Thursday, January 5, 2017

From "Just War" to "Just Peace"

New Year’s Day has come and gone and it's already in the fifth day of 2017. But do you know that January 1 was not only New Year’s Day but was also the Catholic Church’s World Day of Peace (WDP)? In fact, this year was the 50th anniversary of the WDP. 

The Pope promotes nonviolence 

For this year’s WDP observance, Pope Francis chose the theme “Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace”.

John Dear, a Catholic priest and peace activist (whom I wrote about here in 2014), has pointed out (here) that the Pope’s message on New Year’s Day was the Catholic Church’s first statement on nonviolence ever made. 

The Pope emphasized, “To be true followers of Jesus today also includes embracing his teaching about nonviolence.” He goes on to state, “The name of God cannot be used to justify violence.” (Click here to see the Pope’s entire message.)
In his WDP message Pope Francis said, “I plead for disarmament and for the prohibition and abolition of nuclear weapons.”
Those important words by the Pope were made public last month about two weeks before the PEOTUS (foolishly? dangerously?) tweeted, “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.”
The long “just war” position

The term “just war” was introduced by Augustine of Hippo in his early fifth century book The City of God. It was later articulated in depth by 13th-century theologian Thomas Aquinas. At present, it is outlined by four conditions in the formal Catechism of the Catholic Church. 
(See here for a brief statement of the traditional elements” in what the Catechism calls the “‘just war’ doctrine.”)
A major problem, though, is this: the leaders of every country that is at least somewhat culturally Christian thinks that all wars they engage in are just wars. When have you ever heard the political leader of a Western country admit that their country’s war activities were not just?
When will you ever hear that? My guess is, Never.
In February 1991, then-President Bush sought to assure the American public that his proposed Gulf War conformed to the historic principles of Just War theory.
(It is perhaps noteworthy, however, that Bush II did not use that same language with regard to the Iraq War; although he would never admit it, perhaps he harbored doubts about his presumptive war being just.)
Death kneel for the “just war” doctrine?
There have always been opponents of the just war doctrine. Erasmus of Rotterdam, for example, wrote (in 1508), “The most disadvantageous peace is better than the most just war.”
Now, however, key leaders in the Catholic Church have spoken against it. “Death Knell for Just War: The Vatican’s Historic Turn toward Nonviolence” is the title of John Dear’s article in the Autumn 2016 issue of Plough. (Click here to see that important article.)
(And if you are interested, see this link for an article I wrote last summer about Plough.)
Dear’s article was about the Vatican’s Nonviolence and Just Peace Conference held in April of last year. That seminal meeting issued a document titled “An Appeal to the Catholic Church to Recommit to the Centrality of Gospel Nonviolence.” That appeal included a call for the Church to no longer use or teach “just war theory.”
The Pope seems to have followed that guideline in his World Peace Day message.

My prayer is that all Christians, and others, will heed the recent Catholic call for movement from “just war” to “just peace” and will seek to sanction only nonviolence as the style of politics for peace.


  1. Thanks, Leroy, for another provocative conversation starter. Unfortunately, this one, like nearly every one of yours, is too big to settle here. And, I have great respect for your own convictions about non-violence. Your comments (or rather, June's commentary on your comments) in our (one of your former) Sunday School class at Second Baptist Church live on in the collective memories of our class members (and are invoked surprisingly often on this point).

    Still, the statement "just peace" is not the equivalent of "just war," certainly not in practice, but not even in theory. And I think the reason is because there are different assumptions informing both. Isn't there in the case of "just war" the assumption of an inevitability of war that there is not in the case of "just peace"? That's not to say such an assumption advocates war, but simply recognizes the fallen nature of humanity and humanity's societies (driven more by economic security than most anything else). This is parallel to Jesus' statements in Matt 26 that "the poor you will always have with you..." I do not believe Jesus was remembered as suggesting poverty to be virtuous, there, albeit inevitable.

    If that's so, the term "just peace" is a clever play on the phrase "just war," and therefore potentially frustrates us, since, if there were true peace, we know it could only be accompanied by justice. This leads me to ask whether the term "just peace" is simply a kind of pleonasm for justice. And yet, in my heart I know that even justice is not enough. But, it would be a good starting point. If we committed ourselves at least to justice for all, would that bring the kind of non-violence you yearn for?

    1. Thanks, Milton. It is always a pleasure to have your comments, for they are always thoughtful--and challenging.

      I am sure you know that perhaps the person who talked/wrote most about "just peace" was the late Glen Stassen. It has been a long time since I read his books about that, but I don't think he, or the Catholics last year, attempted to say there was an equivalence between "just peace" and "just war."

      The intent, of course, is to replace the sanctioning of war, even "just war," with peaceful solutions to international, or domestic, conflicts.

      Thanks for teaching me a new word: pleonasm, which I found defined as "the use of more words than are necessary to convey meaning (e.g., see with one's eyes), either as a fault of style or for emphasis.

      Perhaps "just war" is a pleonasm for justice as you suggest, but if so it is used for emphasis. And that leads to the blog article I posted on Dec. 31, 2011 -- already five years ago. It was about the words of Pope Paul VI on the fifth World Day of Peace in 1972: “If you want Peace, work for Justice.”

