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Atheists In Foxholes

Christians In Uniform

By Mister Thorne

In a speech after the attack on the World Trade Center, speaking of a war on terrorism, President Bush said, "We cannot know every turn this battle will take, yet we know our cause is just ." In his State of the Union message earlier this year, referring to war against Iraq, the president said, "We will fight in a just cause and by just means."

Just Cause? That was the name of the military operation that President Bush, the Elder, authorized in 1989 to 'liberate' the people of Panama, an action that resulted in the deaths of thousands of unsuspecting civilians during the arrest of one man. Little more than a year later, the elder President Bush was talking about another military operation, this time to drive the Iraqi army out of Kuwait. In a speech he gave in January 1991, he said, "The war in the Gulf is not a Christian war, a Jewish war, or a Muslim war - it is a Just war." Sounding like a Muslim cleric, he said, "God willing, this is a war we will win."

Just War? And just what is a just war? The concept was described over 1,500 years ago by one Aurelius Augustinus, better known to us today as Saint Augustine. A convert to Christianity, Augustine argued there was never any justification for one individual to kill another, not even under threat of death. But this limitation did not apply to nations. The rulers of nations, he argued, have an obligation to their subjects to maintain peace, and this obligation gives them the right to wage war. "The natural order conducive to peace among mortals demands that the power to declare and counsel war should be in the hands of those who hold the supreme authority." Accordingly, the ruler's subjects have a responsibility to wage war when they are called to do so. The just motive for war? Peace. Augustine wrote, "we go to war that we may have peace." Isn't warfare wrong? According to Augustine, "war is the result of sin, and war is the remedy for sin."

In Augustine's time, Christians were considered pacifists, unfit for warfare as a consequence of their peculiar religious beliefs. Many became martyrs in the cause of peace. There was Saint Maximilian, a young Christian who, in 295 CE, was executed for refusing to join the Roman army. He said, "I cannot serve in the military; I cannot do wrong; I am a Christian." There was Saint Marcellus, a centurion who converted to Christianity. In 298 CE, he was executed after he said that he would serve only Jesus Christ, that he could no longer wage war. There was Saint Martin of Tours, an officer in the Roman army who converted to Christianity. On the eve of a battle around 340 CE, a battle to defend the empire against the invading Teutons, he told the emperor that he could no longer fight; his religion forbade it. The emperor accused Martin of cowardice, and so Martin volunteered to face the enemy unarmed except for the sign of the cross. He was thrown into prison. The next day, the enemy surrendered without a fight. Martin was excused from military service.

Augustine helped to convert Christianity from a pacifist religion to one that would succeed the Roman Empire. Before long, the leader of the medieval world order would be leading its own battles (the Crusades) and executing people for such things as translating the Bible into English (William Tyndale), or for suggesting that the Sun was not the center of the universe (Giordano Bruno).

The next major advancement in Just War theory is attributed to Saint Thomas Aquinas. In his Summa Theologica, Aquinas detailed three conditions for a Just War: proper authority, just cause, and right intent. The proper authority was the head of state, responsible for the welfare of the citizens. Aquinas found justification for this in Saint Paul's letter to the Romans, where Paul writes "obey the government, for God is the one who put it there. All governments have been placed in power by God," and, "whoever opposes the existing authority opposes what God has ordered, and anyone who does so will bring judgment on himself." If the government says go to war, you go to war.

Aquinas also considered what is just cause for going to war: "those who are attacked should be attacked because they deserve it on account of some fault." As for right intent, Aquinas presented two possibilities: to further some good, or to avoid evil.

After Aquinas, other Christian writers elaborated on his three Just War conditions. Later, the Catholic scholars Francisco de Vitoria (who, in 1536, argued that the natives of the Americas were not inferior to Europeans and should not be enslaved), Francisco Suarez (Jesuit theologian and philosopher), and Hugo Grotius (widely considered the father of modern international law) formalized the theory. These scholars retained the conditions set forth by Aquinas, but they added two more: war must be fought as a last resort and in a proper manner (e.g., without the wanton killing of innocents).

In the formal theory, there are two types of wars: defensive and aggressive. The defensive war occurs when one nation defends itself from attack by another. This type of war 'needs no moral justification;' nations have a natural right to defend themselves and their way of life. The aggressive war occurs in response to some offense other than direct attack, as when a nation refuses to abide by a UN resolution. It is this type of war that needs to be justified; the requirements for a Just War apply only to aggressive wars.

The Catholic church has since refined the theory, which now consists of the following:

  • Just Cause: war may be used only to preserve the existence of, or correct a massive violation of the basic rights of, whole populations;
  • Legitimate Authority: only duly constituted public authorities may wage war;
  • Right Intent: force may be used only in a truly just cause and solely for that purpose;
  • Last Resort: force may be used only after all peaceful alternatives have been exhausted.
  • Comparative Justice: the wrong to be righted must be of such magnitude that warfare is justified;
  • Probability of Success: war may not be used to fight a futile cause;
  • Proportionality: the overall destruction expected in war must be outweighed by the good to be achieved.

Those are the conditions for going to war (the Jus ad Bellum). In addition, there are regulations for how war is waged (the Jus in Bello). These include the following:

  • Proportionality: the response to aggression must not exceed the destructiveness of the original aggression;
  • Discrimination: non-combatants must not be the target of attack.

