Just War Doctrine, Israel, and Hamas

How does Jesus’ command to love thy enemy play out with nations at war?


John Stonestreet

Kasey Leander

Just War theory is one of the most significant contributions of Christianity to the world. On a recent episode of Breakpoint This Week, Dr. Eric Patterson, president of the Religious Freedom Institute and a political scientist who has done extensive work on the subject, discussed how the Just War tradition can help us think through the atrocities of Hamas and the retaliation by Israel.In fact, Patterson’s new book, entitled A Basic Guide to the Just War Tradition, is among the best primers available on Just War theory. 

In our conversation, Dr. Patterson argued that governments have a God-given obligation to defend the innocent. As he put it, 

There’s a whole superstructure in the Bible on certain principles. One is governance. God created the family as a unit of governance. He created the Church as a unit of governance within its sphere. And we know in the Old and the New Testament, such as in Romans 13, there’s a principle of government authority to protect and defend. The Bible has a lot to say about vocations, including those called the security and foreign policy vocations: Nehemiah, Joseph, in the New Testament, centurions and others. And so, there’s never a teaching in the Bible that Christians are supposed to step outside of those public service vocations to protect and defend. 

Still, some Christians who take seriously Jesus’ command to love their enemies have a hard time seeing how that should play out when it comes to nations at war.Ultimately, it is the command to love our neighbors that grounds the Christian responsibility, of both individuals and governments, to oppose evil through proper channels of authority. The love of our enemies, which Christ commanded, should inform how we oppose evil. In as much, Dr. Patterson argues, intentions matter: 

I think what the Just War tradition helps us with is looking at Israeli politics, looking at leaders and things and asking the question, “Is the reason you’re doing this out of love of neighbor, love of country, or have you strayed over this line where you are full of hate and what you really want to do is out of wrath, out of hatred, out of bitterness?” 

When the enemy is dehumanized, Patterson argues, the war devolves away from justice. Of course, Hamas has never seen Jews as fully human. Israel, on the other hand, has placed itself under the obligations of international law, which has been shaped by the Christian Just War tradition. They’ve committed to be proportional in their response, though that is not measured mathematically. They’ve committed to distinguish between civilians and combatants, though that does not mean they are responsible every time a civilian is killed. They’ve committed to treat prisoners humanely and to wage war with a view toward peace in the end.   

These commitments impose a heavy burden on those who fight, and they stand in direct contrast to Hamas, Boko Haram, ISIS, or the Taliban. Their way of waging terror and warfare comes, in the words of Philos Project founder Robert Nicholson, from “drinking from a different ideological well” of radical Islam.  

Dr. Patterson put it, 

The reason that we’ve had a half dozen coups in West Africa in the past three years is because governments there, and often friendly Christians and Muslims working together, are so dispirited that the West and Western-supported governments have not been able to stop the black flag of Islamic State in West Africa. We see this with the Taliban and others. I think we have a lot of examples of this type of ruthless, violent Islamism that justifies violence against its neighbors. 

Everyone, including Muslims, suffers at the hands of radical Islam. Ideas have consequences. Bad ideas have victims. 

Christians have a different view of people, of our friends and of our enemies. We believe in justice and in peace, and most importantly, in the Prince of Peace. May His judgment come swiftly—and may Christians bear faithful witness until then. 

This Breakpoint was co-authored by Kasey Leander. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to  


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