catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 3 :: 2004.01.30 — 2004.02.12


Moving toward pacifism

When I decided to go back to college a few years ago, I decided to seek out a school affiliated with an historic peace church because I thought it would be interesting and challenging to get a different Christian perspective on political issues (the area of study in which I’d be majoring). After plans to attend George Fox University, a Quaker school in Portland, Oregon, fell through, followed closely by our move to Michigan for the purposes of getting *cino off the ground, I “stumbled” upon Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana, a Mennonite school.

I enrolled as a full-time student last semester and began my journey in the study of peace, justice, and conflict transformation. The journey has gotten a lot more difficult this semester as I attempt to navigate through two classes on war, one on liberation theologies (theology developed by oppressed peoples) and another on reconciliation without becoming depressed over the depravity of humankind. Even more than I had hoped, and in ways I hadn’t fully expected, the material is challenging me. This reflection is simply an indicator of where I find myself in the journey, specifically regarding just war and pacifism.

It seems necessary, to begin, to determine a definition of peace. Both pacifism and just war operate on the premise that peace is preferable to war; the provision for right intentions in just war theory actually requires that peace be the desired end of a war. But is peace simply the absence of conflict—the culturally accepted definition? In response to this question, the peace studies community has developed a distinction between peace defined as the absence of war (negative peace) and peace defined as a justly functioning society, or a society in which no peoples are oppressing others (positive peace). The implications of this distinction are profound.

The basics of just war theory

Jus ad bellum (justifications for going to war)

  • Legitimate authority. Private individuals and groups are not permitted to take up arms against others, however justified their cause may appear. Only governments—those who have been entrusted with the public good—may wage war, and they must do it openly and legally.
  • Just cause. A government may wage war in self-defense, in defense of another nation, to protect innocents or to regain something wrongfully taken. The desire for personal glory or revenge, or to impose tyrannical rule, is never an acceptable cause for waging war.
  • Right intention. The ultimate end of a government in waging war must be to establish peace, rather than to use a “just war” as a pretext for its own gain.
  • Last resort. A governing authority must reasonably exhaust all other diplomatic and non-military options for securing peace before resorting to force.
  • Reasonable chance of success. A government may not resort to war unless its prospects for success are good. In this way, lives will not be needlessly wasted in the pursuit of a hopeless cause.
  • Proportionality. A government must respond to aggression with force only when the effects of its defensive actions do not exceed the damage done by the aggression itself.

Jus in bello (moral conduct while in war)

  • Noncombatant immunity. An authority waging war is morally obligated to seek to discriminate between combatants and noncombatants. While civilians unfortunately may sometimes come in harm’s way, a government may never deliberately target them.
  • Proportionate means. This criterion pertains to specific tactics of warfare and seeks to restrict unnecessary use of force. It is intended to ensure that the military means used to achieve certain goals and goods are commensurate with their value, particularly when compared to the loss of life and destruction that could also occur.

From The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

The standard Christian position on war is essentially defined by the just war theory, as popularly developed by Augustine and Aquinas. It’s interesting to note that, although usually assumed to be an ethic derived from Christianity, the Greek and Roman philosophers had created much of the theory before Augustine developed it further in The City of God. Another striking fact is that Augustine didn’t extend the provisions of just war to infidels (non-Christians).

At this point, I think it’s important to consider what we assume to be normative. Is war the standard state of human existence or is peace? The way we write our history, dividing timelines by wars and placing events by their relation to the nearest war, would indicate that war is normative. Admittedly, writing only about peace isn’t exactly exciting (can you imagine a novel without conflict?), but the centrality of war is telling to a certain degree.

The just war theory, in general, seems to assume that war is unavoidable and standard, owing its inevitability to human depravity. John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, certainly took this view. Doesn’t it logically follow then, that we are less likely to work against war if we have succumbed to its apparent certainty? I realize the last resort provision would seem to refute this, but it seems impossible to me to determine that all other potential solutions to a mounting conflict have been tried and failed. Another assumption of the just war theory, tying in closely with the previous assumption, is that the Kingdom of God is unattainable in the period before Christ’s return; therefore, it is folly to think that peace is even possible.

While I don’t fully accept these assumptions, can pacifism really be considered a viable and effective alternative? Unfortunately, many still mistake pacifism with passivity and write it off as unreasonable. Pacifism, though, is a refusal to kill or injure fellow image bearers, as well as an active nonviolent resistance to injustice (indicating that positive peace is desired end). While this definition could expand the scope of this discussion considerably, it’s significant because of the focus on each individual as a child of God and the practical action of eliminating injustices before they lead to war.

Another aspect of pacifism that I’m finding particularly cogent is the refusal to use violent means to reach peaceful ends. History shows us, in more examples than I can count, that violence breeds violence. But violence doesn’t know how to respond to nonviolence; such a response simply doesn’t make sense. Though there are many practical illustrations demonstrating this point, I’m more interested in the implications for the Christian. The argument that nonviolence doesn’t make sense is perhaps the most convincing for promoting Christian nonviolence: nonviolence does make sense for people who believe in the power of the cross in a world where God exists. Instead of responding to our fallen world with fear, we should believe that God’s love is stronger than all of the evil that can come our way. And this flips the idea that pacifism is an easy solution on its head.

At some point in discussions of this nature (I’ll mention this just briefly), someone is bound to bring up Hitler. After all, even Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pacifist, plotted to assassinate the ruthless tyrant. Although Nazi Germany might have seemed like the last possible place for nonviolence in action, there are several examples that show they were susceptible to such tactics. For example, a group of German women forced the regime to release their Jewish husbands?several thousand men?by sitting on the Rosenstrasse for a month. Fearing they would be exposed, the Nazis complied. What other nonviolent solutions could have worked?

In the end, the just war theory seems to be responding to the condition of war instead of responding to Christ’s radical sacrifice and God’s call to live as agents of transformation in a corrupt world. Pacifism, on the other hand, responds directly to the call by requiring radical obedience—even to the point of death.

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