As the U.S. government contemplates its response against those who unleashed a reign of terror upon the United States, we must consider the ethics of war. From its earliest days, the church has debated when it is morally legitimate to wage war.

For many centuries, Christians have employed "just-war theory" as a framework for the discussion of issues of war and peace. This theory was adopted by early church leaders, particularly Augustine, to deal with the reality of war in a fallen, sinful world of empires and nations.

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There are two dimensions to just-war theory-one that weighs whether or not to engage in armed conflict (jus ad bellum) and the other that examines how to conduct the military exercises (jus in bello). The aim of any armed conflict should be to keep the peace and maintain justice.

The proper response to the destruction unleashed against America by an illusory, stealthy enemy, is a "declaration of war." We have a duty to answer acts of terrorism. As Christians, we must pray for our enemies, and we cannot seek personal vengeance. However, we should expect our government to exact justice. Any military action will be designed to thwart the ability of this enemy to continue its ghastly campaign of terror.

President Bush has made clear that our government will target not only those responsible for these acts, but also the rogue nations that harbor those who masterminded this unspeakable violence. As the president said Sept. 13, the United States will seek out and punish "those who fund them, hide them, and encourage them."

Sadly, the resort to armed conflict is the price human beings must periodically pay for the right to live in a moral universe. We must always remember that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty and we must bring these perpetrators of evil to justice.

There is a similar episode in America's early history. In the early 19th century, pirates from North Africa were destroying American and European shipping and taking crew, passengers and cargo hostage for ransom. The regions then called the Barbary States (Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli) were allowing them safe harbor. Presidents Washington and Adams acquiesced to the tyrannical practice of paying tribute to these rulers for safe passage for their ships.

But President Jefferson, whose controversial, razor-thin election foreshadowed that of President Bush, was repulsed by this practice--and when the ruler of Tripoli tried to increase the tribute, Jefferson declared war. He sent a fleet of ships into the Mediterranean in what became known as the Tripolitan War (1801-1805), which concluded with a peace favorable to the United States.

We need to learn from Jefferson's wisdom and follow his example.

Can resorting to military force be justified? If so, under what circumstances? While there have been persistent elements of pacifism within the Christian tradition, for most Christians, in most places, at most times, the answer has been: Yes, military action by legitimately constituted civil authority is justifiable.

Just-war theory was never intended to justify war. Instead, it tries to bring war under the sway of justice as understood by Christians and to ensure that war, when it does occur, is hedged about by limits to reduce its barbarity. In fact, if all parties accepted just-war criteria, there would be no wars or acts of terrorism, because the theory's first rule clearly states that only defense against aggression can be just. Hence, if everyone adhered to just-war theory, aggression would be eliminated.