The year 2018 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Paul Ramsey’s The Just War: Force and Political Responsibility. It takes far less than 50 years to forget most books, but there are three important reasons why The Just War should be remembered and read by those who haven’t yet encountered it, or reread by those who have. The first reason is that this book, together with its older sibling War and the Christian Conscience, began the contemporary recovery of the just war idea for ethical, policy, and military thought and debate. The second reason is that Ramsey’s theological methodology in these books, centering on the Christian idea of love of neighbor, remains a provocative model for focused Christian ethical thinking about these matters. And third, in addition to developing a love-based conception of just war, Ramsey also undertook a robust engagement with the then-ongoing secular policy debate about nuclear weapons, their possible use in war, and deterrence. By the time The Just War was published, he had also entered the policy debate over issues connected to the war in Vietnam. His engagement in both these debates was well-grounded, knowledgeable, and substantive, with much that remains relevant for present-day debates over nuclear weapons, uses of armed force, and the role of power in international politics. Each of these reasons deserves a close look.

Ramsey Recovers Just War Idea

First, Ramsey’s two books from the 1960s began the recovery of the just war idea that has proceeded vigorously for the last half-century. When Ramsey wrote these books, no one had produced a scholarly, theologically based volume on just war for over three and a half centuries, since the publication of Francisco Suarez’s lecture De Bello, first delivered in the academic year 1583–84. Gentili and Grotius, younger contemporaries of Suarez, treated just war in their writings but used the tradition not as a focus in itself but as a basis for their more substantive interest in the law of nations. In Grotius and his scholarly successors Pufendorf, Wolff, and Vattel, just war tradition was in fact transformed into a law of nations founded on common agreement among the nations of Western Europe. During the American Civil War, Francis Lieber and others referred to this body of common agreement on war as “the laws and customs of war.” As positive international law began to come together late in the nineteenth century, it was on this customary-law basis. As international positive law on war continued to develop during the two world wars and afterward, though, the link to the moral tradition of just war disappeared altogether, and even the connection to the earlier “laws and customs of war” disappeared from the positive law, which in the twentieth century came to be entirely regarded as based on positive international agreements.

By the time Ramsey wrote in the 1960s, not only had the moral idea of just war long faded from the scene, but so had the specifically religious stake in this moral idea. One important result was the drift of the churches and Christian individuals either toward acceptance of the international order as an expression of moral imperative or, as regards war, to a pacifist rejection of all war in international relations. Ramsey took note of the latter in the introduction to War and the Christian Conscience (pp. xvii-xxiii) while arguing that the implications of the Christian ethical ideal of love pointed to very different outcomes. He never left behind his argument against pacifism as he further developed his thought on just war: chapter 12 of The Just War laid out a response to the Catholic pacifist James Douglass, who had attacked the just war idea as defined by Ramsey in War and the Christian Conscience as inadequate to the Christian ethic of love, and his final book on the subject, a critique of the United Methodist Bishops’ pastoral letter “In Defense of Creation” was titled Speak Up for Just War or Pacifism. Pacifist opposition to war of any kind for any purposes remained an important current in Christian thought, feeding into both opposition to nuclear weapons and to the war in Vietnam—the two contexts in which Ramsey developed and argued his just war position in the 1960s. In international political relations and in military affairs, there was simply no conception of the idea of just war. Both Christian and secular internationalist forms of pacifism grew to fill the space left for moral reasoning in both arenas. Ramsey’s effort to recover the just war idea thus was importantly an effort to counter this development.

