Just vs. Justified War

At the AAR Annual Meeting, there was a well-attended debate on the subject: “Just War Theory Versus Just Peacemaking Theory: Which Produces the Better Answer to Terrorism?” The debate was between Jean Bethke Elshtain, author of Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World (Basic Books, 2004), and Augustine and the Limits of Politics (Notre Dame, 1998) and Glen Harold Stassen, author of Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace (Westminster John Knox) and editor of Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices to Abolish War (Pilgrim Press, 1998 and 2004).

I was unable to attend the debate, but I want to comment briefly on the title in light of an insight I gained from George Hunsinger in my current course with him on a theology of nonviolence. The insight is this: there is a significant difference between “just” and “justified” which we must keep in mind in order to understand the term “Just War.” To call an action “just” is to say that this action contributes to justice—i.e., something positive is ascribed to this action. A just act is one that contributes to the right ordering of the world; it moves society towards a positive, peaceful telos. To call an action “justified,” however, is to affirm that there is a legitimate reason for carrying out this action. A “justified” action is not a positive contribution to the world but rather, at best, a necessary action. Such an action may be negative, in fact, though still necessary according to the particular historical circumstances. Something may be “justified” with being “just”—there may be rational, legitimate reasons for acting thusly, even though the action itself may not be one that contributes toward the realization of “the best of all possible worlds.”

Along with Prof. Hunsinger, I would want to suggest that a war may possibly be justified, but war in general is never just. The term “Just War” cannot mean that this or that war is actually an event contributing to the divine ordering of the world in accordance with the gospel; it can only mean that this or that war is justified based on certain strict criteria. (Of course, I presuppose the idea that justice is only properly defined for the Christian by the gospel of Jesus Christ.) Thus, I wish to suggest further that the title of the debate is quite misleading. The word “just” is used to describe both war and peacemaking, and this is misleading because the former is only ever “justified” while the latter is “just”—the former is negative though necessary, while the latter is positive and unnecessary (meaning it is done freely as an act of conscious or principle, not as an act of external necessity).

Now as to the actual content of the debate, I will not offer any arguments here. Suffice it to say, a strict adherence to traditional “Just War” criteria would be more than sufficient to rule a high majority of wars throughout history quite “unjust.” And, to be honest, such criteria render modern warfare a near impossibility. Surely events like the dropping of the atomic bomb cannot find any inkling of support, nor would the Iraq War have any rational or moral basis. That said, my vote is with just peacemaking.


Glen tells me that the debate was not recorded, but he will be publishing his paper.
Geoff Dargan said…
I'm a newbie... came across your blog via the Faith and Theology blog, and have been enjoying the postings... keep up the good work!

I appreciate the distinction made here between "Just" and "Justified"... I agree that no war can be deemed "Just." It brings to mind some thoughts I've been considering related to a Pentateuch class I've been taking... it seems there is a direct correlation in the OT between human warfare and God's judgment upon the sin of all nations, including Israel. It's almost as though God uses humanity to judge humanity, even on a national level.

If this is the case, our desire to wage warfare should be greatly tempered by the sobering thought that our sin (in America) is just as great, and sooner or later judgment will fall upon us. H. Richard Niebuhr wisely stated that the first thing a country should do prior to warfare is fall on their faces, repent of their own sin, and beg for mercy, because surely they are going to be held responsible as well. Perhaps if this attitude was taken seriously, wars would exponentially decrease.

Haven't read any of Stassen's books yet, but I'm sure I will in next quarters Ethics class. Looking forward to it.