by J. Daryl Charles

With the collapse a decade and a half ago of the Soviet empire, many—from the average lay person to the policy-maker—considered the use of military force as a question lacking urgency. Alas, we are finding that it is precisely those developments since the end of the Cold War that constrain us to reexamine the merits and moral substructure of armed conflict.1 The sheer density of these sundry catastrophes and crises around the globe forces us to reflect on the morality of war, the use of force, and military intervention. Should we intervene? Why or why not? When? By what criteria and in what measure? What about the place of private conscience, conscientious objection and pacifist non-resistance? What role do religious communities assume in national debates over war, genocide, egregious human rights violations and humanitarian intervention? And from the standpoint of Christian faith: What is the relationship between the church and the world? Between Christ and Caesar? Between Christians and social-political evil?

Difficult as these questions are, they are perennial, ever with us. And for this reason, we may be encouraged, for we are not the first to wrestle with such matters. Early Christians—bishops and lay people, monks and magistrates—agonized over them, with believers in every age continuing to do so. And because Christians from the beginning have struggled with the ethics of war and peace, we are not without resources—enduring resources—to help us think about these matters.2

To the surprise of some, Christian reflection on the ethics of war is rooted squarely within the mainstream of the Christian moral tradition; it is by no means a peripheral issue. As a result, a consensus among important Christian thinkers emerges, offering much-needed political-moral wisdom for our time. I refer here to just-war moral reasoning. In addition to providing prudential wisdom for those entrusted with government and the public good, this tradition offers wisdom for the church as she seeks to be incarnational in her witness to the world. But it also offers wisdom for Christian believers as they consider vocational callings and attempt to embody responsible citizenship, as well as for those individuals who consider entering professions that are policy-related. It is surely tragic that much of Christendom—whether evangelical, mainline Protestant or Roman Catholic—has been divorced from the wisdom of this consensual tradition. The results of this divorce are quite unfortunate. At the most basic level, the average lay person, even when intuiting what justice demands in a particular situation, is often unable to offer a rationale as to why or why not this is so.

Certainly, how Americans—and I write in the American context—think about war cannot be properly understood apart from the American experience of the last half-century. And although the language of “just war” is frequently heard among politicians, journalistic pundits, analysts, even religious spokespersons, particular obstacles nevertheless impede our understanding of what the just-war tradition really is. Consider, for the moment, how the last fifty years have molded the way in which we think about war and peace, especially in the church and in the academy. Our national experience as a result of the way World War II ended (at least in the Pacific theater) and our experience in Vietnam—I personally am a part of the “protest” generation—in particular have combined to shape powerfully our national ethos, whether we are Protestant or Catholic. Add to this the proliferation of nuclear as well as chemical/biological weapons in the last forty years and their potential for mass destruction, many religious people believe that the proportions of modern warfare are so inherently evil that war or the use of military force is intrinsically immoral.3 Thus we have today—perhaps less so among lay persons but overwhelmingly so in academic circles and in many religious quarters—a presumption against war and force in general rather than a presumption against evil and injustice.4 While the heart of the just-war tradition has been based historically on opposition to injustice, recent re-interpretations of just-war thinking are based instead on a presumption against war and coercive force itself. This mutation has led to what James Turner Johnson calls “the broken tradition.”5 The distinction between a presumption against war/coercive force and a presumption against injustice is not merely academic; it is critical as a starting-point for thinking about war—a distinction made again and again by Christian moral thinkers.6

The just-war tradition, properly understood, understands itself as a mediating or moderating position between two poles that are absolutist in their attitude toward coercive force. On the one hand, the militarist—whether secular (sometimes called the “political realist”) or religious (the “jihadist” or crusader)—views war and coercive force as justifiable under any circumstance. No moral restraints beyond political expediency or the “command of God” need be applied. On the other end stands the ideological pacifist. Given the suffering and bloodshed caused by violence and war, the pure or “principled” pacifist believes that war and coercive force are never permissible; war is to be rejected under any and all circumstances.7

Expressing consensual Christian thinking through the ages, the just-war position seeks to mediate this tension. This mediation is grounded in a certain “Christian realism”: given human depravity and the propensity for evil, we must never believe that nothing is permissible, nor that everything always is. There are occasions in which, reluctantly, we may need to apply coercive force, even if this means going to war, for the protection and preservation of an innocent third party. Resort to war is sometimes, though not always, unjust. In contrast, the militarist views moral considerations as expendable, while for the ideological pacifist coercive force and war can never serve a just end.

The manner in which Thomas Aquinas begins his discussion of war (Summa Theologiae II-II, Q. 40) is instructive. He asks, “Is it always a sin to fight in war?” As he frequently does, Aquinas answers typical objections that cause someone to answer incorrectly. He identifies two common objections that he says are lodged in a misunderstanding of two biblical texts—Matt. 5:38-39 (not resisting evil and turning the cheek) and Rom. 12:17-21 (not returning evil for evil). In response, Aquinas is at pains to show that coercive force per se is not a category of injustice; rather, it is necessary to what Augustine called the tranquillitas ordinis, the civic peace.8 Theologian John Courtney Murray’s distinction between “force” and “violence” helps clarify the Augustinian and Thomist burden: “Force is the measure of power necessary and sufficient to uphold…law and politics. What exceeds this measure is violence, which destroys the order of both law and politics. . . .As an instrument, force is morally neutral in itself.”9

When we speak, then, of “just war,” we do not mean a war that, narrowly speaking, is “just.” Rather, we refer to warfare undertaken that is in conformity with—and therefore justified by—the demands of charity, justice and human dignity and that seeks to protect the innocent third party from gross injustice and social evil. These are the fundamental assumptions of just-war thinking,10 and they are the very assumptions that both undergird the criminal justice system and are necessary for civil society. What applies to domestic policy also applies to foreign policy; hence, a useful analogy holds: there is a choice—an alternative—between acquiescing to crime on the one hand and permitting police brutality on the other. That choice lies somewhere in the middle. It is this “messy middle,” a mediating position between two absolutist views of force, which requires that people of good will role up their sleeves and get their hands dirty.11


While seeds of just-war reasoning are found in other cultures that predate Christianity,12 it comes to its fullest development and refinement in the Christian tradition. What is distinctive about Christian moral thinkers is that they wrestle with justice in the use of coercive force or war as a potential obligation of Christian charity; that is, our obligation issues out of neighbor-love. In the realm of justice, our “neighbor” may be any innocent third party who is suffering or oppressed or being denied basic human rights. Thus, common sense and the natural law, which call us to do good and avoid or prevent evil, inform moral principles both in the domestic context (via criminal justice) and the international (via just-war moral reasoning). In a fallen world, individual people as well as people-groups and nations may not have the wherewithal to defend themselves. One expression of Christian charity, therefore, may be to defend and protect the innocent from harm’s way.

