Sermon: Fifth Sunday of Lent, 22 March 2015, St Mary Magdalene, evening: Theology Group – War and Peace 2 – The Just War Tradition

Preacher  Canon Robert Titley

Last Tuesday the nation gave thanks for the life of our former parishioner, Richard Attenborough. The service at Westminster Abbey included sayings of Gandhi, recalling Attenborough’s epic 1982 film, and among them were these words:

There are many causes I would die for. Not one I would kill for. An eye for an eye only turns the whole world blind.

There followed a song based on a chant that Gandhi’s comrades had sung as they marched to the sea to make salt, in defiance of a British ban.

The salt march is an example of the non-passive pacifism which my colleague David Gardiner explored in our previous session. And it worked. It worked in ways that various recent examples of armed action – say in the Arab Spring – have not worked. So my talk tonight is not a rebuttal of David’s claims for the practicality of pacifism. If you have come to hear a counterblast against the peacenik team vicar by the war-mongering team rector (the blood barely wiped from his fangs) you are free to leave now – before the collection.

I agree that claims for the efficacy of armed action can be overblown. I feel chastened myself, having supported air strikes over Libya in 2011, to find that they may now turn out to have been a preliminary bombardment for the ascendancy of the so-called Islamic State. I agree that assertive non-violent action has (as is said of socialism) not so much been tried and found wanting as found difficult and not tried. I further believe that that Christians should be among those who most strive for every possible remedy before that of war. If you believe that a human life – even your enemy’s – is made in the image of God, you will weigh things very heavily before you maim or destroy that life.

So this evening’s thoughts I offer more as complimentary to David’s than contradictory – or better still, consequential, picking things up at the point we reached last time, when we were left with the question, ‘Why not?’ Why not devote as much effort and imagination to non-violent action as is devoted to the armed variety? If we did, who knows what might be achieved? But when resourceful non-violent action is not working, what then?

Gandhi’s civil assault on the British Raj succeeded in part because his adversary was a weary imperial power which cared about world opinion and in which some were already beginning to wonder whether it was now in Britain’s interests that the sun should set on its empire. But what if he had tried the same approach against imperial Japan if it had succeeded in controlling India? Would it have worked? Or if his example were now inspiring the Kurds to deploy it against IS? Would it work? And if not, what then?

Some say that nothing, not even murderous oppression, warrants taking human life. Let us say that is your view. Now – if others say they feel compelled to fight, that it is a lesser evil than the one they face, do you just withdraw from the conversation? Will you not feel compelled to ask them whether, even in their own terms, the course of violence is the best way of achieving their ends? And if fighting does begin, won’t you still have a view about whether it is fought without restraint or with an attempt to keep a measure of humanity even within the inhumanity of war? If your answer to either of these questions is Yes, you have already begun thinking along the lines of the Just War tradition.

Just War thinking arose within the Judaeo-Christian tradition, which has had an ambivalent relationship with war. The earlier strata of the Old Testament describe what seems to be God-sponsored war; and, while the prophets hope for a time when war shall be no more, it is what we call an eschatological hope: it belongs to a time when the drama of human history has taken a decisive turn thanks to the initiative of God. In the New Testament, Jesus in his death is an icon of non-violence, but his teaching is inconclusive. He calls peacemakers blessed, urges his followers to turn the other cheek, and tells his followers to put up their swords when he is arrested. Yet elsewhere he says he has come to bring ‘not peace but a sword’, and tells each follower to acquire one. When he meets a member of the military, Jesus does not tell him that he is in a wicked profession: he has another concern, healing the soldier’s slave. The early church is predominantly pacifist until the emperor Constantine takes Christianity into public ownership (so to speak). Then Christians review their attitudes to the business of the state, and particularly its waging of war, and so there emerges the Just War tradition.

Two health warnings. First, let’s not call it a theory: it is less a worked-out formula than an evolving conversation, grappling with the reality of war while honouring a basic instinct of regard for human life and a conviction that the ways of God have something to say even when war is experienced as an inevitable reality. Second, let’s not misunderstand the word ‘just’. Something described as just is usually something to feel good about, which is never the case with war. General Bernard Rogers, NATO’s supreme commander in the 80s, said that ‘anyone who has ever been in combat knows that war is a bad and stupid way of doing business.’ Better, then, to think instead of ‘just’ war as ‘permissible’ war. That’s closer to the Latin original justus as it was used in this context, meaning ‘legitimate’.

