Two famous brothers debate the difference between just and unjust wars

In 1932—while many Americans were reacting to reports of atrocities committed by Japanese forces in China—two leading Protestant theologians debated in the pages of Christian Century whether U.S. military intervention in the conflict would be a “just” or “unjust” war. The theologians were H. Richard Niebuhr of Yale University and his brother, Reinhold Niebuhr of Union Theological Seminary in New York. Both were members of the Evangelical and Reformed Church, one of the UCC’s antecedent denominations, and both influenced many members of the first and second generations of UCC pastors who studied under them.

The rising tide of conflict in Asia and Hitler’s imminent seizure of power in Germany were stirring renewed fears of war, and motivated both men to reexamine Christian traditions regarding war and its moral consequences. We present these papers because they are relevant to the international debate over terrorism and the use of armed force in self-defense.

H. Richard Niebuhr argued for a principled “inactivity” based on radical trust in God. He wrote: “The inactivity of radical Christianity is not the inactivity of those who call evil good; it is the inaction of those who do not judge their neighbors because they cannot fool themselves into a sense of superior righteousness. … It is not the inactivity of the noncombatant, for it knows that there are no noncombatants, that everyone is involved, that China is being crucified … by our sins and those of the whole world. It is not the inactivity of the merciless, for works of mercy must be performed though they are only palliates to ease present pain while the process of healing depends on deeper, more actual and urgent forces.” But Reinhold Niebuhr disagreed: “Love may qualify the social struggle of history but it will never abolish it, and those who make the attempt to bring society under the dominion of perfect love will die on the cross. And those who behold the cross are quire right in seeing it as a revelation of the divine, of what man ought to be cannot be, at least not so long as he is enmeshed in the processes of history.”

Also linked from this page is the 1985 General Synod pronouncement on “Just Peace”—an alternative to traditional “Just War” doctrine—and UCC theologian Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite on the relevance of the Just War tradition to the war against Iraq.

The UCC Office of General Ministries, which sponsors this page, thanks the Rev. John Deckenback, Conference Minister of the Central Atlantic Conference, and his staff who provided us with the original text of this debate. We also thank you for your congregation’s financial contribution to Our Church’s Wider Mission, which makes this service possible.

 Radical trust in God
H. Richard Niebuhr argues that radical obedience to God requires Christian nonviolence. Any other response would mean distrust in God and God’s promises.

 No absolutes
In a fallen world, Reinhold Niebuhr replies, Christians cannot act as if the reign of God has already been established, and must sometimes use force to protect the innocent.

 A final word
In a letter to the editors of Christian Century, H. Richard Niebuhr sums up the debate.

 Turning to Tradition
In making moral judgments about the war in Iraq, says UCC theologian Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Christians can find help from a “1,500-year-old tradition.”

 Just Peace
The “Just Peace” doctrine commended by the UCC’s General Synod in 1985 is distinct both from “just war” theory and traditional Christian pacifism.