In his important work Basic Christian Ethics, ethicist Paul Ramsey develops the meaning of Christian love as well as the specific contours of love’s expression.13 Consider Ramsey’s line of reasoning regarding the work of charity as applied to defending a third party:

Love, which by its nature would be non-resistant where only the agent’s own
rights and the perhaps unjust claims of a single neighbor are involved, may
change its action to resistance by the most effective possible means, judicial or
military, violent or non-violent, when the needs of more than one neighbor come
into view.14

Where an innocent third party is introduced to the moral equation, Ramsey argues that charity will impel men to develop what he calls an “ethics of protection,” lest injustice occur.15 Part of the difficulty, as Ramsey sees it, is that we have distorted the meaning of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” teaching. Take, for example, the oft-cited and much-misunderstood admonition to “turn the other cheek” and “not resist evil” (Matt. 5:39).16 Jesus’ directive is this: “If someone strikes you…” The matter is personal, and our Lord neither states nor advocates, “If someone strikes your neighbor on the right cheek, turn your neighbor’s other cheek (so that it too might be struck).”17 While people are free to forego self-defense, they are not free to ignore the plight of the innocent third party. Coercive force, then, proportionate to the offense, may be a just response in face of violent aggression.

Ramsey’s position is no deviation from mainstream Christian moral reflection; it is rather wholly consistent therewith. For Ambrose and Augustine, both of whom rejected self-defense,18 a resort to force and war may regrettably be an obligation of charity. The writings of Augustine, in particular, bear out the conviction that justice and charity are not at odds. Justice is concerned with a right ordering of society for the sake of social peace, what Augustine calls the tranquillitas ordinis. He acknowledges the existence of both a just peace—iusta pax—and an unjust peace—iniqua pax; the distinction is critical. For this reason, peace requires the ordering of justice. Even robbers, he observes, have order and maintain a certain “peace” within their own orbit in order to plunder the innocent.19 Peace as a good, even in its relative state this side of the eschaton, must be guarded since it furnishes for people the environment in which to contemplate life’s mysteries. While ultimate peace that is consummated in the kingdom of God requires no restraints, penultimate peace does.20

Aquinas, like Augustine, responds to the common objection that war is contrary to Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount not to resist evil (viz., Matt. 5:38-39). He notes that “a man avenges the wrong done to God and neighbor” because of charity. And he quotes Augustine: “Those whom we have to punish with a kindly severity, it is necessary to handle in many ways against their will. For when we are stripping a man of the lawlessness of sin, it is good for him to be vanquished…”21

Luther, too, believes that military service and coercive force can be a work of charity. In his treatises “Temporal Authority” and “On War against the Turk,” he proceeds on the assumption that it is a work of Christian love to protect and defend a whole community with the sword and not let the people be oppressed.22 Luther acknowledges that slaying does not seem like it could possibly be a work of love. The “simple man,” he notes, would conclude that such is not possible. In truth, however, it can be an expression of charity properly understood.23 If the sword were not employed to preserve the peace, everything in the surrounding world would be spoiled. Therefore, “war is only…a small misfortune that prevents a great misfortune.”24 In order to “prevent some from becoming widows and orphans as a consequence [of war or plunder],” it is for Luther “both Christian and an act of love to kill the enemy without hesitation…until he is conquered…”25

In The Three Theological Virtues,26 the early-modern just-war theorist Francisco Suarez also understands and develops just-war thinking under the rubric of charity. Is war itself always evil?, he asks. It is both inevitable and not always evil, he responds, even when it is utterly susceptible to abuse. Suarez follows previous thinkers in the just-war tradition: war is permitted by natural law and by the Gospel, “which in no way derogates from the natural law.”27 The moral basis for conditions that justify going to war and prosecuting war, Suarez is careful to maintain, is common to Christians and to unbelievers.28


Just-war theory, it needs emphasis, is not first and foremost about military tactics and strategy; nor is it about justifying warfare that has been undertaken. Rather, properly viewed, it is a morally-guided approach to statecraft that views “peace” as the result of just relationships. Not all use of force is just, and not all use of force creates conditions for bringing about peace. Therefore, the use of force must be highly qualified. But neither is peace to be understood as the absence of conflict; it is rather the fruit or by-product of a justly-ordered, and thus civil, society. At its best, as one student of just-war theory writes, the tradition has worked to forge moral and political links between the limited use of armed force and the pursuit of peace, security, justice and freedom, since the link between morality, politics and governing does not happen automatically.29

Two groups of criteria serve as guidelines or moral norms that help determine the relative “justness” or “rightness” of action according to just-war moral reasoning. These criteria assist in determining whether to go to war (the historic ius ad bellum30 ) and how to conduct war (the ius in bello31 ). Although many discussions of just war contain longer lists of ius ad bellum criteria that are probably familiar to us, there are five core criteria from which all others derive:32

1. Just Cause. To establish the justness of a cause is to make fundamental moral distinctions—for example, between innocence and guilt, between the criminal and the punitive act, between retribution and revenge, between egregious human rights violations (“crimes against humanity”) and “humanitarian” intervention to restore basic human rights. In principle, just cause is motivated by two chief concerns: to rectify or to prevent injustice. While there is a sense in which all violence is tragic, even more tragic is the permitting of human oppression, gross injustice and crimes against humanity.33 All people, whether Christians or not, have a basic human responsibility toward their neighbor. When an innocent third party, our “neighbor,” is being attacked, assaulted or oppressed, we are morally obligated to respond. Not every injustice, of course, necessitates coercive force or war. When, however, a nation invades and annexes as its own another nation, people-group or territory, the most basic human rights to sovereignty are violated. A military response is deemed just in restoring those inalienable rights. Just cause wrestles with an appropriate response where gross injustice and moral culpability are established.34

2. Right Intention. Morally-guided force will seek to advance a greater good and secure a greater peace. Unjust war is perhaps best illustrated by what does not constitute right intention. Such scenarios include a sovereign’s pride or reputation, national aggrandizement, blood-thirst and territorial expansion. For war to be just, its aim must be a greater good, and that greater good is a justly ordered peace. Where the magistrate or political sovereign is acutely aware of his responsibility to protect the common weal, of his population or another, chances are greater that just criteria have been met for going to war. The establishment of a just peace rules out the possibility of territorial domination, revenge or other wrong motives. Just-war thinking is cognizant that anything apart from justified cause negates the morality of the response.

3. Proper Authority. To declare and wage war presupposes political sovereignty and responsibility for the people. The Christian view of authority is that those who govern exist first and foremost to preserve the common good (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Tim. 2:2; 1 Pet. 2:13-14). The “sword” in the hand of the magistrate, moreover, is to be wielded against evildoers, whether criminal individuals or unjust nation-states; both can undermine justice and the public good. Coercive force, which is necessary if a justly ordered peace is to be preserved, is neither to be misused through indiscriminate application nor considered inherently evil.35

The ability to declare and go to war is not merely a legal formality. It is rather the meeting place of morality and political prudence. Both militarism and pacifism miss the essence of political responsibility. The former rides roughshod over any moral considerations, focusing purely on what it believes to be military “necessity.” By its ignoring of moral considerations, it undermines the very legitimacy of politics. The latter tends to devalue the political realm, either by its disengagement or by its attempts to undermine policy.36 Its failure is a failure to recognize the role that politics plays in preserving the “peace.” The former abuses political power; the latter negates it.

