By / Oct 13

Nearly 40 years ago, terrorism expert Brian Michael Jenkins made this claim, “The difficulty of defining terrorism has led to the cliché that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, implying that there can be no objective definition of terrorism, no universal standards of conduct in peace. That is not true.” Yet, this line of thinking remains a cliché thoughtlessly espoused to muddy the distinctions between legitimate and illegitimate forms of warfare. Even as recently as the past week, the terrorist organization Hamas has been referred to in similar language on a major news outlet in the United States in relation to the attack on Israel.

Freedom fighters and terrorists often do have many similarities. Both groups take part in a violent struggle to achieve a political goal, usually the overthrow or removal of an established government. Both groups tend to be non-state actors, that is, their political actions are not carried out on behalf of a sovereign nation-state.

What then separates a freedom fighter from a terrorist?

The moral requirements for going to war

The primary difference is how they align with the criteria of the just war tradition. First, let’s measure them against the jus ad bellum, the moral requirement for going to war:

1. Just Cause: Like nation-states, non-state actors may have just and proper reasons for going to war. For example, they may be acting in self-defense to prevent genocide or acting to restore human rights wrongly denied.

2. Proportionate Cause: Again, like established nation-states, non-state actors could go to war to prevent more evil and suffering than their warfare is expected to cause.

3. Right Intention: Non-state actors may also have the right intentions for going to war. They could, for instance, be motivated by Christian love and pursuit of justice instead of an illegitimate intention to go to war, such as revenge.

4. Right Authority: There is nothing inherently special about a nation-state that gives them a special status as the right authority. However, this criterion poses a special hurdle for non-state actors since what would constitute a right authority for them is often unclear. As Eric Patterson notes, one distinction between modern freedom fighters and terrorists is that freedom fighters  accept at least two forms of authority: “The first stems from customary international law and is now codified in the Geneva Conventions; the second is that they submit to some form of organized authority (i.e., ‘are under the command of a person responsible for his subordinates’).”

5. Reasonable Chance of Success: This is the primary criterion that works against the modern terrorist engaging in a just war. The use of terrorist tactics tends to lower the chances of success in warfare and offers specific challenges to establishing a just peace once the war is over. As historian Charles Townsend says, “Although the 20th century produced plenty of successful ‘wars of national liberation”, often with a significant terrorist dimension, none succeeded by terrorism alone.”

6. Last Resort: Another key difference between freedom fighters and terrorists is that the former almost always consider warfare to be the last reasonable and workable option for addressing their grievances. In contrast, terrorists rarely seek to exhaust reasonable peaceful alternatives, such as diplomacy or non-violent political pressure, before succumbing to violence.

Why terrorism is unjust

The jus ad bellum by itself offers distinctions between terrorists and freedom fighters. But most salient differences between freedom fighters and terrorists is in the criteria for jus in bello (criteria for just execution of war), particularly on the issue of discrimination.

The criterion of discrimination includes two key components: “innocence” and “deliberate attack.” The first rule of just warfare is that we do not target or intentionally kill the innocent. “Innocence,” says just war theorist Michael Walzer, means those non-combatants who are not materially engaged in the war effort. “These people are ‘innocent’ whatever their government and country are doing and whether or not they are in favor of what is being done.” Walzer explains that, “The opposite of ‘innocent’ is not ‘guilty,’ but ‘engaged.’ Disengaged civilians are innocent without regard to their personal morality or politics.”

This is precisely what makes terrorism wrong, since it is defined, says Walzer, as the random killing of innocent people, in the hope of creating pervasive fear. “Randomness and innocence are the crucial elements in the definition,” he says. “The critique of this kind of killing hangs especially on the idea of innocence, which is borrowed from ‘just war’ theory.”

Sadly, modern warfare almost always leads to innocent civilian casualties—especially in urban environments. The key distinction, therefore, is that terrorists target the innocent for deliberate attack while “freedom fighters”—and anyone else engaged in just warfare—never do. This provides both a moral and strategic challenge for nations fighting against terrorists, since we do not want to become like the evil we are opposing. “Terror must never be answered with terror,” says historian Caleb Carr, “but war can only be answered with war, and it is incumbent on us to devise a style of war more imaginative, more decisive, and yet more humane than anything terrorists can contrive.”

Like you, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) is grieved by the acts of terrorism perpetrated against those made in God’s image in the Middle East, and we are praying for peace. The ERLC has led an effort among Southern Baptist leaders and other evangelicals to organize support for Israel’s right to exist and defend itself and urge policymakers to confront evil, promote peace, and protect the vulnerable. We also ask Christians to pray for the preservation and salvation of those in the region and give toward their needs through SEND Relief. You can read and sign the Evangelical Statement in Support of Israel here

Click here to learn more about Just War Theory.