      Here is the link to that article:

  2. In response to this article, Thinking Friend Keith Herron, now pastor of St. Lucas United Church of Christ in St. Louis, graciously shared with me a sermon he had preached at Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City in 2009. In it are these words by Walker Knight, words written about twenty-five years earlier than that but still highly significant.

    “Peace, like war, must be waged”:

    "Peace plans its strategy and encircles the enemy.
    Peace marshals its forces and storms the gates.
    Peace gathers its weapons and pierces the defense.
    Peace, like war, is waged.

    "But Christ has turned it all around:
    the weapons of peace are love, joy, goodness, longsuffering
    the arms of peace are justice, truth, patience, prayer.
    the strategy of peace brings safety, welfare, happiness
    the forces of peace are the sons and daughters of God."

  3. Here are Thinking Friend Eric Dollard's comments about today's article:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for your comments. I was not aware that January 1 is World Peace Day. I am heartened by the Pope's call for nonviolence and an end to teaching 'just war' theory.

    "War is humankind's stupidest activity. I suspect, although it is probably impossible to know for sure, that warfare has killed more human beings than all of the natural disasters combined. Natural disasters cannot be prevented, although their impact can be lessened, but warfare is totally preventable. How many more will be killed before we give it up?"

  4. We have just finished the year of indulgences.., and the Pope does not carry much weight across the "catholic" spectrum. Peace, peace, but there is no peace. Let Pope Francis be the first to renounce the Society of Ignatius of Loyola, and I will give him the audience of my ear. "One Tin Soldier" (Dennis Lambert) is an appealing cry, but so is life and those who defend it against genocidal tyrants.
    "Walk softly, but carry a big stick." Theodore Roosevelt

    1. I must write a few words to hold up for the Jesuits. Like any organization, there have been some problems in the past--but some Jesuits have done remarkable things as well. Let me just mention three examples

      Francis Xavier was one of the original members of the Society of Jesus founded by Ignatius of Loyola. He later became the first Christian missionary in Japan, arriving there in 1549, and had remarkable success in his efforts to introduce Christianity to the Japanese people.

      In the 18th century, the Jesuits were the creators of the Reductions in South America. As portrayed in the movie "The Mission," the Jesuit missionaries set up mission compounds (communes) independent of the Spanish state to teach Christianity to the indigenous people--and did so with considerable success until they were opposed by the Portuguese slavers.

      And then John Dear, whom I mention in the article (and whom I met and heard speak in Kansas City a couple of years ago, is (or was) a Jesuit. He has had quite a remarkable career as an author and as a peace activist.

  5. Coincidentally, I happen to read THIS BLOG after reading your posting titled From "Just War" to "Just Peace". This blog article by Pete Enns points out that "the Bible is itself a dynamic tradition that reflects different theological points of view." In other words, even the patriarchs of the Old Testament had room to grow with the passage of time in their understanding of God's will. This is similar to what you indicated by your posting which describes growth in the Catholic Church's understanding of the merits of nonviolence and the problems with "just war."

  6. Thanks for your comments, Clif, and for mentioning Peter Enns.

    You have met Fred Heeren at church, I think. He is a big fan of Enns, and just today, because of Fred's recommendation of him, I read (for the first time) some of his book "The Bible Tells Me So . . . Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It" (2014).

  7. What is war? Until we look deeply into this question, we cannot begin to separate just from unjust, or contemplate ending war entirely. The story of David and Bathsheba begins with these amazing words, "In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle, David sent Joab with his officers and all Israel with him; they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem." (2 Samuel 11:1) Birds fly north in the spring, kings go out to war. Indeed, David gets himself in trouble by not going out to war with his troops. Of course, as the old phrase "rape, pillage and plunder" suggests, personal assaults are very much part of the tradition of war. For an interesting look at the evolution of modern resistance to these practices, see this link:

    Today we tend to assume that wars are the result of serious differences between countries, but historically most wars are fought for and against imperialist exploitation. Julius Caesar did not invade Gaul because he disliked some public policy position. He invaded Gaul because he wanted plunder, lots and lots of plunder. That was just the way the world worked. Naomi Klein in "The Shock Doctrine" makes the point that modern American wars have mostly been imperialist affairs. Due to the velvet glove of capitalism, much of the pillaging is done by economics, not by blunt force, but blunt force backs it up from overthrowing Allende in Chile to "preventive" war in Iraq. Where is the light at the end of the Iraq tunnel? Well, it is back in 2003 before we made the fateful decision to enrich Cheney and Halliburton at the expense of both Iraqi citizens and American taxpayers. The Iraq War is the gift the keeps on giving as years and trillions of dollars later the whole Mideast is in far worse shape than before we so violently stirred the pot. Just the way the military-industrial complex wants it.

    Unfortunately, great imperial powers have always been quite able to justify to themselves and to their citizens their imperial rampages. Rome was bringing law to the barbarians. America has "Exceptionalism" and "Manifest Destiny." The one silver lining I hope I am seeing in Donald Trump is a revulsion to Bush's invasion of Iraq, and all that it stands for. Of course, he also wants to start a new nuclear arms race. Well, as many were chanting back in Vietnam days, "All we are saying, is give peace a chance!"

    1. An interesting perspective, Craig. What I have seen in history and see now is mostly tribal "warfare". There are and have been the big bullies (empires) through the millenia, and religious wars as well, but the tribes carry it - including this country. Of course we know who should be honored among the tribes...