I recently finished reading Daniel M. Bell Jr.’s excellent little book, Just War as Christian Discipleship: Recentering the Tradition in the Church rather than the State. And while I have neither the time nor the inclination to write a full review, I figured I would post more than a few excerpts here over the next few days and weeks.

Bell’s book isn’t perfect, and there are a few areas where I think we are left with more questions than answers, but overall it is a very good introduction to just war history, theory, and practice from a distinctively Christian perspective, and its benefits and usefulness far outweigh its flaws.

While Bell avoids partisan debates for the most part he pulls no punches in speaking straightforwardly about what justice demands in the Christian tradition as it developed from the Augustine and the fathers (modified from Plato and the Greeks) through to Aquinas, Vitoria, and Grotius in the early modern period.it is an excellent introduction to the Just War tradition from a distinctively Christian perspective, and its strengths are much more prominent than its weaknesses.

After a brief history of Just War thinking, and making an important distinction between modern, secular, just war theory, what he calls Just War as public policy checklist or Just War (PPC), and Just War as Christian discipleship or Just War (CD), Bell asks the question, “Has there ever been a just war?”

"Such is the history, in brief, of the just war tradition since its adoption and adaptation by Christianity. What the history reflects is that war is not one thing always and forever, that it is no necessarily and inevitably “hell” as Sherman and others would have it. To the contrary, it is a human practice and as such is capable of being waged in different ways, from the highly ritualized and almost game-like wars of medieval chivalry that were minimally lethal (my favorite example being a yearlong war involving one thousand knights in the 1127 CE during which five died, four of those being the result of accidents), to the limited wars of attrition of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, to the total wars that characterized significant wars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

At the outset of this chapter, the question was raised as to whether war could ever be just. Both pacifists and realists suggest the answer is no. While the historical overview suggests that war need not be total, it does not provide an entirely satisfactory answer to the question of whether war can in fact be just. By itself it does not refute the skeptics. These skeptics sometimes pose the question of just war in a more pointed manner by asking, Has there ever been a just war?

Such a question threatens to plunge us into the midst of the culture wars and the ideological battles of the current moment. After all, there is no shortage of persons willing to proclaim this or that war just or unjust in a manner that appears to be driven more by the political fortunes of the moment than by any deep familiarity with the just war tradition. From the longer perspective of history, there are historians of war and of just war who have argue that there have indeed been just wars.

From a Christian theological perspective, however, the question of whether there has ever been a just war is largely beside the point. From the standpoint of the Christian moral life, it is the wrong question. After all, the Christian moral life does not depend on whether that life has ever been lived faithfully before or not. If Christians are called to be a just war people by God then the proper response to that call is not to step back and ask, Has anyone else done it before us? Rather, even if it means going forth like Abram and his family into the unknown and unprecedented (Heb. 11:8), the proper, faithful response is to discern how our life should be so ordered in response to that call that we might be a people who wage war or refrain from waging war in accord with the precepts of just war. In other words, the proper response to the call to just war is not, Has it been done before? but, How then should we order our live so that we might respond to the call faithfully?

Perhaps the misguided nature of the question will be clearer if we put a similar challenge to another facet of the Christian life. Take, for example, the Ten Commandments. We might ask if there has ever been a Christian community that has embodied them perfectly? Has there ever been a Christian church that has succeeded in living out even one of them perfectly? Or take the Great Commandment that we love God and our neighbor. Has there ever been a church that has followed that commandment without flaw or failure? That the answer to these questions is no does not in itself render the commandments invalid, irrelevant, or unrealistic. That the Christian church has displayed and in the course of its life continues to terrible failures with regard to both love of God and of neighbor does not abolish that calling or erase the reality of that love in its life. That we miss the mark, that we continue to struggle with sin, does not diminish either the high calling to or the reality of holiness and virtue in the life of the church. Our failure as a people does not disprove God’s call; neither does our repeated failure establish that we are not in fact capable of accepting and embodying that call. All of this means that even if one could definitively show that the church had never even once embodied the just war discipline in war, that in itself would not prove that just war was neither the church’s calling nor a real possibility in its life."

“Then Abraham drew near and said, ‘Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?... Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?’”  --Genesis 18.23

Abraham, our forefather, thought that it would be unjust, and thus out of keeping with God’s character to destroy a city if there were even a few righteous people in it.  Think about that.  He presumed to tell God what was just, presumably because it was obvious to him.  And God agreed, going farther even than Abraham had dared to ask, removing all of the “righteous” (even those whom he knew would apostatize) before destroying the cities.

Now before we go trying to apply such a lesson we have to make a few distinctions, if only to maintain our street cred.  A) We’re not God, so we can’t know exactly who the righteous are, nor can we as easily shepherd them out of harm’s way (although we could protect churches and the like).  B) We don’t have divine sanction for any particular military action, so we don’t know that the wickedness of a particular nation has sparked an angelic outcry such that God wants that place utterly destroyed like Sodom did.  This means that we are not in a position to presume to be carrying out some sort of divine judgement.

What this leads to is a realization that we should be very, very careful in our pursuit of war.  If we have no divine sanction, and we know that God believes that killing even a few righteous persons in an attempt to destroy a “wicked city”, much less one that simply opposes our interests, is unjust, we should be extremely cautious in our pursuit of war.  

More particularly we should certainly avoid wars that involve the killing of large numbers of innocents.  That was precisely the issue at Sodom and Gomorrah.  Abraham had just been involved in a battle whereby he rescued his nephew Lot, and there is no doubt from the text that many died in that affair.  But there are two important facts that help us understand the distinctions between that action and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  First, it was a defensive action.  Abraham’s nephew had been captured and Abraham sought to redeem him.  Second it was a war fought between soldiers or fighting men.

The difference between Abraham’s reaction to the battles for Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is the fact that one was a defensive war between armies and the other was the destruction of a civilian population.

The lesson to be learned from this is that if you engage in war, and particularly offensive or “pre-emptive” war, in such a way that you start killing righteous people “for the greater good” it seems to me that you have to reckon with Abraham and the divine sanction of his belief that killing the righteous along with the wicked is unjust and ungodly.

Finally, I would say, that even if we pretend that the United States is an obvious force for good in the world (with her hundreds of thousands of child murders per year, Bible burnings by the military, assassinations, and wholesale embrace of statism) we must reckon with the fact that even the greatest “force for good” there is, YAHWEH himself, did not believe that “collateral damage” of the righteous in an offensive action was simply one of the cold hard realities of war that must be accepted. 

Foreign policy is not just a side issue.