By / Dec 7

Editor’s Note: This article is part of our primer series on Christians ethics where a respected leader and thinker recommends and gives a summary overview of a book that helps orient readers to a certain aspect of ethics and philosophy. This series is designed to equip the local church to engage foundational texts of Christian ethics. Find the entire series here

Augustine is often called the founder of the just war tradition. This is only partly true, and requires at least two caveats. First, Augustine did not write a treatise or essay on war or even on civil government: his comments on the state and its lethal violence are scattered throughout his sermons, letters, and other works, written over the course of decades. It can be difficult to say with certainty that the Augustine who wrote the City of God still agreed with the Augustine from 20 years previously. Augustine seems to have followed a similar course in his life that Western Christendom would travel over the course of a millennium: from an optimistic belief in the righteous possibilities of Christian imperial power to a chastened vision of “conflicting purposes, of uncertainties of direction, of divergent loyalties and irresolvable tensions,” in which “political power has become a means of securing some minimal barriers against the forces of disintegration,” in the words of one scholar.1Markus, “Saint Augustine’s Views on the ‘Just War,’” 10. See also Henrik Syse, “Augustine and Just War.”

Second, the just war tradition that followed Augustine’s line of thinking—a paradigm that treats war as an act of loving punishment—essentially ended in the 17th century, replaced by the Westphalian paradigm. Augustine can rightly be called the founder of one tradition that recognized him retroactively as its founding influence. In fact, what is sometimes called “just war theory” (and should be called just war doctrine) unfolded in three traditions: the Augustinian, the Westphalian, and the Liberal. The Augustinian just war tradition is an application of the political theory of Medieval Christendom; the Westphalian, of the early modern Enlightenment; and the Liberal, of the broader commitments of classical liberalism. 

What is the Augustinian tradition of just war doctrine, and how does it differ from its successors? 

Different traditions of just war doctrine

The Augustinian tradition

The Augustinian tradition of just war thinking was an application of Medieval political theory with roots in antiquity that matured into its classic expression during the Wars of Religion. This pre-Enlightenment political theory rested on the idea that natural law exists and should guide human social and political order to fulfill natural human moral aspirations; that sovereignty means responsibility for the common good; and that justice should guide states to use force to defend and uphold the common good. In that context, just cause for war was understood to include not merely self-defense, but the defense of justice and peace, defense of the innocent, and punishment of the wicked—as defined by the commonly accepted, teleological standards of natural law. 

Statesmen, in turn, were expected to wage war to defend the common good and, broadly, uphold peace and justice. And statesmen were to fight war with the right intention: out of love for one’s neighbor and one’s enemies, not for glory, honor, revenge, or profit. Fighting to uphold justice and to prevent the wicked from perpetrating justice was understood as the duty Christian love required of statesmen.

The Westphalian tradition

The Westphalian tradition arose after the Thirty Years War and the Peace of Westphalia (1648). It moved away from the Augustinian tradition in three respects. It was a tradition of legal reasoning, not political theology; its conception of natural law was descriptive, not teleological; and it tended to focus on procedural justice, not substantive justice. Together these innovations amounted to a change in the fundamental orientation of just war thinking. The Westphalian tradition left behind much of the theological background that had given the Medieval tradition its content and meaning.

Just war was never an isolated exercise in military ethics; it was originally an argument about the rights and purposes of the state, about natural law, and about justice

The vestigial language of “just cause” and “right authority” remained, for example, but with transformed meanings. Because natural law jettisoned its teleological aspect, Westphalian thinkers also had a different notion of justice, and therefore of just cause and sovereignty: sovereignty evolved from defense of the common good to defense of international borders; and just cause consequently shrank to encompass only territorial self-defense. The right authority for the use of force was understood unproblematically to rest with the state, regardless of how the state chose to use it or for what purpose. 

The Liberal tradition

The embryonic Liberal tradition has arisen since World War II in an effort to rectify the weaknesses of the Westphalian tradition and, since the end of the Cold War, address new and emerging security concerns, often by borrowing and reinterpreting Augustinian concepts shorn of their theological commitments. Concepts like human rights and accountable governance do the work that natural law and justice did in the Augustinian tradition: external standards outside and above the state used to judge the state’s legitimacy. War is just when it vindicates rights, including the rights of states whose security has been violated, of course, but also the rights of individuals. The Liberal just war tradition allows war to vindicate the rights of individuals suffering under a humanitarian emergency, insists on respecting individual rights in how war is fought, and understands the vindication of individual rights a crucial part of ending wars justly. 

The emerging Liberal tradition is right to highlight weaknesses of the Westphalian tradition, and that there is a fundamental compatibility between the Augustinian and Liberal traditions. The central organizing concepts of the Augustinian tradition (love and the common good as external standards outside and above the state) can and should be recovered and worked into the Liberal tradition, for which human rights serves the same function. The Augustinian tradition of just war thinking argued that the right intention of warfare was love for our neighbors and for our enemies. It further argued that the defense, not of self, but of the common good, was the lived embodiment of such love. Much the same can be said with the idiom of human rights: the right intention in war is to vindicate rights, and just cause in war is to defend and uphold a system of ordered liberty for allies and enemies alike. 

