In Part III of their short-run series on just war, editors Marc LiVecche and Daniel Strand discuss the jus ad bellum requirement of just cause, including reflection on protecting the innocent, requiting injustice, and punishing sufficiently grave evil. Along the way, they indulge pertinent segues to reflect on the purpose of retribution, the cross, Christian non-violence, and much else. With faces made for radio and voices for silent film, LiVecche and Strand offer a contemporary reflection on a timeless issue.

Rough Transcript

LiVecche: Hello everybody, I am Marc LiVecche. I am the executive editor of Providence magazine, and I am here with Daniel Strand, who is a professor at the Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama. And we are here for the third episode of True North. In this series, we are giving an overview of the classical Just War tradition. This is the third episode, as I’ve said. We’ve done two already, an overview of the whole tradition and a specific look at legitimate authority. Today we are going to be discussing just cause. Just cause is one of the three sometimes called deontological components of the jus ad bellum frame of the Just War tradition, meaning there are three primary things that have to be in place before going to war could be considered justified. You need legitimate authority, you need just cause, and you need a right intent. Today is just cause. So, Daniel, launch us off. What is just cause and why is it necessary to have a just cause before you embark upon a war?

Strand: Yeah, so people will debate exactly what is the primary of the main three. Some people will emphasize authority. Right intent usually is not lifted up as kind of the most primary, but it’s usually authority or just cause as kind of, you could say, which one takes precedent maybe. But leaving that aside, it is, and this goes all the way back to the Greeks and Romans, that even if when you read these accounts of the Roman Senate deliberating you find it just a bunch of smoke and mirrors, they at least thought they had to have some reason, a good reason, some injustice that was done, and that is carried over into what we call the Christian Just War tradition or whatever you want to call it. Augustine emphasizes this. And when you see them in debates in Canon law and in the sort of theological formulations, the medieval period, it also plays a primary role that there needs to be some fundamental wrong that was done. This leads to the way it’s formulated today, at least in terms of the UN Charter Article 51 says that all war must be in self-defense. Now that’s I think a problematic way to state it. You can understand why when the UN Charter was written, it was written that way. At least it has to do with the vision of the UN. But I think it at least is carrying forth the spirit. If not, at least it’s trying to, I think. You and I would probably agree that it doesn’t quite capture it. In many ways it’s probably deficient. But at least it’s capturing this idea that there needs to be a wrong. And that whatever that wrong is, and you can kind of break down those with the traditional way, that those wrongs have been discussed. But there needs to be a wrong being done or potentially done. I mean, this is a big debate today, which is called a preventative war or a preemptive war. It’s a distinction that they make. But if a war is about if wrong is about to be done, especially when it comes to issues of drones or remotely planted aircraft and the use by the American and other governments, some would argue that that’s not a legitimate cause. That, you know, terrorists in Somalia building bombs, even if we know that they’ve committed wrongs in the past and that they were explicitly allied with al-Qaeda or some other cell that’s related to a terrorist organization that wants to inflict harm on America or allies, some would say that’s not sufficient. And we get to a lot of other issues, but I’ll stop right there before I get off on too much of a tangent.

LiVecche: Well, that’s great. I mean, that’s a ton of stuff, so let’s try to break that down. I think when we first gave an overview of the Just War tradition in our first episode in this series, we talked about how the Just War tradition looks at, you’ve got the three deontological criteria of right authority, just cause, and right intent. And Jim Johnson in articles past has said that these map nicely onto Augustine’s understanding of the three political goods: right of order, justice, and peace. So, legitimate authority is proper order, right cause is justice, right, and you’ve identified that if just cause has something to do with justice, or specifically an injustice, then there’s been some wrong that has to be righted. And if it has to be righted then the implication is it is a sufficiently grave injustice, not just any old injustice. A snub, some sort of modest territorial violation, an accident, something like this. It has to be pretty grave. Then you’ve touched on the understandability but inadequacy of pointing to self-defense as the justified cause, and I wonder if this begins to correspond with this notion of injustice, because one wouldn’t have to work too hard to imagine that there’s some forms of self-defense that I actually have no right to. Is that possible?

Strand: Such as what would you say?

