Just war thinking is not just about the decision to go to war (jus ad bellum) and the ethics of how war is fought (jus in bello). A robust just war framework has as its objective what Thomas Aquinas called “the end of peace.” In the previous article of this series, I articulated a model for the ethics of war’s end (jus post bellum) that has three elements: order, justice, and conciliation. Before taking a look at justice, let’s take a step back and consider the explicitly Christian foundations for thinking about political order.
Just war scholars rightly turn to Romans 13 as a brief but comprehensive statement of political authority: the purpose of political authority is to advance the good and restrain evil. Thus, both Peter and Paul exhort us to pray for governing authorities. Paul sends personal greetings to those in public service, such as “members of Caesar’s household” and “Zenas the lawyer.” Jesus and the Apostles have encounters with representatives of Roman order, such as a centurion who worried about his daughter’s illness or Cornelius of the Italian regiment. No New Testament leader who encounters political authorities—John the Baptist, Jesus, the Apostles—ever derides government itself.
Government, alongside the family and the church, is one of the basic institutions that God has created for ordering society. The Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity and the Protestant doctrine of sphere sovereignty, though slightly different, say that God established political order as necessary for human good and flourishing. Think about the damning statement at the end of the book of Judges: “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” This is not just a statement of spiritual chaos. The book of Judges also demonstrates the feebleness of ancient Israel’s political institutions and the social rebellion and near anarchy that many common people experienced in what was supposed to be the Promised Land. That is disorder. There are lessons here for a society that chooses to turn its back on the reality of God’s moral order: its political system is doomed.
This brings us back to Ukraine. As we enter the third week of the Russian invasion, part of Moscow’s operational plan seems to be to cause as much destruction and mayhem as possible. Why do this? To create disorder. It is not clear what Russia’s original game plan was, but at this point the shelling of cities suggests an increasingly scorched-earth approach that is designed to decimate Ukraine before Russian troops pull back to some sort of defensible line. This creation of a sort of buffer wasteland, in tandem with a spiteful wanton destruction designed to punish Ukraine for fighting back, is, at its root, a policy specifically designed to erode the ability of Ukraine’s government to provide the three essential elements of political order: governance, domestic security, and international security (i.e., freedom from imminent external threats).
Consequently, what does justice look like at war’s end?
Let’s start with a few presuppositions first before looking at specifics in the Ukraine case. First, not everyone agrees that there is such a thing as moral right and wrong in international affairs. There are those who suggest that international life is just power politics, that Might makes Right. Thus, this line of thinking goes, governments (states) act on their own interests in choosing policy alternatives that seem to achieve the best material and political options for their own citizens. This may mean war; it may mean peace. It may mean competition in one arena; it may mean cooperation in another. But this line of thinking suggests that the only morality of power politics is realpolitik: the good of the state.
In contrast, there is a view that agrees that international life has elements of conflict and cooperation and that the principal duty of states is to the well-being of their own people’s security. But starting with this duty reminds us that all social life is rooted in the fundamental moral laws established by God. Different Christian traditions use the language of common grace and natural law to get at this fundamental moral order.
Thus, the first principle of justice in international relations is to recognize that there is right and wrong in international life, not just who is stronger and who is weaker. Justice behooves us, therefore, to categorically say that the Russian invasion and its destructive nature is wrong. It is wrong in its motives; it is wrong in its wanton aggression; it is wrong in the violation of international covenants signed by Russia. Justice begins by recognizing the moral qualities of the situation.
Of course, there are more moral elements to the situation, not least of which is the growing hatred in many Ukrainian and Russian hearts. But, for now, we will focus our attention in the next essay on defining justice (“getting what one deserves”) and the principles of restoration and punishment.