The purpose of just war doctrine

Just war was never an isolated exercise in military ethics; it was originally an argument about the rights and purposes of the state, about natural law, and about justice. Even in its Westphalian guise, just war was an argument against theocracy and universal empire. The early modern Augustinians argued that wars for religion were utopian, inconsistent with humanity’s sinful nature, doomed to achieve the opposite of the justice it professed, and violated the state’s God-given jurisdiction. The same body of political theory—the theory of secularized Christendom—gave birth to classical liberalism and, eventually, to what we today call the liberal international order. Like the just war traditions, classical liberalism also argues that there are limits on the state’s jurisdiction; that sovereignty is not unlimited; that there should be no coercion in matters of belief; and that universal empire is a dangerous ambition. 

If we are to be faithful to the political theology of the just war traditions, we should by the same logic be faithful to the political theology of classical liberalism. Similar principles animate both. Indeed, the kinship goes so far that, if it is a just cause to oppose universal empire, we might just as well say that the defense of classical liberalism is a just cause. It is a just cause to defend a system designed to prevent universal empire, to guard against theocracy or ideological totalism, and to enforce limits on government’s jurisdiction: that system is what we today call the liberal order. 

This view draws on the Augustinian tradition’s surprisingly expansive view of the self whose defense justifies war. War is just when fought in the defense of our individual selves, our states, our allies, our neighbors, but also of innocent victims of oppression, and even the commonwealth of all mankind when it is threatened by grievous crimes against nature. Ordered liberty is the common good, the defense of which is just and the preservation of which reflects love for our neighbors and for our enemies. 

Is a war ever just?

When is war just? The violent disruption of ordered liberty is the “injury” in response to which force may be used and war may be justly waged. This obviously covers cases of defense against invasion, but it also covers humanitarian intervention. The Augustinian tradition at its zenith (from the early 16th to the mid-17th centuries) explicitly addressed the problems of what today we call state failure, armed non-state actors, and humanitarian intervention. These thinkers argued that the sovereign had just cause to wield force against non-state actors and, even, to redress conditions of state failure, although typically with strong qualifications. These writers rested their arguments on an underlying philosophical framework: war, they believed, was an extension of the sovereign responsibility to defend the common good (itself an extension of a prior and more fundamental duty to love all humanity), and under extreme conditions love demands intervention to punish the wicked and defend the innocent, even when that involves crossing international boundaries. 

Second, what does justice require? Justice requires the vindication and restoration of ordered liberty in, through, and after warfare. War requires victors to make right the wrongs that prompted the war; make right the wrongs of war (the destruction of combat), and prevent the recurrence of such wrongs in the future. The upshot is that while just cause is more expansive than is conventionally understood, the responsibilities of post-conflict restoration are commensurably far higher. Taken together, this Augustinian Liberal approach to just war thinking permits intervention but increases international responsibility for what intervention entails, and thus should dampen any enthusiasm for intervention that might otherwise exist.  

  • 1
    Markus, “Saint Augustine’s Views on the ‘Just War,’” 10. See also Henrik Syse, “Augustine and Just War.”
By / Sep 14

Note: This is the fifth and final article in a series on the Christian just war tradition.

Imagine North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un announces he will finally implement his family’s long-stated objective of unifying the Korean peninsula. To ensure that no one interferes with his invasion of South Korea, he has hidden his nuclear missiles in the tunnels beneath the DMZ. The dictator threatens that these weapons, which can quickly be moved out of the tunnels, will be launched against Seoul, Guam, and Japan if South Korea, the U.S., or any other nation interferes with his plan.

The Western democracies are left with only two options: They can concede to North Korea’s demands and allow the enslavement of millions of people, or they can launch a preemptive nuclear strike using bunker-buster tactical nukes.

What should a Christian leader do? Would it be possible to use nuclear weapons in this situation in a way that aligns with the just war tradition?

It's never moral to use nuclear weapons on civilian targets, such as enemy cities.

Unfortunately, many of us don’t know how to provide a moral answer to these questions. Theological reflection on the use of nuclear weapons has always been lacking within American churches, and such thought tends to focus on apologies for the use of the atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima.* Since the end of the Cold War, almost no fresh thinking has been given to the subject at all by the broader evangelical community.

The most thoughtful consideration of nuclear weapons has tended to come from pacifist groups, such as Anabaptists, and others who support complete nuclear abolitionism. They tend to start with the view that nuclear weapons are intrinsically evil and their use objectively immoral, thus making them illegitimate for any use in just warfare.

Less consideration has been given by those of us who begin with the just war tradition and then attempt to explain how (or even if) nuclear arms can fit within a just war framework. In this article, I want to attempt to provide a model for such reflection by applying what we’ve learned in earlier articles in this series to consider under what conditions nuclear weapons might be acceptable.

When would it be morally legitimate to use nukes?

