Posted May 29, 2009on:
Since the Second World War it is unarmed civilians who have been the biggest casualties in wars. And wars leave a massive trail of pain and destruction in their wake: broken families and communities, prolonged mental trauma, ecological disaster, rampant criminality and the brutalization of social life.
This is easily and quickly forgotten in the aftermath of military victory. In 1982, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, was asked by the British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, to lead the nation in a service of thanksgiving and remembrance for British soldiers killed in the Falklands War. Runcie insisted that the service would be a memorial service for all the war dead, including Argentine soldiers. While this enraged Mrs. Thatcher, Runcie was simply standing in a long Christian tradition of bishops and jurists who have refused to allow states to co-opt them into nationalistic or imperialistic projects.
Christendom at its best was an attempt to bear witness to the Lordship of Jesus Christ over the civil authority. The Church sought to tame the violence of states: outlawing torture, severely restricting the use of the death penalty, crafting international law in response to God’s moral law, and bringing warfare into the realm of justice. In a famous confrontation with the Roman emperor Theodosius in 390 A.D, Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, refused him communion and excluded him from entering the Basilica until he had done public penance for ordering the massacre of the citizens of Thessalonica. By the standards of the age, Theodosius’ actions were not extraordinary. But Ambrose’s judging of secular judges set a precedent for the Church. It began the long and complex process of reforming earthly justice, of making earthly powers accountable and responsive to the rule of Christ.
No war can ever be truly just. What is misleading called ‘Just War Theory’, as it was elaborated and developed in Western Christendom, is not a theory about war. It is rather a way of encouraging moral reasoning: given the horrors of warfare, how should we restrain it? It proposes that any act of war can only be justified if it is an act of judgment, redressing a prior act (or acts) of injustice, and seeking the restoration of peace as its aim. Around this primary proposal are built cautions and safeguards that have to do both with the reasons for going to war and the conduct of the war itself. All violence is evil. And the just war proposals seek to limit the scope of violence as is realistically possible.
Keeping in mind the nature of justifiable war as an act of judgment leads to the twin moral principles of discrimination (between combatants and non-combatants) and proportionality (the methods used must be proportionate to the offense that is being redressed). Wherever modern states and anti-state forces have lacked the moral worldview embedded in these Just War proposals, they have indulged in ‘total war’ and claimed for themselves an absolute ‘sovereignty’. They demonize the enemy, calling them ‘terrorists’ and such like, and so stripping them of their essential humanity.
The distinction between combatants and non-combatants is often a fine one, but nevertheless very important. It is not the same as the distinction between civilians and non-civilians. (‘Terrorists’ and ‘insurgents’ are also civilians, whether or not they wear uniforms). Non-combatants are innocent if they do not participate in the war effort: they neither produce nor possess the means to cause injury to others. It is immaterial whether or not they morally support the cause of the enemy. Thus, munitions factories or laboratories engaged in producing biological or chemical weapons are legitimate targets of attack because they are manufacturing the means to injure others. But companies providing food and clothing for soldiers are not, because they do not have the capacity to cause injury to others. While it is of the essence of ‘terrorism’ to blatantly ignore these distinctions, it is of the essence of any civilized state to scrupulously respect them.
Moreover, when a war is declared over, both sides are required to release immediately all prisoners. Former combatants are not to be hunted down and punished like criminals.
This way of reasoning is based on the conviction that all human beings possess an intrinsic and inviolable dignity; so that any violation of such dignity requires powerful moral justification. It is part of the moral and conceptual revolution that Christianity introduced into the Western world. Over time, these principles have become part of internationally recognized rules of military engagement such as the famous Geneva Conventions. All those, Christian and non-Christian, who passionately espouse universal ‘human rights’ against the claim of ‘non-interference’ in a nation’s ‘internal affairs’ stand, knowingly or (usually) unknowingly, in the moral tradition that springs from Bishop Ambrose’s example.
But such rules are ineffective as long as the dominant worldview of the wider society lacks a high sense of the value of human beings. And herein lies the rub. Can laws, international conventions and external coercion by themselves bring about a politics of responsibility and accountability? And where the Christian shaping of the collective social conscience is steadily being eroded (as in the West) or has never been deeply implanted (as in the East), how long will respect for human rights flourish?
[For more, see my article on ‘War’ in the Global Dictionary of Theology, eds. Dyrness & Kaikaainen (2008)]