War: Lesser Good or Lesser Evil?




by Alexander F.C. Webster and Darrell Cole

Regina Orthodox Press, 2004 252 pages, $19.95

To order: (800) 636-2470 reginaorthodoxpress.com

Is Christian just-war doctrine on the way out just as it has become technically possible to wage war morally? The authors of this book think — and fear — that such may be the case.

This useful and timely book traces the doctrine from Scripture through Ambrose, Augustine, Basil, Aquinas, Grotius, Calvin and Luther, to modern opponents who maintain that war is never just, such as pacifist John Howard Yoder, “Christian realist” Reinhold Niebuhr and, arguably, today's American Catholic bishops.

For co-authors Darrell Cole, a professor of religion at Drew University and a recent convert to Catholicism, and Alexander Webster, an Orthodox priest and U.S. army chaplain, revisionists can abandon the just-war doctrine only by ignoring the Old Testament, St. Paul, the doctors of the Church and, in Orthodoxy, the lessons of iconography and liturgy, as well.

The authors charge that the American bishops’ most recent pronouncement on the subject, 1993's The Harvest of Peace, verges “on turning peace into an absolute good — and idol — that is to be sought at all costs. The bishops, for example, are fond of referring to God as ‘the God of peace’ (and so he is), but he is also ‘the God of Hosts.’”

Of America's response to Sept. 11, 2001, the authors write, “We Americans have been crucified as a people. We need not have any moral qualms about the war against international Islamic terrorism.”

So what about the pacifism of the New Testament? The authors emphasize that the soldiers who appear in the Gospels are never told to give up their way of life, as are the woman caught in adultery and the rich young man. John the Baptist tells soldiers simply to act justly and to not abuse their power.

It is justice, grounded in mercy, that is the “virtue of war,” reasoned St. Ambrose, whom the authors identify as the founder of the Christian just-war tradition. “Man was made for the sake of man,” he wrote, “and so we ought to be of mutual obligation to one another.” From this flows the state's duty to defend its citizens with arms, and the citizens’ duty to enlist.

War must be merciful in execution as well as goals, the authors stress: Innocents must be protected as far as possible and the force used must be proportional to the outcome (ordering troops to their death in a lost cause is unjust). Thus, as they have it, the Allies fought a just war with unjust means when they deliberately bombed civilian targets in World War II. And the recent

Afghan and Iraq wars were just in ends because terrorism was the target, and in means, because unprecedented efforts were made, in the form of “smart” weapons, to minimize the unintentional killing of noncombatants.

The authors contend that going to war is sometimes the right thing — and that, when conflict is indicated, it should be conducted morally. When it is not the right thing, Christians should oppose it in principle and disobey immoral orders in the particular. And, indeed, the surest way to prevent immorally conducted wars is for Christians to shoulder their fair share of the burden of defense by military service. “Fighting honorably,” they conclude, “is hard work … The virtue of war requires nothing less from its virtuous warriors.” A rousing read for a nation at war on Election Day.

Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.