Is Just War Theory Too Malleable?

Has the theory outlived its usefulness? Or does it simply need to be updated to address the kind of realities we face with Iraq?

Of all the contributions Christian tradition has made to moral discourse regarding public policy and the behavior of nations, perhaps none has enjoyed such influence as the doctrine of the "just war." First articulated by Plato and Aristotle in antiquity, it was later united with a Christian theological worldview in the fifth century by St. Augustine in his magisterial "The City of God."

Augustine developed the theory in part as a response to a pastoral concern: is it ever morally permissible for a Christian to participate directly in armed conflict? For the first three centuries, the official stance of the church had been a nearly unanimous "no." Following the teachings of Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount," virtually all the early church fathers advocated pacifism as the moral standard for the church.

It was therefore a somewhat surprising when Augustine worked out a different position, based in large part on his paradoxical understanding of the human condition. According to that perspective, war could be understood as both the result of, and at times the remedy for, human sin. Augustine's position might be summarized like this (to paraphrase theologian Reinhold Niebhur): Man's inclination to injustice makes war inevitable; but man's inclination to justice makes war at times necessary.

If sin compels human beings to acts of aggression, barbarity, and injustice, human decency may compel us to meet such acts with a countervailing force for justice and peace. For those ends alone, said Augustine, war may at times be required to vindicate justice and therefore considered to be compatible with Christian morality.


Augustine's position reflected the church's new status after Roman Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity. Suddenly championed by the world's dominant power, the church was forced to rethink its relation to the political sphere.

The doctrine of just war has persisted as a moral touchstone through all the intervening centuries, a testament to its resilience as an ethical formulation. War has undergone sweeping changes, but nations and statesmen--even where Christianity isn't embraced--still use the theory to frame moral imperatives.

But applying just-war principles to concrete situations rarely, if ever, leads to self-evident conclusions. Criteria developed centuries ago, when war was conducted largely by mercenary forces in hand-to-hand combat, does not translate easily to modern warfare, with its vast array of lethal instruments, weapons of mass destruction, and impersonal war-fighting techniques.

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The Rev. David J. Robb
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