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What is a Just War?-Book Review

People talk about just war all the time, but rarely is it defined or described. What is a just war? Was Iraq a just war? What about World War II? How does one conduct a just war in the age of terrorism?  Does Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek mean we can never kill? Over the next several weeks I am going to do a series on just war. We will look at just war criteria for going to war and waging a war, the idea of justice and whether or not peace is an automatic indicator that a society is just. We will also consider the connection between Scripture and natural law when discussing just war, historical examples of the just war tradition, pacificism, and many other topics.

When I began studying just war I needed to get my bearings. Everything I knew about war came from talking heads. I investigated book options and found this gem; War, Peace, and Christianity: Questions and Answers from a Just War Perspective. I bought this book hoping for two things: First, I would get a basic understanding of just war theory.  Second, I would get a lot of footnotes that pointed me to other sources.  This book delivered on both counts. There are other books that will give you more depth on specific issues connected to just war theory.  But if you have never studied just war theory, Charles and Demy’s book is a great place to start.

The authors divide their book into six different sections Just War Tradition and the: Philosopher, Historian, Statesman, Theologian, Combatant, and Individual. They use a question and answer format to describe what just war is, what it is not, some questions that still need to be answered, and the history of just war. They rely heavily on Augustine, Aquinas, Grotius, Vitoria, and Suarez. (I hadn’t heard of the last three either.) They also use a lot of O’Donovan and a current just war writer named James Turner Johnson. They address terrorism, nuclear war, humanitarian intervention, the UN, post war development of countries, non-lethal weapons, “turn the other cheek,” does war violate the command to not kill, did Jesus change our approach to war, is just war only a Christian idea or it can it be found in non-Christian sources, Bonhoeffer’s attempt on Hitler’s life, Ghandi’s pacifism, C.S. Lewis’ writings on war, supreme emergency, the early church on war, including Roland Bainton’s pacifistic reading of the church fathers, criteria for going to war, criteria within a war, private military contractors, ethical development of weapons, Romans 13, etc. The value of this book is how much ground it covers. You will not get an in depth chapter length discussion of each facet of just war theory, but you will get the basic ideas on it. It is an excellent introduction to just war thought, though I doubt any reader will agree with all.

The questions and answers in various sections overlap with questions and answers in other sections thus there is some repetition.  Also, there are areas that I would like more precision and discussion, such as what makes an authority legitimate, but the sources cited should provide answers. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand how Christians and others have defined just war.

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