Just War

PoppyRemembrance Day can be a strange and puzzling experience, at least to me. Brought up to be deeply suspicious of the British state and everything associated with it, steeped in a Trotskyist tradition that starts its thinking about war from the assumption that one’s main enemy is at home in the shape of the ruling class, I find it hard to shake off that instinctive distrust. I have come to see the premise that class struggle is the main truth of political and thus of national life as not just wrong but absurd. I have rejected completely the Marxism that dominated my youth. Yet I can’t accept a strong identification with “my” nation and its state.

The Christianity embraced in my thirties not much more compatible with nationalism than the Marxism of my teens and twenties. Our identity in Christ, if it is a genuine rebirth into a new creation, cannot be simply and straightforwardly grafted on to a natural national identity. Whatever else Jesus was and is he is not English, British or European. If we are adopted into the family of God our national identity becomes, at the least, problematic.

Remembrance Day is not necessarily an orgy of national self-congratulation and identity building, of course, but it can sometimes feel too close to that for my comfort. I don’t have a strong feeling of any kind about the recent installation at the Tower but the fact that it seemed natural to commemorate only “our” war dead is both quite understandable and in keeping with the nature of Remembrance Day and deeply troubling to me. That both these things are true is what makes this day difficult. I find myself able neither to embrace nor to reject it.

Equally I have difficulty with the “white poppy” response. I am not and have never been a pacifist. It seems obvious to me that sometimes it would be irresponsible to reject recourse to violence. One could legitimately say that one chose to submit oneself to the actions of evil men with resistance, in line with Jesus’ clear instruction. I find it more difficult to accept that one can make that choice for others. Those with the authority and the capability to protect the subjects of a sovereign power of which they are the agents must sometimes do so, it seems to me. Thus I accept the broad outline of a theory of “just war” as it has been developed in the Christian tradition.

I am also keenly aware of the injunction that we Christians are to “love our enemies”. Who “our” enemies are, in this case, is not completely straightforward. As I read Christ’s words they are those who are our enemies insofar as we are Christians who are primarily in view. In this respect it is not at all clear that the enemies of “my” country are my enemies. They may, perhaps, be my neighbours or they may be people to whom I have none of the relationships named in Jesus’ teaching, neighbour, enemy, brother, sister, friend. They may not fall into any of the categories named by him alongside these relational ones, poor, rich, those who mourn, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, the blind, the imprisoned, the oppressed, the rich. If, however, their actions in war make them my enemies then I am instructed to love them.

Alongside my unease as the Church as the Church, which cannot really see itself as national, remembering the losses of one nation rather than another (an unease that recognises reasons why it might properly do so) comes another. What difference does it make it the wars in which people died were or were not, to whatever degree, “just”? Does it make a difference to our attitude to their deaths if we think they were in the interest of a good or of a bad cause? Does it make a difference if they were willing and enthusiastic participants or unwilling or even mutinous? Do we remember those shot for cowardice differently from the way we remember those killed doing heroic things for which they were awarded posthumous medals? If so, why?

At any rate our memorialising, as Christians, has to have at least a substantial element of repentance. All war is wrong, even just war, even war we cannot responsibly avoid. Jesus really does tell us not to resist the evil man and when we do we are quite clearly doing what we are told not to. It should come as no surprise to anybody with much acquaintance with the post-Reformation Christian tradition that we cannot keep ourselves pure of sin. Our lives are lived out in a fallen sinful world as fallen sinful people. This by no means absolves us of the struggle to align ourselves to God’s will as best we can but we should be under no illusion that this will leave us nothing to regret or confess, nothing to repent of.

Of course we can’t repent on somebody else’s behalf, when we remember the dead we do not remember or confess their sins. The primary modes of Christian memory in this case are thanksgiving and expectation. We give thanks for the gift of life, which is past, and we look forward to resurrection. Insofar, though, as we identify with the lost, in a moment of national solidarity, then there is repentance. The nation is responsible for these deaths and for the deaths of those killed on the other side of every war, and of this we should repent, even where we fought justly.