Pacifist opposition to war was, on Ramsey’s view, ultimately inadequate as a moral stance on war: when wars nonetheless took place, pacifism, with its leveling of all forms of violence and all reasons for it as equally evil, had nothing left to say except “stop.” Ramsey’s effort to restore just war reasoning to thinking about war and its conduct aimed to ensure that morality had something more to say: hence his subtitle to War and the Christian Conscience: How Shall Modern War Be Conducted Justly? His reflections led him inexorably to consideration of the morality of power and its use in the practice of responsible politics and to thinking about the use of force in relation to the moral use of power: hence the subtitle to The Just War: Force and Political Responsibility. Though he defined just war as rooted in the obligations imposed by Christian love of neighbor, which many Christians regarded as entirely bearing on person-to-person relationships, for Ramsey this love also imposed obligations on the responsible use of political power, up to and including the use of armed force. Before him Reinhold Niebuhr had argued much the same about the necessity of a morally informed politics, though for him Christian love could not reach so far, and the relevant moral criterion was justice. Niebuhr too sought to address and answer questions pacifism could never treat adequately, but he had no use for the idea of just war, which he dismissed (using a reference to Suarez on another matter) as an expression tied to Catholic theology on natural law, which he entirely rejected.[i]

Three Legs of the Recovery of the Just War Idea

For Ramsey, when he wrote his two books on just war in the 1960s, the development of nuclear weapons and the policy debates about deterrence and the possible use of these weapons in war made the need for a new, substantive Christian approach to thinking about the ethics of war all the more pressing. His turn to the just war idea provided a new way to think morally about nuclear weapons and about the ethics of war more generally, and it set in train a current of moral reflection that still flows strongly. I have in other contexts described the recovery of the just war idea in the latter part of the twentieth century as resting on three major legs: Ramsey’s two just war books from the 1960s together make up the first leg; Michael Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars, which appeared nine years after Ramsey’s The Just War, and the United States National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter, “The Challenge of Peace,” which appeared six years after that, define the second and third legs. Both the latter made reference to Ramsey. Walzer disagreed with him on matters concerned with nuclear deterrence. The bishops both invited Ramsey to present his thinking on just war to the drafting committee of bishops charged to prepare the pastoral letter, and mentioned him in the letter itself as one of the earlier figures acknowledged in a note on “representative surveys of the history and theology of the just-war tradition.” Both Walzer and the bishops developed their own distinctive conceptions of just war. Walzer did so on the basis of human rights and positive law on war, which he called “the legalist paradigm” but nevertheless took quite seriously. The bishops adopted a conception of just war first developed on the basis of the philosopher W.D. Ross’s ethics of prima facie obligation. Walzer’s book drew political philosophers into the arena of debate on just war, which today has eventuated in the “revisionist” just war thought best known in the work of Jeff McMahon and Cecile Fabre. The Catholic bishops, because of the attention by national media to the work of the drafting committee, proved the vehicle by which the idea of just war would enter a broad public consciousness, and because of their assumed influence over Catholics in military service, brought discussion of just war firmly into the arena of military thought and teaching on the ethics of war. Both these books, then and since, have made important contributions to the recovery of just war thought. Without the two books by Ramsey that first drew attention to the just war idea, though, one may reasonably ask whether the recovery of the just war idea would have in fact begun, and Ramsey’s influence continues to run deep in moral reflection on just war.

Neither Ramsey, Walzer, nor the Catholic bishops, though they all sought to recover the just war idea and its use, sought to recover just war tradition in itself. Others motivated to write about just war beginning in this same period did look back to the earlier tradition, which had a long history and substantial impact. An important figure among these others was William V. O’Brien, professor of government at Georgetown, whose The Conduct of Just and Limited War employed the understanding of just war in Thomas Aquinas’ quaestio “On War” (Summa theologiae II/II, Q. 40), exploring it for the contemporary context by connecting it to the theory and practice of limited war, then itself the subject of much discussion in scholarly and policy circles. O’Brien in fact did more with Aquinas on just war than it occurred to the bishops to do, and his book stands as a fuller link to the earlier Catholic tradition than the bishops’ pastoral letter provided. This was also the period in which I began my own work on the just war idea, but for me this meant to recover this idea as defined and carried in the historical tradition from the High Middle Ages into the Modern Period. What struck me about this tradition was how it came into being and developed as a result of both religious and secular influences, so that the idea of just war that resulted defined a broad cultural consensus as to the purpose of armed force (broadly, response to injustice that could be countered no other way), the necessary authority for use of such force (that of the sovereign ruler, who bore final responsibility for a just and peaceful order in the political community and in relations among such communities), and right conduct in the use of armed force thus defined and mandated.

