Monday, July 7, 2008

Just War - the American Revolution

In honor of Independence Day, I want to continue the Just War series, but in a slightly different direction. Based on just war theory, what should we say about the American Revolutionary War? Just war theory suggests that America's revolt against England falls short of a fully just war, but was not totally unjust either.

If you look at my last post on this topic, you can see that one of the criteria for just war is that it must be authorized by legitimate government leaders. By definition, a revolt is lacking legitimate government authority. However, the rebels tried to create legitimacy by appointing a continental congress.

The Revolutionary War also fell short of being fully just in that it is difficult to see it as an appropriate and restrained response to aggression. War is most just when it responds to unprovoked aggression. War in response to unjust taxation or in order to institute a type of government you like better is certainly an overreaction (otherwise most Americans should go to war against their government now!). Of course, the Revolutionary War was a bit more complicated than that - Parliament refused to listen to legitimate requests of the colonies, the colonists had some violent protests, British troops were deployed, and Parliament took punitive economic measures against the colonies.

(By the way, it is a common misconception that the Revolution was a response to religious persecution by England. This was not the case - the British colonial governments tolerated all Protestant denominations. Catholics were not tolerated - but the Revolution was not fought to give rights to Catholics!)

With the other just war criteria, one can make a greater case that the colonies had just causes - war was a last resort, and its goals were limited to reversing the wrongs suffered. At the beginning, it was not so clear that they had a reasonable chance of success, but obviously they succeeded.

For Christians, Romans 13:1-7 provides another reason for caution when evaluating the Revolutionary War. Paul wrote that Christians may not rebel against the government. He didn't say that Christians should obey unjust laws, but he did not allow armed revolt.

This is one of the main reason why so many Americans were Tories (British sympathizers). They were not necessarily traitors; they believed that it was morally and biblically wrong to rebel against their rightful government. James Bradley, a professor of church history at Fuller Theological Seminary, told me that most Anglican (Episcopalian) churches preached regularly from Romans 13 during the Revolutionary War, and most Congregational churches preached from passages like Isaiah 61 that talk about liberty. In this case, I think the Anglican Tories were doing a much better job interpreting the Scriptures than the Congregationalist Rebels.

If we were to use a "just war score" with 0 being unprovoked aggression and 100 being response to unprovoked aggression (following all just war criteria), then I think that the American Revolutionary War should probably have a score of about 60 or 70 at the highest. If we use the criteria of Romans 13, then quite likely Christians should not have joined in the Revolutionary War.


  1. Dr. Manning, I really appreciate the way you presented this. It comes off as if you sincerely have no hidden alterior motive to manipulate the reader for or against the American Revolution. Instead it seems as though you are just presenting information and letting the information determine the outcome. For this reason you'd never make it as a "real" journalist. That's a compliment, by the way. Hallelu Yah for blogs!


  2. Suppose for a moment that the American Revolution was an unjust war. Being that the Americans fought it anyway and won it, what does that say about the legitimacy of America’s sovereignty in the eyes of God? Also, should those colonists who were opposed to the war at that time after July 4, 1776 have submitted to the authority of the newly created USA or should they have remained submissive to Great Britain? Which authority was established by God? And finally, what does this say with regards to the Hawaiian Kingdom restoration movement? Should Christians not participate in that and simply submit ourselves to the USA because the USA’s authority has been established in Hawaii by God? Or is there a way to both be submissive to the USA’s authority and still seek out Hawaiian sovereignty? I apologize for bum rushing you with questions and thank you for your contribution in helping me prevent brain disease and/or atrophy.



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