Balancing these various perspectives, us as Christians set aside and apart from our nation, as members of a national community mourning, in the Christian way of thanksgiving and expectation, those who have been lost, as members of a national community repenting of our sinful warring, is difficult, but it must surely be the task of the Church on these days of recollection.


So here we are again (or so it feels). Cameron and Obama are talking on the telephone. Military options are being reviewed. Parliament has been recalled. Once more the UK and the US seem to be on the brink of military action in the Middle East.

I remember the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, when I felt unable either to join the demonstrations against (with their apparent indifference to the awfulness of the regime and their visceral hostility to those leading our own country and its allies) nor to support the proposed action (with its transparent lack of any real vision for what would be achieved). I was against the invasion but unable to lend my support to an opposition with which I could not identify.

Given the distance from those events I would probably now be more inclined to support the demonstrations but still uneasy about doing so. I subscribe to Just War Theory and would be willing to lend support to military action that meets its criteria. The invasion of Iraq seemed to me to fail on the grounds of probability of success and on last resort. Much was made of the competent authority argument in relation to the UN but I’m far from convinced by that. I’m not at all clear that the UN is an effective enough body to be regarded as a legal authority, valuable though it is.

At any rate we’re now facing many of the same arguments in regard to Syria, albeit nobody is seriously advocating or considering a ground invasion. Whatever military action might be taken is likely to be more demonstrative than really decisive. The arguments in favour seem to amount to “we can’t do nothing” more than “we should do this”. It’s even uncertain whether any state actor really wants Assad overthrown given the uncertainties and dangers attendant on this outcome.

So what, if anything, do Christians have to say that is distinctively Christian on all of this?

It seems to me that the moral and political questions are ones where we are unlikely to have much to add. We are likely to say “war is a bad thing” and to link this to the gospel, but we’re very far from being the only ones opposed in principle to violence. Where Jesus’ teaching is distinctive is in its radicality: “offer the wicked man no resistance”. This, though, would apply not only to intervention from outside but to the Syrian opposition and indeed to Assad. This teaching of Jesus would urge all involved to let the others do whatever they would.

While this accords with the gospel teaching I don’t hear many voices raised saying the the Syrian opposition “lay down your weapons and offer the wicked man Assad no resistance”.

We all understand, at some level, that this teaching is inappropriate. It may be that as individuals we are called to try to reach this level of self-surrender and Christ-likeness, but to choose it on behalf of others is not right. This kind of insight is part of what lies behind Luther’s two regiments approach to politics and to ethics. We have responsibilities towards others in this fallen world that mean that sometimes we are called to do and be things that sit uneasily with the kingdom teaching.

Often moral choice is more a matter of choosing between a set of wrongs rather than holding our for an unachievable right. This is what Just War says. War is always a bad thing but it may be the least bad of a set of bad options.

Again you don’t need to be a follower of Christ to recognise this. What you do need to be a follower of Christ for is to hope for something beyond the sets of compromises this world allows.

What Jesus announces is the coming near of the Kingdom of God, a direct and unchallengeable rule of the loving God. A state of affairs in which war and violence, injustice and abuse, even sickness and death are a thing of the past. In the redeemed and transformed creation into which we are to be resurrected all these consequences of sin will cease to be.

The Christian message is not “be nice” (although we should be nice) or even “be good” (although we should be good). It is that God is acting and will act to make sin and death things of the past. We are called to represent that kingdom in the here and now. We are called to live and act as if God’s rule has already been fully enacted (no possessions, complete non-violence and so on) but we’re also promised God’s gracious forgiveness for the ways in which we fall short.

This dual existence, in God’s kingdom and in the mess of our fallen world, is the core problem of Christian discipleship and is sustainable only through faith in that forgiveness, in the promised return of Christ to rule in glory and in resurrection to eternal life in him.

We shouldn’t try to short-circuit all this by looking for the perfect Christian answer to the pressing ethical and political problems of today. We have to live with the knowledge that there is no way to live in this world without sin, without really doing things that make us guilty, in our eyes and in the eyes of God.

Our only recourse is to throw ourselves on God’s mercy and pray for the guidance of the Spirit to lead us on the path Christ has laid.