'Just war' proves hard to define Principles: Christians vary widely on application -- and interpretation -- of fourth-century rules of engagement.

Sun Journal

March 01, 1998|By Tom Schaefer | Tom Schaefer,WICHITA EAGLE

WICHITA, Kan. -- What if the current agreement between the United Nations and Iraq fails? Would this nation, rooted in Judeo-Christian principles, be morally justified in going to war?

It depends on whom you talk to.

Some Christians, relying on fourth-century principles that determine what constitutes a "just war," contend that such an attack could be justified because Iraq remains a threat to peace and security in the Middle East and in the world.

Others, using the same principles, insist that the criteria that justify going to war are not present in this situation.

Still others maintain that an attack, no matter what the provocation, could never be justified.

When it comes to justifying or condemning military force, morality, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder.

According to part of the just-war tradition, violence is justified if more good than harm is the result. But pacifists insist that in acts of war, harm always outweighs any potential good.

"Violence is wrong; that's just not an option," says Ed Epp, director of the Middle East desk for the Mennonite Central Committee, a relief and development agency.

"Pacifism is part of the confession of faith," he says. "That doesn't mean peace is just an absence of war. It means working positively and practically to bring solutions."

Mennonites represent the tradition of pacifist Christianity, rooted in the 16th century, that opposes all violence, including serving as soldiers. But some Christian churches that historically have not opposed every war spoke out in recent weeks against attacking Iraq.

On Feb. 12, seven U.S. Roman Catholic cardinals sent a letter to President Clinton stating their "grave concern" about the possible use of force and saying it would be "exceedingly difficult if not impossible" to justify any military action.

Four days later, the National Council of Churches, representing 33 Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican church bodies, did the same.

In a news release, the council stated, in part: "Historically, many of our churches have affirmed the defensive use of military power and even its deterrent value in a sinful world. We have, however, never supported its 'first strike' use. We cannot support it now."

The justified use of force has its roots in the just-war tradition of Christianity. Most scholars agree on the following principles: The cause must be just.

Success must be probable.

The principle of proportionality must be observed -- the means must not do more harm than good.

Seven years after the U.S.-backed coalition's war with Iraq, one scholar says, those principles still justify action against Iraq as long as it continues to manufacture chemical and biological weapons.

"We still have effectively the same moral justifications as we did at that time, as well as legal justifications," says James Turner Johnson, professor of religion and political science at Rutgers University and author of several articles on the just-war tradition.

In fact, he says, just-war principles will determine in the future not only whether to attack but what will be attacked. "The just-war tradition is not just a narrow doctrine fixed historically. It is very much still relevant."

Every culture has developed its own doctrine that states when military force is justified and what force is acceptable.

Classical Judaism refers to at least three types of wars, according to Rabbi Joel Roth, of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and Rabbi Michael Davis, of Wichita:

Commanded wars (for example, 1 Samuel 15: 3).

Mandatory wars, which are defensive.

Permitted wars. They are not defined as necessarily immoral, though there are various restrictions, such as how they are to be declared.

Islam permits -- and sometimes requires -- war to establish and maintain peace and stability among individuals, societies and nations.

War "becomes a virtue" if it is begun to stop an aggressor or prevent an oppressor and thereby promote justice, according to Abdullah M. Khouj, writing in "War and Peace in Islam: A Review." But war is prohibited if it is started for purposes of personal or political gain or "to oppress the weak, the helpless or the innocent."

War becomes a "social necessity" when it is entered into:

To defend self, wealth, family, country and religion.

To defend "the oppressed believers and those who cannot defend themselves against oppressors."

To secure freedom of religion and belief in a society.

The development of new military technologies brings new applications of just-war principles, says Rutgers' Johnson, but does not alter the principles themselves. The development and use of so-called "smart bombs" by the U.S. military, he says, is a response to concerns about limiting injuries to and deaths of civilians.

"We saw this already in the gulf war," he said. That war was different from "what people expected of post-World War II warfare," namely, the use of nuclear weapons.

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