LiVecche: Well, if I attacked you because I wanted your glasses and you attacked me back, if I start to defend my young, now let’s imagine a wild hyperbole, now you start to just pummel me all right, we can suspend disbelief, accept this, and I start to try to defend myself against you, technically if I’m the aggressor I don’t have a right to self-defense. So, to simply say self-defense is in some ways potentially misleading. I think that’s why Thomas Aquinas breaks it down and he has qualifiers, protect the innocent. I could be innocent. In this case you were innocent; I was trying to snatch your glasses. You have a right to defend yourself because you’re innocent. You know you’re undeserving of your right, and that certainly works, as with individuals, for nations. Yeah, nations might not be liable to attack. They’ve done nothing to warrant it, and now they have a right to self-defense because it was an unprovoked attack. And potentially other nations have a right to come to their aid because, again, we’re protecting the innocent. So, I guess that’s my second problem with self-defense is it’s sort of built into it that it’s “self”-defense, but what if some other dude is trying to take your glasses and I come along and I want to defend my friend? Do I have a right to do that?

Strand: Yeah, so here’s my question, and I want to hear what you think about this. A lot of people want to root contemporary conversations of Just War in the idea of human rights, and I know some people, some of our colleagues, would probably lean towards something like that or at least see it as not problematic. And here’s where I don’t know, tell me if this is quibbling, or I’d be interested in what you think. Is there? Because human rights language I think collapses into exactly what you’re saying. I’m fine with saying that humans have certain rights, but I think it needs to be grounded in sort of what I would just say a moral law of some sort. So, the word law is something that I feel like stands over and above human rights and sort of grounds it. Moral law, transcendent law of some sort. And we’re trying to discern what that is, and it’s not always clear. But I guess that’s where I feel like you elapsed into this incoherence, because if we’re just thinking every individual, the reason why we can make that distinction between people who can and can’t who have a legitimate claim to defend themselves is because there’s a law above us that helps us to see that distinction. Otherwise, if we just say human dignity and so forth and work out from there, then I think you end up with an incoherent opposition. Unproblematic?

LiVecche: Not problematic to me. I can imagine it being problematic for many. Why the turn to human rights as the justification for these sorts of things? What do you think is the grounding, or what is the motive behind that?

Strand: I mean, human rights is just the language that we all use today, at least amongst international lawyers. I can’t see a lot of international lawyers, maybe they would say that there is some sort of “moral law,” but it wouldn’t be a moral law, I don’t know what it would be. I think most of them make appeals to human rights because we no longer make appeals to something like a moral law. I can’t imagine an international lawyer, or many Just War people who are not people of faith, being comfortable with the idea of a transcendent law that grounds what we do. Do you feel that same way?

LiVecche: Yeah, I do. I absolutely do. And it seems to me that one of the groups that benefits from, maybe we can call it the classical Just War perspective versus a human rights-oriented perspective, one of the groups that benefits from the classical perspective it seems to me would be the weak and the innocent, the powerless. More specifically, not just the innocent and the powerless, because simply because there’s somebody out there who is having their rights trampled, I’m not quite sure how that translates to me or you having to give a rip, right. Maybe somebody else has to take care of them. Why do their rights impinge on my freedoms or all of a sudden result in my having a duty? We’re talking about something bigger than that. Then all of a sudden, the burden shifts from simply trying to figure out who is responsible for meeting these rights. All of a sudden, I just have a set of duties because I’m a human being and there are other human beings who need help, which gets us into all sorts of sticky things. So, I often break just cause into three discrete, obviously overlapping but maybe separable, terms. One being protect the innocent, as we’ve said. The other is to take back what’s been wrongly taken, right, territory could be such stuff. And then the third is to punish evil, which this punishable thing you’re not going to find codified in customary international law. You might find the first two, you will find the first two yeah, but I think it’s only in at least a moral universe, if not a God saturated universe, in which something like punishing evil becomes a coherent expression of the use of force. Which brings us up against other terms that are the same, such as retribution, and that’s also not a wildly fashionable term, both within and outside the Church. But to my mind, more shockingly, it’s simply not a fashionable idea within the Church.