4. Proportionality. The principle of proportionality rests on several basic assumptions. Force is an entity that can be regulated, and the degree of force applied is not to be greater than that which is needed to render the enemy compliant. In principle, all-out war would be counter to the very reason for being of the armed forces in non-totalitarian nations. Just-war thinking distinguishes itself from crusading or militarism by its commitment to limit war, a moral stricture that is all but ignored by the religious or secular militarist, who is willing to enter into total war. For the militarist, any necessary means is thought justifiable in order to obliterate the enemy. By contrast, to wrestle with proportionality of response is to discern what is “reasonable” in terms of economy of force in a given situation.

5. Noncombatant Immunity or Discrimination. The same moral reasoning that leads to determinations about going to war contributes to conduct in war. Ends and means are related. By contrast, the crusader/jihadist/militarist can readily justify war but fail to apply any restraints in its prosecuting. The most basic moral prohibition, even in war, is the taking of innocent life, based on natural law and confirmed in legal codes both ancient and modern. Guilt is predicated on intention. The noncombatant—inclusive of civilian populations, wounded soldiers, prisoners, women, children and non-combatant males—cannot be held “guilty.” Inflicting any suffering or injury that is not directly related to morally legitimate strategic purposes is strictly prohibited.37 Because of human dignity, respect for life is not to be forgotten.38

Political ethicist Jean Elshtain rightly observes that the just-war tradition “has been called upon repeatedly in criticisms of holy wars, crusades, and wars of imperial aggrandizement.”39 Why is that? Some ideological critics of war fail to see the profound distinction between just-war moral reasoning and other calls to arms. For just-warriors, however, “both aims and means are limited, even if one has been grievously harmed.”40 As it turns out, just-war principles are none other than those moral guidelines that foster and preserve civil society. While it shares pacifism’s commitment to “put violence on trial,” it also acknowledges the moral obligation to come to the aid of the oppressed, when catastrophe or moral atrocity occurs. In a fallen world, this will on occasion necessitate coercive force, as Paul Ramsey reminds us:

No authority on earth can withdraw from “social charity” and “social justice”
their intrinsic and justifiable tendencies to rescue from dereliction and oppression
all whom it is possible to rescue. . . .This justification can never be withdrawn; it
can only be limited, supplanted, or put in abeyance.41

Thus the possibility of forceful intervention, even if rare, must always remain open—a possibility that is necessarily subject to the moral restraints of justice as a cardinal virtue:

Rescue those being led away to death;
hold back those staggering toward slaughter.
If you say, “But we knew nothing about this,”
Does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who guards your life know it?
Will he not repay each person according to what he has done? (Prov. 24:11-


Most religious critics of the just-war position are quick to point out the strong strain of pacifism in the early church, and in particular, the two chief pacifist fathers, Tertullian—the later Tertullian,43 that is—and Origen, who believed military service to be idolatrous. Isn’t this proof that pacifism is the Christian position?44 Patristic literature indeed mirrors among many of the fathers a fear of idolatry. In fact, this is a greater concern than bloodshed per se. The danger of idolatry, as Tertullian viewed it, was widespread, and one cannot be too careful in avoiding its tentacles. However, the argument developed by Tertullian in his treatise On Idolatry is not always properly understood. His principle burden in this work is not whether a Christian could serve in the army or engage in warfare, despite his own beliefs on the matter. Rather, he writes for what apparently are fairly recent converts to warn them of situations and vocations that could lead to compromise, and consequently, idolatry. His list of forbidden occupations includes both serving in the army as well as civil service to the state, but it is not limited to the state. The danger of idolatry should also prevent Christians from becoming teachers and students, since both require studying the “classics” of Greek and Roman literature. In addition, trades such as gold- and silversmithing as well as woodcarving are to be avoided by Christians, since these vocations so frequently entail making pagan idols for clients.45

At the same time that Tertullian and Origen both believe that Christians should not serve in the military, both acknowledge that Christians are nevertheless serving, which perhaps motivates them to write in the first place. In this vein, an allusion by Eusebius to an event roughly contemporary with the early part of Tertullian’s career is intriguing and worthy of note. Eusebius informs us of the 12th Legion, which came to be known as the Legio Fulminata (“the Thundering Legion”) and was credited with miraculously helping Marcus Aurelius in the year 173 against invading Germanic hordes on the Danube frontier.46 According to Eusebius’ account, with troops dehydrated due to a lack of water in the region, and seeing the enemy approaching, soldiers knelt on the ground in prayer. Their supplication was followed by a thunderbolt from heaven that both put to flight enemy troops and sent rain to refresh the parched 12th Legion. Tertullian, writing several decades later, says that Marcus Aurelius himself gave the Christians credit for this miracle,47 as does Eusebius,48 although pagan accounts attribute it variously.49 What is of interest in this story, regardless of its embellishments and variations, is the information that Christians were already serving in the army.50 In his account Eusebius notes in passing that Tertullian knew of this event (cf. Apology 5). It is reasonable to assume that these soldiers were not the first Christians to serve in the Roman army.

That patristic literature up to the mid-to-late second century is silent on the subject of Christians and soldiering is not to be interpreted as evidence of universal or uniform convictions among Christians; it may simply mirror social realities. Further, that at least from the mid-to-late second century we find evidence of a divergence in Christian opinion and practice must be acknowledged. And that patristic witnesses from the third century onward mirror strikingly diverse viewpoints is significant.51 And that the New Testament, from the standpoint of Christian ethics, neither proscribes nor devalues military service or the use of force lends support to our interpretation, and therefore, should inform our reading of the fathers.52

But what about the New Testament evidence, since pacifists invariably ground their convictions there? The pages of the New Testament witness to what we might expect regarding soldiering, the use of force and going to war. That is, its focus is the Gospel of Christ, the implications of Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension, and the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel. New Testament writers are not concerned to proffer social commentary. Thus, what we might glean from the New Testament is indirect. Surely, what the New Testament records when soldiers are encountered by John the Baptist, Jesus and the apostles is instructive.

Anticipating religious objections in his day to Christian participation in the military and warfare, Calvin responds with three primary considerations. First, the same causes of war in the ancient world exist in the present time; therefore, governing authorities retain their primary function. Second, that no explicit teaching on the subject of war is found in the teaching of the apostles is to be expected; their chief aim is to proclaim the kingdom of Christ, not to organize and justify civil government. Third, Augustine’s observation regarding John the Baptist remains intact: i.e., if Christian participation in all warring is illegitimate, then the soldiers who sought out the Baptist (Luke 3:14) would have been directed to throw away their arms and leave their profession; to the contrary, however, they were admonished to act justly and be content with their pay. Military duties were not at all prohibited.

