Just War: the ACID test

A few weeks ago, U.S. special forces carried out a raid into Abottabad, Pakistan, in the course of which, the terrorist leader Osama bin Laden was killed. Earlier this spring, the U.S., as part of NATO, began military operations in support of Libyan rebels. These two events, along with our ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, raise the question: can a war be justified, and, if so, under what circumstances?

Thoughtful and decent Christians have argued both sides of this question for centuries. Whole denominations, such as Quakers and Mennonites, have historically said “no,” on the basis of Jesus’ statement of blessing on peacemakers in Matthew 5:9 and other scriptures.

Other Christians have said that war can sometimes be justified, if it meets certain criteria. This doctrine of Just War provides a number of tests which I remember as the “ACID” test:

  • A is for “Authority.” The authority to decide whether to war can only be made by a sovereign: a king or president or whatever the nation’s laws require. The U.S. can go to war, because the hand that bears the sword does not do so in vain (Romans 13:4). As individuals, though, Christians cannot carry out feuds and vendettas (Matthew 5:39).
  • C is for “Cause.” The cause of war must be just. You can’t try to conquer other countries for economic gain or to build an empire. Thomas Aquinas proposed two just causes: recovery of something wrongly taken, and punishment of evil. Modern international law also recognizes self-defense as a just cause.
  • I is for “Intention.” This rules out evil intentions (“we want to get even” or “we want to get rich”). But more than not being evil, the intention must itself be good: you want to attain a better result than would be otherwise be the case. Ideally, your intention is to secure peace.
  • D is for “Doing.” The other criteria are about making the decision to go to war. But those aren’t enough. It also matters how you do the war. Your conduct — rules of engagement and so forth — must also be just. For example, you must discriminate between combatants and noncombatants. That doesn’t mean the innocent won’t be harmed, because war is terrible and cannot be made sanitary. But you must do what you can to be just in making war.

Christians have argued about just war since they quit being a persecuted minority and began running countries. But one thing we agree on is that God is a God of peace. When Jesus was born, angels proclaimed “Peace on Earth” (Luke 2:14), and when the risen Lord appeared to the disciples on the evening of Easter, his first words were: “Peace be with you” (John 20:19).

Where we land on questions like raids into Pakistan or support for Libyan rebels is a matter of individual conscience. But let’s do everything we can, as much as we can, to work for peace.

(This article also appeared in the May 18 Hi-Desert Star.)