Books that Merit (Re)Reading: Remembering Paul Ramsey’s “The Just War”

J. Porter Harlow
Christ Presbyterian Church, Burke, Virginia

The fiftieth anniversary of Paul Ramsey’s book, The Just War: Force and Political Responsibility, is an appropriate time to recognize its enduring impact upon the just war tradition and upon Christians trying to bring theology to bear on issues of war and political statecraft.[1] According to Dr. Keith Pavlischek, a retired Marine Colonel and graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary, “Almost everything written on Christian just war theory since has been a footnote to The Just War.”[2] The book endures because Ramsey provided timeless principles and applied them to the recurring issues of warfare. Most importantly, during the middle of the twentieth century when many in the mainline denominations became practical pacifists in response to nuclear weapons and the Vietnam War, and evangelicals and fundamentalists were largely silent, Paul Ramsey provided a clear defense for the Christian’s role in warfare as an expression of Christ’s commandment to love our neighbors. Ramsey’s book also continues to be instructive to pastors and denominations on the appropriate role of the church in speaking into these cultural conversations while leaving public officials the discretion to make difficult decisions.

Paul Ramsey was born in 1913 in Mendenhall, Mississippi, the son of a Methodist minister. He graduated from Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, and then from Yale with a bachelor of divinity and doctorate in philosophy. After a 38-year tenure in the religion department at Princeton University, Ramsey died in 1988. Many evangelical and Reformed Christians have considered Ramsey to be “one of us” as Dr. Howard Griffith, Professor at Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C., has said.[3] Ramsey was an orthodox Christian voice inside an increasingly liberal mainline tradition. He spent decades of his life reading and editing the works of Jonathan Edwards, and his last professional accomplishment before he died in 1988 was editing a volume Edwards’ ethical writings in which his introduction was 121 pages long.[4]

The Just War was not Ramsey’s first or last book on the just war tradition, but it was his most comprehensive statement. In the middle of the twentieth century, the just war tradition was resurgent in reaction to what some saw as a false choice between two extremes. On one side was the unlimited warfare of the two world wars, which included the indiscriminate killing of noncombatants, and the Cold War, which included the constant potential for nuclear annihilation of civilian populations. On the other side were pacifists who based their arguments on the Sermon on the Mount (e.g., Matthew 5:39: “Do not resist the one who is evil. . . . if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also”) and presumed that all war was immoral. John Courtney Murray initiated the revival of the just war tradition, first among Roman Catholics, using the writings of Augustine and Aquinas to establish a Christian position between “the two extreme positions [of] a soft sentimental pacifism and a cynical hard realism.”[5]

Paul Ramsey is recognized as the Protestant who demonstrated that the just war tradition belonged to all Christians. In his introduction to The Just War, Ramsey argued that Augustine and Aquinas should not be considered Roman Catholic solely because they lived and wrote before the Reformation. He showed that Augustine’s teaching on the relation of the Christian and the state fit Luther’s doctrines evidenced in the Augsburg Confession, Article 25, and Calvin’s doctrines evidenced in the Westminster Confession, Chapter 23, which recognized the Christian’s freedom to serve in the office of magistrate and to “wage war, upon just and necessary occasion.” Ramsey argued that a Christian’s participation in war was not an exception to Christian ethics, as Christian realists argued, but an expression of a Christian’s love of neighbor. In one of The Just War’s most cited passages, Ramsey wrote:

It was a work of charity for the Good Samaritan to give help to the man who fell among thieves. . . . By another step it would have been a work of charity, and not justice alone, to maintain and serve in a police patrol on the Jericho road to prevent such things from happening. By yet another step, it might well be a work of charity to resist, by force of arms, any external aggression against the social order that maintains the police patrol along the road to Jericho…what do you think Jesus would have made the Samaritan do if he had come upon the scene while the robbers were still at their fell work? (142-43)

Here, Ramsey drew distinctions between a Christian’s ethics when acting as an individual and the Christian’s ethics as God’s ordained governing ruler responsible for maintaining a just society in accordance with Romans 13:1–4. Ramsey also appeared to respond to pacifists who chose to turn the other cheek when he wrote:

While Jesus taught that a disciple in his own case should turn the other cheek, he did not enjoin that his disciples should lift up the face of another oppressed man for him to be struck again on his other cheek. It is no part of charity to allow this to continue. Instead, it is the work of love and mercy to deliver as many as possible. . . . from tyranny, and to protect from oppression…as many of those for whom Christ died [because] resorting to armed force originated in the interior of the ethics of Christian love (143).

In comparison, there is no distinction in Ramsey’s argument that Christians should seek “love inspired justice” (151) and the argument of Westminster Seminary’s John Murray in Principles of Conduct that “the demand of love and the demand of justice are really one.”[6]

Yet the justification for a Christian’s participation in war also serves as a limitation on the Christian’s conduct of war. The just war tradition has two branches: jus ad bellum, which provides the ethical grounds for going to war, and jus in bello, which provides the ethical grounds for conducting war. Most of The Just War is dedicated to Ramsey’s application of the two jus in bello principles of (1) discrimination and (2) proportionality. Ramsey bases his principles in Christ’s commandment that his followers love their neighbors. Neighbor-love justifies warfare in defense of innocent neighbors while also limiting the effects of warfare upon the enemy’s innocent neighbors. In practice, military forces should discriminate by targeting combatants and not noncombatants while avoiding the indirect killing of a disproportionate number of noncombatants while targeting combatants. Ramsey summarized his argument by calling neighbor-love the “twin-born” justification for war and limitation upon it (144).

