When the war began in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked a handful of religious leaders to brief him on just-war doctrine. Most of us gave high marks to the administration's efforts to meet just-war standards. I asked, however, the one discordant question: "How would the administration justify a preemptive strike on Iraq?" Without hesitation, Rumsfeld cited the precedent of Israel's attack on an Iraqi nuclear plant in 1981.

One year later, the question is no longer hypothetical. As I write, U.S. forces are massing for war with Iraq. By the time you read this, troops may be in Baghdad. But whatever happens, the morality of a preemptive strike will continue as a hot debate. Last September, the President drew the battle line, boldly declaring preemption as a national policy.

This issue is of particular concern to Christians since we are the heirs of the just-war tradition formulated by Augustine 1,600 years ago. Historically, the doctrine's requirement of just cause has been defined as responding to an attack.

But has terrorism changed the rules? Should the doctrine be "stretched," as just-war expert George Weigel argues? Can a preemptive strike be morally justified?

The first response from the church was negative. U.S. Catholic bishops oppose an attack unless Iraq can be linked to the September 11 terror strikes. One hundred Christian ethicists announced opposition; so did the general secretary of the Middle East Council of Churches. The new Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope John Paul II both expressed reservations.

But I think this reflects too narrow an understanding of just war. Our attitudes may be unduly influenced by Cold War memories. For four decades, the world was kept in relative peace—at least from ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.

Charles Colson
Charles Colson was the founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries, an outreach to convicts, victims of crime, and justice officers. Colson, who converted to Christianity before he was indicted on Watergate-related charges, became one of evangelicalism's most influential voices. His books included Born Again and How Now Shall We Live? A Christianity Today columnist since 1985, Colson died in 2012.
Previous Charles Colson Columns:
May
Subscribe to CT and get one year free.
From Issue:
Read These Next
Also in this Issue
Heightened Hostilities in Egypt Subscriber Access Only
What you can do to help persecuted Christians in Egypt
RecommendedAn Inside Look at China’s Remarkable Religious Resurgence
An Inside Look at China’s Remarkable Religious ResurgenceSubscriber Access Only
Journalist Ian Johnson sees faith on the rise where it was once ruthlessly suppressed.
TrendingForgiveness: Muslims Moved as Coptic Christians Do the Unimaginable
Forgiveness: Muslims Moved as Coptic Christians Do the Unimaginable
Amid ISIS attacks, faithful response inspires Egyptian society.
Editor's PickThe March for Science Is Willing to Get Political. But Will It Welcome Religion?
The March for Science Is Willing to Get Political. But Will It Welcome Religion?
How evangelical scientists square their place in the global movement.
Christianity Today
Just War in Iraq
hide thisDecember 9 December 9

In the Magazine

December 9, 2002

To continue reading, subscribe now for full print and digital access.