Christian Love & Just War

While I continue to think there is value to be gained from attending to this historical tradition and the idea of just war found there, there is also value in the effort of Ramsey, Walzer, and the Catholic bishops to understand just war in terms of contemporary forms of moral reasoning. This leads us to the second reason for returning attention to Ramsey’s The Just War and War and the Christian Conscience: his use of the Christian ethical ideal of love of neighbor as the basis for his conception of the just war idea. When Ramsey began his scholarly career and when he wrote his two just war books from the 1960s, the love ideal had been central in Protestant Christian individual and social ethics for more than a half-century. But the way this ideal had been understood and applied left a somewhat mixed legacy, and Ramsey, for his part, took a somewhat different tack.

One part of this legacy reached back to prominent late-nineteenth-century preachers like Henry Drummond, who understood the dimensions of such love as providing a moral pattern by which each individual Christian could live a Christ-like life. This remains a theme in some sectors of American Protestantism today. More particularly, though, in the early twentieth century this way of thinking, which was essentially that Christian life should be one of individual perfection, fed into the development of Christian pacifism, and thus it was a perspective that Ramsey opposed in his own understanding of love and his thinking on just war.

Another part of the love legacy developed most strongly in the early decades of the twentieth century: Walter Rauschenbusch’s transformation of the love ideal into a social ethic whereby American society as a whole could be developed through love into the Kingdom of God on Earth. The movement that came out of this theology was the Social Gospel Movement. Like the Christian individualistic moralism that traces back to Drummond and his contemporaries, this movement continues to have influence in certain aspects of contemporary American Protestantism.

Reinhold Niebuhr, though, early in his career wrote two books opposing Christian individual and social idealism and the conception of love it assumed: Moral Man and Immoral Society (first published 1932) and An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (first published 1935). Niebuhr, the most influential Christian ethicist in the generation before Ramsey’s, rejected both Drummond’s and Rauschenbusch’s ways of thinking and indeed all those streams in Christian ethics rooted in the optimistic idealism of the late nineteenth century, which presented Christ-like love as able to be realized both in individual relations and in social life. Rather, he argued, such love is always an “impossible possibility” In individual relations, such love was impossible because only Christ has the power to love in this way, while in societies such love is impossible because of conflicting claims not all of which can be realized due to human finitude. While he granted that a Christian individual might succeed in self-giving love to another individual when granted grace by Christ to do so, this is Christ at work, not the Christian individual’s moral power. Nor does what is possible in any Christian as an individual extend to social relations, both within the political order and in relations among nations: here the best that could be achieved was a form of justice that approximated love. Understood this way, the moral use of force had to do with serving justice, which among other things aimed at combating evils. But this reasoning did not lead him to the concept of just war; just the contrary. In his next major work, The Nature and Destiny of Man,[ii] in the context of an extended criticism and rejection of Catholic natural law theory, he dismissed “the Catholic theory of a ‘just war’ as a case in point” (Niebuhr 1964: 283 and n. 1). As Niebuhr’s theological method was so heavily weighted toward laying bare the conflicts of power and interests within and among nations, conflicts rooted in human finitude and sinfulness, he never in fact developed a positive theologically oriented way of talking about the ethics of war—either the resort to war or the conduct of war. This was the realist side of his Christian realism, which opened the door to extreme measures of war in the effort to combat evil that stood in the way of a just order that might approximate the possibilities of love.