In his important work The Law of War and Peace, Hugo Grotius develops a similar line of reasoning.53 Like Ambrose, Augustine, Aquinas and Calvin before him, he believes that pacifist interpretations of Jesus’ “sermon on the mount” err. In support thereof, several strands of biblical evidence are crucial. One is the Apostle Paul’s admonition to Timothy to pray for kings and those in authority (1 Tim. 2:1-13). Christian piety does not abrogate political authority; nor is it indifferent toward civic duty. Prayer and political realities are not unrelated. Linked to this Pauline exhortation is the Apostle’s teaching in Romans 13. The “sword” by rightful authority restrains evil, a function that has been ordained by the Sovereign of the universe.54 Yet a third element needing explanation for Grotius is the New Testament’s depiction of believing soldiers. Why are soldiers, several of whom are centurions, not required by either the Baptist, Jesus or the apostles, upon demonstrating faith, to renounce their military calling as inconsistent with the will of God (Matt. 8:5-13; Luke 7:1-10; Acts 10)?55 Surely, this is no small oversight.

In the end, there is nothing in the New Testament that suggests military service per se, in any form, to be incompatible with Christian faith.56


But a frequently heard objection is that violence and a vengeful spirit, which are counter to the Christian ethical imperative, are readily blessed when we permit “violence.”57 The Christian moral tradition, however, distinguishes between retribution and revenge, presupposing a moral difference between the criminal and the punitive act. If we fail to make these distinctions, then it becomes impossible for a society to be self-governing and “just.”

At its base, the moral outrage expressed through retributive justice is first and foremost rooted in moral principle, not mere emotional outrage and hatred. For this reason Augustine could speak of morally-directed force to arrest criminals as “benevolent harshness.”58 By punishing criminal behavior, governing authorities mirror a concern for the welfare of the population and for those doing the wrong. Any parent knows the truth of this statement. Indeed, not to act against the will of a wrongdoer is for Augustine to nourish and strengthen the will toward evil.59

But we must qualify precisely how retribution and revenge differ, since, conceptually, they are worlds apart. Whereas revenge strikes out at real or perceived injury, retribution speaks to an objective wrong. Whereas revenge is wild, “insatiable” and not subject to limitations, retribution has both upper and lower limits, acknowledging the moral repugnance both of assigning draconian punishment to petty crimes as well as light punishment to heinous crimes.60 Also, retribution has as its goal a greater social good and takes no pleasure in punishment.61

Furthermore, whereas revenge, because of its retaliatory mode, will target both the offending party as well as those perceived to be akin, retribution is targeted yet impersonal and impartial, not subject to personal bias. For this reason, Lady Justice is depicted as blindfolded. The difference between retribution and revenge is the difference between Romans 13 and the end of Romans 12; it is the difference between bona fide justice (retribution) and “vigilante justice” (revenge). The governing authorities are commissioned to “bear the sword,” and they do so “not in vain.” Why? St. Paul says in order to reward good and punish evil (Rom. 13:3-4)62.

Understood properly, retributive justice serves a civilized culture, whether in domestic or international context. It isolates individuals, parties or people-groups who endanger the community—locally, nationally or internationally—for their wanton disregard for the common good and a just peace. It controls the extent to which a citizenry is victimized by criminal acts. It rewards the perpetrator proportionately with consequences befitting the crime. And it forces both the offender(s) and potential offenders to reflect on the grievous nature of the crime. Each of these elements is critical in preserving the social order.63

The impulse toward retribution, it needs reiterating, is not some “lower” or “primitive” impulse; rather, it corresponds to the divine image within us. To treat men or nations, however severely, in accordance with the belief that they should have known better—and they do know better—is to treat them as responsible human beings, endowed with human dignity and moral agency. So, for example, a society unwilling to direct retributive justice toward those who murder in cold blood is a society that has deserted its responsibility to uphold the sanctity of human life. Civilized society will not tolerate murder—at any level; an uncivilized one, however, will.64

Retributive justice, then, is a moral necessity for a civilized culture. In responding retributively to moral evil, we channel our energies in several directions. We respond to victims who have been wronged. We respond to wider society which has been scandalized by the wrong done in its midst. We also respond to the actual offending party by declaring that moral evil will not be tolerated. And, finally, we respond to future offenders who might be tempted to engage in the same evil. Understood correctly, retributive justice performs a multifaceted and indispensable moral good.65

A final (and troubling) thought: Isn’t the just-war position really a pretext for an uncritical nationalism? It is critical to remember that just-war moral reasoning both permits and limits the use of force. Another way of describing its basic moral logic is that as a doctrine it “both condemns and condones collective violence depending upon the circumstance, the situation and ends sought.”66 Thus, in a world that is violent and frequently characterized by a reflexive nationalism, just-war thinking represents a necessary antidote, for it understands itself as being subordinated to the demands of charity, justice and human dignity as it seeks to protect the innocent from gross injustice and moral evil.

With this inherent commitment to moral constraints, just-war thinking proceeds on several assumptions that undercut the nationalist spirit. It assumes the existence of universal moral dispositions; it distinguishes between guilt and innocence, between just and unjust action, and between aggressor and victim in a fallen war; and it applies force in measured ways that are appropriate to the injustice perpetrated. All this, as one political ethicist argues, is necessary if we are to possess a vision of civic virtue.67

But what about patriotism? Is it in itself a good or bad thing? If it can be either, to what extent is it healthy, and at what point does it cloud our moral thinking? As an American writer, I am by no means oblivious to the patriotic spirit for which Americans are known. Around the world this mindset remains largely incomprehensible, if not odious. Is this “patriotism” nothing more than the age-old, aggressive, war-like ethos of nationalism that simply is masquerading as a kinder, gentler species?

Surely, there are excessive elements of the patriotic tendency that, when shading into nationalism, are lamentable. At the same time, properly conceived, patriotism is an authentic part of the repertoire of civic ideals that are to be legitimately celebrated. Citizens, after all, if they take their citizenship seriously, offer much to society that is constructive; the natural result of that service, within the context of community, will be a sense of gratitude, even occasionally moderated pride. For this reason, I think, political ethicist Jean Elshtain identifies the proper balance in recognizing civic responsibility when she speaks of a “chastened patriotism.” Chastened patriots, she observes, are men and women who have learned from the past. Listen to Elshtain’s description of what this posture entails:

Rejecting counsels of cynicism, they modulate the rhetoric of high patriotic
purpose by keeping alive the distancing voice of…remembrance and recognition
of the way patriotism can shade into the excesses of nationalism; recognition of
the fact that patriotism in the form of armed civic virtue is a dangerous chimera.
The chastened patriot is committed and detached: enough apart so that he and she
can be reflective about patriotic ties and loyalties, cherishing many loyalties rather
than valorizing one alone. . . .A civic life animated by chastened patriotism bears
implications for how we think of peace and war, and for the pitfalls in how each
has been construed.68

On this account, then, “chastened patriots” are poised—rightly, I think—between unacceptable extremes. They resist placing duty and loyalty to the nation above all other duties and loyalties, while resisting the temptation to dismiss all civic duty as jingoism or nationalism. Surely just-warriors fit this definition well, for they are constrained by moderation in a world of excesses and extremes.

