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.
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