What I Bet You Didn’t Know About the Christian Just War Tradition (I)

This article is part 11 of LoonWatch’s Understanding Jihad Series. Please read my “disclaimer”, which explains my intentions behind writing this article: The Understanding Jihad Series: Is Islam More Likely Than Other Religions to Encourage Violence?

It is common to hear comparisons between  the so-called “just war tradition” in Christianity and the jihad of Islam.  We are told that Jesus of the New Testament was non-violent and that the early Church was pacifist.  According to this standard narrative, it was only with Constantine that the Church “fell from Grace” and accepted a very limited concept of defensive war, one that sought to limit, restrain, and constrain war.  We are told that the violent acts committed by Christians throughout history were done in contradiction to this doctrine.

Many Westerners seem to be under the impression that we can draw a straight line from the ancient Greeks to St. Augustine to Thomas Aquinas to Hugo Grotius to modern international law.  This very selective, cursory, and incomplete understanding of history creates a very “generous” depiction of Christian tradition.  Once this mythical and fabricated history is created, it is compared to the jihad tradition of Islam.  No such “generous” depictions of Islamic tradition are harbored; if anything, the most cynical view possible is taken.

Such an unfair comparison–coupled with a completely Western perspective on contemporary world affairs–begs the question: why is Islam so violent?  Why is the Islamic tradition so much more warlike than the Christian one?

Many right-wing Christians and even secular people of the “Judeo-Christian tradition” exhibit a great deal of religious arrogance, especially when it comes to this subject.  Repeatedly, we are told to compare the supposedly peaceful Christian just war tradition with the allegedly brutal Islamic jihad tradition.

Occasionally, Christian polemicists have some level of shame and recognize that the history of Christianity has been marred by war and violence: the Crusades, the ethnic cleansing of the Americas, and the colonial enterprise come to mind.  We are assured, however, that these occurrences were “in direct contradiction” to official church doctrine.  This is what career Islamophobe Robert Spencer argues, for instance, in his book Islam Unveiled.  This is, we are told, completely unlike the Islamic offenses throughout history, which were supposedly in line with traditional Islamic thought.

In this article series, I will prove that this understanding of the Christian just war tradition is mythical, fanciful, and misleading.  Throughout history, there were serious shortcomings to the Christian understanding of just war–both in matters of jus ad bellum (the right to wage war) and jus in bello (right conduct during war).  Specifically, just war doctrine was restricted to Christians and Europeans.  Its constraints simply did not apply to “infidels”, “pagans”, “heathens”, “barbarians”, and “primitives”.  The Christian just war tradition was not just exclusivist but through-and-through racist.

One could reasonably argue that such a critique suffers from a modern bias: using contemporary standards to evaluate pre-modern societies is not something I generally encourage.  Yet, if we insist on critiquing historical Islam based on such standards, then surely we should be willing to apply the same to Christianity.

Additionally, this shortcoming–the lack of application of the just war principles to infidels–is hardly a tertiary issue.  Instead, it lies at the very heart of the comparison that is continually invoked between Christianity and Islam.  One could only imagine, for instance, the reaction of anti-Muslim critics if the dictates of war ethic in Islam were applicable to fellow Muslims only.  Had this been the case, such a thing would not be seen as a mere “shortcoming” but indicative of the “Islamic supremacist attitude.”  This wouldn’t be understood as something that could be relegated to a footnote or a few sentences buried somewhere deep in a huge text (which is the case with books talking about the Christian just war tradition).  Instead, pages and pages would be written about the injustices of the Islamic principles of war.

This double standard between believer and infidel, were it to exist in the Islamic tradition (and it does, to an extent), would become the focus of discussion.  But when it comes to the Judeo-Christian tradition, such things are relegated to “by the way” points that are minimized, ignored, or simply forgotten.  Western understandings of the Christian just war tradition create a narrative by cherry-picking views here and there to create a moral trajectory that is extremely generous to that tradition.  Meanwhile, Islamic and Eastern traditions are viewed with Orientalist lenses, focusing on the injustices and flaws (particularly with regard to religious minorities).  This of course may be a result of a primarily Eurocentric view of history: how did their war ethic affect people that were like me?