J. Daryl Charles is Associate Professor of Religion and Ethics at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.  He is the author of the recent book, Between Pacifism and Jihad: Just War and Christian Tradition (InterVarsity).


[1] The events of the 1990s alone are arresting. Consider, to illustrate, Iraq’s occupation and rape of Kuwait as well as genocidal treatment of its own people, notably the Kurdish population, the starvation of civilians in Somalia, exile and enslavement of Christians and moderate Muslims in Sudan, the slaughter of between half a million and a million people in Rwanda, genocide in Bosnia/Kosovo, the need for massive humanitarian efforts in Burundi, Rwanda, Liberia, Sudan and Afghanistan, the production of chemical and biological weapons in Libya and Iraq, drug-trafficking on several continents, the breathtaking rise of maturing international terrorism worldwide, and the talibanization of Afghanistan, Pakistan, portions of central and southeast Asia as well as northern and western Africa. With regard to the latter dilemma, there is a growing body of literature to chronicle these developments. Representative and helpful resources include Paul Marshall, Their Blood Cries Out: The Untold Story of Persecution against Christians in the  Modern World  (Dallas: Word, 1996), and Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). Organizations such as the Center for Religious Freedom and Freedom House deserve credit for their attempts to inform the Christian community of the plight of Christian persecution in Islamic cultures, particularly those where strains of  Islamofascism are on the rise.

[2] This is not to say that Christians have always agreed, nor that we will agree, nor that the issue is a test for fellowship in Christ; it is not. It is, however, to acknowledge that clergy and laity alike have struggled throughout the centuries to formulate a Christian response and that a consensual understanding of Christian thinking through the ages is to be identified.

[3] To illustrate, one thinks of the plethora of statements issued by many Protestant denominations during the 1980s due to the escalation of Cold War tensions prior to the collapse of the Soviet empire (e.g., the 1986 statement by the United Church of Christ, “Affirming the United Church of Christ as a Just Peace Church”; the United Methodist bishops’ statement, In Defense of Creation [Nashville: Graded Press, 1986]; the 1987 report by the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C., The Nuclear Dilemma: A Christian Search for Understanding [Cincinnati: Forward Movement Publications, 1987]; and the statement in 1988 by the 200th General Assembly of the P.C.U.S.A., Christian Obedience in a Nuclear Age [Louisville: Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church U.S.A., 1988]. While the statement published by the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ Conference, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1983), also proceeded on a presumption against war rather than evil (para. 70), its argument was both more subtle and less doctrinaire than its Protestant counterparts. War could not possibly be justified, we were scolded, regardless of the gulf between democratic self-government and totalitarianism. Both super-powers, it was argued, were to be viewed as immoral in “threatening” the world. Even when this way of thinking about weapons and war is outmoded due to the geopolitical changes of the last 16 years, much contemporary debate on war and peace, especially in religious circles, remains stuck in the Cold-War era.

[4] Among ethicists, see, e.g., Richard B. Miller, Interpretation of Conflict: Ethics, Pacifism, and the Just-War Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), and James F. Childress, “Just-War Criteria,” in War or Peace? The Search for New Answers, ed. Thomas A. Shannon (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1980), 40-58.

[5] James Turner Johnson, “The Broken Tradition,” The National Interest (Fall 1996): 27-36.

[6] An attempt to address fundamental misconceptions about just-war theory lies behind Oliver O’Donovan’s recently published work The Just War Revisited (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). This deceptively brief volume (139 pages including the index) navigates deftly between politics and theology. While it omits any historical development of just-war thinking, the book focuses rather on contemporary dilemmas such as biological weapons, economic sanctions, international conventions and war-crimes trials.

[7] While some taxonomies locate variations of “pacifism” along the ideological continuum, our concern here is to identify basic assumptions about force and war, which allows us to identify three clear positions.

[8] Summa Theologiae [hereafter S.T.] II-II Q. 40, a. 1; see also Q. 7, a. 3 and 4 as well as Q. 18.

[9] John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1060), 274.

[10] I am fully aware of the strong disagreements that separate Christians regarding war and the use of force. As one who grew up in the Anabaptist (and specifically Mennonite) tradition, I am grateful for the influence of this tradition on my social ethic and spiritual formation. At the same time, I reflect on my experience doing criminal justice work in Washington, D.C. during the 1990s as well as my debt to the entire historic Christian tradition with its collective wisdom that spans the ages.

[11] Material in this introductory section is developed more fully in chapter one of my Between Pacifism and Jihad: Just War and Christian Tradition (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2005).

[12] Several examples may be cited. Laotse, a sixth-century BC Chinese philosopher (and founder of the Tao religion), warns that wisdom will “oppose” all attempts at over-reliance upon force of arms, for “such things are likely to rebound.” “Where armies are, thorns and brambles grow. . . .Therefore a good general effects his purpose and stops” to consider wisdom. This wisdom will not rely wholly on strength of arms, nor will it glory or boast therein (The Wisdom of Laotse 30-31, an English translation of which appears in War and Peace [Classical Selections on Great Issues, series 1, vol.; 5; Washington, D.C.: University Press of American, 1982], 562-63). The fifth-century BC philosopher-soldier Sun Tzu states that because war is a matter of vital importance to the state, “it is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied.” At the same time, he states: “Weapons are tools of ill omen.” The first of the essentials requiring examination, according to Sun Tzu, is the “moral influence.” War, he writes, is “a grave matter; one is apprehensive lest men embark upon it without due reflection.” War is for Sun Tzu, too, a regrettable necessity, and like Laotse he contends for restraint. Chinese of the fifth century BC also recognized rules of engagement that required just cause to begin a war, notification of pending attacks, humane treatment of prisoners and the injured, non-combatant immunity for innocents, and not prolonging war (The Art of War 1.1, in ibid., pp. 301-4). Similarly, the Hindu civilization of India during the fourth century BC codified in the Book of Manu humanitarian rules that were to regulate warfare conducted by “honorable warriors.” These rules granted various kinds of immunity to non-combatants, civilians, soldiers without weapons and armor, as well as those who were in flight (The Law of War – Vol. 1 [New York: Random House, 1972], 3). Both Plato and Aristotle, who view war as a necessary evil, question what is sufficient warrant for going to war. In Plato’s Republic, the ravaging of enemy territory and property is outlawed, while immunity is granted to women, children and those men who are deemed innocent (Republic 4 [471a-b]); in Laws, Plato acknowledges that only the commonwealth, that is, a properly constituted authority, can declare war or peace (Laws 12 [955b-c]). According to Aristotle, the goal of going to war is that we may live at peace, not for the sake of war itself. War must be conducted with the virtue of nobility and grandeur, he writes, and is justified under the following conditions: as a result of aggression, to address a prior wrong, and when injustice is presently underway. Going to war is justified in the case of self-defense, defending our own as well as aiding our allies (Nicomachean Ethics 10 [1177b] and Politics [1425a-b]).

