Just War

I have two memories of war as a child. The first was during the Falkland’s Conflict in 1982. We were on holiday in France and my father would listen to BBC World Service Radio to hear reports about the battle to reclaim the Falkland Islands from Argentina.

The second was in 1991 when the First Gulf War against Iraq began. School stopped as we watched images of the air war on the TV.

In both memories, war was a very big deal.

War today has no guaranteed place at the top of the news bulletins. My children have known little else than a state of constant war in their lifetimes, but they hardly seem to notice. The so-called “War on Terror” has been fought since 2001 and there seems to be no end to it. My government recently authorised the Royal Air Force to begin a bombing campaign against Islamic State targets in Iraq. This is now the third Gulf War (or fourth, if you count the proxy Iran-Iraq war).

I am not a pacifist. Sometimes wars need to be fought to defeat evil and aggressive regimes. I am writing this just as news of the beheading of another British hostage by IS has been announced. I confess that my prayer tonight is that a Brimstone missile on the bottom of an RAF Tornado somehow finds his killer and obliterates him. This is not a godly thought but at the same time it hardly seems wildly inappropriate either, if that missile can somehow make justice more likely. The trouble I suppose is that such blood lust often spills beyond the bounds of justice. There is also the very real fear that that missile could also obliterate an innocent, as so many do.

For centuries, Christians have tried to live by the principles of the “Just War doctrine.” These principles go back to St. Augustine and were taught by important Christian thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas. The current Archbishop of Canterbury has endorsed the RAF efforts over Iraq and so it would seem that the Church of England is largely in favour of this current war. Most Mormons likely agree.

The principles of the Just War doctrine try to balance two of Jesus’ commandments. We are told to love our neighbours, which includes the people in Iraq and Syria who are threatened by IS. We are also told to love our enemies, which is very difficult to do.

George Bell

George Bell

Today we remember George Bell, Anglican Bishop of Chichester who died on this day in 1958 and whose ministry spanned the dark days of the Second World War. His life shows how Christians should respond to war.

Aquinas taught that for a war to be a just, it must occur for a good and just purpose. Bell was no appeaser of Hitler. As a close friend of the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Bell knew precise details of German plans to assassinate Adolf Hitler and supported them. He believed, like Bonhoeffer, that killing Hitler was justified and that sometimes the command “do not kill” must be set aside for the greater good. In this sense, the war against Nazism was “just.”

Bell had misgivings about the area bombing of Germany by the Allies, however. Another principle of a just war is that of proportionality, meaning, for example, that even if the war is just, certain actions—such as the targeting of civilians or the use of weapons of mass destruction—almost certainly are not. In 1944, Bell demanded that the British stop the area bombing of German cities such as Hamburg and Berlin calling it a disproportionate and illegal “policy of annihilation” and a crime against humanity.

Once the war is over, the just war doctrine demands that the victors seek reconciliation with their former enemies, as the Allied powers rather famously did not do with Germany after the First World War. Bell was one of the first British bishops to protest against the inhumane treatment of approximately 14 million ethnic Germans expelled from their homes in Eastern Europe.

Our complicated world probably makes it impossible to deny war altogether, but people like George Bell show us that there is a way to wage war that comes as close as is possible to being “just.” God help us as we try to do it.


Mormon Lectionary Project

The Feast of George Bell, 1958

Amos 5:14-15, Psalm 7, Romans 13:4Doctrine and Covenants 98:16

Collect: God, who in generous mercy sent the Holy Spirit upon your Church in the burning fire of your love, which Spirit guided George Bell to seek justice in war: grant that your people may be fervent in the fellowship of the gospel that, always abiding in you, they may be found steadfast in faith and active in the service of justice and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.


  1. Highly recommend the radio programme about Bell that you can find at the link.

  2. Amen. Simply wonderful meditation on Just War and George Bell. This has enriched my day and has fed me spiritually. Thank you.

  3. I wish I could have heard his sermons. The 20th century, with all of its horror, also produced mainline churchmen who were equipped to bring the full body of tradition to bear on the difficult modern questions of the day, and to act as a bulwarks against the crashing of the ideologues on all sides. Where are they now?

  4. Very good. Bell was a man of courage.

  5. Pope Francis, Archibishop Emeritus of Canterbury Rowan Williams, and Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town Desmond Tutu are a few who come immediately to mind.

  6. Dresden is a byword of wicked excess now but Bell was a major outlier at the time.

  7. Wikipedia notes widespread unease around Britain, even at the highest levels, contemporaneously with Dresden and other carpet bombing.

