Note: Updated on May 31, 2013 for style and clarity.
It just hit me that I’m posting this blog on Memorial Day. This isn’t on purpose. I respect the sacrifices of soldiers and appreciate their desire to protect their countrymen and their cherished values. My disagreeing with going to war does not indicate that I do not love or respect the troops who go to war. Even so, I believe I am sharing both the truth of reason and revelation when I write on this topic. If you disagree, I’d love to hear your feedback!
For those out there who have been following my blog, you probably understand by now that I am sympathetic to Christian pacifism. I do not feel that the traditional Christian “just war” position is morally or biblically justifiable, let alone can be rationally and consistently held. What I would like to do in this essay is demonstrate three things:
1. Osama bin Laden and the Arab world have good reasons to be angry toward the United States and our foreign policy.
2. We also have good reasons to be angry toward those who have attacked us. Interestingly, many of them are quite similar to the reasons Osama bin Laden has cited. However, our “good reasons” justify going to war in our eyes, even though we dismiss these same “good reasons” when al Qaeda uses them. This is illogical and shows a fatal flaw in the justifications we use for going to war.
3. No “good reason” we may offer is worth cutting off our enemies from the love of Christ, or making war and justifying hatred against them.
What is a “Just War?”
There are several criteria for a “just war,” both in why a war should be declared, and how it should be fought. Here are a few of the main criteria (quoted and adapted from Thomas Aquinas’ section on “The Just War” in his Summa Theologica) for why a war may be undertaken (called “jus ad bellum” criteria) according to just war principles:
1. Legitimate authority. According to Thomas, a war may be just, “In the first place, the authority of the prince, by whose order the war is undertaken; for it does not belong to a private individual to make war, because, in order to obtain justice, he can have recourse to the judgment of his superior…” In other words, only duly constituted public authorities may wage war– a nation can wage war, not just a gang of kids off the street or a terrorist organization, according to this principle.
2. Just cause. According to Thomas, “in the second place, there must be a just cause; that is to say, those attacked must have, by a fault, deserved to be attacked.” Innocent life must be in imminent danger and intervention must be to protect life. Apart from protecting innocent life, this principle has been expanded to also deal with violations of human rights. Many theorists have also included as part of this rule that any authority which uses its power to stop a people from controlling its own political destiny can justly be made war against. Thus, Hitler’s invasion of nations to bring them under the flag of Nazi Germany was a cause for war based on this definition, as was (arguably), the United States’ recent invasion of Iraq.
3. Right intention. Says Thomas, “in the third place, it is necessary that the intention of those who fight should be right; that is to say, that they propose to themselves a good to be effected or an evil to be avoided. This is what made St. Augustine say in the book De Verbis Domini: ‘With the true servants of God wars themselves are pacific, not being undertaken through cupidity or cruelty, but through the love of peace, with the object of repressing the wicked and encouraging the good.'” Force may be used only in a truly just cause and solely for that purpose—correcting a suffered wrong is considered a right intention, while material gain or maintaining economies is not. Based on this principle, America invading Iraq to free its citizens from a tyrannical leader, or to stop a madman from launching WMDs, would be the right intention. However, if it could be shown that economic benefit was the true reason, this would not be the right intention, but would be a violation of just war principles.
4. Last resort. Just war theorists succeeding Thomas also added the criteria of last resort. Force may be used only after all peaceful and viable alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted or are clearly not practical. This was a controversy with the recent Iraq invasion, because many claimed that we rushed to war, whereas the administration defended its position by pointing out Hussein’s lack of interest in working with U.N. weapons inspectors up to that point. This was also a controversy in America’s atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II.
Similarly, there have been traditionally defined basic principles that ought to govern a war once it has been declared (jus in bello). Two of the most prominent just in bello criteria are:
1. Distinction. The acts of war should be directed towards enemy combatants, and not towards non-combatants. Thus, bombing civilian residential areas that include no military target or acts of terrorism against ordinary civilians are forbidden in a “just war.” In the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, those cities were of military advantage (Hiroshima being an army depot and Nagasaki being a large seaport and also an area of production of military equipment), however, an appalling number of civilians were killed by these bombings. This brings us to the second criteria.
2. Proportionality. Even if an attack is upon a military objective, if the incidental civilian casualties would be in excess of the anticipated military advantage, this would not be an act undertaken as part of a “just war.” Even though the atomic bombings of Japan were clearly targeted against civilians (and the bombing of Hiroshima was not preceded by warning Japanese civilians as previous bombings had been), it was hoped that the extreme casualties accrued in the bombings would be justifiable because they would force Japan into surrender– the greatest “military advantage.” So we see that even though targeting civilians in war is considered highly unethical, we have made allowances for this practice when we felt it was to our benefit, or when we felt that we were forced to do something drastic based on the unjust attacks of others.
