Just War (The Just War Doctrine)

Vol. 1 of the Leonine edition of the works of ...
Vol. 1 of the Leonine edition of the works of St. Thomas Aquinas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Just War doctrine relates to the notion that, in certain circumstances, war may be ethically justified for reasons of personal, national or religious self-defense. This has nothing to do with a disturbed individual taking on the role of “savior” of humanity through horrific and irrational acts of violence, as we’ve recently seen, for instance, in Norway.

With no direct New Testament scriptural support for the idea of a Just War, Catholic Tradition endorses it. St. Augustine supports the Just War on the basis of numerous holy wars portrayed in the Old Testament. The Middle Ages endorsed it in the Inquisitions. And the most recent Catholic Catechism cites St. Thomas Aquinas, who condones killing as a legitimate form of self defense, be that personal or national (1995: p. 604).

The contemporary understanding of the Just War speaks to the organized killing, when absolutely necessary, of other human beings on the wrong side of the religious or political fence. All peaceful solutions have failed, the enemy poses some kind of grand scale threat and there is a reasonable expectation of victory. Most theologians, for instance, would agree that Hitler and the Nazi’s simply had to be stopped.

Similarities and Differences in non-Christian Religions

In Islam, the notion of Jihad might point to a uniquely Islamic understanding of a kind of ‘Just War’ doctrine (although it would not be called a Just War because that is a uniquely Christian concept). And in Hinduism, the Baghavad-Gita endorses killing in keeping with one’s moral duty to uphold the apparently sacred dharma. While it may be hard for many to see what these two forms of war have to do with self-defense, an intellectual argument could probably be made within each religion to try to convince others that these kinds of war are about self-defense. One, of course, doesn’t have to agree. And God knows the truth of the matter.

Meanwhile, Buddhist scriptures speak of peace and non-violence, and Buddhism is often hailed as a non-violent path. But Moojan Momen points out that scriptural, philosophical and folkloric justifications for violence exist in the Buddhist tradition (Moojan Momen, The Phenomenon of Religion: A Thematic Approach, Oxford: Oneworld, 1999, p. 410). Bernard Faure also says that Buddhist doctrine has often been adapted to justify war (Bernard Faure, “Buddhism and Violence,” Sangam.org, December 6, 2003). And John Ferguson draws on scripture, legend and history to outline five justifications for war in the Buddhist tradition (War and Peace in the World’s Religions, London: Sheldon Press, 1977, pp. 55-57).

For more on world religions and violence, see “Collisions of Religion and Violence: Redux” at Crosscurrents.org, Summer 2001.


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