Saint Ambrose of Milan is one of the first Christian leaders to write about the topic of "Just War" or "Just War Theology". He based his writings both on Scripture and on actual events.

In AD 390 some angry civilians in Thessalonica rioted against an army garrison and killed the commander of the garrison. In retaliation, the army, acting as thugs, killed seven thousand civilians who were attending an exhibition. The emperor, Theodosius, may or may not have actively participated in the action, but at the very least, he was guilty of taking no action to prevent or defend the innocent men, women and children who were killed.

Saint Ambrose was rightly angry and he demanded that emperor Theodosius do penance. In fact he threatened to withhold the Holy Sacrifice (Holy Communion) when the emperor was present until he completed his penance.

Emperor Theodosius eventually did his penance and in this act acknowledged that the Church had a role in the proper use of the sword.

When it came to defining the role of the church and the sword of the state, Ambrose made extensive use of virtue. For Ambrose the key virtues are love, mercy and courage. Ambrose was intrigued by the fact that John did not demand that the soldiers who came to him should give up their profession, but that they “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” (Luke 3:14)

For Ambrose, all of a soldier’s duties can be defined as acts of mercy and charity for the weak and for mankind. (Discourses on Luke 1.77) “We can almost say that, for Ambrose, soldiering was an office of mercy and charity (love).” (Darrell Cole, “When God Says War is Right” page 20)

It is this Biblical pivot point from which Ambrose makes his greatest contribution to the Christian faith and to Just War Theology.

“No church father before Ambrose conceived of love in this way, but we find Ambrose articulating love as the motivating force behind the Christian’s use of force. Ambrose expanded on this in such a way that the use of force becomes a positive duty, and the failure to use force when it is fitting becomes a lack of love. In Ambrose’s eyes, the Christian who stands idly by while his neighbor is attacked is not a virtuous person, and perhaps not even a Christian.” (Darrell Cole – “When God Say War is Right – page 21)

Saint Ambrose extended this reasoning to nations and armies. For a leader, nation or army that comes to the defense of others, this act is an act of love and therefore is justified.

The implication of Saint Ambrose’s "active Christian love" for the individual is this  — if someone is breaking into our neighbor’s home, and we do not come to their defense, even if to do so would mean we would have to injure or kill the attacker, we have not loved.

In fact Saint Ambrose took it a step further. If someone is breaking into our neighbor’s home and we do not act, Saint Ambrose argues that we have not loved our neighbor and he would even question whether we are a Christian.

In light of Ambrose's "active Christian love" the attempt by some to say "we should turn the other cheek" in these situations rather than get involved have misapplied the meaning of the passage. We can only turn our own cheek. We have no right to turn another person's cheek and from this receive moral gain. Consequently, when we do not come to our neighbor's aid, we have turned their cheek, not ours and in this we gain no moral advantage. In fact, we may even loose our salvation.

Tough talk, but true nonetheless.

There is no doubt that there can be abuses when force is used. This is why force should be used only as a last resort. But the fact that force can be abused does not justify the elimination of any and all use of force in all circumstances. The fact that some will die in surgery does not justify the elimination of all surgery.

This is why I don’t pay much attention to those who speak out against the use of force by citizens who are defending themselves, or local police officers in the line of duty, or by the armed forces. This is especially the case when the use of force is described by these persons in a totally pejorative manner.

You see if it were their home or country that was being broken into, and the assailant was about to end their life, a shot to the head of their assailant by a sharp shooter from the military or the police force would suddenly be their greatest blessing. And the act of pulling the trigger, the ultimate act of force and violence, they would now perceive to be an act of love.

Understanding this, Ambrose rightly stated that when a soldier comes to the defense of another, it is an act of love. Extending this to an army that fights to overcome an unjust ruler, this likewise is an act of love.

In this context the individual act of force by an individual neighbor or soldier is justified. Likewise, the act by a nation or its army to defend themselves or another, even when it results in war, is justified. Or more precisely is defined as a "Just War".

It is not the actual violence of the act that determines whether the act is appropriate. Rather, it is the context in which the act of violence was committed that determines whether or not it is justified.

© 2010 – 2015, VoiceWind. . .Greg Loveless. All rights reserved.

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2 Responses to Saint Ambrose, Just War and Love of Neighbor

  1. Mark Kenney says:

    So that's where the truth started to become a lie and a lie started to become a truth.  Breaching the 5th comandment is now an act of love.  Turning the other cheek can now hamper our salvation? We went from avoiding the idolotry of military service to subjecting our Lord and Saviors instructions on the Sermon on the mount to a "higher, secular power"? And somehow that is not idolatry?   Amazing.


  2. The 5th Commandment is "Honor your father and your mother" so you are most likely referring to the 6th Commandment, "Thou shalt not murder".

    And yes, in certain circumstances, taking the life of someone who is killing an innocent person may be an act of love if the person who is intervenes does so to save another at the risk of their life. "Greater love has no man than this, than to lay down his live for another."

    It is not "turning the other cheek" that hampers salvation, but when we refuse to get involved and expect others to turn their cheek that calls our faith into question. We cannot turn another person's cheek and gain moral ground in doing so. We can only gain moral ground, and love, when we turn our own cheek and we pay the price for our actions.

    "Idolatry of military service" is a pejorative defining your position more so than the military.

    And even Jesus said, "Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s" meaning the government is allowed to use the sword to protect the innocent. In so doing, according to Ambrose, this is an act of love if it is done to protect the innocent. Doing nothing to protect the innocent, turns their cheek, and from this we may claim nothing. Doing nothing to protect the innocent is not to keep the 6th Commandment but is to violate the greatest Commandment.

    35One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, 36“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 37And He said to him, “ ‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ 38“This is the great and foremost commandment. 39“The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ 40“On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:35-40)

    In the case of someone attacking an innocent person, one's neighbor is the one being attacked. Come to their aid, and one has loved. Turn their cheek, one has not loved.

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