Let’s begin by assuming that the use of nuclear weapons is being considered in a conflict that meets all of the jus ad bellum criteria. That means the weapons would be considered primarily from a jus in bello perspective (the criteria for justly engaging in warfare), and to a lesser extent, from the jus post bellum perspective, (justice after war).

Nuclear weapons can be either tactical or strategic. A tactical nuclear weapon is a nuclear weapon designed for use on a battlefield in military situations, where friendly forces may be in relatively close proximity. A strategic nuclear weapon refers to a nuclear weapon designed to be used on targets in territory far from the battlefield as part of a strategic plan, such as on military bases, weapons factories, or military command centers.

Whether the weapons are tactical or strategic, their use should align with the two primary criteria for just execution of war, discrimination and proportionality.

As we discussed in a previous article in this series, the criterion of discrimination includes two key components, “innocence” and “deliberate attack.” The first rule of just warfare is that we do not target or kill the innocent. Nuclear weapons must therefore never be used to target noncombatants (i.e., women, children, the aged and infirm, etc.).

This is related to the second component of discrimination—“deliberate attack.” While the innocent may be harmed because of our engaging in warfare—such as when civilians are used as “human shields”—it must not be our intention to deliberately attack them. For this reason, nuclear weapons must not be used on civilian targets; enemy cities cannot be targeted for deliberate attack, even in retaliation. As Rebeccah Heinrichs says,

[U]nder no circumstances should the United States target civilian populations. Targeting civilians violates the fundamental principles that define the character of the United States of America and fails to meet the just war criteria jus in bello. Moreover, even from the perspective of cold realism, claiming to target civilian populations and maintaining a force structure designed to do this would likely not serve American interests, for some enemy leaders do not value the lives of their civilian populations the way that the United States does. In fact, it is reasonable to assert that American policymakers value the lives of enemy countries’ civilians more than their dictators do.

This is why Christians who accept both nuclear weapons and the just war tradition should support a nuclear strategy of counterforce targeting (using nuclear weapons only for military targets) rather than countervalue targeting (targeting of an opponent's assets which are of value but not actually a military threat, such as cities and civilian populations). See Heinrich’s article for more on how a counterforce strategy of deterrence is compatible with the just war tradition.

The second major jus in bello criterion is proportionality. As Jean Bethke Elshtain explains, proportionality “requires that the nature of one’s coercive force should be proportional to any injury sustained or planned, and that at whatever minimal force can be used to do the job should be deployed.” In the context of nuclear weapons, this would require that we should not use a high-yield weapon that has significant long-term effects (such as nuclear fallout) if it is possible to achieve the same military objective with conventional weapons.

In addition to these jus in bello criteria, there is a jus post bellum principle we must consider: the effect on the subsequent maintenance of reasonable living conditions and order for the people of the country where the nuclear weapons are used.

Now let’s apply these principles to our original North Korean scenario. Because the nuclear weapons would be used on a military target with few or no civilians in the area, it would likely pass the test of discrimination. Similarly, the criterion of proportionality may be met if the military commanders determine that non-nuclear bombs are unable to destroy the North Korean nuclear missiles.

Likewise, the area around the bombing may be subjected to nuclear fallout, but that would likely be a lesser harm than allowing the North Koreans to launch a nuclear attack.


While the North Korea scenario is a limited and narrow example, it provides an illustration of how Christians can and should apply just war principles to thinking about when the use of nuclear weapons might be appropriate. Nuclear weapons have neither made the just war tradition obsolete, nor added a significant layer of complexity. “Nuclear weapons do represent a novel and terrifying development in the history of international violence,” says just war theorist Robert L. Phillips, “ but as a form of state initiated force they demand the same kind of scrutiny and moral appraisal as any other kind of weapons system.”

Whether the weapons are slingshots or intercontinental ballistic missiles, Christians have inherited a robust tradition and framework to think morally about how warfare should be conducted.

*Because the debate about the use of nuclear weapons involves a significant degree of complexity, I’ve chosen to avoid discussing it in this article. For now I want to focus on future-oriented consideration of nuclear weapons.

By / Aug 31

Note: This is the third article in a series on the Christian just war tradition.

If a nation is able to meet all of the moral requirements for going to war (jus ad bellum) as well as the moral requirements for waging war (jus in bello) they will find they have a new set of moral requirements after warfare is concluded.

“As in so many issues in public life, those who would act well bear a heavy burden, and jus post bellum duties only add to that burden,” says Gary Bass. “People who somehow manage to act decently before and during war are rewarded only by being required to act decently again afterward.”

The “afterward” is the focus of just post bellum, justice after war. Because it can be difficult to determine when exactly a war has ended, we’ll consider the post (after) in jus post bellum to refer to the termination phase of conflict, the drawing-down of the war and the beginning of a the phase of a just peace.

