ENGAGING THE DIVINE: Nations, religions struggle with the moral dimensions of war
Twenty years ago we were reeling from the events of September 11, 2001. Today we are reeling from the chaotic end to a war spawned by those events. But war is nothing new to humanity. And nations and religions have grappled with the moral dimensions of war for centuries. After all, as President Jimmy Carter observed, “War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is
always an evil, never a good.” Few who have been to war would quarrel with that.
If we lived in an ideal world, we readily could embrace the notion that the violence of war is never
justified. But, of course, we do not live in an ideal world. Other human beings are quite willing to
resort to violence to further their own self-proclaimed interests. So how do we approach this knotty
Over the centuries Christian tradition developed a theory of “just war,” not for the purpose of justifying
war, but for limiting it. And it remains a useful framework for resolution of this troublesome moral
First, the cause must be just. Essentially, wars may be morally justifiable only in self-defense or in defense of others — for example, defending against aggression or grave violation of human rights. On
the other hand, purposes of material gain or recovering lost property or exacting punishment or
retribution would not be considered adequate to justify war.
Second, war must be a last resort. No other means can be as effective or as practical to correct the
situation. All peaceful means of resolving the conflict must have been exhausted.
Third, the war must have a reasonable probability of success. Futile loss of life — however heroic it may
seem — weighs against war as a justifiable alternative
Fourth, the result or consequence of war must not be greater evil than would be eliminated by violent
conflict. Does waging a war promise at least commensurate protection of innocent human life? For example, is nuclear war ever justifiable?
Fifth, in the Christian tradition, we view death as a consequence of refraining from war in the context of our hope that death is not final. Therefore, loss of life at the hands of another’s violence need not be
prevented at all costs.
Sixth, war must enjoy the authorization of a legitimate government. Today, the issue for us is whether war has been authorized within the legal framework set out in our constitution.
Ultimately, our understanding of when, if ever, it is appropriate to send our fellow humans to fight on
our behalf, or even to go to war ourselves is left to our consciences. The theory of just war has existed
for hundreds of years to inform our consciences and frame our debates. But however difficult the moral
decision may be in any given scenario, as good citizens, we may never shy away from it. After all, the
proper question never is whether God is on our side. The right question is whether we are on God’s
The Rev. James J. Popham is rector at St. Andrews By-the-Sea in Destin.