How a just war without a just peace became a holy war

Religious and theological response to the terrorist attack at the World Trade Center and Pentagon has been quick, constant, and thorough. But while the public has been hearing the voices of the three traditional peace theologies, and reflecting on them, the voice of a fourth theological paradigm, just peace theology, has been less clear and less understood by the public as a paradigm. The three classic theological understandings in Christian theology—pacifism, just war, and crusade/holy war—have been articulated well and have increased or decreased in public affirmation. The fourth paradigm, just peace theology, has been spoken, but not perceived as clearly by the public. But if the Bush administration does not start taking seriously the call for Just Peace by many in the Christian community, it is going to lose the public support it so desires.

Pacifists have been vocal in insisting that terrorists must be held accountable for their acts and brought to justice. Pacifists have also put forward many alternative strategies, so that violence is not answered with violence. But on the central question of how the al Qaeda network might be brought to justice, pacifists have largely been silent.

Just war advocates have filled this silence, affirming that force in bringing al Qaeda to justice is morally justified. And a strong case can be made that all the criteria of a just war have been met. While there is room to argue over some of the criteria, generally this military action in Afghanistan has come closer to meeting all the criteria than any war in the past couple of hundred years. There are several reasons for this. Because wars over the past two centuries have seen such a dramatic increase in the power of weaponry, and because most wars have felt free to attack the infrastructure of the opposing nation, recent past wars, including World War II, have seen civilians deliberately attacked, and large number of civilian casualties. But Afghanistan had no infrastructure to destroy, and care was taken, using newer and more targeted weaponry, to hold civilian casualties to as small a number as could reasonably be expected.

So if this was a successful just war, why are we so far from peace? The very success of this “just war” shows the weakness of the just war theory.

Conducting a just war is only half the response needed. Force has been successfully applied, but justice has not been brought, nor has the cycle of violence been broken. Justice, of course, is a much richer concept than retributive justice. It at least includes restorative justice. While garbage trucks in New York were seen with large banners saying “revenge,” the government has generally tried to minimize talk of revenge, and concentrate on bringing the wrongdoers to (retributive) “justice.” By “justice,” Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld is clear: he wants Osama bin Laden dead or alive, but prefers him dead. Revenge is lurking just below the surface. And the U.S. government shows little interest in any larger concept of justice than using military force to stop or kill terrorists and end the threat of current terrorists. But this is why the Christian community has never regarded just war theory as the whole answer. The Christian tradition is much richer, and voices have been raised in the mainline Protestant community, the evangelical community, and the Catholic community urging caution in the use of force and insisting that a much larger effort is needed to restore peace and bring a just international order. It is this larger consensus in the Christian community that Just Peace theology has attempted to articulate.

Peace is not just the absence of conflict. Peace is the presence of justice. Peace, or shalom, is a broad concept implying right relations and harmony. When the United Church of Christ defined “just peace” at its 1985 General Synod (in the process of declaring itself to be a Just Peace Church), it defined it as the interrelationship of justice, friendship, and common security from violence. The goal is always to minimize violence while working for justice and friendship. Just peace theology does not reject either just war theory or pacifism, as the United Methodist Church made clear in its 1986 document from the Council of Bishops entitled “In Defense of Creation.” It attempts to put these Christian understandings in a broader context.

One way of putting this is that just war theory plus pacifism’s non-violent alternatives to war equals just peace theology. Pacifists don’t simply resist the use of force. They also insist that there are many positive alternatives to force, and if the cycle of violence is to be broken, and justice and friendship to be created, these alternatives must be employed. Mainline Protestants, Evangelicals and Catholics agree. And most pacifists have a great regard for the need for justice as well as for peace, keeping the two in balance. Just peace theology, of course, seeks to raise the commitment to justice equal to and interrelated to the commitment to peace.

Just peace advocates and pacifists ask these hard questions: How will the cycle of violence be broken? How will we acknowledge the beam in our own eye and our complicity in causing the situation? How will we look at the root causes of the conflict, and address the larger issues of justice, which must be addressed if there is to be reconciliation and the restoration of a just and peaceful community? How can we create international structures of common security from violence, international structures of justice?

Over the past ten years 23 Christian ethicists, biblical and moral theologians, international relations scholars, peace activists, and conflict resolution practitioners have worked to refine the Just Peace paradigm. Ten just peace practices were identified: (1) nonviolent direct action; (2) independent initiatives to reduce threat; (3) cooperative conflict resolution; (4) acknowledgement of responsibility and seeking repentance and forgiveness; (5) advancement of democracy, human rights, and religious liberty; (6) fostering of just and sustainable economic development; (7) working with emerging cooperative forces in the international system; (8) strengthening the United Nations and international organizations; (9) reducing offensive weapons trade; (10) encouraging grassroots peacemaking groups. (See Glen Stassen, Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices for Abolishing War; Cleveland, Ohio: The Pilgrim Press, 1998).

To fight terrorism, there are at least two broad categories where the United States needs to be offering proactive leadership, to address the question of justice and achieve a just peace. One is the development and use of greater international cooperation and the strengthening of international institutions. The other is the addressing of some of the root causes of unrest that Osama bin Laden has been able to exploit for his terrorist purposes. These include, above all, addressing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Right now the U.S. is attempting to define “terrorism” and “war on terrorism” by itself, without reference to any international standard or body. As President Bush put it, you are either for us or against us. How different that is from saying “you’re either for terrorism as defined by the U.N., or against it.” In the first case, the U.S. projects itself as an imperial power and invites the world to support U.S. power or oppose it. That is an invitation to more immediate terrorism and the nurturing of future terrorists, who will not agree with the U.S. imposing global imperial power.

If the U.S. wants to strengthen friendship with the Muslim and Arab world, as well as with other nations, and if it wants to maintain public support, it must put as much effort into initiatives of justice and development of international institutions capable of fighting terrorism over the long haul as it is now putting into military budgets and solutions. Justice, friendship, and common security from violence must be balanced.

Instead, if the U.S. thinks it can use unilateral military power, and use the language of holy war (“axis of evil” and other words which demonize perceived enemies, projecting all evil on one side and all goodness on the other), the U.S. will be giving bin Laden exactly what he sought: a holy war between the Muslim world and U.S. imperialism.

The Rev. Dr. Jay Lintner served as Director of the United Church of Christ Washington Office from 1985 to 2000. From 1981 to 1985 he served as Peace Priority Coordinator for the United Church of Christ, where he was staff to the Peace Theology Development Team that produced A Just Peace Church.