Just War Theory, Delivered on April 23, 2017; Matthew 5:43-47

I’m straying from the lectionary today.  I am straying from the lectionary for several reasons.  One is, that today is the Sunday after Easter, when congregation members are usually as hen’s teeth few.  So, I consider this kind of a “free Sunday” for us.  I am also straying from the lectionary because I want to scratch and itch.  For a long time now I have wanted to explore Just War Theory.  I studied Just War Theory in seminary some, but that was a long, long time ago, and I’d like to refresh my memory.  Third, with so many threats of violence going on on the world stage today, Just War Theory is a timely topic for all of us. Should our country be going to war with North Korea?  Was it really ok to drop that MOAB? MOAB.  First time I heard MOAB, I thought it was a Biblical reference —Moab is where Ruth and Naomi lived before moving to Bethlehem. Did you think of that, too?   Now I know, and you know too, that MOAB is military lingo stands for Mother of all Bombs.  Was it ok to drop that MOAB on Syria? These are questions I am asking myself as a Christian, trying to live my faith, and maybe you are asking yourself that, too.

Before we get into this topic, though, I have to apologize.  This subject matter is broad and it’s heavy.  Because that is the case, I have decided to preach this as a two-part sermon series.  What I start this week, will have spill over into next week.  In my 20 year preaching career, I have actually never delivered a two-part sermon, so prayers are in order!

The topic before us, then, is Just War Theory.  What exactly is that? I mean really.  Some people will tell you that just war is an oxymoron.  It’s like jumbo shrimp, liquid gas, or clean dirt.  Can there actually EVER be a just war? Or is ALL war UNjust? 

 Just War Theory.  It actually started out as a Christian PHILosophy, and not a THEOLOGY.  That was back in the 300’s.  It was originally a set of rules of conduct that Bishop Augustine composed.  He was trying to apply Christian ethic to the militarism of the Roman Empire—which was, during his life time, an increasingly Christian Empire, But I am getting ahead of myself.  First we need a little bit of background.

The Jews, our theological ancestors, were a warrior people—you probably already know that. Just read the first five books of the Bible! From early days, they fought like feral cats tied up in a sack. In Exodus, though, we read, what was at the time, an attempt by God, god’s very self, to de-escalate conflicts among his people. God says in Exodus, that the rationale between two feuding parties should NOT be: “OK, you stole my goat, so now I am going to burn down your house and kill all your slaves.” That’s not just. God tells the Jews that in conflict, the punishment should fit the crime. Any violent response to violence should be proportionate.  So, in Exodus we read:  You shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” That was a huge leap in morality for the Jews in the day.

The Jews definitely believed that God had given them the right to wage war, though, and to treat their enemies with cruelty.  To their way of thinking God sanctioned war. After all, hadn’t God given them the land of Israel?  It was their God-given right to inhabit and protect that land. Even today, to some Jews’ minds, a warrior for Israel is a warrior for God. 

Christianity, of course, came out of a Jewish context, but it came about during the Roman Empire.  What was the Roman Empire’s take on war? The Romans, and before them, the Greeks, viewed war as a virtuous and noble pursuit. So, for instance, the great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, said this: “Doubtless, the noblest kind [of courage] is death in battle, for in battle a man is faced by the greatest and most noble of dangers.” Still today we build statues to our military heroes.  You may agree along with Aristotle, that serving in battle for one’s country is a noble pursuit.  And, dying in battle is a virtuous way to die.  

So, again, back when Jesus walked this earth, the Jews believed that fighting a war to protect their homeland was justified.  And, citizens of the Roman Empire believed that fighting in battle was a noble pursuit.  In that climate then, Jesus’ message, was extraordinary.  What?  God loves everyone? What? Turn the other cheek?  What?  We are to live as if the peaceable kingdom is already here, and that it exists among us?

For early Christians, dying in battle was not courageous.  In fact, dying on a battlefield was just the opposite of what Christ taught and lived. It was dying for the faith as martyrs, that was good and respectable and courageous—as martyrs they were following in the steps of Jesus Christ, who died for all of humanity on a cross.

