Just War theory obsolete?

A painting of the Great Mahabharata war

Deep in history, the Mahabharata, one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, engages one of the first written discussions of a ‘just war’ including a contextualised discussion which develops criteria around ‘just cause’ and ‘just conduct’ which are appropriate to the context of war. Interestingly, it also references attempts at reconciliation to avoid war. In the epic, one of five ruling brothers asks if the suffering caused by war can ever be justified the dialogue with his brothers goes on to discuss ideas such as proportionality (chariots cannot attack cavalry, only other chariots, no attacking people in distress etc.), just means (no poisoned or barbed arrows), just cause (no attacking out of rage), and fair treatment of captives and the wounded.

Howard Hensel explores in considerable depth both Asian and Western theories of Just War in his book ‘The Prism of Just War: Asian and Western Perspectives on the Legitimate use of Military Force’ (2010). Western just war theory is a tradition that has developed a set of criteria to evaluate whether and under what conditions the use of violence can be considered morally justifiable. Based on the writings of fourth century bishop St. Augustine of Hippo, it was later articulated in depth by 13th century theologian St. Thomas Aquinas and is today outlined by four conditions in the formal Catechism of the Catholic Church. 

Conflict and war is deeply embedded in the human experience of co-habitation of Planet Earth but how we shape war and correlated responses to conflict can change. In her essay ‘The roots of war‘, Barbarah Ehrenreich notes that:

Wars produce war-like societies, which, in turn, make the world more dangerous for other societies, which are thus recruited into being war-prone themselves. Just as there is no gene for war, neither is there a single type or feature of society — patriarchy or hierarchy — that generates it. War begets war and shapes human societies as it does so.

Next week, 11th-13th April,  delegates will gather in the Vatican to listen to some 80 experts engaged in the research and practice of nonviolent action with the aim of developing a new moral framework that rejects ethical justifications for war.

The Catechism   currently establishes in the section Safeguarding Peace; avoiding war that

The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition. (2309)

In an earlier section, it states:

Because of the evils and injustices that accompany all war, the Church insistently urges everyone to prayer and to action so that the divine Goodness may free us from the ancient bondage of war. (2307)

Next week’s conference will address the issue of whether just war theory remains relevant and sufficient. Organisers set out the radical nature of the task at hand with the statement in their literature to participants that just war teaching:

…can no longer claim center stage as the Christian approach to war and peace… After more than 1,500 years and repeated use of the just war criteria to sanction war rather than to prevent war, the Catholic Church, like many other Christian communities, is rereading the text of Jesus’ life and re-appropriating the Christian vocation of pro-active peacemaking…Emphasizing the need to work for a just peace, the Church is moving away from the acceptability of calling war ‘just,’. While clear ethical criteria are necessary for addressing egregious attacks or threats in a violent world, moral theologians and ethicists should no longer refer to such criteria as the ‘just war theory,’ because that language undermines the moral imperative to develop tools and capacity for nonviolent conflict.(Conference organisers)

The conference is organised around 4 main themes: Experiences of Nonviolence, Jesus’ Way of Nonviolence, Nonviolence and Just Peace, and Moving Beyond Unending War.

I, for one, am waiting with baited breath to see what emerges out of this conference!

The purveyors of violence are endlessly inventive. From child soldiers to the utter detachment of drones, from crude IEDs to sophisticated bombs, from oil wars to the formation of caliphates, those who use violent means no longer observe rules or boundaries. (Tom Roberts, 2014)


Please note:

For sources and more information please click on the highlighted links embedded in the text and to view the main source article in the National Catholic Reporter.




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