A Just War

Posted on August 6, 2014


All peoples and nations wage what they consider “just” wars. Everyone in positions of leadership, after all, have to persuade people to go slaughter others, or, in turn, be slaughtered. To do this, it helps to not only be passionate about your cause, but also persuasive as well.

Radical Islamic/Arabic peoples, for example, filled with Muslim fervor and righteousness, fixate on destroying the Jewish people. The Hebrews beg to disagree. They have just as much right to protect themselves against the death sentence rendered upon them by Islam as any people on earth. This is especially so having suffered the onslaught of Adolph Hitler’s Holocaust during World War II.

Christians have struggled with the nature of a “just war” ever since the times of St. Augustine, and even before. Could Christians engage in just wars since all wars are wrapped in violence, and Jesus Christ, at the very core of Christianity, did not condone violence? Or did he?

Many Christian scholars follow St. Augustine in the question of just war. While war is a sin, it was sometimes construed as acceptable if the state was righting some wrongs. Defeating the monsters of Nazi Germany certainly was a just war for the allies.

A powerful defense of righteous anger was Jesus himself when he cast the money changers out of the Temple in justifiable outrage.

Yet Christians serving in Rome’s famed military legions were nonetheless criticized by others for betraying the core of Christianity—love—as taught by Jesus and Paul.

Augustine gingerly admitted that, in some instances, force could be construed as necessary to spread the Gospel. He invoked Scripture like the parable of the wedding feast.

What set off the modern “just war” debate occurred along the coasts of West Africa in the mid-fifteenth century when Portuguese mariners took the first African slaves to be sold in the slave markets of southern Spain and Portugal.

It was a cruel and pitiless act, separating wives from husbands, children from parents and the wailing reached all the way up to Prince Henry the Navigator in Portugal who sponsored the voyages.

As the trade evolved into the Atlantic slave trade, it was both brutal and warlike. First, the Portuguese, and later the English, Dutch, French and even Americans got into the business of either trading with Africans for slaves, or just forcibly seizing Africans and shipping them to the Americas in the infamous “Middle Passage.”

The thin gruel of an excuse offered by the Portuguese when accused of cruelty and “unjustly” seizing or buying Africans was that it was to teach the Africans Christianity and bring them into the circle of redemption and eternal life.

The conquest of the New World in the sixteenth century by the Spanish brought the whole question of what constitutes a just war once again to the attention of kings, ministers, theologians, and philosophers. And, as you can easily note, it still resonates today. What is a just war?

When Spanish conquistadors and settlers spread through the islands of the Caribbean in search of gold and easy wealth, they brutalized the Indian populations of the large islands, like Hispaniola (Española) and Cuba. A Spanish priest and friar, Bartolomé de las Casas (1485-1566), excoriated his fellow Spaniards in a series of searing tracts and books for hypocritically defending their violence under the mantle of Christianity.

The stage was set for a monumental debate on the justness and justice of the conquest of the Americas, which actually took place in mid-sixteenth century Spain. At stake was whether the Spanish could legitimately wage a just war on pagans or heathens to convert them to Christianity, and so, of course, save their souls.

The rapidly evolving African slave trade also had to be “justified” within the principles of European, Christian thought. Could, for example, taking Africans as slaves for trade be morally legitimate—and so just–if the Africans were already enslaved? In many cases, the Europeans simply purchased Africans already enslaved by other Africans.

The argument that enslavement was a natural step to Christianity was dismissed contemptuously by other Dominican scholars, who, like Las Casas, joined the just war debate. There was absolutely nothing that Jesus taught for example which said that a soul’s freedom may be purchased with the body’s enslavement. Human debasement for economic profit could hardly be justified under any terms other than greed, and, in the Christian cosmos, greed was a sin of major proportions.

The debate in mid-century Spain which took place at an old university city of Valladolid was actually called by the Charles V, then the King of Spain and the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Never in the annals of history was a monumental conquest halted to debate the justice or righteousness of their cause.

The debate, like so many academic debates, went on for years and never was really resolved, but the question remains: what makes a just war?

Certainly religion played a major role in this debate. Could pagans and heathens—the Indians of the New World– be brought to Christianity through force? Some argued that “yes, saving people’s immortal souls” overrode every other ethical, moral, and/or legal concern. Others challenged this view, claiming the higher moral and Christian virtue of love. True conversion could only be done through love and peace, not war and force.

Today every nation and people who make war of course claim the high ground of justice and righteousness. Islamic radicals, Sudanese satraps, Afghan jihadists, Russian imperialists, they all have to persuade their people that their cause is right and just, and often holy in the light of their religion.

In the current iteration of the long struggle between Israelis and Palestinians, one searches, sometimes in vain, for the deep currents of justice that have to underlay any legitimate cause for war and violence. Justice favors the Jews, if one reads the Bible carefully, especially the Old Testament. Both sides have claims to land based on heredity and history, but one side always holds the trump card of justice.

In the American Civil War, who fought the just war? No matter how brave, how valorous, how sacrificing both sides may have fought, one fought for a nobler, more just cause than the other.

Today, there seems to be a rising crescendo of violence around the globe. It may just be that we tend myopically to focus on our problems, and forget how horrible wars afflicted the past, such as the Great War of 1914-1918. It began exactly one hundred years ago this month, and the casualties numbered not in the thousands, but in the tens of millions, and some countries, such as England, suffered the loss of just about an entire generation, never really to recover in modern times.

We need to hold our leaders accountable for wars, or near wars, or limited armed conflicts, or whatever euphemism is the popular one of the day for sending men and women into harm’s way. Force them to answer the question: is this a just war?

It should produce a profound debate, one we should always have in any conflict. As we debate the issue, we will see what core values truly drive and sustain our culture and civilization.

Not to be too flip in closing, but I can get a pretty good idea of how someone lives and thinks. I just ask them three simple questions: how do you spend your money? What do you watch on television? What do you do on social media?

We need to develop a similar set of questions to ask all leaders who would lead us into war. It should lead to a useful debate of the leading candidates as we look ahead to the presidential campaign of 2016.

The talking heads of CNN, FOX, CBS, etc. could start with the question: what is a just war?

Published in my column The Port Rail as Is there Really Such a Thing as a Just War in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday, August 17, 2014.

Posted in: History