This is a paper that I presented last night at Southeastern Seminary in North Carolina. It was part of a Colloquium and the paper itself placed second. I was encouraged by someone to make this available to all and so that is what I am doing here. The bibliography is included for anyone who is interested in further study of this issue.
JUST WAR AND THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE: A CASE FOR CHRISTIAN INVOLVEMENT IN ARMED REBELLION
The Declaration of Independence is one of the most significant documents in the history of the world, yet it can pose a challenge to modern Christians. One must question the justification of the Founding Fathers in taking up arms against their own government. Furthermore, were the colonial Christians following in the way of Christ by loading muskets and firing upon the British in the name of freedom? This paper will argue that the Founders and Christian colonials engaged in a just war (via armed rebellion), but that the act – as all acts of war – did not fit within God’s ideal for man.
Of course, the issue of Christians and violence goes much further than the Revolutionary War. If the Founders were not justified in rebelling against their government, then one must ask if anyone is ever justified in such rebellion. If Christians were wrong to engage in warfare against their government, one must ask if it is always wrong for Christians to do so. The Declaration of Independence and the subsequent war provide a good test case to see if it is ever okay for Christians to take up armed rebellion against their government.
To answer the thesis and achieve the purpose of the paper, one must (1) establish that a just war exists, (2) that an armed revolution can constitute a just war, and (3) that the American colonials met the requirements for this just war.
The Conditions for a Just Rebellion
The claim that one can engage in a just war, but still contradict God’s ideal for humanity, seems like a prima facie contradiction, but this seeming contradiction hinges on how one views the word “justified.” For an action to be justified it merely need have good reason behind it. Many actions are justified, but still viewed as less than ideal by Christians. Examples would include divorcing an unfaithful spouse, lying to save the life of another human, causing disunity in a local church body over important theological issues, and so on. One should see that when “justice” is delivered in a court by sentencing a criminal to prison, such an act is not in accord with God’s ideal; the criminal should never have to face prison because in God’s ideal the criminal would have never become a criminal. “Justice” becomes a necessary thing in a fallen world, and therefore is not ideal. Thus, to be “justified” is simply to have a “right reason” for an action in a given situation, not necessarily to follow the ideal set for humanity.
Under the above understanding of “justified,” one must ask what constitutes a “just war” and if the Colonists met the criteria for a just war. The three criteria for a just war are jus ad bellum (right action before a war), jus in bellum (right action during a war), and jus post bellum (right action after a war). For the purposes of this paper and defending the Founders in their initial rebellion, it is best to look to the criteria of jus ad bellum. The criteria for jus ad bellum are: (1) the war is called by a legitimate authority, (2) the cause must be just, (3) the ultimate goal must be peace, (4) the motive must not be hatred or vengeance, (5) war is the last resort, (6) success must be probable, (7) the means must be justified, that is, the ends cannot justify the means, (8) the means must do their best to preserve life, both of the opponent and innocent civilians, and (9) the means must meet international law. Note that rebellions could fall within the just war premise under certain conditions (namely if the government is leading the people into multiple unjust wars or if the government is attempting to rob the people of all liberty). Suffice it to say that in a rebellion, as in all wars, war ought to be the last resort after all civil and nonviolent means be exhausted in order to be justified.
A rebellion can easily fall under all the parameters for jus ad bellum even in light of the first criterion. A government derives its authority to govern from the will of the people. This is not some deep philosophical thought or an outdated version of the Enlightenment, but merely a practical observation; a government is only effective so long as people choose to follow the government. If the people refuse to pay taxes and the soldiers/police will not listen to the government, then the government has no way of exercising its authority.
Since a government derives its power from the people, should the people decide the government has abdicated its role as a worthy government, they can choose to put a new government in its place. The assembly for the revolution cannot simply be an ad hoc gathering of disgruntled citizens, but officials the populace has placed their trust in (via elections). The elected body becomes the de facto government as the consent to be governed has been given to them, but not the ruling government.
A Just War is not Ideal
While war and revolution may be justified, one must understand that Christians ought to look upon war as less than God’s ideal. The Eastern Christian distinction between ακριβεια (akribeia – God’s ideal) and οἰκονομία (oikonomia – what God will allow) help to explain how one can view war as justified (or necessary) while also viewing participation in that war as less than God’s ideal. St. Athanasius states,
“…[I]t is not right to kill, yet in war it is lawful and praiseworthy to destroy the enemy; accordingly not only are they who have distinguished themselves in the field held worthy of great honours, but monuments are put up proclaiming their achievements. So that the same act is at one time and under some circumstances unlawful, while under others, and at the right time, it is lawful and permissible.”
The quote demonstrates that even early Christians recognized that war was sometimes a necessity. Yet, one of the great Fathers of the Church, St. Basil the Great, writing hardly a generation after St. Athanasius advised priests to refuse communion for three years to soldiers who had killed in combat as a way for them to repair their relationship with God and their fellow men. The two contrasted sentiments – one that honors the soldiers and the other that recognizes the reality of their conditions – demonstrates that the early Church believed that there was an ultimate ideal for God’s people, but that due to human frailty certain things were permissible and that ideal could not always be realized.
The idea of there being a duality to the war is not limited to the Eastern Christian tradition either, but is found in the Western theory of a just-war. According to the Christian theologian John Howard Yoder, “…[T]he just-war tradition considers war an evil but claims that under specific circumstances it is justifiable as less evil than the execution of some threat which it wards off or the continuation of some system which it changes.” Yoder’s analysis of the just war position – of choosing the lesser evil – has quite a bit of Scriptural support. One can think of Rahab lying to the Canaanites about the Hebrew spies (Joshua 2:5) yet being considered righteous (James 2:25). One can even make the argument that the Mosaic Law was less than ideal and even advocated actions that God was against, but willing to tolerate given the circumstances. War, then, may go against God’s absolute ideal (ακριβεια), but still be permissible due to human frailty (οἰκονμία).
Finally, while war might be justifiable and necessary in certain situations (οἰκονμία), it is less than ideal because it fails to fit within God’s plan for humanity (ακριβεια). Certainly God did not create the world with the desire for men to rage against one another. One of the biggest problems with warfare is that it opens the door for a multitude of sinful actions. While not every soldier in every war commits atrocious acts, it is true that even in the most just wars, soldiers can sometimes give into their more base tendencies and harm innocent people. Though the consequences do not render just wars unjust, it should be understood that with war, even just wars, the propencity to sin and commit heinous acts drammatically increases. The reason for this is that war goes against human nature. While war might be necessary, forcing humans to go against their nature inherently causes additional problems for some engaged in the act of war.
Even in cases where soldiers perform amicably and in virtue, they still must face the horrible reality of war, which can destroy their souls. The violence that is inherent in warfare contradicts the imago Dei; violence goes against man’s telos. In some ways, warfare could be called a sin against the soul, in that even when a soldier is just and blameless in his actions, his soul is still tarnished by what he sees and does. Thus, just because one holds to the idea of a just war theory, one should never consider war as a good thing, but always as an evil that goes against God’s ultimate desire for man. Continue reading