Can War Be Just?

Aaron White

I don’t think I have to convince anyone that war is evil. We all know that it is. Here are the statistics for three ongoing wars, as of Nov 18, 2023:


  • Russo-Ukraine War: since 2014, 514,000 deaths, most of those in the past year since the Russian invasion.
  • Israel-Palestine War: 40 consecutive days of fighting; 1400 Israelis killed and 240 hostages in the Hamas attack on Oct 7; more than 14,000 Palestinians killed, two-thirds of whom are women and children; 2700 missing. 
  • Hospitals have been destroyed. Refugee camps bombed. Homes, churches, and the entire infrastructure of an already desperately poor area have been wiped out.
  • Yemen Civil War: UN estimates over 377,000 killed by the end of 2021, more than half of those because of humanitarian crisis as a result of the war – displacement, starvation (more than half the population facing starvation), disease. 4 million people displaced from their homes in Yemen.
  • 108.4 million forcibly displaced peoples, as of the end of 2022. Primary cause is war.

One of the main results of displacement is that children become more and more vulnerable to sexual exploitation, slavery, and being turned into child soldiers. Since 2005 there are a verified 105,000 children who have been recruited and used as child soldiers – a uniquely horrific aspect of modern war. Children are seen as a cheap, dispensable, effective weapon of terror (See Romeo Dallaire, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children).

War is evil. But is war a necessary evil? Is it sometimes required? Could it even be just?

I took a military history degree at the University of Victoria to try to understand something I believed I would never experience personally: war and killing. I discovered that Christians throughout the last two millennia have gone to great lengths to explain war and to justify its continued use as an instrument of the state. 

St. Augustine, who had first-hand experience in a city under siege, wrote The City of God in the 5th century. In it he gave a series of justifications for when, why and how Christians should fight and kill. Erasmus of Rotterdam, the 16th century Christian Humanist, made a strong argument that Christian nations should never go to war against each other, but allowed that it was still acceptable for Christians to fight in self-defence, as a last resort, and against Muslims. 

Hugo Grotius in the 17th century developed a theory of Natural Law that put limits and rules on warfare, but still assumed that Christian nations would always find the need to go to war. Carl von Clausewitz in 19th century Prussia developed a doctrine of Absolute War, where the entire might of the State – military, political, economic, social, and spiritual – should be employed to effect the entire destruction of one’s enemy. This demonic doctrine was adopted by the European military thinkers in advance of WW1 and WW2.

At the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) an attempt was made to propose that warfare as a tool of the state – in particular unlimited, nuclear warfare – was immoral. The proposal was severely watered down in order to continue to allow states to engage in war when they found it necessary.

Even now with wars raging around the world, and some of the major participatory countries being led by professing Christians, we face the debate: is it ok – even necessary, even just and right – for Christians to fight and kill in war?

In the past the responsibility for deciding whether or not a war was just lay with the “prince” – the sovereign of the nation. The prince would bear the moral responsibility of the war, and therefore an ordinary Christian soldier could presumably engage in warfare without worrying if he was sinning, so long as his conduct within the war met certain standards. We do not have that moral luxury now (and it is questionable whether anyone really had that moral freedom). In a democracy we must bear responsibility for the leaders we choose and the actions that our nation takes.

So how can we decide if a war is just, or if any war can be just? Five to Seven principles were traditionally evaluated for the determination of whether a war was “just” or not: Just cause; Right Intent; Net benefit; Legitimate authority; Last resort; Proportionality of means; and Right conduct.

Traditionally a war must meet certain requirements to be considered just. Two of the most important of these requirements are the separation of combatants and non-combatants; and ensuring that any military response is both appropriate and limited.