While the principles of discrimination and proportionality have been well accepted in conventional warfare and incorporated in the modern law of war.[7] Ramsey’s application of them to nuclear warfare was not well received on his left or his right. Ramsey placed himself in the distinct minority among theologians and religious scholars, most of whom were opposed any use of nuclear weapons).[8] Ramsey’s arguments for limiting nuclear weapons to “counter-force” uses rather than “counter-city” uses were not well received on his right among realists who thought the threat of a massive nuclear response would be a deterrent against an enemy’s use of nuclear weapons. For Christian realists who understood the immorality of counter-city nuclear warfare but favored it as a lesser of two evils, Ramsey responded using the words of Romans 8:3 that it “is never right to do wrong that good may come of it” (250, 414).

Ramsey’s arguments for the moral uses of nuclear arms proved relevant as recently as the past couple of years. When the Supreme Leader of North Korea threatened the United States and its allies with nuclear weapons, and the President of the United States told the United Nations that the U.S. response to such threats would be to “totally destroy North Korea,” an entire generation born since the fall of the Soviet Union considered the morality of nuclear war for the first time. The Just War reminds Christians of previous ethical considerations of this issue.

Ramsey also provided wise instructions on the role of churches in equipping public officials to make ethical decisions. The second chapter of The Just War originated as an address to the Religious Leaders’ Conference on Peace held at the United Nations in 1965. Ramsey’s argument was that churches exceed their authority when they call for specific decisions rather than equipping public officials with an ethical framework from which they have discretion to fashion decisions. Ramsey argued, “Political decision and action is an image of the majesty of God, who also rules by particular decrees,” and as rulers, “earthly magistrates have the high and lonely responsibility of declaring what shall actually be done” (19). By contrast, churches “have a less awesome responsibility” or the “non-magisterial one” of clarifying the grounds upon which a magistrate could base a decision (20). Churches make mistakes when they unduly restrict the range of political choices in order to manipulate a desired outcome. “When the churches turn their primary attention to trying to influence particular policy decisions (to which they are tempted because every churchman is also a citizen, and therefore a lesser magistrate), they do what they ought not to have done” (20). In other words, churches should not tell public officials what to think but how to think. The magistrate may not always be wise, but “they are always magistrates” and “the church is not” (20).

Ramsey’s book has endured not because he is popular or easy to read but because he bases timeless principles in biblical truths and applies them to the recurring problem of war. Ramsey is difficult to read because, as one student has observed, “Ramsey seldom developed his own view straightforwardly; he preferred to unfold it by dissecting…the arguments of others.”[9] Ramsey’s sentences appear long in our day given to pithy quotes on social media (though Ramsey has found a posthumous following on Twitter among scholars and national security practitioners). For those willing to wrestle with Ramsey’s writing, The Just War illustrates the arguments of the past in a way that readers are able to recognize the just war proponents, the pacifists, the practical pacifists, and the realists in their own day. Readers may then speak orthodox Christian ethics into the contemporary discussions of warfare and political statecraft. Arguments currently being made for banning the use of armed drones or autonomous weapons (i.e., killer robots) are not principally different from the arguments to ban nuclear weapons. A reader might anticipate Ramsey responding that any weapon may be used morally if it discriminates between combatants and noncombatants and does not indirectly affect a disproportionate number of non-combatants. Toward the end of the book, Ramsey wrote:

A Christian will think politically in light of Christ, and he will think politically in the light of the revealing shadow thrown by the cross of Christ over our fallen human existence. . . .The Christian sees himself, the human condition, and man’s historical political life always in the mirror of God’s Word (529).

The Just War endures because a third generation of ethicists, pastors, public officials, and Christians continue to read it out of a desire to speak wisdom—wisdom that is in accord with Scripture and the understanding of Scripture handed down by Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin—into our culture’s discussion of ethical statecraft and the use of force.

  1. Originally published New York: Scribner, 1968. The Just War is still available in print from Rowman & Littlefield publishers.
  2. Keith Pavlischek, email message to the author, December 10, 2018.
  3. Howard Griffith, personal communication to the author, April 1, 2014.
  4. Paul Ramsey, Ethical Writings, Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 8; (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989). Ramsey was also the editor of the first volume in the series that now numbers 79 volumes. His affection for Edwards was evident in his last lecture before he retired from Princeton, when he read to his students from Edwards’ sermons on charity (Gilbert Meilaender, “Paul Ramsey’s Ethics: From Just War to Human Cloning” The Weekly Standard 7:34 [May 13, 2002], p. 36.)
  5. John Courtney Murray, “Remarks on the Moral Problem of War,” Theological Studies 20 (1959): 54.
  6. John Murray, Principles of Conduct (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), p. 179.
  7. The just war tradition’s jus in bello principles of discrimination and proportionality were incorporated into customary international law (i.e., the customs and practices of nations) and were agreed to in international treaties such as the Geneva Conventions of 1949 as a way to enforce these moral principles. For example, customary international law permits the targeting of combatants but requires the protection of noncombatants such as the sick and wounded as agreed to in the First Geneva Convention, prisoners of war in the Third Geneva Convention, and civilians in the Fourth Geneva Convention.
  8. J. Daryl Charles & Timothy J. Demy, War, Peace, and Christianity (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), p. 63–64.
  9. Meilaender, “Paul Ramsey’s Ethics,” p. 33.