I said that Jesus’ message was extraordinary and it really was-and still is.  Rabbi Ian Wolk, was a friend of mine when I was living in Northern Virginia.  He so looked the part of a Rabbi—a rolly poly man with a long, salt and pepper beard—Anyway, Ian told me, gee, maybe 20 years ago:  “The moral teachings in the New Testament are just a rehash of moral teachings in the Old Testament.” Ian claimed that there was, though, one New Testament passage that was unique to all of scripture.  According to Ian, the one unique moral teaching that distinguishes Christianity from Judaism is this:  Love your Enemy. Lo, these many years, since Ian shared this insight, I have not been able to prove him wrong.

For the first 300 years of Christianity, Christians believed that the peaceable kingdom had arrived.  For that reason, they should turn the other cheek and love their enemies.  They refused to serve in the Roman military.  People today will sometimes say, “It’s against my religion”—you know, I don’t exercise, it’s against my religion—someone told me not too long ago, “I don’t go to church, it’s against my religion.”  Figure that one out!  But serving in the military really WAS against early Christians’ religion. Truth be told, though, in the early days of Christianity, The Roman Empire really didn’t want Christians serving in the military. If their primary loyalty was to Jesus Christ, and not to the Empire, then surely Christians couldn’t be trusted.

Consequently, Christians did not serve in the military.  That is not to say that they were cowards, though. Far from it.  They gave their lives as martyrs, peacefully, sometimes singing hymns or as they prayed, and always forgiving their persecutors.

Things changed though in the year 312.  As I mentioned last week, Constantine and his army had a vision the day before that battle on Milvian Bridge.  Constantine and his troops saw a cross in the sky.  To Constantine this meant that Christ would give them victory over their enemies.  When Constantine actually won that battle and then became Roman Emperor, Constantine gave Christ his due.  Over the course of his rule and after, Christianity became THE religion of the Empire.

But the Empire had a problem.  If the Roman Empire was Christian, and fighting and war was contrary to Christian belief, how could the Empire continue to function?  Roman borders still needed protecting, a rule of law had to be maintained.  Something had to change—what had to change was Christians’ interpretation of Jesus’ message.  There had to be a way to work around “Turn the other cheek, and love your enemies.” That became the task of Bishop Augustine of Hippo.   

Often called Saint Augustine, Augustine of Hippo was an African theologian, and a Roman citizen, who became the Bishop of Hippo, a town in Northern Africa.  He was born a few years after the death of Constantine—that’s just to give you some idea as to his place in history.  As the Empire became increasingly more Christian, it fell to Augustine to figure out how to make Christ’s message fit with war and armies, protecting the Empire, and all the rest. 

Just War Theory was born.

I hope this fact makes you sit up a little taller in your pews.  Just War Theory is actually rooted in our Christian faith.  It is our Christian contribution to the world. Whether or not you believe that all war is evil, whether you believe the opposite, that war has been sanctioned by God, or whether like most of us, you fall somewhere in between--at least we can be proud that Christians, have struggled and are continuing to struggle to establish an ethic for war that is consistent with God’s word —and that is something.   

I have to leave off until next week, sadly, to talk about the finer points of Just War Theory.  I thought I would leave you with some thoughts though, developed by Reinhold Niebuhr.  

            Niebuhr was a Christian ethicist, writer, lecturer, professor. He was born at the end of the 19th century, but he lived until the last half of the 20th century.  He actually saw our country through two World Wars.   He was deeply concerned by our inability to live in peace. He looked around him, and he decided that certainly most human beings are good, or at least most human beings strive to be good. So why do we wage wars? 

He decided that it is when we come together and form gangs, tribes and nations, that we have the capacity and are even motivated to do evil.   He wrote a book, about that, which he titled, Moral Man, Immoral Society.

Later on, Reinhold Niebuhr had a change of heart, though.  He said he should have titled that book:  Immoral Man, MORE Immoral Society.  There are some times, when I wonder, as you probably wonder, how human beings as individuals can do such horrible things to each other.  So, maybe it is true:  immoral man, more immoral society.

Living as we do in Christian community, though, our hope is that here we can be accountable to each other for the lives that we live, the decisions we make.  We can encourage each other to love, yes, to love even our enemies as Christ has commanded us.  We have to believe that is possible. It’s the thing that sets us apart, according to Rabbi Ian Wolk. 

For you as for me.  More next week.  Amen


Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.