Yet, if we wanted to extrapolate an overarching theme of the Christian just war tradition, it would have to be this: the Christian just war tradition did not limit war (as is commonly argued) but instead, for the most part, served to justify the conquest and dispossession of indigenous populations.  This was not merely a case of misapplying or exploiting doctrines.  Rather, the doctrines were themselves expounded in a way so as to facilitate such applications.  Many of history’s famous just war theorists were generating such theories to provide the moral arguments to justify colonial conquest.  The tradition was more about justifying wars than about limiting violence to just wars.  The Christian acts of violence throughout history were not in spite of Church doctrine; they were more often than not because of it.

Why is it that, even in some scholarly books, the Christian just war tradition towards fellow believers is compared to the Islamic attitudes towards war with unbelievers?  Either the Christian treatment of Christians should be compared to the Islamic treatment of Muslims, or alternatively the Christian treatment of infidels should be compared to the Islamic treatment of the same.  It is the unfair comparison between apples and oranges that serves to reinforce this warped understanding of the matter.

*  *  *  *  *

An error we must avoid is conflating the modern-day just war doctrine with the historical Christian just war tradition.  Although St. Augustine laid down some principles that, through a long process of evolution, found themselves in today’s doctrine, it should be noted that Augustine’s views of just war were, by today’s standards, extremely unjust.  One must compare this proto-doctrine with what was practiced in traditional Islam, instead of retroactively superimposing the modern concept of just war onto Augustine.

Indeed, “one of the most influential contemporary interpreters of the [just war] tradition today, James Turner Johnson, goes so far as to say that to all intents and purposes, ‘there is no just war doctrine, in the classic form as we know it today, in either Augustine or the theologians or canonists of the high Middle Ages. This doctrine in its classic form [as we know it today], including both a jus ad bellum…and a jus in bello…does not exist before the end of the middle ages. Conservatively, it is incorrect to speak of classic just war doctrine existing before about 1500″ (Prof. Nicholas Rengger on p.34 of War: Essays in Political Philosophy).

In other words, for 1500 years–roughly seventy-five percent of Christian history–there was no real just war doctrine. Shouldn’t this fact be stated when comparing Christian and Islamic traditions?  The just war doctrine–as we know it today–arose during a time when the Christian Church’s power was waning, hardly something for Christians to boast about.

And even after that–lest our opponents be tempted to use this fact to their advantage (that the Christian world distanced itself from the Church unlike in the Islamic world)–the just war doctrine that was established continued to be applied, from both a doctrinal standpoint and on-the-ground, to only Christians/Europeans.  This continued to be the case in the sixteenth century and all the way through the nineteenth century.

It was only for a fleeting moment in the twentieth century that just war doctrine became universal.  It is an irony that in no other century was just war theory so horrifically violated, and this by the Western world (with the United States dropping two atomic bombs on civilian populations).

This brings us to the situation today: Jewish and Christian neocons and extreme Zionists in the United States and Israel are leading the charge against the just war doctrine, trying to use legal means to change it to accommodate the War on of Terror.  Many of our opponents are the most vociferous proponents of doing away with such quaint principles as just war, at least when it comes to dealing with Muslims.

Is it this fleeting moment in Christian history, in which for a fraction of a second the just war doctrine really existed, that our opponents use to bash Muslims over the head with?

*  *  *  *  *

The standard meme among Islamophobes–and wrongfully accepted by the majority of Americans–has been that Islam is exceptionally violent–certainly more violent than Judaism and Christianity.  When we look at the scriptural sources, however, this does not bear out: the Bible is far more violent than the Quran (see parts 123456-i6-ii6-iii6-iv789-i, and 9-ii of LoonWatch’s Understanding Jihad Series.)

Among the many other “fall back” arguments used by our opponents, we are reassured that Judaism and Christianity have “interpretive traditions” that have moved away from literal, violent understandings of Biblical passages–altogether unlike Islam (so we are told).  Robert Spencer writes on p.31 of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades):

When modern-day Jews and Christians read their Bibles, they simply don’t interpret the passages cited as exhorting them to violent action against unbelievers. This is due to the influence of centuries of interpretive traditions that have moved away from literalism regarding these passages. But in Islam, there is no comparable interpretive tradition. The jihad passages in the Qur’an are anything but a dead letter.