[13] Basic Christian Ethics (New York: Scribner’s, 1954), esp. chapters 4 and 5.

[14] Ibid., 165.

[15] Ibid. Ramsey calls this a “preferential ethics of protection.”

[16] Much of this misunderstanding is hermeneutical and contextual. The slap on the cheek is one of four illustrations here of non-retaliation, which is aimed at the disciple, not the state. Jesus is not setting aside the lex talionis as a measurement of proportionality. Rather, he is using four illustrations of the need to be forbearing: enduring insult, being willing to give “the shirt off your back,” being willing to carry baggage an extra mile, and loaning to those wishing to borrow from you. All four of these situations speak to personal issues, not matters of state, statecraft and public policy. Jesus teaching on retaliation, then, is most akin to Rom. 12:17-21, not Rom. 13:17.

[17] Commenting on Matt. 5:38-39 in a letter written to his friend Marcellinus, a Roman official in Carthage who needed assistance in defending the Christian faith before influential pagans, Augustine offers a response that is highly instructive. A specific charge by Marcellinus’ adversaries needs rebutting, namely, that Christianity is incompatible with sound political rule and civic responsibility. Specifically, what about the problem of punishing criminals? Marcellinus’ critics say that “the preaching and teaching of Christ suitable for the morals of a republic. They have in mind the precept that we should not return evil for evil to anyone, but turn the other cheek to anyone who strikes us, give our tunic to anyone who takes our coat, and walk a double journey with anyone who would force us to go with him (Mt. 5:39-41) (Epistle 138). (I am relying here on the English translation provided by Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries, in idem, ed., Augustine: Political Writings [Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Co., Inc., 1994], 205.)

Augustine’s advice is multifaceted and instructive. At the most basic level, he says, a righteous man privately should be willing to endure insult and abuse rather than respond with malice. Matt. 5:38-39, he points out, refers to a disposition of the heart and not the external act. Christ’s teaching frees a man from an evil that, initially, is not external and foreign but inner and personal. Therefore, in many situations at the private level, overcoming evil with good will be effective in changing human behavior. Hence, a godly person should be prepared “to endure patiently the malice of those whom he seeks to make good” (ibid., 206-7).

[18] Ambrose’s views are on display in his work On the Duties of the Clergy. For Augustine, there is one exception, and that is a solider who acts in self-defense and in the defense of others (Epistle 47, “To Publicola”). Augustine’s own thinking on self-defense appears to have evolved. Earlier, he had expressed strong reservations (On Freedom of the Will 1.5).

[19] City of God 19.12.

[20] City of God 15.4; 19.112, 27; 22.24; Epistle 189. Charity, according to Augustine, must motivate all that we do. At the center of human experience and motivating human virtues like self-sacrifice, it expresses itself tangibly toward one’s neighbor, even in the use of coercive force and going to war for the sake of preserving justice. As a social force, this “rightly ordered love” is foremost concerned with what is good – for the perpetrator of criminal acts as well as for society, which has been victimized by criminal acts. When “men are prevented, by being alarmed, from doing wrong, it may be said that a real service is done to them” (Epistle 47).  Not the external action per se but one’s intent determines in Augustinian thought the morality of one’s actions. Therefore, Augustine renders legitimate, based on the wedding of justice and charity, an exception to the prohibition of killing, and that is when it involves the public good – for example, in the case of the soldier or public official who is carrying out his public trust by protecting others. For this reason, Augustine can write elsewhere to Boniface, a governor of a northern African province, “Do not think that it is impossible for anyone serving in the military to please God” (Epistle 189). Justice is the work of charity.

[21] Epistle 138.

[22] Luther’s Works [hereafter L.W.] 45:81-129 and 46:161-205.

[23] An analogy, for Luther, is necessary. A good doctor in extreme circumstances, he observes, may be required to amputate or destroy a hand, foot, arm or leg due to disease. Viewed externally, this person would appear to be cruel and merciless. Viewed medically, the doctor wishes to cut off what is defective in order to save the body and work for the greater good. In the same way, argues Luther, the soldier fulfills his office by punishing the wicked, even when this means using lethal force. This serves the greater good of families and communities (L.W. 46:96).

[24] Ibid. 46:96.

[25] Ibid. 45:125.

[26] This volume was published posthumously in 1621.

[27] Francisco Suarez, The Three Theological Virtues 3.8.1, an English translation of which is found in James B. Scott, The Spanish Origin of International Law: Lectures on Francisco de Vitoria (1480-1546) and Francisco Suarez (1548-1617) (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1929), p. 77.

[28] Ibid. 3.8.2.

[29] George Weigel, “From Last Resort to Endgame: Morality, the Gulf War, and the Peace Process,” in David E. DeCosse, ed., But Was It Just? (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 19-20.

[30] Just cause, right intention and proper authority.

[31] Proportionality and discrimination (non-combatant immunity).

[32] While identified by a host of just-war thinkers ancient and modern, they are accentuated by Thomas Aquinas (S.T. II-II, Q. 40) and have served as a basis for all subsequent just-war theory up to the present.

[33] Elshtain, Just War Against Terror, esp. chapter 3 (“What Is a Just War?”) presses this distinction quite effectively.

[34] Sufficient justification for war, according to Hugo Grotius, considered the father of international law, includes reclaiming stolen or occupied territory, oppressive injury or harm (even in another nation) that requires punishment or prevention of humanitarian abuses, threat to or rescue of nationals, terrorism and preventive attack. War, for Grotius, is justifiable only “to continue the work of peace.” We do not go to war except “with the desire to end it at the earliest possible moment.” Sufficient warrant may also arise from humanitarian abuses, that is, when another state or people-group “inflicts upon his subjects such treatment as no one is warranted in inflicting.” Grotius, it should be observed, developed a lengthy list of unjust causes alongside those situations that were deemed just (The Law of War and Peace 2.1-3.1, an English translation of which appears in Hugo Grotius, The Law of War and Peace [tr. L.R. Loomis; Roslyn: Walter J. Black, 1949]).

[35] Political scientist Russell Hittinger has expressed well the necessary moral sentiment: “there are [certain moral] goods worth the risk of war and… ‘peace at any price’ is unacceptable” (“Just War and Defense Policy,” in David F. Forte, ed., Natural Law and Contemporary Public Policy [Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1998], 342).

[36] Certainly the average layperson of pacifist conviction does not purpose to undermine policy. There is, however, a stronger commitment to political “radicalism” at the seminary and leadership level among many of the Protestant mainline churches, to the point of supporting oppressive regimes – often Marxist or totalitarian – while being highly critical of democratic society. For a penetrating critique of this aspect of academic pacifism in the last half of the 20th century, see Guenter Lewy, Peace and Revolution: The Moral Crisis of American Pacifism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988).

