Review of Gary P. Simpson’s War, Peace, and God: Rethinking the Just War Tradition

[1] Like other books in the Lutheran Voices series, Gary Simpson’s War, Peace, and God: Rethinking the Just War Tradition appears intended for use in classroom and congregation. It aims to stimulate broader discussion on the morality of war. To that end the book certainly succeeds, and I would like to contribute to the discussion by posing a few questions about the book’s central argument. As the title suggests, Simpson aims not simply to present, but to “rethink” the just war tradition, which is to say, he offers a distinctive interpretation. Specifically, he seeks to relate just war theory to the practice of peacemaking. The book, in Simpson’s words, “will strengthen and expand just peacemaking as a characteristic vocation of Lutheran communities and persons” (12). Although this turn toward peacemaking points in the right direction, one can nevertheless raise questions about the particular vision of peacemaking offered here. Simpson’s interpretation of the just war ethic is vitiated, I believe, by a significant internal tension.

[2] In elucidating just war theory Simpson identifies ten criteria for assessing the morality of war and argues that each of these criteria is ultimately related to the end of peace. He says:

[3] The goal or end of peace, therefore, is the overarching moral obligations (sic) when waging war and thus the basis for the first three criteria as well as the reason for the next four criteria. It anchors all the criteria for going to war (jus ad bellum) and ultimately the two moral standards for the conduct of war (jus in bello). (29)

[4] This interpretive move strikes me as intuitively correct. It raises, in addition, a question about the role of just intention within the just war ethic. Just intention, after all, is the criterion that relates war to peace. Insofar as all just war criteria are ordered to peace, one might reasonably ponder if all the just war criteria are not ordered by just intention.

[5] That this might be so is suggested by the ten criteria Simpson enumerates, many of which can be considered more proximate specifications of just intention. Simpson’s third criterion indicates that “the legitimate authority prosecuting the war has a righteous intention” (27); this, of course, is the criterion of just intention explicitly stated. Criterion four states “the goal of waging war is to restore a situation of peace” (27); but this seems to be only a further specification of criterion three, since a righteous intention, by definition, will aim at peace. Criterion seven states that war must enjoy reasonable probability of success; but this also can be understood as a specification of just intention, since if a campaign does not enjoy probability of success it cannot be understood as aiming to establish peace. The same might be said about the requirement of proportionality (Simpson’s criterion six), because causing more harm than good undermines the pursuit of a just peace – and the argument could continue in relation to several more of Simpson’s criteria.

[6] In any case, Simpson is right to relate the just war criteria to the end of peace. I think further that relating those criteria explicitly to just intention allows us to see more clearly how the effort of relating war to peace involves establishing continuity between the two. If war serves the end of peace then it cannot be antithetical to peace. Indeed, if war aims at peace it must be an authentic political means used on behalf of peacemaking. War, of course, has its own inherent tendency toward wanton violence, but the task of the just war ethic is to insist on the politicization of war in response to that destructive tendency. By restraining and governing the conduct of war, the just war ethic establishes a connection between the use of force and the pursuit of peace. One good way of articulating this politicizing work is by calling attention to its peacemaking focus of the just war ethic. Simpson has done this, and his emphasis on peacemaking is a constructive move. At the same time, I believe part of his argument works to undermine his original healthy intuition.

[7] Following the lead of the Roman Catholic document “The Challenge of Peace,” Simpson describes just war theory as articulating a “strong presumption against war.” In interpreting just war theory this way Simpson’s position thus appears related, we might note, to Lisa Cahill’s. But the problem with Cahill’s position, as with Simpson’s, as with “The Challenge of Peace,” is that it conceives an antithesis between war and peace. According to the Catholic bishops, the presumption against war is a consequence of a prior presumption in favor of peace (see Simpson, 74). That is to say, we are opposed to war because we are in favor of peace. If that is so, however, then the decision to go to war means abandoning, even if only temporarily, out commitment to peace. The criterion of just intention, and any other criteria ordered to the end of peace, thus becomes unintelligible. That seems an unfortunate conceptualization of the just war ethic. It undercuts the effort to establish continuity between the practice of war and the work of peacemaking. On such a view, peacemaking is something we do when we are not at war, and war, rather than being a political activity, degenerates into mere violence. They say that war is hell. In the case of Simpson and his Catholic colleagues, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

[8] One source of the conceptual error made by Simpson and his Roman Catholic colleagues originates, I submit, in a failure to distinguish clearly between church and state. Toward the end of his book Simpson calls on Lutheran churches to become peace churches; to contribute more actively to the work of just peacemaking. This call is certainly appropriate, since the church does, through word and sacrament, serve the propagation of peace. But it bears noting that the just war ethic is not an ethic for the church, but an ethic for the state articulated by the church. To ask the church to serve the end of peace in the same way as the state does is, as they say, to confuse the two kingdoms. The church serves peace through proclamation of the gospel and acts of reconciliation. The state serves peace through administration of the law and acts of judgment. The church’s authentic work of peacemaking, therefore, must recognize the authentic sphere and activity of the state. The activity of the state depends upon the use of power and the exercise of force, which is why the state needs a just war ethic. Thus the church will, until the end of the age, insist upon the politicization of war. The church will, until the end of the age, insist that the practice of war not abandon a commitment to peace, but embody it.

H. David Baer

Helmut David Baer is an Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Texas Lutheran University.