Checklist for Kosovo

National | How to distinguish a just war from just war

Issue: "God, Caesar and taxes," April 17, 1999

The dogs of war have been released again. Fiery warriors fight upon the clouds of Kosovo. How should Christians regard the violence? Common sense says to us that in a fallen world, justice requires the support of force. God Himself seemed to approve its use in the wars of ancient Israel. But this is not ancient Israel, and the Word of God also teaches that we must never "do evil that good may come." Besides, there are all those other troubling passages-the Sixth Commandment and the warning that "All who take the sword shall perish by the sword." So where does all this leave us? Is there such a thing as a justified war? The first thing for Christians to remember is that no matter how we answer, there is no political solution to the problem of sin. Not even a justified war could end all wars; not even pacifism could bring a lasting peace. So our first concern about Kosovo, even before our political concerns, should be what we can do to support those brave ambassadors of the gospel who minister to the bodies and souls of the people who suffer there. But that doesn't allow us to dodge the question about justified war, does it? It's true that we are citizens of heaven, but we don't yet live there. Even though political concerns come second, we do have political concerns. So, when asked to bear the sword, we cannot simply change the subject; we must answer either yes or no. Which answer should we give? For most of the Christian era, most Christians have believed that the Sixth Commandment and the warning against "taking the sword" do not prohibit every kind of killing, only murder. They mean that we must never deliberately take innocent human life, we must never take even guilty human life except by public authority in pursuit of justice, and we must never put our ultimate trust in violence. Can lethal force ever satisfy these conditions? Paul thought so. As he taught in Romans 13, the ruler "does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer." How does this apply to war? Beginning with the great church father Augustine (354-430 A.D.), Christian thinkers have developed criteria for distinguishing justified from unjustified wars. We can use them as a kind of checklist in situations like Kosovo. I don't mean that they spare us the need for hard judgment. What they really tell us is which hard judgments we need to make. First come criteria for when going to war is permissible. It isn't enough to honor most of them; all seven must be satisfied. 1. Public authority. War must be declared by a legitimate government. Private individuals and groups cannot do it. 2. Just cause. War must not be waged except to protect innocent life, to ensure that people can live decently, and to secure their natural rights. 3. Right intention (first part-more later). Not only must there be just cause to take up arms; this just cause must be the reason for taking up arms. Our goal must be to achieve a just peace. 4. Comparative justice. War should not be waged unless the evils that are fought are grave enough to justify killing. 5. Proportionality (first part-more later). There must be reason to expect that going to war will end more evil than it causes. By the way, this means not only physical evil, but spiritual-not only destruction of bodies and buildings, but corruption of callings and virtues. 6. Probability of success. There must be a reasonable likelihood that the war will achieve its aims. 7. Last resort. War should not be waged unless a reasonable person would recognize that the peaceful alternatives have been exhausted. Next come criteria for how war must be fought. No exceptions are allowed, no matter how much we may want to make them. 1. Right intention (second part). Remember, the goal must be to achieve a just peace. Therefore, we must avoid any act or demand that would make it more difficult for our enemies to reconcile with us some day. 2. Proportionality (second part). We must never use tactics that can be expected to bring about more evil than good. 3. Discrimination. Even though harm might come to them accidentally, directly intended attacks on noncombatants and nonmilitary targets are never permissible. Would these principles cramp our style? They sure would. But God is not interested in our style. What He demands of us is holiness.

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