Just War Part 1: The Times Of Augustine

I DON’T CARE ABOUT JUST WAR!! – you say.  I know you don’t.  I didn’t either until a friend of mine came out of the closet as a pacifist and I was forced- I mean, really, what choice did I have? – to study all this war stuff for myself.

Just War’s history has much to teach us about how we Christians arrive at our theologies. I was shocked to discover, for instance, that Just War doctrine was not built on a biblical foundation as much as it was built on pragmatism.

Let’s get started.

Part 1: The Times of Augustine.

The story of the Just War tradition begins with Augustine, a Catholic bishop in Hippo.  Augustine, who died in A.D. 430, wrote and ministered at a time when Christians were becoming popular – a significant percentage of the Roman population.  This popularity occurred in part because of the strange conversion of the Roman Emperor to Christianity – what some see as a miraculous blessing to our faith and others view as the beginning of the end of true orthodox Christianity.

Constantine “converted” to Christianity, unifying the Christians and the kingdom of Rome in the process, while at the same time keeping his position as high priest of the official pagan state religion of the Empire.  Then, in A.D. 313, Emperor Constantine made the persecution of Christians illegal, and embarked on a grand church building project and eventually the establishment of Catholicism – modeled after the Roman government’s structures and hierarchy.

Now, with Constantine’s blessing, Christians could engage in every facet of civic life.  And with the government’s support Christians soon infiltrated every level of government, acting as soldiers and advisors and rulers in a kingdom created and maintained by warfare.  Christian theology on war would soon change.

Enter Augustine.  Living in Hippo, a Roman province in Africa, he was endangered by the Vandals moving across Spain and, by the time of his death, attacking Hippo itself.  Augustine also feared the fall of the Roman Empire and the now massive Church in Rome as a result of constant pressure from the “barbarians” attacking every major city and the Visgoths invading Rome.  Rome was built through conquest and had earned many enemies along the way.  It was envied and lusted after by seemingly every neighbor and continually under attack on all sides.  To make matters worse, some Christians had splintered off from the Catholic Church and were burning Catholic churches and harassing their members.  Rome was under siege from within and without.  At stake was not just an Empire but what Augustine argued was the very kingdom of God on earth: the Roman Catholic Church.

In the face of such dangers “Augustine could not simply reaffirm the strain of Christian thinking that had rejected all use of force.  He foresaw social disaster if evildoers were not opposed, and he sought an answer that both PROTECTED SOCIETY and MAINTAINED CHRISTIAN FAITH. “(1)

It was under these hostile conditions and with this intent that Augustine began crafting a theology that other generations would build upon and later call Just War doctrine.

(1) Air Power History, Vol.39, No.3, Fall 1992, pp.37.  Copyright and published 1992 by the Air Force Historical Foundation