Religion and Just War – an Excerpt from Handbook of Religion

The following is an excerpt from Handbook of Religion, edited by Terry Muck, Harold Netland, and Gerald McDermott.


Cover ArtThe intention behind the creation of just-war theories, for the most part, is not to justify war, but to place limits upon what is seen as the regrettable inevitability of war. Martin Luther, for example, saw the Gospels as indicating that the Christian should be a pacifist; he nonetheless recognized that the state requires the use of violence for the good of all. He therefore advocated the “two-kingdom” theory, which urges personal nonviolence for the individual Christian, while permitting limited state violence.

….The most universally cited justification for going to war (called jus ad bellum, justice in going to war, in the Roman Catholic tradition) is the notion that a ruler has a duty to protect his or her citizens—that is, self-defense. This notion is found in all the major religious traditions. Other justifications for going to war affirmed in some religions are fighting in obedience to a commandment of God (Judaism) or fighting to secure justice or to protect the helpless (Islam).

In addition to justifying going to war, just-war theorizing also has attempted to specify what actions are and are not acceptable in the course of war (the Catholic jus in bello, just conduct within war). In Islam, for example, the Qur’an stipulates that a war must be conducted on a battlefield, that only soldiers may be attacked—not women, children, the elderly, or clergy. Terrorism (attacks on civilians) is absolutely forbidden. Wounded enemies and prisoners must be humanely treated. Homes and crops may not be destroyed. The use of poisons is forbidden.

Such norms notwithstanding, it is rare indeed to see a state pull back from war for religious reasons. Perhaps the most notable exception is found in the Indian king Asoka the Great. Initially, King Asoka (third century BCE), of the powerful Mauryan dynasty, greatly expanded the empire by use of military force. After conquering the kingdom of Kalinga, Asoka came to deeply regret the heavy toll of death and su!ering that resulted from the battle. He converted to Buddhism, publicly expressed his regret for the Kalinga war, and though at the peak of his military power, forswore any future expansionist wars.

©2014 by Terry C. Muck, Harold A. Netland, Gerald R. McDermott. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.


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