A Time For War?
Augustine's just war theory continues to guide the West
September 1, 2001
The fall of Rome in 410 was a calamity of staggering proportions to the citizens of the Roman Empire. Civilization itself had been shaken to its foundations.
So it was viewed by Augustine, from his vantage point on the North African coast. But he worried not so much about the empire as about the threat of a backlash to Christianity.
Hadn't critics warned for years that Christians' pacifism would weaken the empire? Didn't this confirm the fears that Christianity was too other-worldly for its followers to be responsible citizens of the state?
Though church and state had worked together for nearly a century (since the conversion of Constantine), Augustine still felt that he needed to establish once and for all that Christians could in conscience assume the full obligations of citizenship, including participation in warfare.
The task was a challenge. Critics seemed to have on their side the teachings of Jesus himself. Though Jesus never talked about war directly, his message of love, humility, and compassion seemed incompatible with violence and killing. And so it was understood by most early Christians.
However, Augustine had already argued (in his attack on the Manichees) that, properly understood, Jesus' teachings did not in all cases call for literal obedience. Of Jesus' injunction, "If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also," Augustine said, "What is here required is not a bodily action, but an inward disposition. The sacred seat of virtue is the heart."
To illustrate this priority of inward motive, Augustine asked readers to consider a man hitting a boy and another man caressing a boy. The first case seems bad, but the man might be a father lovingly disciplining his son; the second case seems good, but the man might be a child molester. Thus, Augustine said, "We find a man by charity made fierce; and by iniquity made winningly gentle."
Because God judges the soul, the ultimate question is not "what the man does … but with what mind and will he does it." The appropriate motive in all cases, Augustine rules, is love. What is done from love of God must be good.
This opens the door for Christians to perform outward acts that might appear to be forbidden by Scripture. Still, there had to be a rationale for stepping through the door, and Augustine gave that rationale in City of God.
There Augustine insists there is no "private right" to kill. One can kill only under the authority of God, as communicated by direct or implicit command from God, or by a legitimate ruler who carries out God's intent to restrain evil on earth. Augustine further suggests that one who obeys such a command "does not himself 'kill.' " He acts only as an instrument of the one who commands.
Augustine concludes, "The commandment forbidding killing was not broken by those who have waged wars on the authority of God, or those who have imposed the death-penalty on criminals when representing the authority of the state, the justest and most reasonable source of power."
When there is no command by God, war may be waged only by those with legitimate authority, and only for a just cause. Augustine was not, however, specific on what causes can be considered just. He has been interpreted narrowly, as saying states may go to war to avert (defensively) or avenge (offensively) a violation of their rights, or broadly, as saying war may be waged to redress any wrong against God's moral order.
Thus Augustine fashioned what is now called the "just war theory," which over the centuries has become a complex set of criteria to govern both the recourse to war in the first place and the conduct of war once begun.
According to this justification, theologian Paul Ramsey contends in The Just War, Christian participation in warfare "was not actually an exception [to the commandment, "You shall not murder"] … but instead an expression of the Christian understanding of moral and political responsibility."
This understanding has, of course, been challenged from many angles. But with the exception of the "peace churches" (Quakers, Brethren, and Mennonites), mainstream Christianity has stayed to the present day essentially on the course set by Augustine.
Robert L. Holmes is professor of philosophy at the University of Rochester and author of On War and Morality (Princeton, 1989). This article originally appeared in Christian History issue 67: Augustine.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at ChristianHistory.net. Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.
The rest of Christian History's issue on Augustine can be found here and ordered here.
Yesterday's Christianity Today Weblog examined what Christian leaders are saying about just-war theory and pacifism.
Christian History Corner appears every Friday at ChristianityToday.com. Previous editions include:
The House That Jack Built | C.S. Lewis and six of his literary friends open their doors to students and researchers at Wheaton College's impressive new Wade Center facility. (Sept. 14, 2001)
Raiders of the Lost R | Documentary on School skips religious history, giving a skewed account of American education. (Sept. 7, 2001)
Explaining the Ineffable | In Heaven Below, a former Pentecostal argues that his ancestors were neither as outlandish as they seemed nor as otherworldly as they wish to seem. (Aug. 31, 2001)
Eyewitness to a Massacre | The bloodbath that started on August 24, 1572, left thousands of corpses and dozens of disturbing questions. (Aug. 24, 2001)
Live Long and Prosper | Though a recent survey raises questions, the health benefits of faith have been documented for centuries. (Aug. 17, 2001)
Divided by Communion | What a church does in remembrance of Christ says a lot about its history and identity. (Aug. 10, 2001)
Thrills, Chills, Architecture? | The most exciting adventure at St. Paul's Cathedral would be a time-traveling jaunt through its history. (August 3, 2001)
Deep and Wide| A dive into Reformation imagery yields striking new insights, while a drive-by church history overview largely disappoints. (July 27, 2001)
Shelling the Salvation Army | If William Booth's church could handle sticks and stones in the 1880s, it should withstand the recent barrage of hateful words. (July 20, 2001)
Historical Hogwash | Two books—one new, one newly reissued—debunk false claims about the "real" Jesus. (July 13, 2001)
Ghosts of the Temple | Soon after Jerusalem fell, the Roman Colosseum went up. Coincidence? (July 6, 2001)
Endangered History | The National Trust's list of imperiled places gives unnoticed gems a chance to shine. (June 29, 2001)
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