Ramsey’s working from the moral ideal of love of neighbor to his concept of just war sought to fill the empty middle ground between pacifist rejection of all war, indeed any use of military force, and the limits of Niebuhr’s Christian realism, which opened the door to all-out methods of war. The pacifists, Ramsey argued, were wrong to regard the use of armed force in itself as evil; rather, when the neighbor is threatened or harmed by the actions of another, the obligation to love that neighbor becomes the obligation to protect him or her from the offered threat or action, and this may justify the use of armed force. At the same time, the offender is himself a neighbor whom the Christian must love, and this means that in such a situation only such means may be used that are sufficient to protect the neighbor-victim. Thus, argued Ramsey, the Christian mandate to love the neighbor generates two different moral directives in the case of war: on the one hand, permission—even obligation—to use armed force to protect the neighbor who is being menaced or attacked, and on the other a restraint on the force that may be used against the enemy, who is after all also a neighbor the Christian is commanded to love. This was a very different way of thinking about war from that of Niebuhr, an aspect of whose Christian realism was to present war as fundamentally participation in evil, justified only in a consequential way by the need to prevent a greater evil. Ramsey’s conception of just war was fundamentally different from Niebuhr’s Christian realism; it centered on his understanding of the meaning of the unconditional obligation of all Christians to love the neighbor, which he focused on two moral principles: permission and limitation/restraint. In traditional just war terms, the former established the jus ad bellum, the moral rationale for resorting to war, while the two together established the jus in bello, the moral limits for fighting in war.

Unpacking the latter, Ramsey turned to the rule of double effect, which he developed out of Thomas Aquinas’ reasoning on the question whether it is lawful to kill a man in self-defense.[iii] For Ramsey, this rule is not derived from natural moral reasoning but is rather an expression of love, a moral rule of procedure that expresses how the Christian should exercise love of neighbor. Exploring this for the case of war, and in the context of the moral dyad permission and limitation, love allows using force against an enemy because of the threat the enemy poses to harm one’s near neighbors, the noncombatants on one’s own side; yet it never allows direct and intended use of force against noncombatants on the enemy’s side, because they too are functionally innocent of prosecuting the war. This reasoning allows indirect, unintended harm to enemy noncombatants as a secondary, unwilled result of the permitted harm to enemy combatants.

Thinking in this way, Ramsey rejected Niebuhr’s position that in social contexts an ethic of love can only be approximated, becoming an ethic of justice. Ramsey’s argument was that love is present all the way through, and double effect shows the way to moral action in accord with what love requires.          

Dependence on Scriptures

While Ramsey used Aquinas and later thinkers to explore the rule of double effect, his core understanding of the ethic of neighbor-love depended directly on the scriptures. Ramsey’s first book, Basic Christian Ethics, provides his most thorough and systematic exploration and analysis of the ideal of love, and this is the basis on which he argues in his just war books of the following decade. Whereas Niebuhr had grounded his rejection of the Social Gospel ideal of the Kingdom of God as a human possibility in a barbed critique focused on human weakness and sin, Ramsey simply dismissed the idea of the Kingdom of God as a human possibility in history as something “few Christians” in fact accept.[iv] What remains, though, from Jesus’ own eschatological expectations is the idea that God may break into history at any time, and to be ready one must follow Jesus’s ideal of love of every neighbor as a manifestation of perfect obedience to God.[v] Ramsey’s derivation of the ethic of neighbor-love was thus deeply and intentionally scriptural, originating directly in the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the New Testament.