Strand: Before we get into the retribution thing, I think it’s really important and we want to just dwell on that for a second or more than that, but I’m trying to think of an example. Can you give me an example of a war that’s fought purely on retributive grounds, or as punishment, or is punishment, a sort of dual motive where okay, you’re protecting the innocent, and punishment is always going to be a part of that, or are there wars I guess where you’d be thinking in terms of only intervention. Interventionary type wars where we would say here’s a wrong, we are going to-

LiVecche: I was just going to say in some ways, 9/11. I mean, in one regard, that was a one-and-done. It wasn’t strictly, but you could imagine how it’s a one-and-done. We’ve been attacked, we’ve been hit, and where people are already dead, there’s nobody to protect. Now, we’re not under continued assault, that has to be qualified, but we’re not under immediate assault. Nothing has been taken, like no territories have been seized, and now all we’ve got left is a punishment strike. Now, the dual use is that you’re going after guys who are surely going to hit us in the future. It’s a deterrent. You’re eroding their capacity to hit us again. Those sorts of things.

Strand: So, it has a self-defensive aspect to it.

LiVecche: Right, even a future looking.

Strand: Yeah, but at least imminent enough where one could say plausibly that these people have struck and they will strike again, and so therefore, there’s a legitimate reason.

LiVecche: What I would say, full-scale war, we might have to ask a good historian to find us an example of a pure act of retributive war, but in terms of limited strikes, Assad barrel bombs some of his own people, and we launch a limited strike to suggest strongly that he never do that again. Now okay, I guess I’ve already clouded it because it’s sort of protection of the innocent, a future deterrent, all of that, but it’s also a retributive act. It’s to say the victims mattered. We’ll defend their memories. We’ll requite the injustice to the degree that we’re able to. But I guess it gets to the heart then. I mean, if you ask me that about retribution, I guess you could say the same thing about punishment in general. Why do we punish? Punishment presumably always has something of a dual use component to it. What if one of the Strand boys socks the other Strand boy in the face. It would never happen…

Strand: It’s a frequent occurrence.

LiVecche: Every day. Why would you punish that? The act is done, right. So, I mean, maybe we could keep it closer to home to begin chipping away at why this makes sense at the international stage. That’s a question let’s say.

Strand: Yeah, I’m pondering exactly what I’m doing when I’m putting him on time out. I’m doing a lot of things, and I was thinking, just before I get to what is retribution, I’m just pondering. I’m thinking that people’s response to the assassination of Bin Laden, and you couched this in terms of the War on
Terror, so I think that that goes along with it. But I think if you want a justification, I think the number one, I’m just thinking that’s a primary example of retribution, right. This is the guy who is this point of the spear that did this incredibly evil thing, destruction of human life and property.

LiVecche: Now, you can put a fine point to it that might not be necessarily true. Let’s imagine that we knew through exquisite intelligence that he had stepped down. He’s been put out to pasture by al-Qaeda.

Strand: And he probably was at the time actually. He was not instrumental.

LiVecche: It seems. And so, yeah, at one level. Now you could probably squish it and say well, you wipe him out and it poses a certain deterrent to future Osama wannabes because they’ll know that even in retirement they could still be struck down. But that’s pretty close to a pure act of justice. Then legitimate, yeah.

Strand: So, let’s return to retribution here. Why is this idea, so we could talk about my little boys, but let’s frame this, because the real controversy, why is this idea, so to me it doesn’t, but within Christian circles today, I think the idea is fairly controversial. Maybe it’s not the majority. I just feel like we interact with academics primarily, and academics are a small little slice, and they tend to have not representative views. But nevertheless-

LiVecche: From your lips to God’s ears.

Strand: Either way, this is a prominent voice, and it has a lot of purchase probably outside of its actual representation. So, why is punishment and retribution having a hard time?

LiVecche: My snarky answer is because we don’t know what love is. Partially snarky, right, I think that’s true actually.

Strand: So, two different versions of love going on here. What’s your version and what do you think the other version would say?

