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Laurie JohnstonOctober 17, 2023
Palestinians inspect damages in the aftermath of Israeli strikes, following a Hamas surprise attack at Beach refugee camp, in Gaza City on Oct. 9, 2023. (OSV News photo/Mohammed Salem, Reuters)

“Are you asking me to give advice in the light of this world on how to safeguard this ephemeral security of yours…? If so, then I am unable to answer you. There is no secure advice to give for purposes that are so insecure.”

St. Augustine, “Letter 220 to Boniface,” a Roman commander in North Africa, 427 C.E.

St. Augustine, one of the originators of Christian just war theory, wrote those words of warning three years before he died during the Vandals’ siege of his city, Hippo, in North Africa. His experience during that difficult time would no doubt give him sympathy for the difficulties faced by residents of Gaza today, trapped within narrow confines and cut off from access to food and water. Like the patients in Gaza hospitals now under bombardment, Augustine was ill and frail, in no form to evacuate or to cope with an invasion.

No matter how just the cause may seem, a war is not just unless it is fought in a way that clearly discriminates between combatants and civilians.

Yet he would also appreciate the shock and grief that Hamas’s attacks have caused for Israelis. He too lived at a time when security was elusive, the power of government authorities under threat from destabilizing forces within and without. Like his contemporaries, he was shocked that the Vandals managed “to be so bold, to encroach so far, to destroy and plunder so much.” And he lamented to Victorianus, a fellow bishop, that “the whole world, indeed, is afflicted with such portentous misfortunes, that there is scarcely any place where such [calamities] are not being committed and complained of.”

For us today, too, lament is the right response to these calamities, as we mourn the lives lost and acknowledge the terrible affronts to human dignity whose traumatic consequences will echo for a very long time.

Augustine began to speak about the possibility of “just war” in response to the urgent need for defense against barbarian invasions. Ever since, the just war theory has been an important part of the Christian moral tradition, a way to try to reason ethically in extreme situations. So it is not surprising to hear people ask now: What does the just war theory have to say about Israel and Gaza?

Sometimes, though, this question is posed in a way that betrays the entire purpose of just war thinking. The thought goes, “Well, since Israel is invading Gaza, how can it be done justly?” This misunderstands the just war theory. It is not a theory that says, if you want to fight a war, here is how you should do it. Pope Francis has been critical, quite rightly, of how often the just war theory has been used in this way—as if it were a rubber stamp or a way to give a moral veneer to a war one has already decided to wage.

On the contrary, just war theory says, there are very narrow circumstances under which one might be justified to use war as a method of defense. And in fact, it is hard to see how, at the present moment, either Gaza or Israel could possibly meet the traditional criteria of just war theory.

One of those criteria is this: No matter how just the cause may seem, a war is not just unless it is fought in a way that clearly discriminates between combatants and civilians. This is not a flexible principle. Killing civilians is not excusable even if one’s enemy is using them as “human shields,” as Hamas is claimed to do. Nor is killing civilians excusable because you are the weaker side and lack the capacity for a more traditional military campaign, as the Palestinians are.

Another criterion of the just war theory states that any use of violence in defense of justice can be justified only if it has a reasonable chance of success at bringing about a just peace.

It is true that the principle of double effect acknowledges that civilian deaths might not be blameworthy if these deaths are an unintended side effect of an otherwise legitimate attack. But that certainly would not excuse waging a war against cities where it is clear that most of the casualties will be civilians. The situation in Gaza is such that it is all but impossible to carry out an invasion that actually respects the principle of non-combatant immunity, given the density of the urban environment and the fact that half of its residents are children.

This does not mean that one should give up pleading for the protection of the lives of children and other civilians in Gaza (and in Israel). The importance of the just war theory today is similar to that of the Geneva Conventions and other laws of war. These principles are more often honored in the breach, and yet they still possess clear moral authority that is all the more difficult—and therefore important—to uphold when terrible crimes against civilians tempt many to dispense with ethics altogether. Upholding these doctrines is a way to refuse to give in to the sense of inevitability that so often accompanies warfare, the notion that “war is hell” and so all bets are off and one can simply shoot up a music festival or flatten the enemy territory indiscriminately.

No, we are called to maintain our moral principles even in extremis and to respect the value of human life in every circumstance, on all sides. No matter how desperate the situation or how morally complex, there are still choices that can be made that are better approximations of love of neighbor than other choices.

Another criterion of the just war theory states that any use of violence in defense of justice can be justified only if it has a reasonable chance of success at bringing about a just peace. Whatever the next days bring in Gaza, Israel and beyond, it is clear that there will be more painful and tragic deaths and suffering, and it is hard to imagine any outcome that one might call “success.”

Then again, this is usually the case: those who use violence rarely achieve their aims in the long term. This is why it is so important for Christians to continue to maintain that nonviolence is far superior, not only morally but also in practical terms (as Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan have shown in their book Why Civil Resistance Works).

We will hear a great deal about the need for “security” in the coming days, but true security depends upon mutual trust. It is all the more tragic, then, that the events of these days are not only destroying lives and buildings, but also the fragile infrastructure of peace that so many Israeli and Palestinian bridge-builders have worked so hard in recent years to construct.

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