Archives For Just war theory

R NiebuhrAfter working my way through Reinhold Niebuhr’s ‘Signs of the times,’ and being encouraged by what I’d found there, I decided to invest time in reading ‘An interpretation of Christian Ethics.’

Upon finishing it, I was left with the feeling that the work was incomplete. Niebuhr seemed to become paralyzed by paradox.

Halted by an ‘impossible possibility’ [his reworking of an early 20th century dialectical term where that which is true as an “impossibility actually becomes a true possibility”] of humanity ever being able live what he calls the “Jesus ethic” or “law of love.”

Through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Niebuhr concludes that humanity cannot entirely live out the instructions of Jesus to “love our enemies and not resist evil.’’ As Niebuhr reads it, resistance to evil is a forbidden act. Any resistance to evil, whether it be through an orthodox restraint of evil via the limitations of just-war, or through a modern liberal lens of non-violent resistance to evil, is a breach of the “law of love;” a breach of Christ’s command to “love our enemies and not resist evil.”

For Niebuhr there is no better example than the impossible possibility of Christian forgiveness. Reducing things, he states that if we were to apply forgiveness in an absolute sense we would have to eliminate prisons.

If it sounds a bit reductio ad absurdum, it might be because it comes real close. What stops it crossing that line is the qualifier in the form of a question that Niebuhr raises: How can we live out justice and ‘preserve the indictment upon all human life of the impossible possibility, the law of love [?]’ [i]  Any action that seeks to restrain or limit our neighbour is resistance and a breach of the ‘law of love.’

‘As a matter of practical necessity and social responsibility, even the Christian is compelled to leave that ethic behind in grappling with the exigencies of a fallen world.’ [ii]

On this, Niebuhr stands alone. Both the pacifist and just-war positions disagreed:

‘Niebuhr’s claim that the ethics of Jesus commands absolute nonresistance to evil has been challenged, at least implicitly, both by Christian just war theorists and by Christian proponents of nonviolence.’[iii]

It might be a big call, but it seems to me that Niebuhr’s gloom smothers His exegetical work. What little there is of it is let down by a restless existential pessimism which seeps into every part of the later chapters.

There is no mention of a loving “no”, loving correction, or even of Jesus’ own blunt words to the Pharisees. Niebuhr frequently speaks of ‘the human spirit’, yet, there is little to no mention of the role of the Holy Spirit. The absence of which only deepens the dark, hopeless tone.

‘An interpretation of Christian Ethics’ was a disappointing read. In trying to contemporise a contextual relevance of a ‘Jesus Ethic,’ Niebuhr may have built a bridge no one can cross. The intention is there. The thoughts are good, they unfortunately don’t appear to move beyond Niebuhr’s pessimism.

In an attempt to redeem the text and restore my quickly fading new-found appreciation for Niebuhr, I went back to the start. After all, this was written in 1935. Perhaps the gloom reflected the impending doom at the time. So, I re-read through my notes, hoping to perhaps see where I might have misunderstood or missed a deeper poignancy. I sat on my response, gave it more thought and concluded that the echo of pessimism in the text was inescapable. Once I’d acknowledged this I was able to see the real value of the text.

‘An interpretation of Christian Ethics’ presents the view that no principle driven ethical position wins. All human attempts fail. No human on a human throne can claim absolute moral superiority. That belongs to Jesus Christ. Whilst Christian forgiveness may be an impossible possibility, in Christ, it is attainable.

The strength of ‘An interpretation of Christian Ethics’ is in how Niebuhr uses the incapacity of humanity to bolster God’s ultimate sovereignty and divinity – His merciful omnipotence and gracious Holiness. The incapability of humanity being able to put Jesus’ words into action doesn’t give humanity the right to dismiss the “Jesus ethic’’.

The ‘’law of love’’ will always remain a critique of the direction of human progress and regress. These commands from within humanity from outside humanity, Jesus commands, therefore, stand as an invaluable reminder of where humanity stands: God is God, we are not.

There is no escape from the responsibility that “Jesus Ethics’’ places on humanity. From Adam, to Jesus Christ, human responsibility is, as it has always been, held to account by its Creator.

I’m on board with the gist of Niebuhr’s arguments for as long as they exist as a critique of the spiraling self-absorbed existential crisis, in theology specifically, and in the West generally; the weakening of thought; the weakening of resolve; the numbing of the masses, seduced by self-congratulation, caressed by false achievement and lured by false security.

