Evil, Jihadists, and the Just War Theory

Statements out of Rome reflect the tension between two schools of thought regarding war

The headline on a recent Washington Post Op-Ed about the rise of the Islamic State proclaimed “The Return of Evil” (Aug 26, 2014). Although one was tempted to reply that evil never went away, the headline writer had a point—the post-Cold War 1990s in the United States were indeed marked by naïve optimism that the era of conflict had ended and the world could now look forward to universal peace, prosperity, and democratic governance: the end of history, in other words.

As we now see all too clearly, and should have realized all along, the persistence of evil is an enduring reality in human affairs. The reason is simple. Evil has its immediate source in the human heart. And how are we to respond to that in light of the gospel?

The Christian message is that evil is vanquished by love. But that is largely, though not entirely, in the eschatological future. Here and now it isn’t possible to love away jihadists and terrorists and others who use violence as a tool of conquest and oppression.

Wrestling with this fact, Christianity centuries ago came up with the just war theory—a schema for undertaking and waging war against aggression by to a circumscribed and carefully measured use of force. Alongside just war, however, there exists a tradition of Christian pacifism whose legitimacy has been recognized in recent years not only by so-called peace churches but by magisterial documents of the Catholic Church.

Statements out of Rome reflect the tension between these two schools of thought. Pope Francis in a message to an international peace meeting declared war to be “never a satisfactory means” of achieving justice and resolving conflict situations. War, he said, “drags people into a spiral of violence….It tears down what generations have labored to build up and it sets the scene for even greater injustices and conflicts.”

Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, echoed the priority the Pope had assigned to “the path of promoting dialogue and understanding among cultures” as the way to peace. But then he struck a different note where “terrorism and violence” are concerned, calling it “both licit and urgent to stop aggression through multilateral action and a proportionate use of force.”

This brings us to the latest policy of the American government, which President Obama says is to “degrade” and “ultimately destroy” the Islamic State. All well and good, but critics see the specifics of the commitment to this policy as incoherent—a failure to commit military means necessary to achieve the stated ends.

Even the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch of Iraq, Louis Sako, has complained that “bombing these jihadists will not make them disappear.” The Patriarch is no military expert of course, but those who are make the same point: Besting the Islamic State will eventually require those much-dreaded American boots on the ground. Either that or the familiar alternative—declare victory and go home.

At this point, one of the just war norms comes to mind. In order to be justified, the use of force must have a reasonable expectation of achieving successful results. And if bombing the jihadists won’t do the job, do America and its ambivalent allies have the stomach for what will?

To some minds the Ebola outbreak bears a ghastly metaphorical resemblance to the upsurge of jihadist fundamentalism in the Middle East. Ebola can probably be contained—or so we hope. But can we contain the rise of jihadism among alienated fundamentalist Muslims? We’ll find out soon.

About Russell Shaw 169 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide and the highly acclaimed American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.