‘Just war’: musings on the ethics of war

November 04, 2012, Sunday/ 15:06:00

In order to rationalize the waging of war against another country, religions have always sought to define what constitutes a just war.

But, unfortunately, world history is also the history of wars, and it is debatable whether any of them were just or not. For this reason, the effectiveness of the “just war” theory needs scholarly analysis.

On this topic, Today’s Zaman interviewed Professor Andrew Skotnicki, author of “The Last Judgment: Christian Ethics in a Legal Culture.”

Skotnicki is a professor of theological ethics and the chair of the department of religious studies at Manhattan College in New York City. His principal area of interest as a scholar is the theological and ethical issues raised by criminal justice, but he is also interested in the way religious traditions have viewed issues of peace and social welfare. Here, he gives his views on the matter:

How would you describe the concept of a “just war” in the Christian tradition?

The “just war” in its various articulations emerged as a result of Christianity moving from a “renegade” religion for the first three centuries of its existence to the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. Christian theologians, who had always proclaimed pacifism as a necessary ethical requirement for Christians, started to reason that war, while never a moral good, could be fought if it was conducted under the guidance of specific moral norms.

What was the reasoning and rationale for the Crusades in the Middle Ages?

The ostensible reason was a fear that the holy shrines of Christendom would be violated and that Christians would lose the ability to have access to those holy places. As I stated, that is the “official” justification. As we all know, wars also serve private interests, often economic ones, and those reasons are never proclaimed publicly. I really feel that readers should consult reputable scholarly texts (usually published by university presses) and form their own opinion.

Did the Christians criticize themselves about the Crusades?

There were many individual Christians and Christian organizations, called “confraternities,” which were appalled that a church whose founder was a man of unconditional love and forgiveness could sanction violence.

Can the countries where the vast majority of the world’s population live be considered Christian states?

Not at all. There is no such thing as a “Christian” state. To be a Christian is to pattern your life on the life and teachings of Christ. He owned nothing, forgave all who offended or abused him and renounced every form of violence and self-promotion. No nation would agree to pattern its life on those principles

How much do you think Christian values impact on the policy of the government in the US?

The short answer is that the US is not a Christian state, based on what was said in the question above. The more complex answer involves the way certain elements of the Christian ethos have found their way into the national consciousness. One could reflect on the civil rights movement, the emphasis on human rights, the muscular social welfare programs inaugurated during the Great Depression and in the 1960s and see echoes of the Christian ideals invoked, not necessarily embodied, by earlier generations.

Do you think the Western states violated the just war principle of the Christian tradition throughout history?

There has probably never been a just war conducted by any nation, Christian or not. The doctrine has many moral requirements not only leading up to war but also relevant during the fighting of the war. A war could only be fought morally if it was in the national interest, declared by a competent authority, for a “just” cause, with a reasonable chance for success and waged only as a last resort. During the war, all non-combatant lives must be spared, the war cannot use disproportional force to achieve success and the victors must pay to assist the defeated nation in rebuilding. Perhaps some of these were respected in given conflicts, but it is almost incomprehensible to think that they were all followed or even given serious attention. Wars are justified because nations are by definition self-seeking and not selfless. Religion is often invoked as an ideological tool by states populated by Christians, Muslims and Jews to justify violent conflict, but it is rarely, if ever, for the sake of God or Allah.

Do you expect a global war in the future?

As a man of faith, I can only hope and pray that God’s merciful guidance of all of history will eventually lead us to renounce violence toward one another. I also pray that it will not take a global war to teach us to show reverence to all life rather than destroy it.

What would you recommend to world leaders?

First of all, keep speaking to one another; second, pledge to seek non-violent solutions to all conflict; third, take the initiative to show acts of mercy toward their enemies; fourth, divert more and more of the funds used for the military into initiatives to address human development and environmental sustainability.

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