Today we citizens of the United States celebrate Independence Day. As an American it is a good day. While my country is not perfect it isn’t bad for a sovereign State run by mere mortals. I’d much rather be here than North Korea or Iran. But as a Christian it is always difficult to celebrate something that had to be secured through the bloodshed of fellow humans, especially if it can be shown it doesn’t fall under the auspices of classical just war theory.
That is not to say that I think highly of just war theory, but at least it plugs the dam before there is even more destruction.
On Mondays I usually share some excerpt of thought from the ancient world. It has often been the case that I find worthwhile content in the writings of Cicero. Today I will appeal to this philosopher-politician once again.
What did Cicero say about what we call “just war”? In De Officiis I.11.34-35 he writes the following:
Then, too, in the case of a state in its external relations, the rights of war must be strictly observed. For since there are two ways of settling a dispute: first, by discussion; second; by physical force; and since the former is characteristic of man, the latter of the brute, we must resort to force only in case we may not avail ourselves of discussion. The only excuse, therefore, for going to war is that we may live in peace unharmed; and when the victory is won, we should spare those who have not been blood-thirsty and barbarous in their warfare. For instance, our forefathers actually admitted to full rights of citizenship the Tusculans, Acquians, Volscians, Sabines, and Hernicians, but they razed Carthage and Numantia to the ground. I wish they had not destroyed Corinth; but I believe they had some special reason for what they did — its convenient situation, probably — and feared that its very location might some day furnish a temptation to renew the war. In my opinion, at least, we should always strive to secure a peace that shall not admit of guile. And if my advice had been heeded on this point, we should still have at least some sort of constitutional government, if not the best in the world, whereas, as it is, we have none at all. Not only must we show consideration for those whom we have conquered by force of arms but we must also ensure protection to those who lay down their arms and throw themselves upon the mercy of our generals, even though the battering-ram has hammered at their walls. And among our countrymen justice has been observed so conscientiously in this direction, that those who have given promise of protection to states or nations subdued in war become, after the custom of our forefathers, the patrons of those states.
I am no scholar of U.S. history, but it doesn’t seem that our fight for independence qualifies in the eyes of Cicero. There was likely more time and space for discussion and “taxation without representation” hardly qualifies as something preventing peace. In that sense our nation was born by means of an unjust war.
In I.11.36 he adds, “As for war, humane laws touching it are drawn up in the fetial code of the Roman People under all the guarantees of religion; and from this it may be gathered that no war is just, unless it is entered upon after an official demand for satisfaction has been submitted or warning has been given and a formal declaration made.” We did do this.
In I.11.37 he says that anyone who is not legally a soldier (i.e. has taken an oath) should not participate in warfare. This disqualifies normal day-to-day citizens from participating in the war. In some sense it should protect them as well.
This is part of the reason why pacifist scoff as those who propose that this or that war may be a “just” war. If we look at Cicero’s writings, and later those of thinkers like Augustine or Aquinas, it would seem that modern warfare cannot be engaged justly. All wars in our world are unjust because the nature of modern warfare has intensified greatly. Unless, of course, we broaden the definition of just war to include even more causes for going to war, but you see where this leads.
What do you think of the War for Independence? Was it a “just” war?
A guy I follow on Twitter (@KurtWillems) wrote a post about this the other day: http://www.thepangeablog.com/2011/06/27/just-jesus-and-unjust-july-4th/
After reading his thoughts, I’m not sure. Would it fit Cicero’s definition? Like you say, probably not. But is it what the Colonies needed? Sometimes I wonder if we should think of the Revolutionary War not simply to counter British oppression, but rather to establish a nation for the future (as it did). What I mean is maybe the first war against the British had in mind the future generations of the Colonies – beyond their contemporary issues of taxation and such. Food for thought anyhow…
Jeremy: I am sure that the war was inspired by a vision of what a nation could become freed from British rule, but that doesn’t justify it at that time. Imagine if Texas or California had that vision now. We’d be hard pressed to see it as a justified war against the rest of us, even if two hundred years from now it turned out quite well.
I try to view things like these through the eyes of God. God does things for a reason. Sometimes He raises up a nation and sometimes He brings one down. I believe that some of the “democratization” in the middle east is a way the Lord uses to usher in the Gospel. The Gospel has to be preached in all the land and this could be the vehicle to do it. God knows.
Mitchell: This is true, but even in the prophets when God uses a nation for his purposes he also holds them accountable for their actions. So while God may use the US for various things this doesn’t mean we are not responsible if we do things wrongly. Do you agree?
Of course. I was just stating that sometimes God MAY have us invade a country because He has a specific goal in mind. And it may not be the one we have for invading.
Comments are closed.