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Blinken’s calls for protecting Gazans echo traditional Christian teaching on ‘just war’
Just-war doctrine emphasizes restraint, sometimes abstention, on military action
While many American evangelical Christian leaders have enthusiastically supported Israel in its war against Hamas, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s attempts this week to push Israel into doing more to protect civilians in Gaza come closer to following traditional Christian teaching on war than does the position of the evangelical activists.
In fact, while he probably wasn’t thinking about it in these terms, Blinken’s public remarks in Tel Aviv on Friday may have provided the textbook example of what it means to attempt to apply the principles of the Christian doctrine of a “just war” in a real-life situation.
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This isn’t to say that Blinken is a theologian, and his religious heritage and identity are Jewish rather than Christian. But key aspects of the Christian just-war doctrine, itself influenced by Roman thought from the classical era, have become part of the general Western perspective on the morality of war as well as an influence on international law. Its principles include the necessity of protection for noncombatants and the notion of proportionality in the harms caused by military action.
Unlike concepts such as grace and sin, the just-war doctrine isn’t found directly in the Bible1 and may better described as a Christian tradition, one that dates to at least St. Augustine and the fourth century CE. Some of the principles Augustine developed were present in the works of Roman philosopher and lawyer Cicero hundreds of years earlier. Catholic thinkers addressed the subject for centuries, and today the best-known formulation of a just war has become part of the Catholic Catechism.
Of course, the just-war position isn’t the only moral framework about war accepted by Christians; a significant minority of Christians have taught and practiced pacifism. But the just-war tradition is widely accepted in Christianity even outside of Catholicism. Leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, cited the just-war doctrine last month when they recognized Israel’s right to defend itself:
In keeping with Christian Just War tradition, we also affirm the legitimacy of Israel's right to respond against those who have initiated these attacks as Romans 13 grants governments the power to bear the sword against those who commit such evil acts against innocent life.
One way of explaining the doctrine is to look at three facets of military morality:
Jus ad bellum, the framework for deciding when it is just to go to war.
Jus en bello, which focuses on how a war is waged.
Jus post bellum, ways of seeking justice after the war is concluded.
Some key aspects of the doctrine are:
War should be waged only to remedy a grave injustice, and it should be a last resort.
There must be a reasonable chance of success. (Otherwise, war would be a matter of killing for the sake of killing.)
The war should be directed against the actual threat and not against innocent people. In practical terms, this means that the war should be waged against combatants rather than against noncombatants who pose no immediate threat.
The principles of proportionality should be applied; the force used should be proportionate to the end sought.
After a war is over, principles of justice, such as paving the way for a lasting peace and recognizing the humanity of the defeated side, should be applied.
Here are some of the comments Blinken made in his news conference and how they relate to the doctrine:
Jus ad bellum
Blinken opened his news conference by pointing to the horrendous atrocities that Hamas had inflicted on Israel. “This right to self-defense, indeed this obligation to self-defense, belongs to every nation. No country could or should tolerate the slaughter of innocents,” he said.
One goal of the war, Blinken said, “to try to help ensure that an attack like October 7th never happens again.”
Jus en bello
Blinken is unlikely to get argument from many quarters against his view that Israel is entitled to take military action after the brutal attacks of Oct. 7 and the continuing threat from Hamas. Instead, the debate is over how Israel should fight Hamas. And this is where Blinken’s remarks are provoking disagreement and controversy, for he clearly supports the concept of proportionality.
“[W]e need to do more to protect Palestinian civilians,” he insisted. “We’ve been clear that as Israel conducts its campaign to defeat Hamas, how it does so matters. It matters because it’s the right and lawful thing to do.”2
Blinken spent much of the rest of his time in his prepared remarks emphasizing the need to protect Palestinian civilians, both in Gaza and in the West Bank.
“I spoke to Israeli leaders about tangible steps that can be taken to increase the sustained delivery of food, water, medicine, fuel, and other essential needs while putting in place measures to prevent diversion by Hamas and other terrorist groups,” he said. “We’ve identified mechanisms to enable fuel to reach hospitals and other needs in the south.”
He went on to call for humanitarian pauses in the fighting — a step that so far has been opposed by Israel and by the most vocally pro-Israel politicians in the United States.
Jus post bellum
Blinken suggested that responding to the humanitarian situation now is one step toward a just and lasting peace after the war is complete. “[W]e’re focused on setting the conditions for a durable and sustainable peace and security,” he said. “The United States continues to believe that the best viable path — indeed, the only path — is through a two-state solution. That’s the only guarantor of a secure, Jewish, and democratic Israel; the only guarantor of Palestinians realizing their legitimate right to live in a state of their own, enjoying equal measures of security, freedom, opportunity, and dignity; the only way to end a cycle of violence once and for all.”
A final thought on the ‘just war’
Too often, the just-war doctrine has been used by those seeking to justify going to war. Those looking for reasons for responding to violence with violence can always find them. And just as when Southern Baptists issued a statement supporting Israel and citing the doctrine said nothing about humanitarian concerns, the aspects of the just-war doctrine that can act as a restraint on military actions are often ignored.
Blinken deserves credit for raising concerns that are also raised by the doctrine: Even if a nation is justified in going to war, not all actions it takes in war are justified. As paradoxical as it may sound, the just-war doctrine is built on the premise that a war should be waged only when its ultimate end can lead to a just peace, and that it unlikely to occur with a military campaign that ignores humanitarian needs.
I’ll leave it to theologians to determine if the just-war doctrine represents the will of God or is consistent with the teachings of the Prince of Peace. Meanwhile, Catholics, Baptists and other Christians who find value in the Christian tradition regarding war should at the least be prepared to acknowledge that it conflicts with the way Israel is waging a war that threatens the lives of countless Gazan civilians who are not responsible for the slaughter of Oct. 7.
The earliest Christians tended to be pacifists. Because most Christians of the New Testament era lived under Roman occupation, there was no need for Paul and the other first-century writers to offer direction on influencing public policy.
He also pointed to practical reasons for protecting Palestinian civilians: “It matters because failure to do so plays into the hands of Hamas and other terror groups. There will be no partners for peace if they’re consumed by humanitarian catastrophe and alienated by any perceived indifference to their plight.”