Ramsey laid all this out in the first third of Basic Christian Ethics. In the remainder of that book he built from this basis to his own conception of a Christian ethic for the full range of human life: how the ethic of love relates to other kinds of value, to human virtue, to the obligation to protect the neighbor in times of need, to the valuing of human personality for its own sake, to necessity of love for the creation and preservation of community, and ultimately to provide a foundation for social policy and life in community. The direct antecedents of his thinking on just war can be found in his discussion of “A Preferential Ethics of Protection and the Teachings of Jesus” and “A Christian Ethic of Resistance,”[vi] and particularly his analysis of the implications of the Gospel parable of the Good Samaritan there. In his discussion of Christian love, there is nothing remotely resembling the self-centered focus on personal moral perfection found in Drummond. There is a positive judgment on human moral possibility that falls somewhere between Rauschenbusch’s untrammeled idealism and Niebuhr’s deep pessimism. Ultimately, the result is a conception of neighbor-love which, though Christians encounter it in the teachings of Jesus, in fact is a necessary ingredient for human social and community life the world over. Love, for Ramsey, does not make a moral claim only on Christians; its implications claim everyone. In an echo of earlier Christian ethical and political thought, he concluded Basic Christian Ethics by arguing for the importance of the Christian conception of humanity and human relations as necessary for the fullness of life in community. Thus he anticipated the kind of argument he also made in his conception of just war: the idea of just war begins specifically with the Christian moral obligation of love of neighbor, but it extends inexorably to apply across the whole range of human experience.

To Nuke or Not: When to Go to War & How to Fight

As Ramsey developed his understanding of just war he largely, if not entirely, left the matter of just resort to war to the arena of statecraft, arguing that as a moralist he had neither the expertise nor the status required to lead a political community into war—a caution other moralists and theologians have not often heeded. His position on this mirrored the thought preserved in classical just war tradition, where the necessary authority for resort to just war lies not in the spiritual realm but is specifically temporal: the classical just war requirement of sovereign authority as necessary for just resort to force correlated directly with the responsibility such a sovereign authority has for the good of the political community as a whole.

Ramsey’s major concern was with how war is fought, the arena of the just war jus in bello, and specifically the moral limits love of neighbor places on warfighting. He developed these limits with particular reference to the possible use of nuclear weapons. Ramsey’s entry into the debate over nuclear weapons and their use provides another major reason for attention to The Just War and its earlier sibling, War and the Christian Conscience.


Given the centrality of love of neighbor in Ramsey’s understanding of just war and its implications, it is striking that in the phase of his career that began after The Just War, when he shifted his focus powerfully to medical ethics, he chose a different biblical norm, covenant, as the center of his position. It is not as if covenant had no place in his earlier ethics: it ties closely to his strong emphasis on community in Basic Christian Ethics, though there he had connected community to the norm of love. He never explained why he made this shift, but doing so opened new possibilities for his reflections on ethics. Nor is there any inherent tension between these two norms. Rather, neighbor-love for Ramsey creates and preserves community, and community is marked by covenantal relationships among its members. The idea of covenant was also central in the theology of Jonathan Edwards, to whose thought Ramsey shifted his focus in the final stage of his career as he engaged in editing some of Edwards’ Works. Nor did Ramsey entirely abandon writing on love in the later years of his career and life: among the examples of this, Edwards’ own emphasis on love stands out.

But Ramsey’s shift in focal ethical norms leaves behind an interesting question: What should Christian ethics today do when seeking to enter debates over political ethics, specifically with reference to the idea of just war as a component in debates over policy and practice regarding war? There is no longer the broad interest in the norm of love that Ramsey drew on in his early books on just war. This interest was, for better or worse, tied to liberal Protestantism, and it did not successfully cross over into today’s dominant evangelicalism. So maybe a Christian political ethic based on the norm of covenant offers new possibilities, though this takes us beyond the immediate context of Ramsey’s two just war books of the 1960s.

Not a Pretender: Deep Engagement with Nuclear Weapons & Vietnam Debates

The third reason for carefully recalling Ramsey’s The Just War and its earlier just war sibling has to do with the rich substance of his engagement, in these books, with the energetic theoretical and policy debates that were then going on in the secular policy community. These debates centered on nuclear weapons, their possible use in war, and deterrence, and a bit later on, issues raised by the war in Vietnam. Ramsey read deeply and widely within this secular policy debate, and the people he cited in his extended and probing analyses—Oskar Morgenstern, Herman Kahn, Thomas Murray, Kenneth Boulding, Thomas Schelling, Albert Wohlstetter, Peter Green, and others—were major figures in that debate. Ramsey was no dilettante in his scholarship: he always immersed himself deeply in any subject he treated, and so his engagement in the secular policy debates of the 1960s was that of one with a right to be there—a peer of the partners he engaged in dialogue, not a pretender.

