Lens on the Middle East: Understanding Just War Theory, Part 1

This is Part 1 of a series on Christian responses to the conflict in the Middle East. 

Over two and a half years after its surprising emergence, the Arab Spring seems like a distant movement whose events are now mired by ever deepening strife within two of the region’s most significant actors: Egypt and Syria. These countries capture headlines daily as crises deepen and protesters and civilians find themselves the victims of violence committed by various parties. In recent days, fierce public debate has emerged in both Europe and the United States as Western powers consider military action in response to the confirmed use of chemical weapons against civilians in Syria.

For those of us living far from this reality, the conflict can be confusing and frequently, morally ambiguous. We hear of factions and groups led by “pro-secular” activists or forces, Islamist groups, military leaders, jihadist rebel forces, political alliances formed around religious sects of Islam, and oppressed Christian groups, and thus struggle to reach conclusions regarding appropriate American foreign policy given the shifting strategic and moral calculus that the changes between these groups present.

Such complexity provides an excellent opportunity for Christians to reflect on what their most basic moral commitments ought to be given such conflicts, and sadly, the atrocities that have emerged as conflict worsens. When faced with such social strife in complex matters of foreign policy, what should our response as Christians be?

The Church possesses rich theological and philosophical resources to draw on as we consider the justice of American foreign policy. Justice, which can be framed and discussed in many different ways, is central to a Christian ethic. Throughout this series, I will touch on several aspects of this ethic immediately relevant to the situation at hand. The first is just war theory.

Just war theory stems from a long Christian tradition that establishes moral guidelines for the state’s use of force. While not explicit in Scripture, God’s regulation of Israelite conduct in war was certainly a novel idea at the time, considering the practices of surrounding nations. And many a Christian thinker, from Augustine to the present, have developed and followed a set of norms guiding the state’s involvement and tactics in war.

Members of the Free Syrian Army. Photo courtesy of the  Freedom House . 

Members of the Free Syrian Army. Photo courtesy of the Freedom House

 Fortunately, the rhetoric of just war possesses much secular currency, making it an especially useful moral framework not only among Christians, but also in society at large. In fact, as Yale law professor Stephen Carter has pointed out, President Obama himself, in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, invites us to apply such moral analysis to U.S. military actions. As Christians, then, we ought to be able to articulate this tradition of our faith, and use it to faithfully evaluate the state’s adherence to norms of justice.

At its core, just war theory is two parted: First, there is jus ad bellum, which refers to the justice of the decision to go to war. The second, which will be addressed later in this series, is  jus in bello and refers to the justice of action in war. In regards to the first, we can identify a number of agreed-upon principles:

  • War should only be declared as a last resort
  • War must be declared by a proper authority
  • One must have a good chance of winning the war
  • The war’s cause must be just

Of course, debate exists over what these norms imply. Among the most fiercely contested are the notions of legitimate authority and just cause. Many would assert that self-defense serves as the only “just cause” for a war, while others argue that humanitarian intervention can likewise be just. Similarly, debate over authority has developed as the U.S. considers action in Syria, with certain intellectuals purporting that only the United Nations may authorize intervention (which is true under international law), while others, working under different ethical assumptions, might argue that in the absence of Security Council approval, nations have a moral obligation to respond to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and thus the head of a nation-state can serve as a legitimate authority.

Thoughtful Christians may differ on these issues, but as our nation considers military action in Syria, this moral framework helps us to carefully and thoroughly consider the use of force, something that we as “peacekeepers” (as Jesus suggests we should be in Matthew 5) should try our best to avoid unless truly necessary. 

  -Aaron Korthuis currently works for the Association for a More Just Society in Honduras on issues of citizen security. He graduated from Whitworth University in 2012, and will begin his legal studies at Yale Law School in the fall of 2014.