The Islamophobes then temporarily move away from quoting the scriptural sources but instead focus on comparing (1) the traditional interpretations of the canonical texts, and (2) the modern-day understandings of said texts.  In both respects, we are told, the Judeo-Christian tradition is more peaceful than the Islamic one.

In the previous article series (entitled Does Jewish Law Justify Killing Civilians?), I addressed the Jewish side of “the Judeo-Christian tradition.”  [Note: That article series is being modified before the last couple pages will be published.  I have decided to take reader input and mellow it out quite a bit, i.e. remove the images, change the title, etc.]  I proved that both traditional and contemporary Jewish understandings of the scriptural sources could hardly be used to justify the argument against Islam.

But when it comes to such matters, it might be more important to address the Christian side of the coin.  Considering that Christians are in the majority in this country, it is more common to hear right-wing Christians invoke bellicose comparisons between their faith and Islam.  Robert Spencer, an anti-Muslim Catholic polemicist, relies on this comparison routinely.

In order to shield himself from possible “counter-attack,” Spencer uses an interesting argument.  In a section entitled “Theological Equivalence” in his book Islam Unveiled, Spencer writes:

When confronted with this kind of evidence [about Islam’s violence], many Western commentators practice a theological version of “moral equivalence,” analogous to the geopolitical form which held that the Soviet Union and the United States were essentially equally free and equally oppressive.  ”Christians,” these commentators say, “have behaved the same way, and have used the Bible to justify violence.  Islam is no different: people can use it to wage war or to wage peace.”

I am one of these “Western commentators.”  Spencer cites ”the humanist Samuel Bradley” who noted that “Central America was savaged” because of “this country’s God.”  Bradley quoted “Spanish conquistador Pizarro” who slaughtered the indigenous population, by his own admission, only “by the grace of God.”

But, Spencer rejects such “theological equivalence,” arguing that Pizarro violated “the Just War principles of his own Roman Catholic Church.”  Spencer is not just arguing that the modern-day just war theory would prohibit the European conquest and dispossession of the Native Americans, but that even in the time of the conquest and dispossession itself the Church’s just war doctrine did.  He is arguing that the Christian acts of violence throughout history were “fundamentally different” than those committed by Muslims, since–according to him–the former were done against the just war doctrine of the Church, whereas the latter were endorsed by the Islamic religious establishment.

But, as I have argued above, this is patently false. The Christian just war tradition was used to justify the conquest and dispossession of the Native Americans, one of the greatest crimes in all of history.  In fact, these doctrines were formulated for that exact purpose in mind.

*  *  *  *  *


Naturally, as was the case with the article series on Jewish law, there is the chance of offending well-meaning and good-hearted Christians.  Let it be known, again, that nowhere am I trying to paint the entire Christian faith or community with a broad brush.  There exists no shortage of Christians who oppose war (especially America’s current wars in the Muslim world) and who advocate peace, tolerance, and mutual respect.

Critically evaluating religious traditions can be uncomfortable, but the problems therein should not be ignored nor should we pretend they don’t exist.  Honest evaluations of the past can be the key to coming up with more tolerant answers for the present and future.

I have already discussed some of the problems with the Jewish tradition.  This article series deals with the Christian tradition.  Rest assured, however, that a future article series of mine will take a critical look at the Islamic tradition as well.  However, because Islamophobia has become so rampant and pervasive in our culture, I do not think that this should be done before we first look at the problems inherent in the Judeo-Christian tradition that our society is based on.  Once that is done, we can then look at the Islamic tradition from a more nuanced, balanced, and helpful perspective.  This is the purpose of this somewhat controversial article series.

To be continued…

Update I:  A reader pointed out that I made many claims above but did not back them up with proof.  I should clarify that this page is just the introductory piece to the article series and simply states what I will prove.  It is just a statement of my thesis; the proof to back the thesis up is still to come–hence, the “to be continued…


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