An important lesson to be learned from attention to Ramsey’s analytical and argumentative entry into these secular debates is that the serious ethicist must become well-grounded in the subject he or she would treat. A second lesson has to do with the enduring substance of Ramsey’s discussions then: while the topics he engaged were just being thought through for the first time, they were not unique to that era but continue to arise in policy debates up through the present. The answers given then, as well as the complications uncovered, thus continue to be relevant in the present context. An important value in Ramsey’s careful, detailed entry into the debates of that earlier time is their drawing attention to issues that continue to demand to be dealt with, as well as answers that continue to have force.

An example of this is the present-day debate, which so far has mostly been carried on in policy circles, over how the United States’ nuclear weapons should be upgraded. Existing nuclear weapons systems, both warheads and delivery vehicles, are aging, and much of their technology reflects what was possible decades ago. An element in the current debate is whether to move to downsized nuclear weapons with a lower yield than the ones they would replace, both because downsizing technology is more advanced today and because the accuracy of delivery systems today is much greater than that of the systems being replaced. Much of Ramsey’s reasoning about counter-forces nuclear targeting bears directly on the issues in the current debate over downsizing. The same can be said about other ideas advanced in Ramsey’s The Just War and its earlier sibling.

Paul Ramsey & Reinhold Niebuhr: Just War vs. Christian Realism

Earlier, I briefly discussed the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr and Ramsey’s critical relationship to it. For a variety of reasons, it is hard to think about Paul Ramsey’s thinking on just war and its relation to the sphere of political life without thinking also of the work of Niebuhr, and I want to return to that earlier discussion in a more focused way. Ramsey’s The Just War bore the subtitle Force and Political Responsibility; these two themes were also major subjects in the work of Reinhold Niebuhr. The central ethical norm in Ramsey’s conception of just war and his development of that conception as a guide for policy and political decision-making was Christian love; this same moral focus runs through Niebuhr’s work from its beginnings in the 1930s to his final work in the 1950s. Yet on close look, not only did Ramsey’s way of conceiving and working with the norm of Christian love differ importantly from Niebuhr’s, but Ramsey’s thinking about political responsibility and the use of armed force through the idea of just war also differed significantly from Niebuhr’s outright rejection of the just war idea and his particular effort to define a moral place for the use of armed force in international relations. This latter was closely tied to Niebuhr’s conception of Christian realism, and so we return to the question, What is the relation of Ramsey’s just war thinking to Niebuhr’s Christian realism?

Niebuhr’s Christian realism was a development and expression of a particular theological perspective Niebuhr had developed early in his career and expressed in two books from the 1930s referred to above, Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) and An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (1935). In the first book he described two forms of Christianity: “orthodox” and “prophetic,” the former referring to the established churches that stressed doctrine and rules for behavior which, in Niebuhr’s view, misrepresented Christianity and locked it into patterns of the past, and the latter referring to a form of Christianity which worked from a focus on love to continual criticism and reformation of these patterns and also of social and political injustices. In An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, he covered similar ground through the conception of love as an “impossible possibility”—impossible for human action alone because of human imperfection and sinfulness, but possible for God working in history. Part of Niebuhr’s conception of Christian realism was tied to this judgment on the possibilities and limits of politics relative to the ideal of love: politics inherently requires the use of power, which must be accepted as “a necessary evil. But it must know that it is an evil and that injustice inevitably flows from its unchecked expression.” It was a short step from this both to Niebuhr’s argument for the struggle against Hitlerism (a clear moral evil requiring coercive opposition) and his rejection of the just war idea as he understood it.

