The Academy for the Study of Saint Ambrose of Milan
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saint ambrose of milan

“To Fight, or Not to Fight?”


by Kyle Feller

Since the birth of Christianity, the issue of whether war is ethically sound or not has remained a controversial topic. Part of this has to do with the many different ways to look at the issue of war. Some feel war is wrong altogether, while some feel war is acceptable but only under certain circumstances. There is speculation as to what are acceptable reasons to start a war, whether choosing to not fight is unpatriotic, and if fighting "under God" makes it okay, just to name a few. Many other issues face Christians during combat as well such as whether or not it is tolerable to kill other Christians and if the use of snipers and mass bombing tactics including nuclear or hydrogen bombs are considered acceptable within the Christian faith. Other questions deal with the aftermath of war such as if it is okay when an advantage is gained as a result of the fighting and if greater destruction results from war than what previously existed. Because of all these different angles to look at war and the morality of it, many Christians may be unaware of where the church stands on the topic of war. This paper will look into the church's stance on war, the beliefs Saint Ambrose held, and why these are so important in today's world.

When it comes to war, there is one basic agreement held by most all Christians. As Georgia Harkness explains, "All agree that war is a terrible evil, fraught today with possibilities of destruction undreamed of in an earlier day, and to be avoided by any honorable means" (Christian Ethics, p. 1). After this agreement, opinions tend to diverge. There are some Christians that feel certain circumstances lead war to be unavoidable, while others, know as pacifists, consider all war and support of war to entirely go against the teachings of the radically nonviolent Jesus Christ and the beliefs of the Christian religion.

Many Christians may not realize it, but the Catholic Church has its own set of standards, or exceptions, for war, and they can be summed up in four basic rules developed as an extension of self defense by Saint Augustine who interestingly was baptized by Saint Ambrose (Grant, class notes). The first regulation is that war is acceptable if all other means are tried first. This is basically saying that war must be the only way around a certain problem. This regulation derives from the belief that God made the world for good, not for evil. "War's wanton of destruction of human lives and property and its long aftermath of physical and social evils cannot be God's will" (Christian Ethics, p. 2). The Christian religion recognizes that, although God does not encourage war, it is at times the only means available to end a certain harm being imposed. The next rule of war is that fighting must only occur between combatants. This means there shall be no innocent individuals harmed such as civilians who are uninvolved in the war. War that breaks this rule is considered against beliefs of the Christian faith. The third rule says that war is acceptable if it is protecting one's self, properties, or other innocent people. If the survival of one's self or another human is in jeopardy, then war is acceptable. The fourth and final rule of war is that no advantage must be gained compared to that of the previous situation. This means that once the objective of war is complete and the protection is achieved, fighting should end. There should be no attempts to gain more than what was had before the conflict occurred. This rule "hinges on the question of proportion: whether the toll in death and pain is proportionate to the possible gains" (Time Magazine: The Morality of War, p. 5). Although Christians have these "rules of war", they are by no means supporting the concept of war. The Christian religion instead looks at war as a "last resort". War should be avoided at all costs, but the Catholics recognize certain situations "call for arrows." As German Catholic Theologian Karl Rahner mentions, "The Christian should always first opt for the path of love; yet as long as this world exists, a rational, hard, even violent striving for justice may well be the secular personification of love" (Time Magazine: Morality of War, p. 7).

One of the first men to formulate a Christian set of beliefs towards war, along with Augustine, was Saint Ambrose. The outlook of Saint Ambrose is unique in that he looked at war from two different levels. University of Kentucky's Louis J. Swift explains, "As a man who had himself occupied high civil office and who exercised considerable influence on matters of state as Bishop of Milan, we may see in him in a very special way conflicting ideals of patriotism and religious integrity as well as some incipient efforts at resolving the dilemma which violence created for the Christian conscience" (Saint Ambrose on Violence and War, p. 533). Serving as governor, Ambrose had the power of a militia at his fingertips, but it is unknown if he ever used the militia during his reign. Although he may never have used the militia, he was not opposed to using violence if need be. Ambrose was in a position where the most Christian way of thinking may not have been the best course of action for preserving his state. He likely realized that having a militia at his disposal was indeed necessary and served as a great threat to civilians even if it was never actually used. Ambrose wrestled with the issue of war and argued over how public order would be held without it.

Saint Ambrose, like Saint Augustine, had his own set of war conditions which he felt was acceptable. "These include provisions that every conflict be defensive in nature, that agreements be honored, that no unfair advantage be taken of the enemy, and that mercy be exhibited to the defeated. Within such limits war could be considered not only justifiable but praiseworthy" (Saint Ambrose on Violence and War, p. 534). Although Saint Ambrose was not entirely opposed to war, it is important to note that he felt no violence was a much better option than fighting. He emphasizes this point in De Officiis in writing, " is not our business to look to arms, but rather to the forces of peace" (De. Off. I. 35. 175). Ambrose frequently used the phrase "turn the other cheek" in regard to opposing violence. He stated that we are commanded by God to do this, but we have no right to turn the cheek of another person. He argued that when we do not defend our neighbor, we are as bad as the one causing that neighbor trouble. Ambrose meant for this concept to apply to nations as well. He suggests that by not coming to the aid of another, we have essentially failed to love. No matter what level, protecting another individual or nation through the use of force is essentially an act of love and justified according to Saint Ambrose.