While just post bellum is the newest addition to the just war tradition, the concept has always been inherent in thinking about the morality of war. After all, as Aristotle says in his Politics, the proper telos (end or function) of war should be peace. Just war theorist Michael Walzer adds to this that, “the object of a war is a better state of peace. And better, within the confines of the argument for justice, means more security than the status quo ante bellum, less vulnerability to territorial expansion, greater safety for ordinary men and women and for their domestic self determination”

If at the end of the war, the state of peace and justice is no greater than before the conflict started, then how can the conflict have been worth the violence and death? This is why thinking jus post bellum is an essential addition to the Christian jus war tradition.

Unfortunately, despite the importance of the topic, it has been given less thought than jus ad bellum or jus in bello and no set criteria have yet been agreed upon.

One of the first attempts to clearly define jus post bellum principles was offered by Michael Schuck in a 1994 article in Christian Century magazine. Shuck proposed three principles: repentance, honorable surrender, and restoration.

A more elabarote set of principles was presented by just war scholar Briand Orend, who outlines seven post-bellum principles whose violation would contradict the rules of just war:

Proportionality and Publicity: The peace settlement should be both measured and reasonable, as well as publicly proclaimed.

Rights Vindication: The settlement should secure those basic rights whose violation triggered the justified war. The relevant rights include human rights to life and liberty and community entitlements to territory and sovereignty.

Discrimination: Distinction needs to be made between the leaders, the soldiers, and the civilians in the country one is negotiating with. Civilians are entitled to reasonable immunity from punitive postwar measures.

Compensation: Financial restitution may be mandated, subject to both proportionality and discrimination.

Punishment: Soldiers and political leaders from all sides should face fair and public international trials for war crimes.

Rehabilitation: Reforming of decrepit institutions in an aggressor regime.

Former U.S. Navy chaplain Louis V. Iasiello also outlined seven principles he says should set the moral parameters of behavior in the post-combat phase of war:

A healing mind-set: “It would be constructive if both the victors and the defeated entered this post-conflict phase in a spirit of regret, conciliation, humility, and possibly contrition. Such a mind-set may further the healing of a nation’s trauma and thus enhance efforts to seal a just peace.”

Just restoration: “Victors have a moral obligation to ensure the security and stabilization of a defeated nation. Whenever practical and possible, they must provide the essentials of life (food, clothing, shelter, medicine, etc.) to those without them and repair or rebuild infrastructure essential to a vulnerable population’s health and welfare.”

Safeguarding the innocent: “The victors in war should focus special attention on children in the post bellum phase of war. Of equal importance is the direction of post bellum care to other at-risk groups and those who cannot easily care for themselves, most notably the sick, the elderly, and some groups of women.”

Respect for the environment: “All sides in a conflict should assume responsibility for the protection of the environment in war, and they should be held accountable for both the treatment of the environment during hostilities and the subsequent restoration of the environment after the fighting has ended.”

Post bellum justice: “The prosecution of suspected war criminals and political regimes should be treated as a critical dimension of any successful post bellum dynamic to further post bellum healing.”

Warrior transition: “This criterion addresses a nation’s moral obligation to heal the visible and invisible wounds of its warriors by adequately preparing them for their inevitable return and reentry into the society.”

Study of the lessons of war: “Nations that wage war have a moral responsibility to study their decision to use force, and the way force was used in the conduct of war.”

Each of these three scholars has added important elements to the formulation of a set of jus post bellum principles. But more thought needs to be done and the area is ripe for fresh Christian thinking on what we owe our enemies after the fighting has ended.  

Next in this series: The just war tradition and terrorism.

By / Aug 24

Note: This is the second in a series on the Christian just war tradition.

In 2014, Clint Eastwood directed American Sniper, a war drama loosely based on the memoir of the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. The trailer for the film reveals the difficult, split-second decisions military snipers often have to make while in combat.

For many viewers of the film, the most surprising part of that scene was when his spotter says, “They fry you if you’re wrong. They send [you] to Leavenworth.” He’s saying that if Kyle shoots the boy and child turns out not to have been a threat, the sniper can be convicted of murder and sent to the military correctional facility at Fort Leavenworth.

Why would a decision on a rooftop in Iraq lead to a prison cell in Kansas? Because of the U.S. military’s rules of engagement (ROE).

ROE and Just Warfare

The ROE for Iraq required both a “reasonable certainty that the proposed target is a legitimate military target” and that civilians could not be targeted “except in self-defense to protect yourself, your unit, friendly forces, and designated persons or property under your control.”

Those who falsely believe that the purpose of the military is “to kill people and break things” may find such ROEs to be not only unnecessary but also counterproductive to warfare. But as Marine Corps Major Wade C. Reaves explains, “The US and the international community derive ROE from the theory Jus In Bello, the morally proper conduct of war, which provides guidance on how combatants will engage the enemy and non-combatants in hostile situations.”

In my last article, we looked at the first main area of the Christian just war tradition that deals with jus ad bellum the moral requirement for going to war. Now we turn to the second area, jus in bello, the criteria for justly engaging in warfare.

