report’s Pedagogy for Christian Citizenship fail to address the hard work necessary to keep Just War Theory abreast of changes in the way that wars and violence occur in the twenty-first century. Many military ethicists, for example, would strongly argue that Just War Theory is not helpful in thinking about terrorism; instead, Christians need to develop a new model.

General George C. Marshall, Army Chief of Staff during World War II and later U.S. Secretary of State and then Secretary of Defense, described himself as neither a Republican nor a Democrat but an Episcopalian. Marshall’s motive for making that comment, although he was an active Episcopalian, was almost assuredly to distance himself, as a military officer, from partisan politics.

However, Marshall’s remark captured the essence of the Christian’s involvement in public life. God calls us, first and foremost, to be people of faith. If our faith has nothing of relevance to say about important issues, those issues are either completely irrelevant to Christianity lacking any ethical dimension or the Church’s has failed to develop and to articulate adequate guidance with sufficient clarity and publicity.

Sadly, the Report from the HOB’s Theology Committee falls into this latter category. Debates about torture (it purportedly produces results so use it, versus it’s immoral and ineffective so ban it), holding alleged terrorists apprehended by the military or CIA indefinitely without benefit of trial, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq all raise obvious and significant ethical issues. The Episcopal Church needs to speak out loudly and clearly on those issues.

Few people, Christian or otherwise, have heard a call to live as pacifists. The Church needs to honor those who have heard and responded to that call. The Episcopal Peace Fellowship, (EPF) for example, is an important countervailing force to those who have the temerity to suggest waging war in God’s name. The EPF visibly reminds the Church that we are to be people of peace, not violence. The EPF can constructively engage with Just War Theory advocates in constructing a jus post bellum Just War Theory component to reduce the likelihood of further violence and to work actively to build true peace rather than naively equating peace with the absence of hostilities.

Just War Theory has historically provided the moral framework for those who would chart a middle course between pacifism and holy war. Changing times have introduced new forms of war (asymmetric, non-declared, etc.) and seen unprecedented numbers of organizations adopt terrorism as a strategy or tactic. What is the Christian response to those developments? The HOB Theology Committee Report, if carefully emended, has the potential to represent a helpful marker in the process of articulating helpful paradigms to aid in answering those questions.

The Rev. Dr. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He blogs at Ethical Musings.

Past Posts