Augustine 2020: War
Updated: Sep 26, 2022
No discussion about politics is complete without discussing the topic of war and Augustine is no exception. His political thought is most famous for his advocation of “just war theory”. In 418 AD, while authoring The City of God, Augustine wrote a letter to a Roman governor in Africa named Boniface. Boniface was curious about Christianity, but he was uncertain about the faith because, as part of his duties, he led troops into battle . Augustine’s response to him was that serving in the military is not incompatible with the Christian faith. Jesus praised the faith of a Roman centurion as greater than that of Israel . Another centurion was the first Gentile to embrace Christianity . John the Baptist, when approached by several soldiers, advised them, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay” . He instructed them in how to serve faithfully in the military but did not command them to give up their commission . Augustine advises Christian soldiers to recognize that the strength they use in battle is a gift from God. It cannot be used against Him and must be used to preserve peace and justice amid the earthly city, a city marked by sin, troubles, and injustice that, at times, require a military response. The goal of any just war is to provide peace in the world. Yet Augustine also reminds soldiers that earthly peace is not the end goal. Earthly peace is a reminder of divine peace, which is far sweeter than any other peace .
Augustine outlines a more complicated argument in Against Faustus the Manichaean. Manichaeism posited that there were two independent gods, one the source of good, the other the source of evil. One Manichaean teacher, Faustus, argued that the actions of the Old Testament God, specifically the wars waged in the conquest of Canaan, were incompatible with the good God of the New Testament . These wars continue to pose ethical challenges for Christians and Augustine’s answers have not solved the problem. We will look at several pieces of his argument which could inform ongoing Christian attempts to address this dilemma, but we will pay particular attention to the outlines of his just war theory, recorded amid this argument.
A central feature of Augustine’s argument is that there is a middle position between good and evil. Some actions could be good or evil depending on why a person committed them. “When human beings take it upon themselves to do these actions, their audacity is rightly blamed, but when they do them in carrying out a command, their obedience is justly praised” . Before judging an action, we have to determine why someone committed the action: did they do it of their own accord or did they do it in obedience to orders?
Augustine is clear that there is an unjust way to wage a war that must be condemned. “The desire for harming, the cruelty of revenge, the restless and implacable mind, the savageness of revolting, the lust for dominating, and similar things-these are what are justly blamed in wars” . When a kingdom engages in such actions, it can be necessary for another nation to wage war against them to punish the injustice. Wars may be necessary to prevent injustice, to secure peace, and to preserve the order of the earthly city, but there are parameters in which a just war can be waged. “The natural order, which is suited to the peace of mortal things, requires that the authority and deliberation for undertaking war be under the control of a leader,…in the executing of military commands, soldiers serve peace and the common well-being” . If a Christian soldier performs actions that are within God’s command, he (or she) has not sinned. If it is not clear whether or not a particular action is just, Augustine suggests that the person giving the order may be condemned for ordering injustice, but that a soldier following orders will not be condemned for following orders . There are two sides to this argument. On one hand, we can make a distinction when discussing the justness of a particular military action. Questioning the decision to enter a specific war or the orders given is not the same thing as indicting the military and individual enlisted soldiers. We can debate the justness of particular actions without indicting the entire military or every soldier in the court of public opinion. On the other hand, Augustine only applies this to unclear orders. A soldier is not absolved from obeying a clearly unjust order.
Though Augustine is not a pacifist and argues that Christians can serve in the military, we want to recognize that Augustine is not arguing that Christians must enlist in the military or that it is a Christian duty to fight against injustice. The justice and peace of the earthly city is a good thing, but it is a temporal good. The ultimate kingdom is that of the city of God. For that reason, Christians through the centuries, before Augustine and after him on down to the present day, have not resisted the injustice of the earthly city and have died for their faith. Augustine prefers the victory of martyrdom to that of defeating a military enemy .
Yet there is an objection to Augustine’s permissiveness toward Christian military service, one he raised in last week’s blog . What about Jesus’ command: “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also” . Augustine proposes an interesting argument, that this verse refers to “the disposition of the heart” . Our inner disposition towards enemies should not be one of hatred or vengeance, but one of love. However, that does not mean we cannot outwardly correct him (or her) as Jesus, submitting to his trial, sufferings, and execution, questioned the justice of one official .
As for the wars of Moses and Joshua, Augustine argues that because they were obeying God’s orders, they cannot be condemned . Augustine’s defense of God’s actions is not particularly satisfying. He simply argues that because God is good and just, the wars he ordered must be as well. If humans do not see that, it is because we do not understand God’s providence . A lot more needs to be said about this topic than Augustine does. Theologians and biblical scholars have spent centuries saying those things. Understanding how these actions match what we know of God’s goodness and justice is a complicated task we cannot undertake here. Yet as Christians study this topic for themselves, keep Augustine in mind. It is good to consider these commands in light of God’s justice, but also remember, we will not fully grasp the mystery of God’s justice here and now . Pursuing this study will require care, patience, and humility.
Finally, Augustine has allowed for the possibility of Christians serving in the military to defend the peace and justice of the earthly city. But remember, this is a temporal peace and justice. The goal of Christians, including Christian soldiers, is more than earthly peace and justice. The true goal is “eternal happiness hereafter” . Christian soldiers serve in a way that accords with justice and peace, endures suffering for the sake of Christ’s Kingdom, and requires a disposition of love for our enemies.
 Augustine, Augustine: Political Writings, trans. Michael W. Tkacz and Douglas Kries (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), p. 218.
 Matthew 8:8-10.
 Acts 10.
 Luke 3:14.
 Augustine, p. 219.
 Ibid. p. 220.
 Ibid. pp. 218-219.
 Ibid. p. 220.
 Ibid. pp. 221-222
 Ibid. p. 222.
 Ibid. p. 223.
 Ibid. p. 224.
 See Scott Carr, Jr. “Augustine 2020: Self-Defense and Divine Law,” October 30, 2020, https://www.reimaginefaith.org/post/augustine-2020-self-defense-and-divine-law.
 Matthew 5:39 NRSV.
 Augustine, p. 229.
 John 18:23.
 Augustine, p. 221.
 Ibid. p. 226.
 See Scott Carr, Jr. “Augustine 2020: The Last Judgment,” October 16, 2020, https://www.reimaginefaith.org/post/augustine-2020-the-last-judgment.
 Augustine, p. 224.