‘An Interpretation of Christian Ethics’ challenges this. It challenges any theology that supports selective labels. Arguing against anyone who might unfairly denigrate their neighbor as the oppressor. Where being offended or disagreed with ends with that neighbor being permanently labeled an oppressor, with a complete disregard for the history, situation, or reality of their own fallen humanity.

‘Ideally men seek to subject their arbitrary and contingent existence under the dominion of absolute reality. But practically they always mix the finite with the eternal and claim for themselves, their nation, their culture, or their class the center of existence. This is the root of all imperialism in man […] devotion to every transcendent value is corrupted by the effort to insert the interests of the self into that value.’[iv]

Although only implied, that “God is God and we are not” is Niebuhr’s unavoidable and most poignant take home point. This is what saves ‘An Interpretation of Christian Ethics’. Niebuhr brings forth the scriptural reminder that ‘no one is righteous, not one […] all have fallen short of the Glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.’ (Paul, Romans 3, ESV)

Niebuhr’s work is a challenge to the Cult of Self. It is a reality check for activism, such as Liberation theology. As such it adds to our understanding of Christian ethics because it recognizes the dangers and limits of non-violence, pacifist and just-war theories.

Which if applied generally as a critique of Western civilization in-it’s-current-state, might perhaps be summed up as:

On future’s battlefield, the Left will not fall because a positive optimism, but because of self-righteous naiveté; the Right won’t fall because they speak the truth, but because of the arrogant way in which they handle it.

 ‘He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.’
(Paul, Romans 2:6, ESV)



[i] Niebuhr, R. 1935; Santurri, E. N. 2013 An Interpretation of Christian Ethics Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition. (p.59)

[ii] Santurri,  E N. 2013 An Interpretation of Christian Ethics Niebuhr, R. 1935 Westminster John Knox Press. (introductory essay)

[iii] ibid.

[iv] Niebuhr, R. 1935; Santurri, E.N. 2013 An Interpretation of Christian Ethics Westminster John Knox Press (p. 85).

Image: R. Niebuhr


The word judgement is associated with the word criteria. Etymologically speaking they can be viewed as interconnected in the adjectival sense, such as: ‘someone who has been judged and either meets, or does not meet the criteria’.

My working thesis here involves a developing formula,  influenced by Karl Barth’s theological analysis in ‘CD.1.1’:

Cause. Consequence. Free Remedy. Consequence. Free Reply. Consequence.

As I read the words in 1 John 3-5 today, I recalled this formula and it raised this question:

If we are both called and carried into the light by Jesus, how do we live well in the shadows of a broken existence?

For sometime now John’s words here, to me, have wrongly been used to empower half-truths fuelled by a theology of cheap grace such as:

                  • “Forgive and forget”
                  • “Just get over it”
                  • “You’re the one with the problem, not me”
                  • “Let go and let God’’
                  • “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven’’
                  • “Everyone has’’
                  • “all disagreement is hate”

Steve Wilkens, in his 2011 book ‘Beyond bumper sticker ethics’ asserts: ‘ideas are built on certain assumptions, and if the assumptions are untrue or only partly true, what we build upon them is shaky’ (2011:12).The misuse of these could be considered ‘dysfunctional coping strategies’ (Berry & Baker, ‘Who’s to Blame?’).At worst these phrases are deflections employed to justify an ignorance that permits the ‘abdication of responsibility’ (Leslie Houston, 2013 Tabor Adelaide), while showing off falsely a moral and theological superiority to a perceived enemy.

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The reading of 1 John results in a command for ALL to enter into remembrance of the crisis of the human situation. Remedied by judgement [crisis] that came, comes and is revealed [apocalypse] in the full humanity, and full deity of Jesus the Christ.

As Christians, we must not read the words as an apologetic for deflection and evasion of reason. For example: justification for blind compassion. Ask any well balanced parent, they will quickly tell you that saying “no” can be as loving as saying ”yes”.

Acting as if mercy was the epitome of Christ’s existence, and then misapplying this theology to justify irrational political reactions (read neglect, abuse & manipulation) to the human situation and environment, denies the existence of Christ as the just judge. It binds the ‘God who exists in freedom’ (Barth) to human ideology. In turn this resembles more a form of practical atheism, than any form of Christian Socialism.