Niebuhr had only a very limited idea of just war, tied to a brief passage from the seventeenth-century Spanish Jesuit Francisco Suarez. For Niebuhr, the just war idea was an expression of “orthodox Christianity,” based on the idea of natural law, which for Niebuhr overstated the possibilities of human reason and action for good in the world and belonged to a past age. This dismissal of the just war idea appeared in volume 1 of The Nature and Destiny of Man in the context of a critical rejection of natural law; just war, as an example of an idea based on natural law, Niebuhr used to exemplify what was wrong with natural law, and his rejection of the just war idea was collateral damage. But Niebuhr’s discussion there showed how thin was his understanding of just war and what Suarez wrote on it. The passage Niebuhr quoted from Suarez was from the latter’s De Legibus, where just war is treated only briefly and in a limited way, and Niebuhr showed no knowledge whatsoever of Suarez’s longer treatise De Bello, which laid out his full understanding of just war.

On war, Niebuhr’s position was that evil must be opposed, but the realities of the imperfection and sinfulness of the world mean that the opposition necessarily also will involve the use of evil means. This was fundamentally a utilitarian ethical position of maximizing the good while minimizing the evil, though Niebuhr advanced it in the name of the divinely assisted possibility of a prophetic understanding of Christian love to oppose evil in the world.

The two poles of Niebuhr’s Christian realism are thus his conception of human sinfulness and imperfection which require reformation and his idea of Christian love as able to call this out “prophetically” and to seek to remedy it, while necessarily introducing new forms of injustice in the process.

Ramsey’s understanding of the power of Christian love to shape individual lives and social forms was deeply different. The son of a Methodist minister who served churches in northern Mississippi, Ramsey was taught that Christian love could indeed change individuals toward moral perfection, and through them society, though no one should ever expect that this changing could be completed in this life, and “backsliding” was always a real possibility. His preferred part of the Bible was the New Testament (for him the Bible should be read backward, first the New and then the Old Testament), rather than the Hebrew prophets who provided the model for Reinhold Niebuhr’s “prophetic” Christianity. In his divinity school and doctoral studies, Ramsey chose to work not with Reinhold but with his brother H. Richard Niebuhr, who had a much deeper theological education, a nuanced historical and theological understanding of American Christianity, and a particular affinity for the thought of Augustine. Ramsey’s clearest and most succinct explanation of how Christian love bears on political reality in history comes not in either of his just war books from the 1960s but from an essay he contributed to an edited volume published five years after The Just War.[vii] There Ramsey drew directly from Richard Niebuhr’s characterization of Augustine’s theology as “transformationist” in his book Christ and Culture.[viii] Richard Niebuhr had argued there that Augustine understood divine grace to have entered history once and for all with Christ and subsequently is working within history to transform it toward the City of God at the end of time. Ramsey similarly argued that Christian love is now a force working within history to shape and transform politics, and thus the effects of love should properly be taken into account in the pursuit of good politics. As he put the matter then, “Ethics are not logically, externally related to politics. These two distinguishable elements are together in the first place, internally related.”[ix] Or as he wrote more pithily later in this article, “The just war theory [is] an ethics intrinsic to the nature of politics and to a purposeful use of force.”[x] This is a way of thinking very different from Reinhold Niebuhr’s.

What does this tell us about Ramsey’s relation to Christian realism? Earlier I wrote that Ramsey’s conception of just war was fundamentally different from Niebuhr’s Christian realism. Ramsey never used the term “Christian realist” of himself, and he was certainly not a Christian realist in the way Reinhold Niebuhr defined this term. But Christian realism can also be understood more generally as referring to a position that takes account of both the limits and the possibilities of historical life in its individual, social, institutional, and political forms. Augustine certainly did this, and so did Ramsey. It might be more revealing to refer to Ramsey as an Augustinian realist, but both Augustine and Ramsey were Christian realists in the more general sense I have defined. The difference from Reinhold Niebuhr is that both Augustine and Ramsey held that there are positive norms that Christians should follow in their historical lives, that their efforts should embody the possibilities placed in them by love, and that these efforts should be directed at two ends: preservation of the world despite the presence of sin as long as history lasts, and preparation of the world for its final transformation at the end of history, when the City of Earth will give way to the City of God. This is the sense in which Ramsey’s understanding of just war and its place in relation to policy and political decision-making can be described as a Christian realist position, though it is quite different from Reinhold Niebuhr’s conception of Christian realism.