Bin Laden’s “Just War”
After 9/11, a common explanation from American leaders as to why al Qaeda did what they did was because “they hate our freedom.” To clear up their justifications, Osama bin Laden wrote a “Letter to America” (full text here) in November of 2002. He directly responded to the question, “why are we fighting and opposing you?” This (edited down for length) was his response:
“Because you attacked us and continue to attack us. You attacked us in Palestine. You attacked us in Somalia; you supported the Russian atrocities against us in Chechnya, the Indian oppression against us in Kashmir, and the Jewish aggression against us in Lebanon… As for the war criminals which you censure and form criminal courts for – you shamelessly ask that your own are granted immunity!! However, history will not forget the war crimes that you committed against the Muslims and the rest of the world; those you have killed in Japan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Lebanon and Iraq will remain a shame that you will never be able to escape. It will suffice to remind you of your latest war crimes in Afghanistan, in which densely populated innocent civilian villages were destroyed, bombs were dropped on mosques causing the roof of the mosque to come crashing down on the heads of the Muslims praying inside…
Under your supervision, consent and orders, the governments of our countries which act as your agents, attack us on a daily basis… The freedom and democracy that you call to is for yourselves and for white race only; as for the rest of the world, you impose upon them your monstrous, destructive policies and Governments, which you call the ‘American friends’. Yet you prevent them from establishing democracies. When the Islamic party in Algeria wanted to practice democracy and they won the election, you unleashed your agents in the Algerian army onto them, and to attack them with tanks and guns, to imprison them and torture them…
You steal our wealth and oil at paltry prices because of your international influence and military threats. Your forces occupy our countries; you spread your military bases throughout them; you corrupt our lands, and you besiege our sanctities, to protect the security of the Jews and to ensure the continuity of your pillage of our treasures. You have starved the Muslims of Iraq, where children die every day. It is a wonder that more than 1.5 million Iraqi children have died as a result of your sanctions, and you did not show concern. Yet when 3000 of your people died, the entire world rises and has not yet sat down.
These tragedies and calamities are only a few examples of your oppression and aggression against us. It is commanded by our religion and intellect that the oppressed have a right to return the aggression. Do not await anything from us but Jihad, resistance and revenge. Is it in any way rational to expect that after America has attacked us for more than half a century, that we will then leave her to live in security and peace?!!”
While many may disagree with bin Laden’s assessment of the difficult and complicated Israeli/Palestinian situation (as well as other political situations he refers to), the position bin Laden advocates is very much in line with the “just war” approach, and even more like the version of it America has advocated. Bin Laden gave reasons for war against America, such as innocent life our military has taken and our government’s political oppression of Arabs, which fall very much in line with the “just cause” principle. As for the principle of right intention, he sought to correct what he perceived as American evils against the Arab world. He was also doing so as a last resort. He felt that America would not listen, but had turned a blind eye to the plight of the Arab people. Thus, he sought a violent means to get our attention.
It is true that al Qaeda is not an officially recognized government, which would exclude it from being considered under just war criteria. However, his very argument was that the United States had oppressed the opportunity for Arab political sovereignty, so that a just war could not be declared. Secondly, even Arab states that might desire to correct these perceived wrongs would not, because the military might of the United States is so that no matter what evils we engaged in, there would hardly be a nation brave enough to fight back. Most importantly, the United States was founded by men who resisted the rightly established political authority, seeking to secede from the power structure and create their own political destiny, even using violence. So the United States must even make an allowance for this, or else we cannot rightly make war according to this criterion.
It is true that bin Laden targeted civilians, but so have we. We did so in Hiroshima and Nagasaki because we felt that Japan would not make for peace with us if we did not act strongly against its people, getting its attention and forcing them to hear our demands for change. And based on the concept of proportionality (that the cost of civilian deaths must be worth the military advantage they bring), it would not be difficult for bin Laden to justify his attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon if he were to appeal to this principle as we have (50,000-60,000 non-combatants killed in Hiroshima compared to 3,000 non-combatants on 9/11). Even so, bin Laden offered an interesting justification for not using the principle of “distinction” when it came to targeting non-military individuals. His rationale was that America is a representative democracy where we claim that the government is instituted for and by the people. Thus, America as a whole must approve of its government’s foreign policy as it relates to the Arab people. According to this concept, American civilians are in fact guilty of our nation’s alleged crimes.
If this modified “just war” view which the Western world (along with the United States) has created, is truly just, then we may not refer to bin Laden’s actions as evil. He is in fact in the same camp with many of our own leaders.
It is also a fact that this letter calls America to Islam and Shariah law as well calling us to change in our foreign policy. Bin Laden demands that these conditions be met for peace, which truly makes him a theocrat who cannot easily be negotiated with, as America cannot rightly enforce Islamic Shariah law. However, his initial reasons for making war with the United States are political and not religious, and many of them are very understandable, though his actually making war cannot be justified from a Christian standpoint.
The reasons bin Laden gave for his attack are very much like the justifications we have used in the past. We went to war against Britain in the 1700s because we felt their political power over us was oppressive. Many lives were lost on both sides due to this battle over the political and economic power that many American people desired and felt was worth going to war for.
In August of 1945, U.S. President Harry Truman ordered the atomic bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Over 200,000 people (mostly civilians) were killed directly or indirectly (via radiation) by the end of 1945 due to these bombings. In contrast, nearly 3,000 people were killed on September 11th of 2001 due to the actions of al Qaeda. Both the actions of Harry Truman and of Osama bin Laden are absolutely, and inarguably, evil.
Jesus has called Christians to a standard that is different from the standards which the world creates. He has asked us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). He has asked us to be merciful (Matthew 5:7) and make peace (Matthew 5:9). He has asked us not to fight (Matthew 5:38-39), but to forgive, and that any man who does not forgive the one who sins against him, God will not offer Him forgiveness (Matthew 6:15). We are a part of a new and better Kingdom, and we do not go to war like the soldiers of this kingdom (John 18:36). Instead, we are to be like Christ.
However, instead of asking “What Would Jesus Do?” when it comes to war, Western Christians have been asking, for all intents and purposes, “What Would bin Laden Do?”
“To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’ When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.”
1 Peter 2:21-23