The Principles of Jus in Bello

Historically, Christian thinkers have proposed two primary criteria for just execution of war, discrimination and proportionality.

Discrimination – The criterion of discrimination includes two key components, “innocence” and “deliberate attack.” The first rule of just warfare is that we do not target or kill the innocent. In this context, the term innocence refers to whether individuals are able cause direct harm—whether willingly or reluctantly—either to us or to our military forces that are engaged in just warfare. Such people are considered “noncombatants” and are immune from attack because the meet the qualification of innocence.

As the late Christian ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain explained, “Discrimination refers to the need to differentiate between combatants and noncombatants. Noncombatants historically have been women, children, the aged and infirm, all unarmed persons going about their daily lives, and prisoners of war who have been disarmed by definition.”  Lubomir Martin Ondrasek adds that it is important to note that Elshtain’s understanding of this criterion underscores that civilians can never be intentionally targeted by countries in war.

The second component of discrimination is “deliberate attack.” While the innocent may be harmed because of our engaging in warfare, it must not be our intention. In their book, The Just War Tradition: Ethics in Modern Warfare, Charles Guthrie and Michael Quinlan outline three key provisos to meet this standard:

(1) The death of innocents must genuinely not be part of the real purpose of the combat operation, or positively necessary to fulfill the legitimate military objective. It must, in other words, be an unwelcome side effect rather than an intentional targeting.

(2) We must do all that we reasonably can, consistent with not gravely endangering the legitimate military purpose, to minimize the risks of noncombatants to a minimum.

(3) The likely harm to noncombatants must not be out of proportion to the expected military benefit.

Proportionality – The criterion of proportionality in waging warfare is similar to the criterion of “proportionate cause” in deciding to go to war: The good of going to war must outweigh the destruction and death that will be caused by warfare. In other words, going to war must prevent more evil and suffering than it is expected to cause.

As Elshtain explains, proportionality “requires that the nature of one’s coercive force should be proportional to any injury sustained or planned, and that at whatever minimal force can be used to do the job should be deployed.”

There is increasingly becoming an additional requirement for proportionality in modern warfare. As Guthrie and Quinlan note, this factor is the “duty to think carefully about the effect of military operations on the subsequent maintenance of reasonable living conditions and order for the people of the country where the conflict happen.”

This moral requirement after warfare is the latest addition to the tradition of just war theory, and one we’ll take up in our examination of jus post bellum.

Next in the Series: In our next article, we’ll look at the criteria for justly engaging in post-conflict situations.

By / Aug 8

Let me begin by stating that I am a Christian pacifist, meaning that I believe that Jesus really meant what he said about loving enemies, about being a peacemaking prophet like the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, and about the alternative better way that he describes in the Sermon on the Mount.

As his authorities in an article with “Christian Ethics” as part of the title, Brandon James Smith cites the US Constitution, the UN Charter, and a quote from C.S. Lewis denouncing pacifism. His only citation of Jesus is to dismiss his command to love one’s neighbor as naïve or impossible in a fallen world. To quote Jesus once, then say that he can’t have really meant what he said in that quote, does not warrant the title “Christian” ethics.

I recognize that the US or any government cannot be held to the same standards as those who have committed to following Jesus. Nevertheless, Christians should bear witness to our governments in a way that urges them toward the kind of peacemaking that Jesus commanded and away from bloodshed. For this reason, I see the just war theory as a potential tool in limiting violence. In other words, war within limits is preferable to war without limits. On this point Smith and I are in agreement.

While I support the idea of limiting war through just war principles, along with John Howard Yoder I question whether the theory has historically performed the task for which it was designed. Most often, governments act as they please in war (cloaking it in language of self defense) and only attempt to justify their actions after the fact.

Nevertheless, even a mostly ineffective just war theory has some value. The question then is how just war relates to the uses of drones. I see two reasons why the use of drones as they are presently employed cannot be justified under a just war framework.

First, the just war theory assumes that the only proper actor in war is the state, which is given the authority to make decisions about the use of violence. When the enemy is not another state, therefore, the conflict cannot be called a war, and one’s opponents cannot be held to just war standards. We can use terms like crime and policing. But to take a framework designed for states and apply it to an individual or an organization is to enter a game in which the rules apply to one side and not to the other. In such a game, how likely is the former to continue playing by its own rules and to make itself accountable to them? If we more consistently called the current use of drones policing rather than war, would the ratio of civilian deaths to combatants be acceptable?

I also question the forthrightness of Smith’s numbers. His only stated statistic is that “in 2011, the United Nations reported that less than 5 percent of casualties reported with drone strikes were civilians.” The whole picture is much bleaker; the Bureau of Investigative Journalism states that between 2004 and January 2014, 381 drones strikes in Pakistan resulted in civilian casualties closer to 20 percent:

Total reported killed: 2,537-3,646
Civilians reported killed: 416-951
Children reported killed: 168-200
Total reported injured: 1,128-1,557

Second, Smith appears to be looking for a moral line that cannot be crossed, and in the absence of such a line assumes that any technological advancement in weaponry is a positive or neutral one. Yet he begins by acknowledging that drones raise ethical questions because “their use represents a cold, calculated, and often disconnected act of taking the life of an enemy.” His use of the word disconnected is appropriate, rightly seeing that killing a human with a keypad from the safety of a chair is a different sort of thing from facing him on the battlefield.

