A Just War?

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In 1942, at the parsonage of the Lutheran church he shepherded in central Austria, my grandfather received the following slip of paper; his call-up for active service in the Wehrmacht.


Although his status as clergy might normally have led to his exclusion from conscription, being a member of the Confessing Church (that movement that opposed Hitler, including Dietrich Bonhöffer) meant he was always destined at some point to have to fight. He got on a train bound for the Eastern Front and wasn’t seen by his family for another 4 years.

That my grandfather fought for the aggressors in World War II is beyond doubt, not that he himself had much choice about it. We can look back at those years and clearly identify a “right” and “wrong” side. Sometimes, however, it’s not so clear. This is, of course, not a new question. In the 13th Century Thomas Aquinas argued that a “Just War” could only be established when a rightful sovereign declared it, a just cause existed and that belligerents entered into war with the right intention; to advance the good at the detriment of evil. (Summa. 2.2.40)

Aquinas clearly draws not least from Paul’s statements in Romans 13.

Rom. 13:4 for [the ruling authority] is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be in fear, for it does not bear the sword in vain. It is God’s servant to administer retribution on the wrongdoer.

Whereas in the previous chapter the Apostle urges us as individuals not to rush to revenge, since this is God’s prerogative (Rom. 12:19), he now shows us how, perhaps, God will seek his just retribution – through the governments He has ordained (Rom. 13:1). What is jarring about this is that the ruling authority, to which we are all called to submit (Rom. 13:1), may not itself be pure as the driven snow. The letter to the Romans was written while the church found itself under the rule of the despotic Nero.

All of this means, I think, that when American soldiers landed in North Africa in late 1942 and captured my grandfather along with countless other German soldiers, there is a sense they were carrying out a just and godly act. Of course we don’t want to discount broader questions about war crimes and individual responsibility but the wider principle, I would suggest, is well-established in Scripture. The obvious conclusion that I can’t avoid, therefore, is that as our nation contemplates expanding it’s military action in the Middle East, that same principle tells us that we ought to be using that force which we have to punish those evil-doers we can clearly identify. Can I be so bold as to suggest that the question might even become not “do we have the right to do this?” but “how can we not do this?”? Could it even be that Christians ought to be speaking up and urging our government to fulfil their God-mandated responsibility to come to the aid of those most oppressed by evil, not out of some misplaced desire for war but out of a deep sense of justice? Can we really sit back and watch the Hitlers, the Pol Pots, the Saddam Husseins and the ISIS’s of this world run amok? As today we consider how we ought to address the current humanitarian crisis developing in Syria, don’t our governments have a calling from God to intervene?

Of course even as I write this I feel uneasy. God is a God of peace, isn’t He? Jesus is the Prince of Peace. And yet the Scriptures prod me with constant reminders that God’s peace might look different to the way I think it should. Throughout the Scriptures are reminders of God’s status as warrior (Exo. 15:3; Isa. 42:13 etc.) fighting on behalf of His people to save them. It’s not a coincidence that one of His names is “Lord of Hosts (Armies)”. Nor is this a uniquely Old Testament representation of God. If anything, the New Testament only amplifies the image, most notably as we see the Lord Jesus Christ,

Rev. 19:11   Then I saw heaven opened and here came a white horse! The one riding it was called “Faithful” and “True,” and with justice he judges and goes to war.

This final devastating battle charge is one that will right every wrong, casting down all evil that sets itself up against God (Rev. 19:15 cf. Rev. 14:19-20). We are told these confronting truths not only to provide assurance to the Christian that there will be vindication, but also to encourage those who have not yet bowed the knee to King Jesus to do so. He graciously offers forgiveness to all who have rebelled against Him. He demands an unconditional surrender and then proceeds to pour His good and gracious gifts upon those who come to Him.

When my Grandfather returned from a POW camp in 1946 he arrived to a hometown under American occupation with the first U.S. aid, a precursor to the Marshall Plan, already arriving. The German government had had the good sense to surrender to the Allies before total devastation came and were now receiving good things from their former enemy. So it is with the gospel. The choice before each and every one of us is to fight to the death against God or to surrender to Him and receive His generosity poured out upon us. I can’t help think that this is also the way we need to view our own military conflicts. If the governing authorities act as God’s agent when they go to war, then surely they must also act as His agent after terms of surrender are received; graciously pouring out good things upon former enemies.