[37] At the same time, it must be acknowledged that the principles of proportionality and discrimination are difficult to apply at all levels of the spectrum of military force. What if, for example, a war must be waged in locations where the belligerents and civilians are closely intermixed and the belligerents have intentionally carried on their work in this way? Here the moral imperative approximates that of law enforcement in the domestic, criminal justice context. Law-enforcement officers must plan and calculate in order to avoid needless killing. However, where the threat has reached critical mass in their judgment, there is time when action must be taken against belligerents, even if it means a threat to the lives of others.

[38] While the three core ius ad bellum criteria of just cause, right intent and proper authority constitute the heart of just-war thinking, together they give rise to other related conditions. To distinguish between primary and secondary conditions is not to suggest that the latter are insignificant; it is only to recognize that they issue out of the three core criteria (rather than vice versa), express political prudence, and require discernment in terms of their application, given their imprecision: (1) Last resort: Going to war can only be justified based on “exceptional” conditions. Thus, only when the core conditions of just-war moral reasoning have been met without any solution is war to be undertaken. To grapple with last resort is to reckon with the gravity of acts of force, even though it is a factor only when the other principle conditions have been considered. Have all reasonable efforts to utilize non-military (e.g., diplomatic, economic, and political) alternatives been exhausted? The operative word here is “reasonable,” for it would be immoral to forestall action that comes too late to defend just cause. (2) Reasonable chance of success: Although situations of gross injustice arise that cry out for just intervention, there are those which will hold little likelihood of success. While there may be a moral justification for a seemingly hopeless intervention or resistance, just-war reasoning seeks to balance a potential greater good against the losses of war incurred. Does the just goal desired equal or surpass the losses that war will produce? Does the cost to both sides indicate that the war effort was worth the endeavor? (3) Proportionate means: The principle of proportionality lies at the heart of justice in general and military necessity in particular. The “criminal justice system” is effective to the extent that its response to crime is swift, consistent and proportionate (to the acts committed). In war the principle remains constant. Responses that are proportionate to the crimes committed are a reflection of justice. Thus, for example, a draconian response to lesser abuses is illegitimate. (4) Peace as the ultimate aim: A justified war will be one that has a greater good in view and not mere avenging of wrong. Does going to war proceed with the ultimate goal of establishing a just peace and political-social stability? Does the likelihood of achieving a greater good guide the prospects of going to war? (5) Formal declaration of war: When nations formally and publicly state their intentions, several things ensue. One is to ensure that war is removed from the private domain. Another is the possibility of the opponent’s surrender. A further benefit is that a formal announcement communicates to the offending nation what is to transpire. This in itself may have the effect ultimately of preventing war.

[39] Jean Bethke Elshtain, Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World (New York: Basic Books, 2003), 58.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Paul Ramsey, “The Ethics of Intervention,” The Review of Politics 27/4 (1965): 305.

[42] For a fuller discussion of what constitutes just-war theory, see chapter six of Between Pacifism and Jihad.

[43] While the later Tertullian exhibits an increasing hostility toward the powers, such is not true of him earlier. In fact, the contrast between his Apology and the On the Military Crown, written later and reflecting his Montanist perspective, is remarkable. In the Apology, for example, Tertullian had acknowledged the necessity of war and claimed that Christians even contributed by praying for brave armies, for a faithful Senate, for the peace of the world and for peace within the Empire, acknowledging the need to defend territorial borders against invading barbarians.[1] Moreover, he stresses that Christians participate responsibly in society. He can write unabashedly that like normal people throughout the Empire, Christians frequent the marketplace, the inns and the public baths; they eat the same food, wear the same attire, and have the same customs. What’s more, “We sail with you and fight [in the military] with you and till the ground with you, we conduct business with you. We blend our skills with yours, [and] our efforts are at your service” (Apol. 42). Through the Apology, Tertullian is attempting to refute the accusation of Christians’ social detachment. Thus, he offers a list of assorted activities and vocations in which Christians can be found and gladly participate. Tertullian both concedes Christians’ presence in the Roman Legions and emphasizes the peaceful character that governs their relationships. In Tertullian’s treatise On the Soldier’s Crown, the only patristic work that is devoted to the ethics of soldiering and war, the reader learns that Christians had been serving in the Roman army in North Africa. In fact, it is conceded that under certain conditions a Christian might be able to serve as a magistrate, provided that he avoid certain idolatrous contexts. (And we know from Eusebius that before the fourth century there were Christian governors in the provinces.) What’s more, Tertullian can pray for “security to the empire; for protection to the imperial house; for brave armies” (Apol. 30 and 32).

[44] This position has been popularized by historian Roland Bainton inter alia. In his influential work Christian Attitudes toward War and Peace (New York/Nashville: Abingdon 1960), Roland Bainton begins the chapter titled “The Pacifism of the Early Church” with the following assertion: “The three Christian positions with regard to war. . .matured in chronological sequence, moving from pacifism to the just war to the Crusade. The age of persecution down to the time of Constantine was the age of pacifism to the degree that during this period no Christian author to our knowledge approved of Christian participation in battle” (p. 66). And because, according to Bainton, the history of the early Church is to be viewed as “a progressive fall from a state of primitive purity,” the conclusion would seem unavoidable that “if the early Church was pacifist then pacifism is the Christian position” (ibid.). Bainton, of course, is by no means the sole voice to conclude categorically that the early church was pacifist. C. John Cadoux’s two massive volumes published in the early 1900s, The Early Church and the World and The Early Christian Attitude toward War, the latter of which was re-issued in 1982, also proceed, like Bainton, on the assumption of the church’s progressive “decline” in moral purity through the first four centuries. And the writings of Anabaptist theologians such as Jean-Michel Hornus and John Howard Yoder, in addition to those sympathetic to Yoder’s “radical” critique of “Constantinianism,” such as Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, have exercised an inordinate influence on Christian thinking about the early church’s attitude toward war and peace. Taken together, their testimony is univocal: the early Church was pacifist, and the pacifist position is authentically Christian. What is remarkable is the degree to which even those who are not Anabaptist or pacifist in conviction have accepted as normative this portrayal of early Christians. A closer look at patristic literature, however, begins to reveal greater diversity among believers than we have heretofore thought. See, e.g., David G. Hunter, “A Decade of Research on Early Christians and Military Service,” Religious Studies Review 18:2 (1992): 87-94; Frances Young, “The Early Church: Military Service, War and Peace,” Theology 92 (1989): 491-403; Louis J. Swift, The Early Fathers on War and Military Service: (MFC 19; Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1983); and John Helgeland, Robert J. Daly and J. Patout Burns’ Christians and the Military: The Early Experience (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1985). Additionally, several essays and book chapters might be similarly adduced – e.g., John Helgeland’s “Christians in the Roman Army A.D. 173-337,” Church History 43 (1974): 149-63, 200, an expanded version of which appears in Aufstieg und Niedergang der roemischen Welt II.23.1, 724-834, and chapter one of James Turner Johnson’s The Quest for Peace: Three Moral Traditions in Western Cultural History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 4-66 (“Christian Attitudes toward War and Military Service in the First Four Centuries”).