These are the elements of the formal 'Christian ethic of war' of the Catholic church. What's interesting in all of this is that the ethic is based not on the teachings of Jesus, but on other considerations. As the US Council of Bishops noted in 1983 in The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response, a paper that considers the theory of Just War in considerable detail, "Faith does not insulate us from the challenges of life." Warfare is certainly such a challenge.

Augustine and Aquinas founded Just War theory on a few lines from a letter, Saint Paul's letter to the Romans. It is based on Paul's advice (given in Romans 13) to the Christians in Rome that they should obey the authorities. Why? Because all governments, including that of Rome, are ordained by God; if you disobey the government, you disobey God. By extension, if the government sends you off to war, that is your duty.

Paul's advice to obey the Romans was for the sake of the new religion that Paul was trying to establish throughout the world. The Christians of his time were pacifists who refused to fight war. (Like the Hippies of the 1960s who refused to fight in Vietnam, primitive Christians believed Christ prohibited them from waging war.) That was bad enough in the eyes of the Romans, but what was worse was that the Christians went out of their way to insult the state religion and to disrupt official religious ceremonies. That was a bit much for the authorities. Paul's advice was to conform. If the Christians didn't cool it, the Romans would kill them, and it would be pretty hard for Paul to establish much of a church and attract converts.

Paul's letter had some effect. Over time, the new religion gained many converts. In 312 CE, Emperor Constantine became a convert, and the next year, he issued the Edict of Milan, granting Christians religious freedom and making Sunday the official day of worship. A challenge of life had been settled with some pragmatism.

Augustine followed the tradition of pragmatism established by Paul. He welded the sword of a fallen empire to the philosophy of a prophet. He helped change the new religion from one of a pacifism not suitable for this world into one that the greatest army ever known is ready to carry into battle once again. The army assembled by the US against Iraq may be multicultural, but it is still Christian. It has a Christian god on its side, a Christian Commander in Chief, Christian chaplains in its ranks, and Christian soldiers ready to fight. Or does it?

Today, the church in Rome stands by its Just War theory, even though it says that this war against Iraq does not meet the requirements of a Just War. The pope has repeatedly voiced his opposition to the war. He called for Christians around the world to observe Ash Wednesday as a day of fasting and prayer for peace. He sent an envoy to meet with the president on Ash Wednesday and to deliver a letter pleading against war. Ari Fleischer, the president's spokesman, said the president would not be influenced by the pope. And Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, has said she cannot understand how anyone could consider war against Iraq immoral.

The pope is not alone. In a letter to President Bush, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote, "We respectfully urge you to step back from the brink of war." The Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church said, "I do not believe such a war can be justified under the historic principles of 'just war'." The General Secretary of the United Methodist Church said, "It is inconceivable that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior and the Prince of Peace, would support this proposed attack." United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert, appearing in a television commercial, asserts that an attack on Iraq "violates God's law and the teachings of Jesus Christ." The General Secretary of the National Council of Churches wrote, "Pre-emptive military action now being contemplated by the Administration cannot be morally justified."

Others see it differently. In a letter to the president in support of war against Iraq, a group of conservative Christians including James Kennedy and Charles Colson, wrote, "we believe that your policies are both right and just are prudent and fall well within the time-honored criteria of just war theory ." Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says war with Iraq is well justified. "If you are looking for just cause, we have already passed that threshold."

And there are the Sunday morning, TV evangelists who read the Old Testament and conclude that God favors war, even preemptive war. They read Paul's letter and conclude that when the nation calls you to military service, it's your duty to fight for your country. They read the Gospels and conclude that Jesus is not opposed to war, that peace justifies violence. Billy Graham has said, "There comes a time when we must fight for peace." The TV evangelist Charles Stanley recently sermonized on the issue. "God approves of war," and hates peaceniks, he said. And he challenged those who believe war is wrong, always wrong. "When someone says to you, 'God is against all war,' ask them, 'where is that in the Bible?' It is not in the scriptures."

It used to be different. Pagans turned Christian had a different understanding of their religion of choice. As Maximilian put it, "I am a Christian and cannot fight." As Martin put it, "I am a soldier of Christ; it is not lawful for me to fight." As Tertullian put it, "When Christ disarmed Peter in the garden, he disarmed all Christians." As Lactantius put it, "It can never be lawful for a righteous man to go to war, since his warfare is in righteousness itself." As Cyprian put it, "Christians are not allowed to kill, but they must be willing to be put to death." These were men who - unlike our president - chose their religion. And they consciously chose to heed the teachings, even to sacrifice their lives for their religion.

There's an old saying about there not being any Atheists in foxholes, the idea being that - once the shooting starts - everyone is ready to turn to God. I don't know who came up with this saying, but I suspect it was someone who didn't appreciate that - once the shooting starts - it is the desire for survival itself that consumes a soldier, that there is no time for pondering theology, or the meaning of Luke 22, or whether the gods give one hoot about people in foxholes or their causes.

No Atheists in foxholes? A much stronger argument can be made: there are no Christians in uniform.


Author: Mister Thorne is a writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He writes a monthly column on Religion in the News.

To contact him, send e-mail to:


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