TLC: Think like a Christian

Unholy War

What just war theory requires us to believe about Jesusjeff_schooley_headshot_medium250

By Jeffrey Schooley

At the 222nd General Assembly the Peacemaking and International Issues Committee addressed the long-contentious issue of the Just War tradition in Christianity. A recent guest column speaks to some of this deliberation.

The concept of a just war and the theological implications built into it has been vexing Christians for centuries. Just war theory attempts to lay out criteria of going to war (Jus ad bellum) and criteria for actions within war (Jus in bello) that stay within the realm of Christian righteousness. For example, just war theory says that war must be a last resort, declared by a competent authority, and must be proportional – both to the hoped-for gains and the means by which the war is fought. For example, a country cannot declare war if there are still diplomatic options available to avoid war. A war cannot be declared by an authority other than the one granted such power in a given society. And a war cannot be declared to correct minor injustices. Sexism is, for example, a terrible scourge and countless women around the world are quite negatively impacted by abuses of all sorts. America, however, could not fulfill the obligation of proportionality in declaring war on a country with institutional sexism because the injustices of war are considered greater than the injustices of sexism.

What justifies war? See what Presbyterians think.

Before I begin, let me make it clear that I do not think Christians must be pacifists. I do not think this, because I do not think “pacifist” is a useful identity marker. Christians must be Christian. The real question is this: What sort of violence and non-violence benefits a Christian in being a Christian? This question is the first place of contention with just war theory.

Notice the significant differences in orientation here. I want to explore what moves us closer to the center of our faith. Just war theory asks what is permissible enough that keeps us from toppling out of the faith.

 How are we oriented?
Imagine Christ as a dot in the very center of a piece of paper sitting on your desk. Now imagine your life as an arrow. My question encourages us to try to orient our arrow toward the center. Just war theory points the arrow toward the edge of the paper and asks how far it has to go before it becomes graffiti on the desk.

This orientation question is more than a rhetorical point, however. It also implicitly testifies to the type of Christ we have at the center. The just war theory sees Christ as a regulator; He keeps things from going too far. This is a Christ as judge and jury (and presumably executioner). This is not the Christ that comes for companionship with his creation, who draws us to himself, and who dies on its behalf. Our “orientation arrows” betray our very real theological assumptions.

Moving beyond this particular arrow imagery, just war carries with it even weightier theological claims – some of which are heresy.

What is our goal?
Behind any action ought to be the question: What is my end goal here? Asking about ends is a very Christian activity – or, at least, has been since the Westminster Catechism began with the question: What is the chief end of humankind?

Interestingly, in whatever circumstance this question is asked – what is the chief end of humankind… in war… in sex… in recreation… at my job – the answer is always the same: To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

Now, I am well aware, that such simplicity is easily dismissed rhetorically. I’m just a big, fat sitting target from every angry  exclaimation of, “Yeah, well, how are you going to glorify God when ISIS is trying to bomb your church?” But let’s not presume that simplicity is sinful (nor that “sophistication” is holy).

Many of us assume that ISIS is not seeking to genuinely glorify God with its violence. But there’s the rub: Even if our enemies don’t ask whether their actions will glorify God or answer the question differently than we might, we Christians still have to ask ourselves: Does our response glorify God?

In short, the means determine the ends. Christians cannot use God-less means – that is, failing to ask about the end goal – and hope to achieve Godly ends. We need to ask, What did Jesus do?

What did Jesus do?
To be sure, on the night of His arrest, Jesus faced a very similar question: How can the death of the Son of Man glorify God and enjoy Him forever? We need to follow Jesus as he chooses the cross. We need to acknowledge that life by any means possible can be worse than death – when the conversation is framed by glorifying God.

It is incumbent upon just war advocates to explain this course of action in terms of how it glorifies God. Even Augustine – the progenitor of the just war tradition – tries his darnedest to root war in love. A long, large debate rages on about whether he did this well and whether such a thing is possible, but we needn’t engage that. Instead, we need to return to the cross.

On the cross, Christians confess that all sin was hung up to die. He who was without sin became sin for us. And in Christ’s resurrection, Christians confess that sin and death were – once and for all – conquered, allowing sinful humanity to come back into communion with its creator and requiring it to be transformed into a new creation. We participate in becoming this new creation by denying any attempt to control the future of the world’s justice, love, or peace that does not put what has already happened on the cross at the center of our acting. No war has ever brought about peace. The cross has. The decision should be easy.

When the just war theory decides that violent actions are necessary, it denies the “once and for all-ness” of the cross and Christ’s resurrection. It implies that some sins must still be eradicated by force. It testifies to an incomplete cross. It proclaims that neither Justice nor shalom were achieved in Jesus and, therefore, some bullets and bombs are still necessary to bring about this justice and peace.

This is heresy. This is as God-less as any terrorist action. Using one’s life (and another’s death!) to proclaim the insufficiency of Jesus’ death and resurrection profanes God and denies how God has created and re-created the world in Jesus Christ.

Jeffrey A. Schooley is a teaching elder at Center Presbyterian Church in McMurray, Pennsylvania. He is also a PhD candidate in Theology at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Biking, Netflix, reading, teaching, and spending time with his wife and dog round out the rest of his life. He can be reached at