    John F., not looking for a fight, but Pope Francis is noted more for being an exception, and the others for their advanced age. The decline of the traditional sects and their customary moderation in western countries is well-documented.

  8. That response is fair as to Williams but baffling as to Tutu.

  9. The tendency of the media to exaggerate the magnitude of conflicts creates a sense of insecurity regarding our world that is inaccurate. Stephen Pinker, in his excellent book, “Angels of our Better Nature: Why Violence Has Declined,” persuasively argues that we are actually living during one of the most prosperous and peaceful times in the history of the human race.

    I realize that this is a source of cognitive dissonance for those who preach that we are living during the “perilous times” prophesied to occur in the last days, but I’ve yet to find anyone who, given the option, would trade places with some one who lived during a previous era. Especially women.

  10. I’m very glad to have learned about George Bell from you tonight, Ronan. He is a most welcome addition to the Mormon Lectionary Project.

  11. Hey I thought it was cool to be pro war now that Blair/Bush are out of office.

  12. I just want to point out that pacifism does not necessarily refer to an opposition of all violence. Pacifism is a diverse spectrum of thought, and some pacifists support the use of force in self-defense.

  13. Ron Madson says:

    Ditto to Michael’s point about pacifism. Pacifism is on a spectrum from the “nuclear pacifist” that says I will never use a nuke no matter what to the pure pacifism we saw for a couple centuries after Jesus left us by the christians who took literally his words to “resist not evil” and “love your enemies” etc.

    I have spent a considerable amount of time with this peace/war issue and I am personally convinced that LDS should, if we took to heart our sacred texts, have as a default position conscientious objectors to all nation to nation conflicts. Here is a Petition I created a year ago together with an essay I wrote in support of such a position being adopted–for what it is worth:


    Personally I reject “JUST” war doctrine —and yes it is a vast improvement over what we have de facto adopted as a faith (see our church’s DVD “Let Not Your Heart Be Troubled”) but it is not, imo, supported by the words and example, including DC 98, of Jesus.

  14. It is a pleasure to learn of great lives such as Bell’s. Thank you, Ronan.

  15. rameumptom says:

    Over the years I’ve learned that to “proclaim peace” and “blessed are the peacemakers” are perhaps the most difficult things to live up to. I understand the horror of Dresden, even though it was done because the German civilians would not stop worshiping Hitler long enough to quit fighting. I understand Hiroshima and Nagasaki, because killing 150,000 people seemed easier than having to kill 1 million Japanese to get them to finally stop. And I understand how radical Islam thinks they are doing God/Allah a favor for dying for jihad, and perhaps the only thing we can do is honor their martyrdom before they can kill themselves on western soil. Still, it is sad that those who yearn for peace must live in a world of such terror and death. I would rather spend money and effort feeding the poor and ridding the world of disease, than to increase confusion and terror by fighting violence with violence. Yet, the BoM shows us that it is often necessary. Do you wipe out all of the Lamanites when you have a chance, or stop at the border, knowing someday they will be back with a vengeance?

  16. because the German civilians would not stop worshiping Hitler long enough to quit fighting

    barf. (and that is actually an evil characterization of the victims in Dresden and attempt to justify the area bombing.)

    Do you wipe out all of the Lamanites when you have a chance, or stop at the border, knowing someday they will be back with a vengeance?

    bizarre question. You don’t wipe them out at all.

  17. I don’t understand Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Not at all. Actually, I do. It was unnecessary and thus, given the human death suffering it caused, evil.

  18. Ron Madson says:

    So very true RJH! My father served in Patton’s infantry during WWII. He became a pacifist. His influence on me was considerable. What I learned from him by experiences related was that over time in any war we often become the very evil we deplore. Rene Girard and Jesus get it—when we resist evil we inexorably engage in mimetic rivalry and descend together into the horror. Jesus offers the only way out as I see it. So again, for me there is no “just” war–albeit a vast improvement over the sovereign nation allegiance –right or wrong–that our church now endorses

  19. Thank you Ron, I agree – “we often become the very evil we deplore”

    I do believe war is necessary in very specific situations. However, we need to be very aware of the costs.


  20. melodynew says:

    Thank you for introducing Bell to us. This is a beautiful essay and I’m looking forward to listening to the radio program.

    What I love about this piece is that we are given an example of a specific man, against which we can compare our own motivations and ideals. We are given a relatively current “elder” who can show us how to be, if we are willing to do the internal moral work necessary to become such a person.

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