This is an item I wrote for publication in a local newspaper; it never quite made it, so here we go.
Is Preemptive War Compatible with Christian Doctrine?
By Glenn Layne
In the lead-up to the war in Iraq, President George W. Bush expounded a new doctrine in American foreign and defense policy when he spoke at West Point in the spring of 2002. He stated that the post-911 world did not offer the United States the luxury of waiting to be attacked by an emerging enemy. According to the President, we now live in a time that the first attack may be so devastating, and delivered to civilian populations through a cooperative third party, such as a terror organization like Al Quaeda.
This is not the first time that an American president has put forth a new defensive doctrine in response to changing conditions. The Monroe Doctrine asserted that the Americas were no longer to be colonial playground. Theodore Roosevelt promulgated a new doctrine regarding an open China. The Truman Doctrine stood for containing communism. The Reagan Doctrine meant that containing communism was no longer enough, and that the official policy of the US was the rollback of communism. All these were specific responses to changing world situations.
The Bush Preventative War doctrine is distinctive in that it is a departure from the basic Just War thinking that under-girded the concept of war as waged by American forces. With a few narrow exceptions (the Spanish-American War being one), US forces have only been deployed after an attack, and not for conquest. The most obvious example is the entry of the United States in both world wars: only after either a series of provocations and losses (as in World War I) or after a treacherous attack (Pearl Harbor).
The basic approach taken in justifying US military action was based on the Just War doctrine as developed by St. Augustine in the Fifth Century CE. Obviously, it is a secular version, but Augustine’s formulation is the foundation.
Until Augustine, much of the church was pacifistic. Christian pacifists (many of whole prefer to call their position that of non-resistance, based on Matthew 5:38-48) maintain that pacifism is the original, pristine doctrine of the faith, based on the teachings of Jesus. It is true that most early Christians would have nothing to do with war and the Roman army. The question is, is that non-resistance practiced by early Christian due to the inherent evil of war, or due to the nature of the regime (the Roman empire), which require worship of the emperor as part of its discipline?
Augustine argued the latter. He pointed out that a pacifistic church would necessitate withdrawal from all civic responsibility. For example, take the basic police function. Police work sometimes requires the use of deadly force.
Augustine also notes that the New Testament recognizes that civil government can exercise deadly force in the form of execution (Romans 13:1-7). It is a logical development that conflict between nations may also be seen as a kind of police functions—if there are some rules. Augustine developed these rules—based on Scripture and Christian theology. Just War doctrine does not exalt war as a positive good, but as a necessary tool in a troubled world.
Augustine had seven points of the Just War:
Just cause. Aggression is condemned; only defense is legitimate.
Just intention. The objective of war is peace, not revenge or conquest or gain.
Last resort. War is justified only when all other means have been exhausted.
Formal declaration. The highest authorities of a nation must declare a war.
Limited objectives. War’s objective is the restoration of establishment of peace, not the maximum gain available to the victorious power.
Proportionate means. Only the force needed to achieve the peace is necessary. Total war is ruled out.
Noncombatant immunity. Only military forces and material are legitimate targets: not civilians, not POWs, not casualties.
Just War doctrine has been embraced by the Roman Catholic Church and by the vast majority of Protestant and Orthodox bodies over the last fifteen centuries.
The Bush Doctrine of preventative war appears to go beyond Just War doctrine especially in regards to points 1 and 3: waging war only in response to aggression or attack, and as a last resort. However, these differences are actually rather superficial. Think again of the analogy of a police action. A “tip” may cause a raid against someone who has not yet hurt anyone, or stolen a thing, but who is actively engaged in a plan to inflict harm.
Theologian Harold O.J. Brown wrote in 1981, “By preventative war we mean a war that is begun not in response to an act of aggression, but in anticipation of it. A preventative war intends to forestall an evil that has not yet happened.”
Preventative war, as formulated theologically by Brown, and expressed in a secular manner by President Bush, does not violate the principles of either Just War or even the command of Jesus to love the enemy. Love of an enemy does not in any way condone his actions. It is ultimately an act of love not only for the people of the United States, but for the people imprisoned by the aggressive governments who tyrannize them.
Dr. Glenn E. Layne is Senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Temple City and holds advanced degrees in both theology and political science. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.