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Phillip J. BrownAugust 18, 2003

For centuries Christians have quarreled about the relationship between law and Gospel. Some, relying on various passages in the Pauline letters, say that the concepts of law and Gospel are mutually exclusive, that the idea of law and the idea of Gospel contradict each other. Others, including members of the Catholic Church, have attempted to balance law and Gospel, recognizing the clear pre-eminence of the Gospel for Christian faith and Christian living, while acknowledging that law plays an important role in every human community.


Since Christian communities are human communities, existing in a pre-parousia world (that is, before the second coming of Christ), there is inevitably a place for laws and rules, which determine how things are to be done and how life is to be lived. Even the letters attributed to Paul are not univocally negative concerning law. The First Letter of Timothy (1:8-11) states: “We know that law is good, provided one uses it in the way law is supposed to be used—that is, with the understanding that it is aimed, not at good people but at the lawless and unruly, the irreligious and the sinful, the wicked and the godless....”

Nor is Jesus remembered as having passed a negative judgment on law, as Mt 5:17-18 demonstrates: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets. I have come, not to abolish them, but to fulfill them. Of this much I assure you: until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter of the law, not the smallest part of a letter, shall be done away with until it all comes true.”

But Jesus was severely critical of the way that law was being understood and applied. He did not criticize the law itself, but rather the way it was being abused by those in authority to maintain an unjust and sometimes cruel dominance over others. As to law itself, he appears to have given a positive appraisal, noted in this passage from Matthew (echoed in Lk 16:17).

The purpose of law is to do justice and establish righteousness, to achieve just results and assist people in becoming righteous. But what is justice? What is the righteousness that a just person manifests?

One definition of justice comes to us from the Greek philosophers, who said that “justice” means “to render to a person what he or she is due.” This idea of justice prevailed in ancient cultures and has come down to us today as our common-sense understanding of justice. It is the theoretical foundation of civil law systems: to render to a person what she or he is due. In the Old Testament it was to render an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. In contemporary civil law, its objective is to make those who have been injured whole. In criminal law it means applying proportionate penalties for offenses that rise to the level of public wrongs. There is an inherent notion of equalizing involved in civil law notions of “justice,” and an inherent element of retribution involved in criminal justice. But is this an adequate notion of justice?

Christian legal theorists debate whether Christianity revolutionized the meaning of justice, and whether that is what Jesus was aiming at when he spoke approvingly of law. Does Christian faith produce a revolutionary new idea of justice that is quite different from the Greek idea passed down in civil law systems?

St. Ambrose offers in De Officiis a definition of justice that differs significantly from the traditional notion and fills out the meaning of justice in a way that goes beyond the Greek notion. “Justice,” Ambrose says, “is about promoting the fellowship of the human race, and about furthering community.” Justice is about building up communities, not about making things even, getting even or tearing things down. It is about building people up, building good relationships among people and creating community from those good relationships. It promotes positive fellow-feeling and builds up stable, well-ordered and well-functioning communities that serve the needs of all. Such a revolutionary concept of justice is the kind of idea that Jesus was driving at when he envisioned law serving a positive, not a negative, role in human affairs. All laws, according to this idea, should be directed toward building fellowship among people and building up communities, not tearing individuals down, destroying communities or gaining and preserving advantages by one group over another.

There have been many discussions about “just wars” lately because of the military action in Iraq. Based on St. Ambrose’s understanding of justice, no war could ever be considered just, because no war could ever be capable of building up a community. Wars destroy things even when the wars are thought necessary. Although no war could be “just” in this sense, there may nevertheless be just reasons for going to war, and in fact Ambrose himself recognized the possibility of a just war. Surgery always does some harm to the human body. It always leaves a person somewhat diminished. But sometimes it is necessary to remove a cancer. Doing nothing is worse because it will lead to death; whereas healing and the continuation of life are always possible after a successful surgery.

It will be debated for years whether the United States had just reasons for going to war in Iraq. What must not be lost sight of, however, is that no war can ever really be considered “just” from a Christian perspective, even if at times a particular war might be thought necessary and the reasons for going to war just. War itself, however, is not just, because it does not build up anything, it only tears down. Wars are destructive of individuals and destructive of communities. It is only what happens after a war ends that can achieve justice—when communities are rebuilt; when some degree of healing and reconciliation takes place; when the effort to create fellowship among peoples resumes; when the seeking of advantage or dominance is set aside, and the needs of all, of every single person, are taken into account and served. The building up of relationships, of fellowship and of community and communities is quintessentially the work of justice. It is quintessentially the work of the church, of ministers, of all Christians.

Whether one thinks the war in Iraq has been just or unjust, the more important consideration is not to lose sight of what justice really is: the kind of justice Jesus endeavored and promised to bring to the world. We are his chosen disciples and ministers to carry out that mission. We may not be able to stop the war or make it just, but we can and must tend carefully to the wounded, the displaced and the discouraged during the war, and work to establish true justice when it is over by doing all we can to build up the Iraqi community. We do that when we continue to insist that every effort be made by our government to minimize the damage done by war, to care for those whose lives are being disrupted and destroyed, and when we insist that our government work to build up fellowship among peoples and rebuild communities, especially in Iraq, when the hostilities cease.

Our profound calling as Christians is to bring justice to the world, Christ’s kind of justice. If we fail in that, we fail Christ. When the war is over what must come to prevail is a just order supported by just laws, laws that will bring about justice, Christ’s kind of justice. If we come to understand justice in this way, and understand that all laws ought to be directed toward bringing about that kind of justice, perhaps we will better be able to understand what Jesus meant when he said that “until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter of the law, not the smallest part of a letter shall be done away with until it all comes true.”

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15 years 5 months ago
In “Justice, Law and War” (8/18), the Rev. Phillip Brown fails to shed much light on any word in the title. While asserting that war is not and cannot be just, Father Brown makes the inconsistent statement: “Whether one thinks [emphasis added] the war in Iraq has been just or unjust.” Pope John Paul II hardly suggested that we could consider this war just or that the situation left no alternative but war.

Father Brown’s use of surgery as a metaphor for war suggests a superficial grasp of the horror and destruction of war, especially modern war, which is directed at civilians and brings harm to humans and the environment long after hostilities end. Agent Orange and weapons using depleted uranium are hardly surgical instruments. In fact, these tools of war come back to haunt those employed by the “surgeon.”

In “Just Policing, Not War” (7/7), in contrast, Gerald Schlabach, examines the real meaning of our just war tradition and what it requires of us. We would do well to examine what exhausting alternatives to war means. It is only from an ivory tower that one can hope that justice will resume after a war. We now see that a war does not end on schedule, despite proclamations to the contrary.

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