Two names stand out in shaping the tradition, Augustine in the fifth century and Aquinas in the thirteenth, and it is to them we owe the two essential Just War categories, each with its Latin tag: jus ad bellum, when do you have a right to fight? and jus in bello, how do you fight right? The first has six criteria, the second two; and, for action to be legitimate, all must be present to a degree.

You have a right to fight

  1. when there is just cause, such as self-defence or a duty to protect innocents (but not revenge or prestige)
  2. when war is a proportionate response to the wrong suffered (the shooting of an escapee at the Berlin Wall would not have been enough to warrant an attack on East Germany)
  3. when there is right intention – the aim must be make things better than they would be if you had not gone to war
  4. when there is the right authority – whoever declares war must have the authority to do so (that was the big question over the 203 Iraq War)
  5. when there is reasonable prospect of success (which need not mean outright victory)
  6. when war is the last resort

Then, if war is joined, how do you must fight

  1. with discrimination – not deliberately attacking the ‘innocent’, in the Latin sense of innocentes, those who are not doing you any harm (does that include civilians who are munitions workers?)
  2. with proportion – with no more force than is necessary

I am indebted to a short and helpful book on the subject, Just War – The Just War Tradition: Ethics in Modern Warfare, by Charles Guthrie and Michael Quinlan (retired Chief of the Defence Staff and defence mandarin respectively). They describe the essence of the tradition as ‘disciplined pragmatism’ in specific situations. And the tradition still evolves. Some now argue for a third category, embracing the responsibility to prepare for the aftermath of war, or jus post bellum.

Inspired by Christian perceptions, Just War thinking does not depend on specifically Christian faith or even on believing in God. And while there is nothing really like it either in Judaism or Islam, there is nothing within it that need be incompatible with either faith. But are you convinced? Writing after the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, Giles Fraser, columnist and now parish priest in our diocese, said this

throughout history it is hard to recall a single act of violence that has been halted because a proposed action did not meet the set criteria for a Just War. On the other hand, the Just War tradition is frequently invoked by politicians and their intellectual poodles as a means of making war happen.

He quoted approvingly the words of American theologian Stanley Hauerwas that ‘Just War ought to make as much sense to Christians as just adultery’.

Well, what do you think? We can agree with Fraser that ‘all war is a form of moral failure’, but if the Just War tradition can inform the instincts of leaders and fighters, might it help the immorality of war sometimes be avoided; or, failing that, at least pursued in a less immoral way? When resourceful non-violent action has failed, if not Just War, then what?



These notes, drawn largely from Guthrie & Quinlan, were to prompt the subsequent discussion. They include references to conflicts where British forces were, or might have been, committed.


Jus ad bellum – what gives you a right to fight?

1.  Just cause

Iraq 1991, Kosovo 1998, Rwanda 1994

Responsibility to protect: Sierra Leone 2000

Pre-emption: Israel 1967, Afghanistan 2001

2.  Proportionate response

Estimating complex futures

“Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter.” ~ Churchill

Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968, Viet Nam 1964, Falklands 1982, Iraq 2003

3.  Right intention

Intentions may differ from motives – A-bombs 1945; Iraq 1991, 2003;

4.  Right authority

UN Charter 1945 – Korea 1950, Iraq 1991, Iraq 2003, Darfur 2003; NATO in Kosovo 1998

5.  Reasonable prospect of success

Finland vs USSR 1940, Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968

6.  Last resort

If time is against you: Falklands 1982, Iraq 1991


Jus in bello – how do you fight right?

  1. Discrimination

Civilian contributors? Bomber Command 1942-45

Reluctant conscripts? Falklands 1982, Iraq 1991

Dual-use facilities? Iraq 1991, Serbia 1999


Deliberate attack vs ‘collateral damage’

Aircrew safety vs bombing accuracy – Kosovo 1999

  1. Proportionality

Good achieved vs harm incurred

Combatants deployed among civilians – Afghanistan 2001, Iraq 2003


Jus post bellum? – how do you win peace?

Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq

About Canon Robert Titley

Robert became Team Rector in 2010. In November 2015 he takes up a new post as Canon Treasurer of Salisbury Cathedral.
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