There is now no clear distinction between combatants and non-combatants. Wars are very infrequently fought in our age between two armies in a field. More often it is trained soldier versus unofficial insurgent (or revolutionary/freedom fighter), or even civilian against civilian. Those who deal in terror see civilians as primary targets. National militaries say they are able to avoid bombing hospitals and schools (though evidence proves otherwise); but sometimes nation-states don’t even try. It is hard to forget the infamous saying that came out of the Vietnam War: “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

And when biological, chemical, nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction are used or threatened, there are no civilians or combatants, only victims. The notion of appropriate and limited response is likewise obliterated. The Old Testament principle was eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth (Lev 24-19-21). This was a limitation on retaliation. If someone knocked out your tooth, you were not allowed to kill him or her in revenge. You could only take their tooth/the monetary value of a tooth, which was carefully regulated. This is the basis behind appropriate and limited responses. It is not considered “just” to kill 10,000 people if your enemy has killed 100 of your people. Of course, modern weapons take us into the possibility of indiscriminately killing millions at a time, of destroying entire cities through bombardment, even of the elimination of all human life from the planet. We really have moved beyond the realm of measured responses.

But even this, which should make modern war unjust by biblical and even secular standards, is not the real issue for Christians. Jesus took us away from the “eye for an eye” formula. He took us to radical forgiveness and love. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also….You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy. ‘ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:38-45).

This is not woke idealism, not armchair social media virtue signalling. Jesus lived in Judea under the thumb of an oppressive Roman regime that regularly crucified thousands of people to quell rebellion. His family were displaced, twice, by state control and violence at his birth. They were refugees to Egypt. 

  • Jesus healed a Roman centurion’s servant, and also one of the guards who came to arrest him. As he healed the man he said “Enough of this!” to his disciples (Luke 22:51). 
  • In Matthew’s Gospel he said, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword” (Mt 26:52).

Canadian songwriter Leonard Cohen looked at the example of Jesus, and the state of the world, and wrote the line, “Give me Christ or give me Hiroshima.”

Which then do we choose, as Christians? Christ, or Hiroshima? How do we justify taking a human life, a life for which Jesus died, even if we categorize that person as an enemy? We know that we have responsibilities as Christians to care for the poor, the orphan, the widow, the stranger, the sick, the imprisoned – we know this because we have been commanded by Jesus.

But we have also been given clear instructions from Jesus, and from New Testament letters, about our responsibilities towards our enemies:

“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”

“Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.” 

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:9-21).

With these direct commands from our Lord, and from Scripture, why have we tried so hard to justify this killing? Why have we spent so much mental energy attempting to prove why it is acceptable to destroy the life God created, and for whom Jesus died?

For many of us this question only really presents itself in theory: what would I do if? It is easy enough to talk about non-violence when no one is threatening the things you hold dear, quite another to refrain from violence when the threat is in your home. 

Strong arguments are made on behalf of self-defense, or better still, defending the innocent from aggression. Do I understand the anger and desire for vengeance of those Israeli families who lost loved ones in the attacks by Hamas? Of course. Do I understand the anger and desire for vengeance of those Palestinian families who have lost loved ones in the violence and oppression they have endured since 1948? Of course. Does this justify the taking of lives, including the indiscriminate taking of lives? Because make no mistake, when war happens, it is always the poor and the vulnerable who suffer the most.

But can we remove ourselves from this moral conundrum by saying that we aren’t the ones doing the killing or hurting the vulnerable? Well, we actually aren’t as removed from the situation as we think. War profiteering: making profits off of war, the creation and sale of death-dealing weapons.

Bob Ekblad has highlighted the following with regards to American war-profiteering: Congress recently approved 14 billion for arms to Israel, 61 billion arms to Ukraine. This has been portrayed as a generous support for US allies, but who is actually getting that money? US weapons manufacturing companies. The fact that American taxpayers are directly subsidising US companies like Lockheed Martin, Northrup Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics make ordinary citizens direct participants in and beneficiaries of the killing and destruction. The stock prices for major weapons manufacturers in the defense sector have increased significantly since Hamas’ terrorist attack against Israel on October 7, and Israel’s subsequent bombing campaign and invasion of Gaza, as stated by Bryan Quinn in the special report on October 26, “The business of war: How arms industry profits from violent conflicts.”

“Morgan Stanley and TD Bank hope for aerospace and weapons boon after a 7% value increase from start of Israel-Hamas conflict,” writes Eli Clifton in his article “Hamas has created additional demand’: Wall Street eyes big profits from war.”

