By Marcus Borg
January 13, 2007
The Washington Post
As a Christian who seeks to take Jesus seriously, I have an ultimate commitment to non-violence and a reluctant acceptance of the notion of a “just war.”
The reason for the ultimate commitment: I am convinced that Jesus taught non-violence as a way of responding to evil, and that early Christianity for the first three centuries was committed to non-violence. Only near the end of the 300s, when Christianity had become the dominant religion of the Roman Empire, did Christian theologians begin to affirm that there could be a “just war,” meaning both a justifiable war and rules for the conduct of a just war.
A justifiable war must be a war of self-defense as a last resort, after all other means of settling the conflict have failed. The rules for the conduct of a just war include non-combatant immunity (civilians may not be targeted) means proportionate to the ends, the goal. That is, the means must not be more destructive than the good that could be accomplished.
I reluctantly accept that Christian participation in war may sometimes be necessary. The reluctance is grounded to a considerable degree in the realization that the notion of “just war” has most often been used in Christian history to legitimate all wars. For over a thousand years, wars in Europe were fought between Christian nations, with all sides seeing their cause as justified and invoking the blessing of God upon their cause. The notion of a “just war” historically has consistently been subject to manipulation and rationalization.
So it is in the United States in our time. The majority of Christians have been supporters of our war in Iraq. The demographic group with the largest percentage of support for going to war in Iraq in early 2003 was white evangelical Christians, 84% of whom supported it. Perhaps many of them (and perhaps our born-again President) were unaware that Christian teaching about “just war” explicitly prohibits preemptive war, that is, starting a war. But my hunch is that even if they had been aware of this teaching, they would have found reasons for setting the prohibition aside.
Is our war in Iraq unjust? As I see it, yes. It not only violates Jesus’ teaching about non-violent resistance to evil, but also the history of Christian teaching about what a “just war” is.
And was it a mistake? I know few people now who would say it was a good idea. A greater familiarity with Christian teaching about the justifiable reasons for going war might have led Christians to say, “This war is wrong.”
There is virtue in seeing “just war” as the rare exception rather than seeing it as normal, with non-violence as the exception. Especially for American Christians who are citizens of the empire of our time, it is crucial to recover the early Christian emphasis upon non-violence. Imperial violence is almost always wrong. And perhaps the word “almost” should be omitted.