Remembrance Sunday: Nigel Biggar on Just War

With Remembrance Sunday just around the corner, I’ve been revisiting some of Nigel Biggar’s work on war and peace. The purpose of this short piece is to highlight some of Biggar’s chief insights, or at least those insights that most strike me as worth highlighting in the contemporary climate. I have derived these points from my reading of In Defence of War, as well as listening to Biggar’s talks on the justifiability of WWI, on just war in debate with Michael Ruse and on the role of religion in war and peace.

Christian Realism

To me, the first and major insight that emerges from Biggar’s work on war is the significance of realism. As Biggar sees it, there is a great deal of idealism and simplistic thinking about war and peace. Realism, by contrast, is attuned to the utter messiness of the reality of life and fallen human nature. 

When I interviewed Biggar for the Politics at the Cross+Roads series, I asked him about the defensibility of nuclear weapons towards the end of that interview and in response, he prefaced his remarks with the following comment (around the hour mark) about realism: 

I do think that Christians often tend to idealism or wishful thinking. And here is where someone like me as a Christian is weaker partly because eschatological hope does call us to raise our sights and not to be complacent or settle for what is, but to move into a different future. I acknowledge all that but I am allergic to utopian politics. I think Christians are sometimes prone to that. And in my own field of Christian ethics, I see a lot of it. Whereas partly because I was not brought up in the church, I’ve always been on the outside looking in and asking does this really stand up? 

Realism takes a firm stance against rose-tinted idealism and utopian solutions. In doing so, realism is prone to the accusation of pessimism, and even fatalism (a charge levelled by Michael Ruse, in his discussion with Biggar). It is true that there is a ruthlessly pessimistic streak to realism. But as I see it, Christian realism is, or can be, markedly different from regular realism in numerous ways. Not least of these is because it acknowledges the place of hope. Christian realism is hopeful in a substantive way. More specifically, realism from a Christian perspective rests on a substantive hope rather than vague optimism. This is because it lays hold of the sure hope of resurrection—of raised bodies—on the basis of Christ’s resurrection ahead of time. 

On the basis of this future hope, Christian realism advocates the pursuit of peace and negotiation in the here and now, as a Christian duty and as a priority. War is not entered into lightly and not without a view to its horrific cost. Therefore when war can be prevented or, once underway, stopped, there is a duty to do so.

And yet there are certain occasions, in a world inhabited by individuals such as Hitler, Pol Pot and others, when war is simply unavoidable. Here Christian realism of the kind espoused by Biggar acknowledges the depth of evil that mars the human condition. It recognises the propensity for domination, vengeance and hatred. But it does not respond to these by eschewing all belligerent action in every case. 

Rather, it argues that belligerent action can, in the right circumstances, constitute a duty motivated by love, not only towards those whom one intervenes on behalf of, but even towards those against whom one acts belligerently. 

The Conditions for a Just War 

But what are those occasions in which war is justified? The second major contribution Biggar makes is to delineate a set of conditions or criteria for just war. 

Before setting these criteria out, Biggar makes the important clarification that a just war is not one which is motivated by self-defence (this notion would have horrified early proponents like Augustine and Grotius given their suspicion towards self-interested motives, and yet now reigns supreme in secular conceptions of just war). Rather, just war is motivated by the defence of the innocent and the correlative punishment of those doing the innocent harm. Biggar outlines six or so criteria in his monograph, but I focus on three here:

  1. Just Cause: war must deal with an intolerable injustice, rather than on the pretext of raising a situation from tolerably good to better. 
  2. Right Intention: a just cause can easily be used for the ends of self-improvement or the betterment of the belligerent power. A just cause can function as a pre-text for some other ends. A truly just war has as its primary intention, the rectification of an intolerable injustice. 
  3. Proportionality: rather than referring to a greater quantity of good outcomes than evil ones so that we can say war was “worth it”, proportionality refers to the fact that the injustice one seeks to rectify is grave enough to warrant war’s great costs. 

On this basis, Biggar has defended the justifiability of Britain’s involvement in the Second World War (perhaps an easier task than justifying any other war) and, less easy and more surprising perhaps, the First World War. 

Grateful Commemoration, Chastened Celebration, Heartfelt Lament

In Britain today, Remembrance Sunday often conjures up all sorts of questions and concerns among the populace. And for Christians this is no different. Quite apart from the widespread popularity of pacifism, there are anxieties around the place of the church—whether established or not—in commemorations. There are concerns around the language used (particularly references to the deaths of soldiers as the “ultimate sacrifice”) and of the attitudes in which the moment is remembered (are we simply giving ourselves over to a nationalistic jingoism which is all the cruder given the cost of the Great War?) 

There are many things that could be said in response to these anxieties. What Biggar, I think, helpfully does is show that war is never the means of ushering in the end of history, the blissful end to all war (as some had naively, though understandably, thought and hoped the Great War would do). Nor is a just war a Manichean holy war, but fought by sinners against sinners. As Biggar puts it, we must be realistic in a deeper sense—namely about what war can achieve. A just war “at best stops an evil injustice in its tracks and opens up the space for something better”. If it ends in victory, it offers at best a “provisional victory”.

So as we approach Remembrance Sunday, what ought our response be to those who have fought? Biggar concludes his talk on the justifiability of WWI by stating that the efforts of those who fought ought to stir up a threefold response: our grateful commemoration, our chastened celebration and our lament, that justice should ever warrant such dreadful costs.

Image Credit: Photo by Stijn Swinnen on Unsplash

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