For a Christian, this is a just war

In a fallen, sinful world it is sometimes a stern duty to use military force to protect the defenceless
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THE REMARKABLE French thinker Simone Weil once wrote: "All the criminal violence of the Roman Empire ran up against Christ and in him became pure suffering... The false God changes suffering into violence, the true God changes violence into suffering."

In the light of this, it is not surprising that the early Christians were pacifists. As the second-century theologian Tertullian put it, referring to the incident in the Gospels when a sword was drawn to protect Jesus from arrest: "In disarming Peter, Christ unbelted every soldier."

But when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, there was a painful dilemma. If order is essential to human life and order depends on the use or threat of coercion, would it not be irresponsible of Christians to refuse to play their part as policemen or soldiers?

So war is justified - but only under certain conditions. Today, Christians are fiercely divided as to whether those conditions have been met in the action against Serbia.

First there must be legitimate authority. One of the most hopeful developments since the Second World War is that we now assume this to be the United Nations. But although a general principle was established in relation to Iraq, namely that it is possible to intervene within the borders of another sovereign country for exceptional humanitarian reasons, there has been no explicit resolution allowing this in relation to Kosovo.

The second condition is that there must be a just cause. The protection of terrorised Albanian Kosovars must certainly qualify. And the third condition, that war be a last resort, has also surely been met. Every peaceful means of resolving the conflict must first have been tried.

It is the fourth criterion that causes the most trouble. This says that military action must not unleash more evil than would have to be endured if such action were not taken. Integrally related to this is the judgement that there must be a reasonable chance of success. Here, of course, the moral dimension overlaps with political and military considerations.

But what counts as success? there is little doubt that the skill and training of the Nato forces will achieve the military objective of drastically weakening the Serbian forces. But this military objective cannot be seen apart from the political goal, which must be a priority. It is far from obvious at the moment that the political plan as outlined in the Rambouillet agreement can yet be attained by bombing; and, rightly or wrongly, the Government keeps on ruling out ground forces.

It isn't surprising that Christians, like the country as a whole, are now making very different predictions about what is possible. As a worst case, it is possible to envisage Milosevic suing for peace with all his troops and police in possession of an "ethnically cleansed" northern third of Kosovo - and Nato having neither the will nor the capacity to do anything but accede.

However, with all these dire predictions, now we have embarked on this course what matters at this stage is an iron resolve to achieve the goal we have set. The danger is that a ruthless ruler such as Milosevic can make us hesitate and weaken. But to weaken now is, in effect, to hand the world over to those who are prepared to raise the stakes ever higher through their unrestrained cruelty - in this case, "ethnic cleansing".

In the last analysis it is not up to churchmen to say whether a particular action is right or wrong. It is government that is in a position to know the facts, that will have weighed up the risks and that bears the awesome responsibility. Our role, through the exercise of the teaching office of the church, is to urge that the criteria must be met. When it comes to the conduct of the action, the prime requirement is to target only military installations and forces; the principle of non-combatant immunity, ie civilians not directly contributing to the war effort, is the most sacrosanct teaching of the Church's long tradition of thinking about this subject. Here there is one thing for which to be thankful. Modern precision- guided weapons make it more possible than ever for military targets to be accurately located and hit.

The phrase "a just war" is a misnomer. All wars are a tragic expression of an injustice that has eaten into the very fabric of human society. Nevertheless, in a fallen, sinful world it is sometimes a stern duty to use military force to protect the defenceless. But such actions are not crusades, and we should avoid demonising the enemy. As the great American thinker Reinhold Niebuhr prayed during the Second World War: "We pray for wicked and cruel men, whose arrogance reveals to us what the sin of our own hearts is like when it has conceived and brought forth its final fruit."

So we come back to this Good Friday, the most sombre day in the Christian calendar when we reflect on the fact that God himself, in the person of his Son, experienced our violence and bore the sin of the whole world. It is a day made more sombre still by the countless innocents still suffering in Kosovo and elsewhere in the world. If there is hope to be found, it can only be as put in a hymn that will be sung in many churches today:

Abel's blood for vengeance

Pleaded to the skies

But the blood of Jesus

For our pardon cries

The writer is Bishop of Oxford