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Loving Your Neighbor

Just War and Charity


In the weeks and months following September 11, not every American supported retaliation against the perpetrators of the terrorist attacks. The minority of Americans who have opposed military actions included some radical activists and some people who, while they condemned the attacks, believed violence only begets more violence.

The latter group are pacifists, and I respect their sincerity. Many of them believe they are acting out obedience to the Gospel. The best-known Christian pacifists are Quakers and Anabaptists like the Mennonites and United Brethren, but there are pacifist strains within all Christian traditions.

One pacifist response to September 11 was that of Rev. Joseph Kotva of the First Mennonite Church of Allentown, Pennsylvania. He told the city's newspaper, "We believe all [retaliation] does is escalate the violence. Someone has to have the courage to say that [the violence] stops here."

Rev. Kotva's words illustrate the basic pacifist argument against the use of force. In their worldview, the use of force is antithetical to loving your neighbor as yourself. Love and war are never compatible. And while I respect the conviction of honest pacifists, I believe they're missing an important part of the picture.

A critical principle of just war is "right intentions." Wars that are fought to take what doesn't belong to us or expand our borders or for revenge are unjust wars. But war can be fought with good intentions.

As Darrell Cole, a professor at William & Mary, argued in a recent issue of First Things, the failure to fight a just war may be a failure to love. He wrote: "We . . . fight just wars because they're acts of charity. [Fighting just wars] . . . is something Christians ought to do out of love for God and neighbor . . . "

What makes a just war an act of love? It brings justice, restrains evildoers, and promotes the peace and well-being of the community. In the case of the War on Terrorism, our soldiers fight to promote the peace and well-being of the entire world. Ridding the world of terror -- by just means -- is a good and loving act.

This has always been the understanding behind Just War. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologica puts his discussion of just war in his chapter on charity, the love of God and neighbor. Aquinas applauded those who wielded the sword in protection of the community. And, regarding retaliation, Aquinas wrote that "retaliation should be sought out of the love of justice."

John Calvin agreed with Aquinas. He called the soldier an "agent of God's love," and he called soldiering justly a "God-like act." Why? Because "restraining evil out of love for neighbor" is an imitation of God's restraining evil out of love for His creatures.

A world where Christians refused to fight just wars wouldn't be peaceful, and it certainly wouldn't be a more just world. It would be a world where evil would be unchecked by justice and where the strong would be free to prey on the weak.

Fighting just wars when necessary, like the present war on terrorism, takes sin seriously and provides -- strange as it may sound -- a loving response. Remember that when you watch our service men and women on television as they're fighting in Afghanistan in harm's way out of love for neighbor.

For Further Reading and Information

Darrell Cole, "Good Wars," First Things, October 2001.