In the current Christian Century, the Rev Daniel Bell reminds us that the just war tradition isn’t supposed to be a checklist that is dusted off and brought out for op-ed pieces in times of conflict: “It was not a theory to be bantered about but a rigorous ecclesial practice which arose out of the church’s day-to-day life and shaped that life.” Here is what he says about “right intention” (“… it is necessary that the belligerents should have a rightful intention, so that they intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil,” St Thomas writes):
This criterion is commonly reduced to a disavowal of revenge and a desire for peace. But just war as Christian discipleship involves a thicker account of intent, revolving around issues of character. First, right intent is a matter of a “just peace.” As Augustine noted long ago, everyone desires peace; wars are always fought for peace–for a peace that better suits the aggressor. It is not sufficient, then, merely to be for peace. One must intend a peace that is truly just, and not merely self-serving.
Second, right intent entails that even in warfare we love our enemy. Anger is permitted, but not hatred. Indeed, in waging war, the right intent is not to destroy the enemy but to bring the benefits of a just peace to the enemy.
Third, right intent entails what can be called “complete justice.” Intentionality is not always an easy thing to discern; for this reason character and consistency are relevant to evaluating intent. Thus, evaluating intent with regard to war might entail asking: Is this a people who characteristically and consistently seek justice? Is justice only selectively enforced? Is it carried out to completion? Complete justice entails looking forward (to how justice will be implemented) and backward (bringing the past before the bar of justice): Accordingly, this criterion may involve confessing one’s own complicity in past injustice as one confronts present injustice. Likewise, intent understood in terms of complete justice provides space for consideration of “exit strategies” and how the victor deals with the defeated after the shooting stops.
The challenges and opportunities presented by this criterion to the church are manifold. In light of the demands of right intent, we might ask ourselves, how seriously do we take the gospel call to love our enemies? Do we lead our congregations regularly in prayers for our enemies, or do we only pray for our side and our own? Can we even name our enemies, or do we shy away from that because it is impolitic or impolite? Do we model and encourage within the life of the congregation (not to mention the wider world) ways of dealing with conflict, with enemies, that neither shy away from addressing problems forthrightly nor simply cut off or separate those with whom we disagree? This is to say, do we in the church model the desire for and pursuit of a just peace between enemies, or do we perpetuate a harsher politics where the winner takes all and the loser is simply silenced or encouraged to leave? Living the just war tradition may call us to reconsider the ways we pray and the processes by which we order our life together.
Right intent also presents us with the challenge of confession. Many churches have lost sight of the gift of confession, either practicing it infrequently or practicing it only in the most vague and abstract manner. If just war is premised on the intention of justice and yet we know we are not pure in our intentions for justice, examination and confession become central to the practice of just war. Only then can we avoid hypocrisy and injustice in our pursuit of justice.
Lastly, right intent amounts to a call for the patient endurance of the saints. To see justice through and not abandon either the victims or the defeated enemy requires patient endurance in the face of the hardship and costs of war and its aftermath. To this end, we might lift up the disciplines of the Christian life–such as prayer, fasting and fidelity–that run against the grain of an impatient and suffering-averse culture.