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Daniel M. Bell's Just War as Christian Discipleship
H. David Baer

Daniel Bell’s Just War as Christian Discipleship represents an effort to take just war reflection in a new direction. Bell seeks to relate the just war ethic explicitly to Christian belief, thereby integrating it with a “coherent vision of justice, war, and political life” (14). According to Bell, this requires recentering the just war tradition in the church. The church—in a phrase Bell uses often—is called to be a “just war people.” His argument develops over the course of eight chapters. The first three lay out a Christian case for participation in warfare, largely by way of surveying the just war tradition. The remaining chapters are devoted to discussion of individual just war criteria.


Bell’s decision to give the ethics of war clear theological footing is a good one, and by doing so he injects a fresh perspective into the ongoing debate about the nature of just war theory. This reviewer approves of a number of Bell’s interpretive moves. He argues correctly, for example, that Christian participation in war is justified by the obligations of neighbor-love rather than in a compromise of, and departure from, Christian discipleship (32–34). In some passages, his discussion of individual just war criteria is quite illuminating. The overarching argument of the book, however, fails to persuade—or at least fails to persuade me. That, of course, may indicate more about my biases than the cogency of Bell’s own views. In the interests of fairness, therefore, and given the highly controverted nature of the just war debate, the best way to proceed may be to state my reservations in the form of questions to the author. In this way I can illuminate the provocative character of Bell’s argument and perhaps also contribute to the on-going discussion about just war theory that Bell seeks to influence.  

The book’s overarching argument is indicated by its subtitle: to recenter the just war tradition in the church. Such a recentering, Bell argues, means conceiving the just war ethic primarily as a way of Christian discipleship, as a practice of the Christian community, and not as an ethic focused on the exercise of political power. Bell writes:

[T]he just war discipline is first and foremost an aid to discipleship, to growing in the life of faith even in a time of war. In other words, the primary purpose of the just war discipline is not to guide princes, presidents, and politicians who stand at the helm of nations and states.... Rather it is a rule of life (and death) in the face of war.... To put the matter perhaps a bit more bluntly, the principle concern that drives Just War is not, Are nations doing the right thing? but, Is the church? Are the People of God? The purpose of the just war discipline is to guide the church in faithfully following Christ. (79)

I believe this proposal should give us pause. In arguing that the just war ethic is primarily for the church, we ought to ask whether Bell has attended sufficiently to the distinction between church and state. The church, or more precisely the community of believers, is ordered to the eternal ends of the Kingdom of God. The state, or more precisely worldly government, is ordered to the transient and temporal ends of the political community. Thus one can ask: if just war is a discipline proper to the church as such, is it a discipline ordered to temporal or eternal ends? In centering just war theory in the church, has not Bell misconstrued the nature of the church?

One great virtue of Christian just war theory, in my view, is the relationship it bears to an Augustinian secularization of politics. Augustine distinguished between sacred and secular history. Sacred history, recounted in the Bible, is history whose meaning is revealed. Secular history is extra-biblical history, whose meaning is hidden and obscure. In the age after Christ we live in the midst of secular history, or what R. A. Markus called the saeculum. This is true both for the community of believers and for worldly government. The community of believers, however, anticipates the eschatological kingdom of God directly and regulates its internal life accordingly. Worldly government, by contrast, is ordered to the temporal ends of the political community, a part of the saeculum which will pass away. In the service of those temporal ends, government may use the sword, although importantly, because it serves goods of the saeculum, government may not wage war in the pursuit of an ultimate cause or spiritual end. Politics after Christ has been desacralized, that is, secularized.

These may be things Bell would acknowledge as true. Yet if they are true, can Bell rightly describe the church as a “just war people?” As the community of believers, the church is ordered to the Kingdom of God and is even, perhaps, a sign of that Kingdom in the saeculum. But the use of force is incompatible with God’s Kingdom. War is a feature of this age; it is waged in defense of worldly goods, and therefore rightly entrusted to the worldly institution of government. Moreover, because war is waged on behalf of secular goods, it is a secular affair. And if war is a secular affair, then is not the just war ethic essentially a political ethic, an ethic addressed not to the church, but to political power? 

A failure to distinguish clearly between the roles of church and state, and more broadly between what we Lutherans call the two kingdoms, is behind a number of positions Bell takes which this reviewer found problematic. Throughout the book, for example, Bell seeks to distinguish between two fundamentally different kinds of just war theory, what he calls Just War as Christian Discipleship (CD) and Just War as Public Policy Checklist (PPC). Just War (CD) is a distinctively Christian practice, whereas Just War (PPC) “has as its starting point not Christian convictions and the Christian community but modern nation-states and international law” (74). Given the political orientation of the just war ethic, however, this dichotomy is false and Bell’s contrasts often seem artificial.

For example, Bell appears to locate Hugo Grotius, an enormously complex figure, in the camp of thinkers who conceived of just war as Christian discipleship. Grotius, however, was clearly concerned with international law. He also wrote famously in the Prolegomena to The Rights of War and Peace that the laws of nature would exist “though we should even grant, what without the greatest Wickedness cannot be granted, that there is no God.” At another point Bell argues that the Christian interpretation of the criterion of discrimination requires taking additional steps to reduce risks to noncombatants. He thereby reiterates an argument developed by Michael Walzer in Just and Unjust Wars (1977), who is not a Christian just war theorist. When Bell illustrates the interpretation of discrimination characteristic of the so-called non-Christian public policy approach, he cites positions taken by Paul Ramsey and Oliver O’Donovan, two Christians. The differences on this question, then, do not seem to shake out according to Bell’s formula. Indeed, given the secular character of the just war ethic, why must Christian and non-Christians just war thinkers disagree? Christian and non-Christian will have different starting points, and those starting points might lead to different conclusions, but they need not. The just war ethic is a political ethic, capable of appealing to anyone concerned with the moral administration of power.

These criticisms should not be taken in a way that subtracts from the ways in which Bell’s book is both thoughtful and provocative. One mark of a good book is that it provokes disagreement and stimulates discussion. By that measure, as I hope this review has indicated, Just War as Christian Discipleship succeeds.

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