The very risk of war and what it could entail – one’s own death or injury or that of one’s compatriots – should serve as a strong incentive to pursue peace rather than violence. When that risk is removed, so also is the incentive to seek alternatives.

The result is that people are making decisions about whom to kill from a very great distance away, with significant amounts of risk-free guesswork. In the words of Smith, from their remote situations “pilots and commanders are required to make decisions as to who is a valid target. This is complicated in counterterrorism conflicts because of the ability of terrorist groups to act and look like civilians.” He concludes, “Nevertheless, terrorist enemy combatants are fair targets both ethically and under the law of war because of their actions.”

The calling of every Christian, and of the church, is to be a peacemaker, imagining different sorts of possibilities from the sword that Jesus shunned, and seeing even enemies as loved by God and as potential friends. To dismiss such a calling as naïve is to box in the transformation that God can bring about.

Furthermore, there are concrete examples of such transformation when people meet face to face, with openness to something better than violence. I commend Jonathan Larson’s Making Friends Among the Taliban and Ahmed Haile’s Teatime in Mogadishu as examples of peacemaking set in the very regions where drones buzz through the sky, bringing death from above. There is an alternative to doing nothing, if we are willing to engage the enemy through just peacemaking practices as Jesus taught us.

The view expressed in this commentary belongs solely to the author and is not necessarily the view of the ERLC.

By / Aug 6

The use of unmanned aerial assault vehicles, or drones, to target enemy forces involves no shortage of legal and ethical questions. Their use represents a cold, calculated, and often disconnected act of taking the life of an enemy. There seems to be something different about the use of drones. Americans, and American Christians, are uneasy with an individual pilot controlling an unmanned vehicle from a remote location and attacking an enemy combatant abroad. Fortunately, the wisdom found in the Christian just war tradition speaks to these concerns. The ethical considerations of going to war and using deadly force against an enemy do not change simply because the technological platform affords an additional degree of separation.

The early church fathers, Augustine, Aquinas, and Ambrose, among others, began the ethical and theological inquiry into war. Though there is some inescapable overlap, two areas of just war exist. The first is jus ad bellum, relating to the decision to go to war and jus in bello, which guides practices in war. However, once hostilities begin, there is no point at which belligerents cross a sort of legal or ethical Rubicon whereby they must no longer consider jus ad bellum.

The jus ad bellum analysis seeks to understand when it is morally just to go to war, or participate in war. Typically, this comes down to three basic ethical considerations: just cause, proper authority, and right intention. Fighting terrorism is a just cause. First, Al Qaeda as an actor has declared open war on the United States and its civilians, and has systematically attacked the our country for decades. Second, the goals of terrorism are generally to attack both civilian and military targets in order to undermine social order. Terrorism is wanton destruction of life, indiscriminate and unrestrained.

The question of proper authority requires a two-part analysis of both the Constitution and, less importantly, international law that the U.S. seeks to abide by. The U.S. has legal authority, based upon our own Constitution, to engage in drone strikes against foreign terrorist targets. The Constitution provides some insight as to when the use of force may be used abroad. Article I, section 8, clause 11 contains the war powers clause granting Congress the power to declare war. Congress has done just that when it comes to terrorism. The Authorization for Use of Military Force for the September 11 attackers and their allies serves as the legal basis for U.S. action against terrorist groups abroad. This formal congressional act authorizes the President to direct attacks against Al Qaeda and its allies. Though it may be time to revisit the language of the AUMF, its legal authority is generally accepted as satisfying the congressional declaration of war clause.

Moreover, the international legal framework allows for the United States to defend itself against terrorist groups abroad. Internationally, the use of war and armed conflict is generally prohibited by the United Nations Charter. Signatories of the UN Treaty, of which the U.S. is one, agree to bind themselves to the document. Article 51 of the Charter prohibits the use of force but allows for the use of force by a state for the purposes of individual or collective self-defense. Some question whether or not this right extends only to massive armed aggression. They would claim that is does not apply to defense against non-state actors like terrorist groups. This standard is wrong because it would require a state under prolonged, but low intensity, attack to do nothing in defense of its citizens, borders, or property. The only logical interpretation of Article 51 must allow for states to defend themselves against various forms of attack, including terrorist groups and other non-state actors. Combined, the domestic and international legal analysis concludes that the war on terrorism meets the right authority principle.

