Sovereignty, Intervention, Justice and the Good Samaritan

What about justice for the victim before or as they are being assaulted?

In my previous article on these topics I looked at a number of things, including whether it was ever right for a nation to intervene in the affairs of another nation. Modern notions of national sovereignty and non-intervention seek to say no to such things, but as I argued, there are good reasons for taking a different view.

I mentioned a famous quote in that article from the fourth-century Christian thinker Ambrose, bishop of Milan: “He who does not keep harm off a friend, if he can, is as much in fault as he who causes it.” His understanding of love of neighbour includes being willing to come to their aid when they are under attack.

Sure, today we have police forces and the like who in theory will deal with such situations. But given that it may take on average 20 minutes or so before the authorities arrive, by then it may be too late: the rape or assault or robbery or murder have already taken place. So there is a place for self-defence, and/or for coming to the aid of others. See this article for more on this:

And what is true of individuals is often true of nations. If Christian love to neighbour means looking after their well-being, especially when they are under attack, the same can be said about international relations. Here I want to look at this further, utilising one biblical story that can be applied to all this. The parable of the Good Samaritan is well known by all believers. Found in Luke 10:25-37, it says this:

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.”

This may be about individuals, but we can apply it to nations as well. Moreover, we can go beyond what happened here (the after-the-fact rescue) and ask questions about this in terms of what does neighbour-love actually mean, and what more can be extrapolated from this story in terms of justice and the like.

That is, if the biblical love for neighbour as Jesus expressed it had to do with helping the one who has been attacked like this, would the same neighbour-love also entail any intervention if one came upon this attack currently under way, or even any sort of preventative action before the assault even occurred?

Those in the just war tradition have thought about these very matters extensively. Let me refer to one important just war thinker, the Protestant ethicist and theologian Paul Ramsey. In his 1968 book The Just War: Force and Political Responsibility the Protestant theologian and ethicist discusses this parable, applying it to just war theory.

In the 2002 edition of this book Stanley Hauerwas has a foreword to it in which he says that as a pacifist he prefers thinkers like John Howard Yoder. But he is grateful for how ably and competently Ramsey handles the just war tradition. Hauerwas reminds us of the basic framework of Ramsey:

His first book, Basic Christian Ethics (1950) was the most synthetic account of his position he would ever publish. The hallmark of the Christian moral life, according to Ramsey, was agape, that is, the absolute regard for the neighbor’s welfare. Any ethic that would submit the Christian commitment to the neighbor to consequential calculations was anathema for Ramsey. Accordingly he became the implacable foe to the kind of situation ethics defended by Joseph Fletcher.

In his chapter on “Justice In War” Ramsey ties together just war, neighbour-love and the parable:

The western theory of the just war originated, not primarily from considerations of abstract or “natural” justice, but from the interior of the ethics of Christian love, or what John XXIII termed “social charity.” It was a work of charity for the Good Samaritan to give help to the man who fell among thieves. But one step more, it may have been a work of charity for the inn-keeper to hold himself ready to receive beaten and wounded men, and for him to conduct his business so that he was solvent enough to extend credit to the Good Samaritan. By another step it would have been a work of charity, and not of justice alone, to maintain and serve in a police patrol on the Jericho road to prevent such things from happening. By yet another step, it might well be work of charity to resist, by force of arms, any external aggression against the social order that maintains the police patrol along the road to Jericho. This means that, where an enforcement of an ordered community is not effectively present, it may be a work of justice and a work of social charity to resort to other available and effective means of resisting injustice: what do you think Jesus would have made the Samaritan do if he had come upon the scene while the robbers were still at their fell work?