There are certain individuals Saint Ambrose depended on in his ways of thinking about ideas. When it comes to non-violent resistance, he looked back to the writings of Cicero from almost two-hundred years prior. Much like Ambrose, Cicero was caught between what makes a war "just". As Grant mentions in his text entitled Weapons Strong for God (p. 4), Cicero sets his own stipulations for a just war in book I of de Officiis (34-40). He states that it is to be waged to attain peace; it should spare non-combatants; and it should be merciful to those who surrender (35). Cicero goes on to say that the state must declare, only soldiers under oath of service may legally go to battle, one's enemy must be recognized as being human, certain civilities are to be maintained, even at risk of death, and that no fair advantage is to be seized upon (36-40). Many of these beliefs held by Cicero parallel that of Ambrose. Rather than backing up his opinions with Roman references, Ambrose tends to use the Bible as a guide for his beliefs regarding the Christianity of war.

Ambrose spoke highly of Old Testament heroes such as David and Joshua in his writings saying, "They were ready to fight for the temple of God and for their rights" (De. Off., I. 40. 206). He also tells stories of how brave and courageous warriors were against their enemies. An example of this is the story of Eleazor who threw himself into the legion and slew multiple enemies by himself until he reached the elephant on which the king sat. "Then, despising death, and casting away his shield, he ran beneath the huge beast, wounded it with both hands and let it fall upon him. He ran beneath it so as to give a more deadly blow. Enclosed by its fall, rather than crushed, he was buried in his own triumph" (ibid. I. 40. 206). This is just one of the many examples of Ambrose's admiration for Old Testament heroes and their bravery while fighting for God.

In today's world, conflicts between religion and state arise constantly. Many citizens with deep religious roots are often times caught between distinguishing right from wrong. They may find themselves opposing war and as a result be called unpatriotic, or they may support war and face religious criticism. This is certainly a problem with religious citizens all over the world. Many of these people are probably unaware of what essentially makes a war "acceptable" within the Christian religion. One way the people of today's world can find help with this struggle is to look back at the insight of Saint Ambrose. Ambrose is a great person to turn to because he fought between the issue of religion and state in regards to war just like so many people are continually forced to do today.

For today's Americans, the Iraq War has been an issue for nearly seven years. The Iraq War started due to the threat of weapons of mass destruction that could be used to terrorize the United States as well as the rest of the world. A major concern of Americans was that Al Qaeda could get a hold of these weapons and cause serious harm. The United States decided to invade and take control of Iraq while waiting for the United Nations to thoroughly inspect the country for weapons of mass destruction. By having control of Iraq, the United States also had control of their oil supply which is one of the richest industries in the world. With former Iraqi leader, Sadaam Hussein, removed from power, the United States forced democracy on the country as opposed to their previous dictatorship. Due to all the fighting within the country and the difficulty distinguishing Iraqi soldiers from civilians, the invasion of Iraq resulted in the killing of many innocent citizens whom were not part of the fighting. Also, the invasion led many mass car bombings to occur within the country that killed civilians as well.

One might ponder the question: What would Saint Ambrose think of this Iraq War if he were here today? Would he agree with its purposes and what went on during the fighting? These are questions we will never know the answer to, but we can do our best to compare his actions in the 4th century to what he may have done in today's world. There are obviously vast differences between the time Ambrose lived in and the 21st century. Ambrose never had to worry about the threat of nuclear weapons or fear an attack from a country halfway around the world. The way I see it, Saint Ambrose would agree with the cause of the Iraq war. However, I feel he would be greatly opposed to what went on during the war.

Saint Ambrose was a great advocate of peace during the 4th century and felt "turning the cheek" was almost always a better option than violence. However, he did have some stipulations as to what would make a war just and violence necessary. Self defense and defense of neighbors were a couple of these stipulations. I feel the Iraq War was initially started by America as an act of self defense as well as in defense of the rest of the world in harm's way of nuclear weapons. If Iraq did indeed have these weapons of mass destruction, they had potential to destroy the whole world. If Saint Ambrose was in the position of President George W. Bush, I think he would also feel the need to invade Iraq due to the safety concern of the rest of the world. Although I feel Ambrose would agree to invade Iraq as self defense, I do not feel he would agree with everything that went on in the country during the war. I'm talking about controlling the oil supply and the killing of many innocent civilians. Both of these actions fit under Ambrose's just war stipulations. He did not agree with one side gaining an unfair advantage or gaining more than previously possessed. I feel this is what the United States did by taking control of Iraq's oil supply. There is a lot that went on during the war which the average person is not aware of, but this was not, or at least should not have been, a primary reason to start the war. The United States gained access to large amounts of money they did not have previously, and that is certainly something Ambrose would disagree with. Ambrose was also opposed to the killing of innocent civilians whom were not part of the war. I realize this is hard to avoid during a war like the Iraq War, but regardless he would certainly not agree with it.

Saint Ambrose was known as a generally peaceful individual with incredible intelligence and judgment. He was certainly not one to rush to violence by any means. For Ambrose to use violence in a situation, the potential of harm to his people would have to be fairly extreme. I feel that too often in this world people see violence as the first means of solving a problem. When faced with difficult decisions in life, we should all consider the question: What would Ambrose do? I feel that this world would be safer and much more just if more Ambrosian individuals populated it.

Works Cited

  • Ambrose, S. (2009). De Officiis BI. 40. 206 & 207. Retrieved November 08, 2010 from New Advent:
  • Grant, Bud. (2010). Weapons Strong for God .
  • Harkness, G. (1957). Chapter 11: War, Peace, and International Order. Retrieved November 08, 2010 from Christian Ethics by Georgia Harkness:
  • Swift, L. J. (1970). St. Ambrose on Violence and War. Retrieved November 08, 2010 from JSTOR:
  • Time Magazine. (1967). Essay: THE MORALITY OF WAR. Retrieved November 08, 2010 from Time US:,9171,843310,00.html.