LiVecche: Well, my version’s the right one. So, you start with a couple. I mean, we could go all the way back to my conversion event, which we’re not going to, but I encounter the Holocaust, the study of it, and as an agnostic I want the categories to hate evil, and I don’t have them. But I want to understand what does the universe have to say to that. I want someone to say something. And Christianity comes along, the Hebrew tradition comes along, and says that there is no room in the presence of the divine for anything that is unholy. How much sin do I want in heaven? About that much, right, zero percent. So, what’s the remedy now for that? What is the solution to evil? Some people just say well, the solution completely compatible with love is simply forgiveness. You just forgive. Well, here’s the pickle with that, mercy always costs somebody something. If you’ve heard me say much, you probably have heard me say that mercy always cost somebody something. And if in our beneficence we decide we’re going to show mercy to the evil doers, the aggressors, then the people who are going to pay the cost of mercy are the victims, and that might be appropriate. There are times where the victim sucks it down and says magnanimously, I forgive you. And they accept the costs of mercy. But it seems to me, channeling Nigel Biggar here, forgiveness has to come in at least two phases. The first is forgiveness is compassion, and that’s to say that look, I don’t know how your history interpenetrates with your will and compels you to make certain kinds of decisions that I wish you wouldn’t make. I don’t know that. But I do know that I am myself no stranger to a desire to abuse other human beings. And I also don’t know how your history lessens your ability to resist that temptation, and I also don’t know that if I shared your history, I wouldn’t be making the same decisions and choices that you make. And so, that creates a certain kind of compassion. I’m sorry you have done these things. I wish you didn’t, not just because it harmed me, but because I believe the person most harmed by sin is the sinner. And so, I wish you weren’t the kind of person who did this thing. That’s forgiveness is compassion. It’s unilaterally required by the victim, because even victims have responsibilities. And that sucks, but that’s how that goes. Yeah, and that’s where that stops. But other people want us to push all the way forward and say to the kid who goes into a congregational prayer meeting and blows everybody away that I just forgive that kid. Well, if you mean anything more than being compassionate, then no, because forgiveness has absolution, which is what I think most people think of when they think of forgiveness. Forgiveness is absolution requires that the first step be taken by the aggressor, right. There has to be a repentance. There has to be an acknowledgement that what I’ve done is evil, and I need to apologize for this, and I need to demonstrate through actions not just words that I’m never going to do this again or that I desperately hope I will never do this again. Some effort at restitution, etc. And if I as the victim, or standing on the victim’s behalf, try to short circuit that process of the working of guilt and shame on the conscience of the evildoer, then I potentially short circuit their ability to come to repentance. And that’s actually unloving, because I’ve taken away their opportunity to come face to face with their own wrong to repent and to turn away from it.

Strand: So, the issue here, I mean, that’s great. I think it’s an important distinction, the forgiveness. The pacifists that tend to be the ones, I guess it’s not necessarily only pacifists but the Hauerwasers, the Yoders, and others along those lines, they would locate at least theologically this idea in the cross that Jesus suffers. He does not repay. He does not strike back. And that is the model. So, the cross then forbids violent response. How can a Just Warrior, I guess we can’t go down that rabbit trail too far, but just give us a quick, how does the Just Warrior then, what is their theory of the cross? Because the pacifist one has a certain appeal. You go yeah, I mean, that kind of makes sense. It appealed to me for a long time. I was like yeah, absolutely, we just modeled Jesus and this is the case. So, what do you say back to them?

LiVecche: My response to that is snarky. It’s that the cross didn’t do all that much, right. What do I mean by that? It did absolutely everything. The cross was efficacious to solve the problem it was trying to solve. The problem that it was trying to solve is not how Marc LiVecche sins against Daniel Strand. In a roundabout way, it should have resolved that, because it should so change my heart that it remedies my desire to sin. But it was, as I understand it, all about reconciling the breach between me and the ruler of the universe. And the breach is there because I’m sinful, and no sin can be in the presence of the holy. Christ opened the opportunity for me to be able to be acceptable in the sight of the divine. It fixed that problem, so it fixed the problem of sin but it didn’t solve the problem of sinning. Neighbors still buy house keys. I mean, Hauerwas was right, why does he buy a house key? Why does he use a pin code? It’s because he knows other people want his stuff. We still need armies. We still need all these things, because those problems are still there. And so, when my turning to non-violence is efficacious in solving the problem I want to solve, and as a Christian, I should probably turn to non-violence, but when non-violence doesn’t solve the problem that needs to get solved, I need to look for another solution. Sometimes the solution is an F-35.

Strand: Yeah, so would you say, and I can just hear a pacifist chomping in the bit on this one, gently swishing around kale in their mouth because they won’t eat animals or something, but nevertheless, non-aggressively posing a question would be, so, is the cross an act of violence? Because that’s what it sounds like. I mean, what you’re saying sounds like penal substitutionary atonement sanctions the use of violence in practice. Not in every condition, but at least provides for us a template for thinking about retribution. That would undergird the Just War tradition. Is that what you’re saying?

