When is war right?

As I write this article, the 70th anniversary of D-Day has just been remembered. Reflecting on that ‘longest day’ reminded me of two things I’m thankful to God for. First I’m thankful for all who were willing to fight and face death for their people and for the sake of justice and liberty. And second, I’m thankful that I never lived in those dark days when Nazism needed to be confronted and defeated.

But even those of us who have never gone to war cannot afford to ignore the question of ‘when is war right?’. War is too terrible a thing to be taken for granted and not thought through.

Perhaps you think it strange even to ask the question of ‘when is war right?’. War is always a consequence of sin, and there are no exceptions to that. War is usually caused by a love of violence, a dismissing of the sanctity of life, a desire for revenge, a fierce hatred or a lust for power.

But sometimes such motives are present only on one side. Anyone who heard Neville Chamberlain’s doleful announcement that ‘this country is now at war with Germany’ could hardly accuse him of a lust for power or a love of violence. In such cases war is a last resort to defend justice and protect oneself and others from tyranny and evil.

The duty of governments

So whilst Christians should rightly object to some wars and some means of fighting, pacifism is not an option for any Christian who is serious about the Bible’s teaching on the need for justice and the government’s right to wield the sword. That’s because in a fallen world there will always be injustice and the Bible makes clear that sometimes justice requires the shedding of blood (e.g. Gen. 9:6). Can we stand idly by while others rape and murder, and even commit genocide?

Of course, that’s not to say that anyone can take justice into their own hands. God has given governments the right to wield the sword (Rom. 13:4), not the church, and not private citizens acting on their own initiative. And whilst we may muse over what constitutes a legitimate government, that question doesn’t seem to be one that vexed the Apostle Paul, even though he probably had more cause to ask it.

That then is the first element in determining whether a war is just: is the war waged by governing authorities?

But on its own, that’s not enough, of course. God-appointed authorities can, and often do, act in very ungodly ways. When they do that, God holds nations and their leaders and citizens to account. This is a principle we find throughout scripture, and particularly in the book of Amos. ‘I was just following orders’ is no defence in an international court, and neither is it a defence in God’s eyes. Where there is a conflict, a Christian must obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29). It is therefore the responsibility of every soldier (and even every citizen) to decide for himself whether a war is just. So how do we do that?

Just motivation

John Murray said, ‘A just war is simply war undertaken and conducted in the defence and promotion of the dictates of justice’. That then is the second element: is the war being waged for just reasons and in a just manner?

Murray rightly points out that the way a war is undertaken matters. The nation’s motivations can’t be ignored. Is human life being properly valued – that is, is war being undertaken with a heavy heart, counting the cost? Is there a desire for justice and righteousness, or perhaps to do good to a neighbour? Is there a genuine absence of a lust for power or hatred or revenge? Is the war a proportional response to aggression?

A just manner

But the way a war is conducted also matters. It’s possible for a war to begin for the right reasons, but to be fought in a way that is not just. A just soldier will seek not only to defeat the enemy, but also to protect the innocent, and not incur greater harm to combatants than is strictly necessary. In practice this means he will protect non-combatants, respect prisoners and those wanting to surrender, and his government will seek to reduce or eliminate the use of the most inhumane weapons.

Of course, it’s not always easy to put these principles into practice. In the Second World War, the great reluctance of the British government to go to war, coupled with the indisputable evil of Hitler’s Third Reich makes it relatively easy to conclude that a defence against such an aggressor was necessary and just. But in every war, particularly those where the enemy carries out great evils, there is a danger that the wicked way they wage war will lower the moral threshold of those who are defending themselves against aggression, perhaps even to a point where their actions within the war become unjust. Did that happen to Churchill and Air Chief Marshal Harris in some of the raids they ordered on German cities? Did it happen to President Truman when he agreed that atomic bombs should be dropped on Japan? Even now, with all the benefit that hindsight brings, I’m not sure I know the answers to those questions.

Sins of ignorance?

To determine whether such actions are just, there’s a need for information, and this can be particularly hard to come by in times of war, when propaganda and the legitimate need for secrecy can often make it almost impossible for an ordinary foot-soldier to determine whether a particular action or war is just. So, whilst some German believers refused to fight for Hitler, there were faithful followers of Jesus Christ who fought in the Wehrmacht. Some, perhaps, were ignorant of the evil which later became so clear. For many, fear or pragmatism prevented them from asking too many questions. Chillingly, we might well have done the same had we been in their place. Sins committed in ignorance are still sins (see Leviticus 4), but thank God that the blood of Jesus Christ is sufficient to cover all our sins.

The First World War is an even murkier place. Britain was not the aggressor, and was fighting to defend her allies. Yet did we do enough in June and July 1914 to avoid war? And did our politicians and generals always value human life to the extent they ought?

The frightening thing in asking those questions is that those men were products of their time. As we look back, it’s easy to find things to criticise, but had we been in their shoes we would almost certainly have made the same decisions – and justified it to ourselves. Without spiritual wisdom, which comes only from above, none of us are remotely equipped to answer questions like these.

So whilst the question, ‘When is war right?’ is relatively easy to answer in principle, it’s much harder to answer in practice. We can make it easier to do so by cultivating a close relationship with Jesus Christ, getting to know our Bibles well, and looking to God for spiritual wisdom. But one thing is surely clear: ‘that requests, prayers, intercessions and thanksgiving [should] be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness’ (1 Tim. 2:1-2).