So, the poor are destroyed and the wealthy – particularly those concerned with the manufacture of weapons – get profoundly wealthier. But is this just happening in America? Canadian arms manufacturers exported an estimated 1 billion worth of weapons in 2022. The Canadian government approved 33 million dollars towards missiles in the Ukraine. Over 21 million dollars in military goods were sold to Israel in 2022. In 2015 a 15 billion dollar deal was struck to send military equipment to Saudi Arabia, weapons which have been used in the civil war in Yemen.

Then there is the matter of United Nations voting. On Oct 28 there was an emergency UN Vote which called for an “immediate, durable and sustained humanitarian truce” in Gaza. “Many considered the resolution to be the last opportunity to prevent the bloody and devastating ground assault that was subsequently launched on Gaza by Israel. The resolution was sponsored by Jordan and passed with 120 votes in favour, 14 against and 45 abstentions. In addition to calling for a truce, it also called for all parties to respect international humanitarian law and allow the “continuous, sufficient and unhindered” provision of humanitarian aid into Gaza. The resolution also called for the “immediate and unconditional release” of all civilians held captive” (“Canada Fails Humanity With Abstention on UN Vote,” (

Canada abstained from this vote.)

On Nov 15 PM Justin Trudeau, evoking some of the ideas of Just War theory, said, “Even wars have rules. All innocent life is equal in worth. Israeli and Palestinian.” Trudeau asked for “maximum restraint” from Israel, but did not call for a ceasefire. Nations are wary about demanding ceasefires from other nations, because they can’t risk their own sovereignty – their own political right to defend their borders and interests, to retaliate, to wage war.

However, I want to reiterate that for Christians, our primary engagement with this issue must not be political. We do not put our ultimate trust in nations, in the UN, in militaries. Psalm 20:7 – some trust in chariots some in horses but we depend on the Lord our God.

No, these horrific situations of war, and the seeming inability or lack of interest in the world to prevent them, should starkly remind us that there is a deeper reality. This is what the word Apocalypse means – to see behind the veil. There is an enemy of humanity, the thief who wants to steal, kill and destroy. War-making and war-profiteering and the destruction of the poor, the vulnerable, the innocent, the children, are all done in allegiance with this enemy. 

We are called to see this deeper reality, this spiritual truth. We are called to commit our lives not to the worldly appearance of truth, but to this deeper spiritual truth, revealed to us by the Spirit of God, in and about Christ Jesus. We are invited into the life of Jesus, the one who took in the sword rather than take up the sword. We are called to be utterly different. And the tragic reality is that Christians in this world, by and large, have not been very different at all. They have instead been some of the loudest in the support and justification of violence and war.

The way of Jesus is difficult, and might even appear impractical or impossible. But this does not excuse us from trying to live it, if this is what Jesus has called us to. And I believe it is.

Jesus calls us to a place of no rights, no retaliation, and no security except what he gives us. His teaching on revenge and suffering and the example he gives of self-sacrifice are clear, though they do not say what we want to hear. Justice will be done, and aggressors will be held accountable, but we must trust that this final judgement will be in the hands of the Lord. Whenever we try to execute that kind of judgement, too much that is good is destroyed along with the bad – just as Jesus explained in the Parable of the Wheat and Weeds (Matthew 13:24-30).

Here is Jacques Ellul, a man who lived through the Second World War, on the illusory danger of the Christian championship of violence:

“If I think that I cannot reach others except by participating in their revolt, their anger and hatred; if I think that Christ’s consolation is a deluding lie and reconciliation a hypocrisy, then I no longer believe that the coming kingdom is truly present, and I no longer believe in the Resurrection. And because in the depths of my heart I no longer believe these things, I substitute for the Resurrection my mythological picture of it, and I decide that I should have to build the kingdom on earth with my own hands. This unbelief is the truth of Christian championship of violence. All the rest is illusion.” – Jacques Ellul

Let us pray and live that we do not carry on in this illusion, which is the championship of violence.

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