Such thought wrongly assumes that the purpose of Christ’s incarnation was mercy without justice. On all accounts his betrayal and crucifixion might certainly look this way. However, to assume that mercy alone will save the day is to be ignorant of the responsibility he took up on that day. It does not answer, let alone acknowledge the problem of judgement [crisis].Consequently, because of its over emphasis on mercy this theological perspective conveniently ignores the judgement of God fulfilled in the resurrection of the Christ, and the subsequent just judgement yet-to-be fulfilled on all humanity.

Rights and responsibility bring into focus a socio-political idea of individual human accountability. This concept could be bridged to the comments surrounding John’s considerations about the coming day of judgement (1.Jn.4:17). The socio-political is an aspect  that supports the content of Revelation, which talks of Christ as a King like no other. One in whom hope exists equally, as mercy and justice – word and deed.

“Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” (Rev.5:5)

As citizens of the world, our place is found in speaking the truth in love. This is a command that requires a response, no matter how much it may produce conflict with others or result in the false labelling of any responsible word and deed, as “hate-speech; inhumane or otherwise’’.

God calls us to differentiate between the ‘sacred and the silly’[ii]. Words like: ‘let us love in deed and in truth’ (1. Jn.3:18) remind us of his invitation to prayer and reason. Justice and mercy play an important part in the potential outcomes

The Psalmist writes ‘blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times’ (Ps.106:3-4). There is truth in this. Because of Christ, there now is the ‘relation of forgiveness and demand….This is James’ “LAW OF LIBERTY”, which he contrasts with Jewish law, as an order under which humanity stands not just as hearers but also as doers’ (Barth, 1936:461 & 457). As John says ‘this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith’ (1.Jn.5:4).

A reasoned response can be, and often is the most loving response we can give. For example: “rights come with responsibility”. (Paul, Jean Elshtain, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Inside this movement exists a quest for balance, truth, and just outcomes. Responsible action aligned with Micah 6:8.

‘What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness [mercy] and to walk humbly with God’ (ESV)

Therefore, because God is love he initiates both mercy and justice. Subsequently when we appeal to a higher sense of justice and mercy we are seeking to lean our best efforts towards achieving just outcomes on the work already completed in Christ .

Paul wrote:

‘Be ready for every good work…for we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by other and hating one another. But…God our Saviour appeared, He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life’ (Titus 3:1-7)

I suggest that we view mercy and justice as symbiotic, not oxymoronic. This is a view grounded in the atonement as described in the New Testament – the Christ event, when all humanity is both called and carried into the light by Jesus, through Word, cross, resurrection and Pentecost.

The second act is, I believe, found in an imperative issued by Elshtain:

‘we must embrace a politics of limits. There are things we must not do for in doing so we will not only further cheapen already fragile human ties in the present but undermine the very humanitarian ends we claim to seek’ (Public man, Private Woman 1981:352)

Barth might term this: ‘Freedom in Limitation’ (CD.III:4), a positive paradox pre-empted and exemplified by his comments in CD:1.1:

‘it is true enough that humans must open the door (Rev.3:20)…But that fact takes place in the work of the Christ who stands outside. Hence it is also unconditionally true that the risen Christ passes through closed doors (Jn.20:19)’ – Barth 1936:247.

Reflective Prayer:

God as the unbroken you love the broken, and by doing so, make that which is broken beautiful.
Help us not to forget, that though the wrong is often strong,”You will reign”[iii].


[i] [Greek reads: agape – ἀγάπη], confession [ὁμολογήσῃ; homologese] and judgement [κρίσεως; criteria; crisis].
[ii] Rosanne Cash, Tribute to Johnny Cash. Sourced 11th Nov. 2013 from:
[iii] Barth & the Moravian Reading 15th November 2013


Barth, K. 1936 Church Dogmatics Vol.1.1 The Doctrine of the Word of God Hendrickson
Berry, C.R & Baker, M.W 1996 who’s to Blame? Escape the victim trap and Gain personal power in your relationships  Pinion Press Colorado Springs, CO, U.S.A
Houston, L 2013 Christian Leadership lectures, Tabor Adelaide
Elshtain, J.B 1981 Public Man, Private Woman Princeton University Press
Wilkens, S.2011 Beyond Bumper Sticker Ethics Intervarsity Press Downers Grove, IL