Finally, the requirement of right intent warrants serious consideration. J. Dayrl Charles suggests that “unjust war is best illustrated by what does not constitute right intention.” Pride, blood thirst, unnecessary territorial expansion, and national aggrandizement are all examples of unjust war. Right intent would not focus on killing the enemy, but on stoppingthe enemy from doing harm. Here, it is easy to become cynical of the President’s increased use of drones and targeted killings. Some critics suggest that the increased use is merely a way to avoid the difficult questions surrounding detention, interrogation, and legal trials. However, we should not so quickly assume malintent among our military leaders. It is just as possible that the increased use of targeted killings is a more effective and decisive way to win the battle at hand.

The question of intent also demands an intentional effort to recognize the humanity of those at the other end of the drone. It is tempting to justify each strike as seeking some moral end without ever considering the human cost of war. The ability of technology and remote control of the machines of war entice those engaged in war to not consider the ethics of taking a life. The right intent principle is most difficult to determine, and has no clear answer as it relates to the increased use of drones for targeted killings. Thus, the intent of the increased use must continually be evaluated.

Jus in bello doctrine, concerning actions in war, can be distilled to three core principles: distinction, proportionality, and necessity. The distinction principle, which has been codified in various treaties and domestic laws, requires those who use force to distinguish between civilian and military targets. Civilians may not be the object of attack. In the context of targeted killing and the use of drones, pilots and commanders are required to make decisions as to who is a valid target. This is complicated in counterterrorism conflicts because of the ability of terrorist groups to act and look like civilians. Nevertheless, terrorist enemy combatants are fair targets both ethically and under the law of war because of their actions.

The necessity principle restricts the use of force to only those actions not prohibited by law which are required for the defeat of an enemy as soon as possible. It is a question of whether or not a particular action is necessary for the successful completion of the military goal. Targeted killings quickly disrupt leadership groups and training facilities. Each targeted killing or bombing campaign should be limited by the question of whether or not it is needed to complete the objective. The use of targeted killings and drone strikes have primarily focused on individuals or small groups, not villages or large compounds. This implies that the military is making efforts to limit the scope of their attacks.

Finally, jus in bello requires the use of force to be proportional. It does not prohibit the complete avoidance of civilian casualties, nor does the law require such a high standard. It is a requirement that requires actors to follow methods and tactics that avoid civilian casualties as much as possible compared to the scope of the military objective. In 2011, the United Nations reported that less than 5 percent of casualties reported with drone strikes were civilians. Again, this implies that the military is being cautious to not harm civilians. Moreover, the technological advantages of drones allow for more precision that was previously available to military commanders. Drones are, by their very nature, much more limited uses of force than a traditional aerial assault.

There is an ethical obligation to confront evil. Christians living in a democracy play are placed in a particularly difficult moral dilemma. Christians cannot choose to stand on the sidelines and make no decisions concerning the more materialistic aspects of government.

It is crucial for Christians of all stripes to reject the temptation of pacifism. Though alluring, it is merely a mirage. Guenter Lewy, historian and former member of the Jewish Brigade in Germany, argues that those who seek to avoid war may choose to “avoid the moral dilemmas posted by the world of statesmanship and statecraft . . . but they have no right to sacrifice others for this end.” In an essay titled “Learning in Wartime,” C.S. Lewis asserted his rejection of pacifism because of the numerous ethical impediments:

If I tried to become [a pacifist] I should find a very doubtful factual basis, an obscure train of reasoning, a weight of authority both human and Divine against me, and strong grounds for suspecting that my wishes had directed my decision…It may be, after all, that Pacifism is right. But it seems to me very long odds, longer odds that I would care to take with the voice of almost all humanity against me.

The Christian just war tradition rejects the quixotic idealism of the world and embraces the realism of man’s fallen nature. Blind pacifism is not an option.

A discussion of war and faith is incomplete without an analysis of the command to love thy neighbor. It is seemingly impossible to follow Christ’s command to love thy neighbor and also be willing to ethically justify going to war against a neighbor. Yet, though it may be better to turn your other cheek, it is an abdication of duty and love to turn your neighbor’s cheek for them. At times, loving thy neighbor may require reluctantly taking up arms in the effort to achieve a greater social good like peace or justice. Thus, despite the tension, just war can be an act of charity or love of neighbor if aimed at eliminating wanton murder, genocide, nationalism, or other evils. This is not to fall into a trap of moral or theological legalism, which would be a mistake. Neither do good neighbors sit idly by, watching their neighbors suffer. It is a tension, to be sure, but a tension that must be maintained. To take part in violence without properly weighing its morality is as wrong as being the idle neighbor in the face of suffering.

The just war theory empowers Christians with necessary tools to love their neighbors and seek justice. The ethical considerations do not change simply because technology advances. Instead, the application of long-standing ethical principles can be readily applied to the use of drones. Though it is important to not lose the human context of actions resulting from the stroke of a keyboard instead of the stroke of a sword, the principles remain the same. Christians living in free societies must engage in the hard work of weighing the morality of conflict as it arises. There is no abdication of the responsibility to engage in the operations of the state.

The view expressed in this commentary belongs solely to the author and is not necessarily the view of the ERLC.