He continues:

While Jesus taught that a disciple in his own case should turn the other cheek, he did not enjoin that his disciples should lift up the face of another oppressed man for him to be struck again on his other cheek. It is no part of the work of charity to allow this to continue to happen. Instead, it is the work of love and mercy to deliver as many as possible of God’s children from tyranny, and to protect from oppression, if one can, as many of those for whom Christ died as it may be possible to save. When choice must be made between the perpetrator of injustice and the many victims of it, the latter may and should be preferred—even if effectively to do so would require the use of armed force against some evil power. This is what I mean by saying that the justice of sometimes resorting to armed conflict originated in the interior ethics of Christian love.

Thinking about justice for a victim involves more than just dealing with him AFTER an attack. It can also mean dealing with the situation DURING or even BEFORE it happens. This is all part of the Christian ethic of neighbourly love. And as mentioned, we can apply this not just to individuals but to nations as well.

Image of The Just War Tradition: An Introduction (American Ideals & Institutions)
The Just War Tradition: An Introduction (American Ideals & Institutions) by Corey, David D. (Author), Charles, J. Daryl (Author) Amazon logo

Seabury and Codevilla also discuss this parable:

What would this exemplary Samaritan have done if he had come upon the scene while the violent robbery was still in progress? Would charity have been satisfied if he had sat and watched until the robbers had finished with their victim before moving in to help? Wouldn’t the Good Samaritan have attacked the robbers? On the other hand, if the robbers had been so many that by joining the fray he only would have committed suicide, he might have stayed hidden in the rocks. Charity and suicide are two different things. However, if he had been travelling with his own friends, he probably would have judged the strength of his band against the robbers’ before deciding whether it was prudent to ask his friends to join him in war against the robbers.


As for the priest and the scholar, although they did not put themselves out in any way for a stranger, one might well surmise that if they had come home from their journeys to find the same band of thieves looting their farms and raping their wives, they would have used all prudent force to put a stop to the evil. Nor can one imagine that Christ would have condemned anyone for using all necessary force – though doing so would involve the commission of some evil – to stop a greater evil from occurring. “Turning the other cheek” is no virtue when it means offering up someone else’s cheek or life to be smitten.


Hence, the civilization that has risen on the teachings of Christ has always sanctioned war, providing that sufficiently valuable goods are at stake, that they are seriously enough threatened, that the danger is such that violence is necessary if the goods are to be protected, that there is a reasonable chance of success, and that any evils committed in the defense of these goods not outweigh them.

And Corey and Charles say this by way of wrapping things up:

While the duty to love, then, is always absolute, the injunctions to turn the other cheek and to resist not one who is evil are not absolute but rather must be applied judiciously according to the more fundamental requirements of love. Christian ethics involves judgment, not simply the application of law. It is true, of course, that at times—for example, in war —the judgments Christians must make are extremely perilous, the risk of error very great. But the risks and dangers do not negate the obligation to judge and to act in accordance with love.

For further reading

See my detailed bibliography on issues of war, peace and international relations:

And see my earlier article on these topics:

As to those that I quoted in this piece, here are the details:

Paul Ramsey, The Just War: Force and Political Responsibility. Rowman & Littlefield, 1968, 2002, pp. 142-143 – see also ch. 2 on “The Ethics of Intervention.”

Paul Seabury and Angelo Codevilla, War: Ends and Means, Basic Books, 1989, pp. 214-215.

David Corey and J. Daryl Charles, The Just War Tradition: An Introduction, ISI Books, 2012, 2018, pp. 223-224.

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One Reply to “Sovereignty, Intervention, Justice and the Good Samaritan”

  1. Great series on just war, self-defense and defense of innocents that will offer me more insight when I revisit the “Laws of Self-Defense” In rural Texas our Sheriff Department responds in 45-minutes while Texas has a broad a latitude with Stand your Ground for self-defense, defense of innocents and property as any state as well as license to carry (LTC) and most recently a weak Constitutional (open) Carry. Certainly the “Duty to Retreat” states compromise the welfare of the citizen to the benefit of the criminal.

    PS. It does not appear that your clients are being offered the opportunity to review comments any longer (only comment).

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