[45] And not only vocations, but our lifestyles are potentially idolatrous.

[46] Church History 5.4.3-5.7. The 12th Legion had been stationed in Cappadocia (present-day eastern Turkey), a region which was known to produce many Christian recruits for the Roman army.

[47] Apology 5.

[48] Church History 5.5. Writing shortly after the Edict of Milan (AD 313), Eusebius uses the words “Report has it…” to describe the incident involving the 12th Legion.

[49] Pagan accounts give credit variously to the emperor himself, an Egyptian magician and pagan gods.

[50] Until the decade of the 170s we find no explicit references in patristic literature to Christians serving in the military. This silence need not be interpreted as opposition to soldiering by Christians on the basis of principle.  Interpreters as divergent as Stephen Gero (“Miles Gloriosus: The Christian and Military Service according to Tertullian,” Church History 39 [1970]: 285-98) and James Turner Johnson (The Quest for Peace: Three Moral Traditions in Western Cultural History [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987], 3-66) point to social factors that adequately account for this shift in the second century.

[51] One important implication of this is that the presumption of a “compromise” with the empire by the fourth- and fifth-century church – a view that has been accepted by most of Christendom – is at best somewhat misguided. The notion that the empire, or the Roman army itself, was “Christianized” overnight or that the fathers of the church from the fourth century onward somehow became the unwitting accomplices to the empire is simplistic and implausible, predicated on a highly selective and discolored reading (when not a non-reading) of patristic sources.

[52] In addition to the sources cited in note 45, elsewhere I consider early Christian attitudes toward soldiering and war in Between Pacifism and Jihad, 34-45.

[53] The Law of War and Peace 2.6-7.

[54] It will not do to argue, as John Howard Yoder, that Revelations 13 and not Romans 13 constitutes the “center” of the New Testament’s teaching on the state and political authority; nor that Romans 13 can be and has been misused in the past. The principal parts of Yoder’s argument are to be found in chapters 6,8,10 and 12 of The Politics of Jesus, originally published in 1972 and reissued by Eerdmans in 1994.

[55] Institutes of the Christian Religion 4.20.1-11.

[56] The strengths of the pacifist argument are multiple and surely compelling. To its great credit, it is sensitive to the violent tendencies of human nature that permeate our culture. Pacifists frequently recognize diverse and creative avenues for political and social action. Religious pacifism takes seriously the commandment to love and the demands of Christian discipleship. At least for a previous generation of conscientious objectors like my own father (a Mennonite who did alternative service during Word War II in a hospital). And pacifists are acutely sensitive to the distortions of faith that arise with an uncritical view of the state – a continual problem throughout the church’s history. Non-pacifists all too easily rationalize violence in the service of nationalism. Notwithstanding these admirable qualities, the weaknesses of the pacifist position require a measured critique, particularly since religious pacifists require that we all – including those of us called to civil service, political affairs and government – share their pacifist assumptions. In its refusal to resist evil directly in practice pacifism bestows on evil and tyranny an advantage in the present life. Clearly, it has never been shown that pacifism counters totalitarianism, revealing justice without force, in the end, to be a myth, since pacifism exists only in “free” societies, not in totalitarian societies. Pacifists also tend to have an excessively apocalyptic view of politics and government, rendering them unable to contribute meaningfully to statecraft and, specifically, to issues affecting national and international security. In addition, pacifism overstates the effectiveness of non-violence and non-resistance at the same time that it underestimates (when it doesn’t fully deny) the fact that an ethics of protection can issue out of Christian charity. In this way, it would seem that pacifism suffers from a lack of “Christian realism” – about the world, about human nature, about civil society. Yet another problem is pacifist tendency to create a divide between the sacred and the secular through its emphasis on separation from social institutions and abstaining from numerous worldly vocations.

[57] Recall, however, our prior distinction between “force” and “violence.”

[58] Epistle 47.

[59] It needs re-emphasis, especially in our culture, that it is virtuous and not vicious to feel anger at moral evil. In truth, something is very wrong with us if we don’t express anger and moral outrage at evil. And yet, moral outrage alone is not enough.

60] Vengeance, by its nature, has a thirst for injury and delights in bringing further evil upon the offending party. The avenger will not only kill but rape, torture, plunder and burn what is left, deriving satisfaction from its victim’s direct or indirect suffering. Augustine described this inclination, rooted in the flesh, as a “lust for revenge” (City of God 14.14).

[61] Consider, in this vein, the words of C.S. Lewis: “We may [in wartime] kill if necessary, but we must never hate and enjoy hating. We may punish if necessary, but we must not enjoy it. In other words, something inside us, the feeling of resentment, the feeling that wants to get one’s own back, must be simply killed… It is hard work, but the attempt is not impossible” (Mere Christianity [San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, rep. 2001], 120).

[62] While pacifists interpret the “sword,” the ius gladii, of 13:4 metaphorically rather than literally, this is immaterial. The point that is being made is that the governing authorities have been commissioned by heaven to encourage good and punish evil.

[63] For those who might refuse to recognize any difference between retribution and revenge, the consequences for social ethics are enormous. If society refuses to make this moral distinction, which the cardinal virtue of justice is committed to do, then it is impossible to denounce moral evil – anywhere, in any form, at any time. Indeed, if one is to be consistent, one’s attempt to obliterate the distinction between retribution and revenge will logically lead to advocating the abolition of the entire judicial and criminal justice system. And how can we denounce and respond to moral atrocity? Viewed in this light, the Nuremberg trials were wrongheaded, since Nazi war crimes – indeed, any crimes against humanity – cannot in principle be denounced, much less can mass murderers be put on trial and sentenced. In the end, one man’s torture was another man’s good time.

[64] Hence, despite its flaws, we cannot dispense with “criminal justice,” whether at the domestic or international level. And in the end, the “root cause” of the criminal’s or the terrorist’s pathology becomes relatively immaterial, since neighbor-love requires that we interdict, punish and incarcerate. This corresponds to the criterion of “just cause.”

[65] In the end, to affirm retribution, which is integral to the history of Judeo-Christian moral thinking and foundational to any self-governing society, is not to abandon one’s belief in mercy and forgiveness. But it is to acknowledge the difference between the criminal and the punitive act as well as between private and public recourse. We recommend quite highly the very succinct yet penetrating examination of the difference between retribution and revenge found in David A. Crocker, “Retribution and Reconciliation,” Philosophy and Public Policy (Winter/Spring 2000): 1-6. For a fuller discussion of the crucial distinction between retribution and revenge/retributivism in the context of criminal justice, see J. Daryl Charles, “The Sword of Justice,” Touchstone (December 2001): 12-16, and idem, Between Pacifism and Jihad, 143-47.

[66] Jean Bethke Elshtain, Women and War (rev. ed.; Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1995),  128 (emphasis added).

[1] Ibid., 151-52.

[1] Ibid., 253.