Just and unjust war

The Reverend Dr Michael Hull writes:

The Russian Federation under President Vladimir Putin instigated an unjust war on 24 February 2022 against Ukraine. Most of the world spoke out against the injustice whilst Patriarch Kirill preached in Russia’s favour on 6 March and Pope Francis, meeting online with Patriarch Kirill on 16 March, said that all wars are unjust. Both have missed the mark by confusing supernatural revelation (doctrine) with natural revelation (reason). There is no such a thing as a holy war, but there is such a thing as a just war: Ukraine is fighting one; Russia is not. Justice is not a matter of Christian doctrine, but of human reason. Kirill and Francis should support Ukraine’s just war against Russia.

St Augustine of Hippo’s articulation of just-war theory has stood the test of time. The saintly bishop, however, did not invoke Holy Scripture, but right reason. Augustine borrowed insight from his secular forebears, particularly Cicero, to outline criteria for a just war. These criteria were later developed by several thinkers and for the most part remain the foundation of present-day international law on the matter. A war can only be said to be just when (1) there is a just cause, that is there is an attempt to right a wrong suffered, essentially self-defence; (2) a war is the last resort, that is all peaceful means have been exhausted or are unachievable; (3) a war is properly declared, that is there is a legitimate authority to discern the need for and to wage war; (4) a war with the intention to (re)establish peace, that is to achieve the just cause as its primary objective, without the intent to advance other ends; (5) a war has a reasonable chance of success, that is it is possible to achieve its ends; and (6) a war is proportionate, that is the ends of the war are weighted against the means of pursuing the war. There is no Christian doctrine against just war. Jesus himself did not condemn soldiering (Luke 3.14), one of the earliest converts was a ‘devout soldier’ (Acts 10.7) and St Paul acknowledges the just use of force by legitimate authorities (Romans 13.4).

Let us take an example of just and unjust war in living memory. On 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Germany’s was an unjust war. On 3 September, the United Kingdom declared war on Germany. Britain’s was a just war. On 7 December 1941, the Empire of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Japan’s was an unjust war. On 11 December 1941, the United States declared war on Japan. America’s was a just war. On the same day, Germany declared war on the United States. Again, Germany’s was an unjust war. One may debate the whys and wherefores of the Second World War, but right reason shows, and history confirms, that the Allies were in the right and the Axis in the wrong. That is not to say that every action on the part of the Allies was therefore just, for instance, the practice of area bombing against Germany or the use of the atom bomb against Japan, but it is to say the Allies stood on the side of the angels. However, to say that a war is ‘just’ is not to say it is ‘good’. Just war is a necessary evil. Every war is an ontic evil; every war is the result of imperfection in human society because of sin. Sin will be with us until the Lord Jesus’s second coming ‘when all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all’ (1 Corinthians 15.28). In the meantime, there will be unjust war and violence that ought to be resisted with whatever force, even armed and military force, that is necessary to stop it and restore true peace.

Ukraine and those allied with her are engaged in a just war as is evidenced by right reason. Sentiments to the contrary miss the mark. They risk undermining Ukraine’s just cause of self-defence and submitting to authoritarians like Putin. Sentiments that fail to see that true peace is more than the absence of war miss the mark in understanding what Augustine calls a tranquillitas ordinis, a ‘tranquil order’, where justice is upheld, human dignity is defended, and freedom abounds. To establish a tranquil order, we are meant to work for justice wherein it may be necessary to use the force of arms to establish a just and equitable peace. Thus, without peace in our time, our prayer and work ought to be directed to halting Russia’s unjust war and establishing a world-wide tranquil order wherein Ukraine’s national sovereignty is fully restored.

The Reverend Dr Michael Hull has been Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s since 2015. He is Director of Studies at the Scottish Episcopal Institute.

St Vincent's Chapel, Edinburgh, the village church at the heart of the city.