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Revisiting Augustine & Just-War Theory

By Neil Elliott


Contrary to the way he is often cited in “just-war” arguments, Saint Augustine never imagined he was providing guidance for the consciences of Christians contemplating participation in warfare. He directed his City of God “against the pagans,” defending the church against the charge that by dissuading Rome's citizens from the worship of pagan gods, Christians had doomed the city to destruction at the hands of the Goths. His task in Book 19 is to distinguish the goals of the “earthly city” and the heavenly, an urgent task, then as now, because the church's critics charge that any disloyalty to the demands of the earthly city – i.e., the state – constitutes a betrayal of the common good, which by contrast the city's officials profess to serve.

Augustine aims his argument explicitly at pagans, relying on “such powers of reason as we can apply for the benefit of unbelievers” (19:1). In a nutshell, he seeks to show that the values which philosophers set forward as the proper goal of human striving are but “hollow realities” compared to the “supreme good,” eternal life, which is the goal of Christian striving (19:4).

To illustrate, Augustine makes several observations about warfare, among other aspects of human society. First, he comments on the “wretchedness” of obligations to society, which compel us constantly to choose between lesser and greater evils. Given this tragic aspect of human life, any truly wise person will “lament the fact that he is faced with the necessity of waging just wars” of defense from the greater injustice of an aggressor. No wise person will cheer even a defensive war with any degree of patriotic exuberance; to contemplate warfare “without heartfelt grief” only shows that one “has lost all human feeling” (19:7). (Keep in mind that Augustine wrote centuries before Fox News.)

[P]agan philosophers have painted a base picture of human beings as fundamentally “savage,” and thus destined to endless mutual conflict. Compare the language of Reagan's national security advisers in the 1981 “Santa Fe Document”: “war, not peace, is the norm in international affairs”. . .

Next, he takes up the commonplace that “peace is the desired end of war.” But contrary to what we might expect, rather than simply deduce that war is, on principle, legitimate, Augustine argues that the language of “peace” has been cheapened in his day to mean merely a relative lack of conflict; further, pagan philosophers have painted a base picture of human beings as fundamentally “savage,” and thus destined to endless mutual conflict. (Compare the language of Reagan's national security advisers in the 1981 “Santa Fe Document”: “war, not peace, is the norm in international affairs”; or the repeated insistence of George W. Bush's “National Security Strategy” that we must engage in a global war “of uncertain duration,” “over an extended period of time.”) To the contrary, Augustine insists: even “savage animals” will suppress their own instincts for the sake of their young. “How much more strongly,” he argues, do we, as rational, souled beings, naturally feel drawn to “keep peace” with our fellow human beings, for the sake of the survival of our species? (19:12).

Just as “naturally,” he concludes, the wise person will prefer a “just peace,” free of coercion or inequality, to an unjust peace. The only merit, then, in the maxim, “peace is the desired end of war,” is to point the wise person toward the pursuit of true peace. To take it (as do some modern advocates) as a principle for legitimating warfare in general would be to prefer the worse to the better.

At this point Augustine is ready to describe what a life oriented around the “supreme good,” or true peace, that is, eternal life, is like (19:13). Citizenship in the heavenly city means obedience to two “chief precepts: love of God and love of neighbor.” The wise person will “be at peace,” as far as possible, with all people. Further, heavenly citizenship means observance of two “rules”: “do no harm to anyone, and . . . help everyone whenever possible” (19:14).

Curiously – and in dramatic contrast to the way “just-war” advocates routinely use Augustine – he has nothing more to say about warfare from this point on. That is, Augustine discusses the logic of “making war for the sake of peace” only in an earlier stage of his argument, when he wants to persuade his pagan readers that true peace is not only one good among others, but a supreme good. Once that point is established, however, he proceeds to describe what Christians know as the way of life that leads to true peace. From this point on, warmaking drops from discussion.

I can find no passage in the City of God wherein Augustine describes, even theoretically, Christian participation in war, let alone a Christian obligation to wage war. To the contrary, he presents the logic of so-called “just-war thinking” as an inferior and unworthy logic, a failure on the part of his pagan contemporaries to think through the true nature of human striving for the good. Of the supreme good, which Christians know as the true peace of the City of God, the so-called peace that is trumpeted as the goal of every war is only a dim approximation.

Augustine described Roman society as hopelessly deluded, committed on principle to the compartmentalization of human life–as if people could serve one god with their minds and another with their bodies. Perhaps the currency today of a distorted reading of Augustine – within the church as well as without – marks the extent to which the church has absorbed the values of the earthly city.

While Christians can support the peace of the earthly city, Augustine insists they cannot yield to it any loyalty that compromises their obedience to the heavenly city and “the only peace deserving the name.” For just that reason the church is driven “to dissent . . . and to prove a burdensome nuisance” of its neighbors, even to the point of enduring “anger and hatred, and the assaults of persecution” (19:17). Perhaps we should stop thinking of Augustine as the architect of “just-war” theory, and recognize him as one more advocate (though a particularly articulate one) of Christian civil disobedience!


Editorial Note: This article was written in alignment with a much longer essay on just-war theory by the same author. The longer piece, “Reclaiming the Christian Just-War Tradition,” will appear originally in print in Episcopal Peace Witness , the quarterly newsletter of the Episcopal Peace Fellowship . Later in 2004, after its publication in that print resource, the longer article will also be published online in The Witness .


The Rev. Neil Elliott is the Episcopal chaplain at the University of Minnesota (Minneapolis). He works and writes on many justice and peace issues, with particular interest in Haiti, having lived in that country between 2000-01. Neil may be reached by email at chaplain@uec-mn.org .