I know that these aren’t simplistic matters, and I don’t discount the complexities of the current situation but when it comes down to it, if our government approaches this question with those God-ordained priorities clearly before it, as it appears the Scriptures call them to, then for all our good and proper desire for peace I’m slowly becoming convinced that war might just be the right way forward. One wonderful day the Lord will beat every sword into ploughshares and every conflict between nations will be ended (Isa. 2:4) but until then He calls our government to wield it’s sword for good.

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  1. Andrew Reid

    Hi David,
    Allow me to give a perspective as someone who lives in the Middle East and is a bit closer to the action.
    I have great sympathy for your position, that as much as possible our governments ought to be instruments for doing good and punishing evil. I entirely agree with you that ISIS is evil and we ought to do what we can to resist them. Here’s a few further points to consider:
    1) Scope of Biblical mandate
    Are governments given the authority to rule and wield the sword over every act of evil in the world, or only over their own territory and citizens? Paul was writing to subjects of the Roman Empire who could rightly expect Roman authorities to punish evil within their realm. Having said that, God in the OT clearly uses a range of nations of dubious morality to punish evil (Persia, Babylon, Assyria).
    2) Interventions
    Our recent history of military interventions in the Middle East shows that rather than restraining evil, we increase it. Our 2003 invasion of Iraq led to the mass exodus of Christians, a sectarian govt, the rising influence of Iran and the eventual birth of ISIS. Our intervention in Libya in 2011 led to the removal of Gaddafi, which we all applauded, but now the country has descended into intractable tribal warfare. Our intervention in Afghanistan in 1980s to oppose the evil Soviet communists led to the rise of the Taliban and a network of jihadists spread throughout the region.
    3) Complexity
    I would suggest that most of the groups active in the Syrian conflict are evil – ISIS, the Syrian regime and various jihadist groups. Do we take on all of them? If we just attack ISIS, won’t we strengthen the other groups? And do we understand the unintended consequences? What will stop Russia annexing more territory if we feel free to flout national borders? How do we help Arab nations to solve Arab problems if the West sends troops to solve every crisis?
    4) Consistency
    Why are our hearts only bleeding now after 4 years of the Syrian conflict and over 250,000 people dead? Why are our hearts not bleeding for the innocent people in Yemen being bombed daily and who cannot escape as refugees because the airports, borders and ports are all shut? Why did they not bleed for the Gazans who were bombed into oblivion in 2 recent conflicts with Israel, supported by most of the Western world?
    I doubt our 6 planes are going to make much difference if their scope is expanded to Syria, but I don’t think the decision is an open and shut case of good vs evil.

    1. David Ould

      thanks for this really helpful comment Andrew. This is exactly what I had in mind when I wrote

      I know that these aren’t simplistic matters, and I don’t discount the complexities of the current situation


  2. Ron Johnson

    Being newly converted from pacifism I realize the complexity of the issues, particularly as outlined by Andrew above.
    Yes, depose one evil regime and another rises to take its place.
    However, this is the history of the human race and one sign of God’s activity in a broken world.
    To leave evil to run its course is to allow evil to prosper all the more. God does not allow that to happen for extended periods before He raises up nations (even pagan ones) to punish the evildoer.
    It may only bring respite for a time before the cycle is again repeated, until the final battle with the return of Jesus is won.
    In the meantime, we cannot sit idly by watching it all unfold before our eyes when we have the God-given resources to save the human existence of millions of people.
    That should horrify the consciences of Christian people.

    1. MichaelA

      That’s a very good point, Ron.

      Evil of all kinds is in the world, and will keep appearing in the world. We will never reach a point where we can wipe our hands and say, “there, that’s all done now”. Doctors have to keep researching new cures, police officers have to keep dealing with new ways of committing crime, and politicians have to keep analyzing political situations afresh in order to decide whether and how to apply military force.

      Its never a simple solution to apply military force, and it can often have very bad unintended effects. But then, so can doing nothing. Each time we make (or fail to make) a decision, we are accountable to the Lord for our actions, and that will not change during this world.

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