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Issues: Just War

Can war ever be justified?


For the first three centuries of the Christian faith, Christianity was a minority belief and had little influence on government. Then there was an important change. The Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of his empire, and church and politics mixed and began to influence each other.

St. Augustine in the 4th century first taught the idea of a just war as a Christian concept. He linked it to the Old Testament of the Bible, where the Jews were instructed by God to conquer the nations in the land God had promised to them when he freed them from slavery in Egypt. Because these nations worshipped idols, they were to be severely dealt with: "Now go and completely destroy the entire Amalekite nation - men, women, children, babies, cattle, sheep, camels, and donkeys." (1 Samuel 15:3).

The justification for the war was to punish these people who had opposed the Jewish people and to prevent the Jews from being influenced by false Gods. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century gave advice as a Christian leader. He said that leaders of European states seeking to decide whether a war was just should consider:

  • The leader(s) of the state must start and control any war (no civil wars).
  • Those fought against must deserve to be attacked.
  • Good outcome must be the aim, and evil must be avoided, so peace and justice must be restored afterwards.

Other Christian thinkers since then have given other opinions as guidelines:

  • Ways of resolving disputes must be thoroughly tried before any war.
  • Armed conflict should be restricted to avoid innocent people suffering.
  • The good results of the war should be greater than the evil causes of it.

These clearly rule out wars to gain land or resources, or for personal glory.

What do you think of the Just War criteria? Does it influence your opinion of war? Is there anything worth dying for?