The recent fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Paul Ramsey’s The Just War provides the occasion for this piece, but thinking about this book necessarily leads to reflection on the shape of his earlier thought and ideas developed there. While the centrality of Christian love of neighbor was Ramsey’s moral focus in both The Just War and its earlier sibling on the same topic, War and the Christian Conscience, Ramsey’s Christian ethics reflected the influence of the New Testament on his thinking. His emphasis on love of neighbor came directly out of this. As I noted above, in fundamental ways his multifaceted development of the implications of Christian love of neighbor in his first book, Basic Christian Ethics, provided the foundation for the structure of moral argument he erected in writing on the idea of just war. Specifically, for his subsequent writing on just war as based on an ethic of Christian love, Ramsey’s discussion of the biblical story of the Good Samaritan provides a preview. Here he approvingly quoted an earlier writer, L.A. Garrard:

When I try to imagine what would have happened had Jesus come upon the scene a little earlier than the Good Samaritan, I find it more natural to suppose that he would have helped the traveler in his struggle with the thieves than that he would have waited until the man was injured and the thieves departed before coming to his aid.[xi]

Ramsey returned to the Good Samaritan story in The Just War, picking up where he had left off in Basic Christian Ethics:

It was a work of charity for the Good Samaritan to give help to the man who fell among thieves. But one step more, it may have been a work of charity for the inn-keeper to hold himself ready to receive beaten and wounded men, and for him to conduct his business so that he was solvent enough to extend credit to the Good Samaritan. By another step it would have been a work of charity, and not of justice alone, to maintain and serve in a police patrol on the Jericho road to prevent such things from happening. By yet another step, it might well be work of charity to resist, by force of arms, any external aggression against the social order that maintains the police patrol along the road to Jericho… What do you think Jesus would have made the Samaritan do if he had come upon the scene while the robbers were still at their fell work?[xii]

Ramsey here describes the moral motivation as “charity” (Christian love), but by his reasoning in “A Political Ethics Context,” it is also the proper work of politics to do all these things: what is required by love is not distinguishable from what is required by politics properly understood and practiced.

In both his fundamental thinking about Christian love and its relation to other ethical norms and his application of this thinking to the idea of just war, Ramsey separated himself from the thinking of Reinhold Niebuhr. Just war is a positive implication of Christian love, not a necessary evil to combat a greater evil. So far as it is based on natural law, Ramsey’s discussion of natural law and other forms of philosophical ethics in Basic Christian Ethics presents them as not in opposition to love but as pointers toward what love requires. A realistic appraisal of the world is a necessary element in Ramsey’s ethical thinking in general and his work on just war as a part of this; yet his Christian realism was not that of Reinhold Niebuhr, and it provides much that is worth considering for a Christian engagement with the arena of international affairs.

[i] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964) 283. Originally published in two volumes, vol. 1, 1941, vol. 2, 1943.

[ii] Niebuhr 1964, 283 and n. 1.

[iii] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II/II. Q. 64, Art. 7; Ramsey 1961, 39-59.

[iv] Paul Ramsey, Basic Christian Ethics (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1950), 35.

[v] Ibid., 39.

[vi] Ibid., 166-84.

[vii] Paul Ramsey, “A Political Ethics Context for Strategic Thinking,” in Morton A. Kaplan, Strategic Thinking and Its Moral Implications (Chicago: The University of Chicago Center for Policy Study), 101-46.

[viii] H. Richard Niebhur, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1951), chapter 6.

[ix] Kaplan 1973, 125.

[x] Ibid., 144.

[xi] Ramsey 1950, 170 n. 3.

[xii] Ramsey 1968, 142-43.