LiVecche: Yeah, I think it shows that there are occasions where violence or force, or however you want to cash that out, has a place in acts of love and acts of reconciliation. I mean, we know that peace, for instance, is not simply a virtue. Peace might be the fruit of virtue, but the virtues are complex, and some of the virtues are courage and some of the virtues are anger. All rightly displayed in the right moment in the right time for the right reasons against the right people for the sake of the right people and all of that, but peace is not necessarily a virtue. It comes through the exercise of other virtues. And what you see in the cross is, D.A. Carson is great with this because he says look, if you want to see divine mercy, well, look at the cross; if you want to see divine wrath, look at the cross. You see both of these principles barreling down the course of biblical history until they meet in the cross, right. It’s Jesus who talks more than anybody else about hell. The one who flips over tables. He didn’t save us from some Old Testament son of a ___, right. That wasn’t his job. That’s not what he did. He was that Old Testament God. He is that Old Testament God.

Strand: Because some people want to say that Old Testament God, and I don’t know necessarily how the pacifists are going to reconcile this or people who are kind of defending this or critiquing the view of retribution punishment, retribution as an authentic expression of justice, or the God of the Old Testament. I’m not really sure how they would say that, how they defend it. But it does seem like they reject the idea of retribution or legitimate punishment which could include violence or force. I guess those are can be loaded terms. But it seems like that what they would argue, and then we can wrap up with this episode, is that there’s justice and there’s love, and there’s sort of like two competing things going on here. And the New Testament Jesus is love, which is sort of unconditional acceptance. And that means even if someone hits you, you’re still going to accept and not use retribution. But it sounds like you would reject sort of justice on one side, love on the other, or how would you say it on your position?

LiVecche: Yeah, I certainly wouldn’t want to pit them against each other or even see them as opposites. Same action, I mean, I’ve got one neighbor whom I am called to love and he is kicking apart the face of another neighbor whom I am called to love, and I know that I am supposed to love both of them, but I also know I cannot love both of them in the same way in the same moment. But I have to love both of them, and so, whatever action I do that is motivated by a sense of justice for the victim, it’s almost interchangeable. The desire for justice is motivated, is grounded, in love for the victim. And how I enact that justice is also what I see most clearly an act of love for the aggressor, because I know that he is the most harmed by the harm that he is doing. And he needs to be stopped. We have it on good authority that he who turns a brother from the error of his ways is doing an act of love. So, love and justice, very often it follows the same inertia. It follows the same problem. You giving that time out to your kid, that’s an act of justice. But it’s an act of love, because I don’t want you to do these things, it’s bad for you, it’s bad for the people you hurt, it’s bad for you. We want to occasion in ourselves and in other people a habituated preference for doing good things. It helps to make us fit for heaven, in part because it’s only if we’ve cultivated virtues that we want to be in heaven in the first place. Otherwise, I don’t think that’s going to be our sort of cup of tea. So, there’s a lot more to be said about all of this.

Strand: Absolutely. We’re just skimming the surface here people, and I’m sure there would be many aggressive questions pointed at Mr. LiVecche.

LiVecche: At you. I’m just speaking rhetorically.

Strand: Yeah, I mean, I’m just playing questioner here. Marc I think represents, in many respects, my own views.

LiVecche: And let me just say one thing, just because we haven’t generated enough occasion for hate mail yet. So, this is a question, but I think with the Hauerwasians on the question of penal substitutionary atonement, I think, God forbid, but I think we can throw C.S Lewis in that lot too. Because when you read his section of Mere Christianity on the cross, he seems to dismiss, some of the language is a little bit ambiguous to me, and in other places he seems to say things that complicate this.

Strand: Yeah, and I guess that’s something we can think about as we go forward is why. I think a lot of it has to do with the view of God, honestly. That it presents in some people’s minds, it doesn’t for me and doesn’t for you, but I think a lot of people reject that view of God as some sort of capricious, arbitrary, angry bully who’s beating up kids.

LiVecche: Whatever else he is, he’s not arbitrary. And there’s a reason for it. All right, we should sign off. That was True North episode I don’t know what, but part three of our series on Just War. And we’ll be back next time with a discussion on right intention.

Strand: Goodbye.

LiVecche: Take care.