United Church of Christ

Only Justice Can Stop a Curse: A Just Peace Reflection on our National Crisis

"Only justice can stop a curse," wrote Alice Walker in The Color Purple. Well it does take a poet sometimes to get it exactly right. Only justice actually stops terrorism. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "True peace is not merely the absence of tension, it is the presence of justice."

The term "Just Peace" was invented by the United Church of Christ team who worked on A Just Peace Church (1986) to render something of the fullness of the biblical term Shalom. Shalom is most often translated "peace," but it actually means much more than the English word connotes. It means "wholeness, healing, justice, righteousness, equality, unity, freedom, and community. Shalom is a vision of all people whole, well, and one, and of all nature whole, well, and one."1

"Just Peace" is also the product of further reflection on the major Christian doctrines of peace and war: Pacifism, Just War, and Crusade. During the 1980's the major Christian bodies, the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterians, the Catholics, and the United Methodists all produced documents that called for developing a just peace paradigm or a new paradigm of peace. They "proclaimed similarly that while the two predominant paradigms of limiting the resort to force, just war theory and pacifism, are still necessary, we also need a positive theory of just peacemaking." 2 All major Christian communions have explicitly rejected Crusade language.

New strategies from the conflict mediation movement, from the Civil Rights movement, the struggle against apartheid, other human rights efforts of non-governmental organizations and grass-roots movements, and new theological insights about power and powerlessness from liberation struggles around the world also contributed to the formulation of a fourth paradigm, the paradigm of Just Peace.3

The United Church of Christ Just Peace statement adopted at General Synod XV actually used more of these newer insights and theological perspectives than any of the other denominational materials. Those who worked on this document recognized that it was not simply a matter of our denomination proclaiming peace, but of re-forming ourselves as a church for the hard work of justicemaking and peacemaking.

As the editor of that document and one of its authors, I have chosen to reflect on the current crisis in terms of theological themes lifted up since 1986 as critical to Just Peace thinking.

Divine providence

Two days after the terrorist attacks, the Chicago Tribune quoted a woman who said, "It is hard to know what God intends in these acts." People will make theological sense of these events. They must. In the absence of good theology, bad theology will do.

One of the first themes we must offer for reflection is that God didn't do this. God did not will the deaths of thousands of people. The bible testifies over and over again that God wills life and not death for the whole creation. In Just Peace theology, divine providence does not mean that God authors each and every act in the world. That would leave no room for the rebellion against God's will that we call sin and evil.

God is present to humanity in tragedy, but does not author tragedy. But how can God possibly be present in a terrorist attack? Kwok, Pui Lan, a Chinese theologian, asks the same question when Chinese baby girls are smothered because their parents, under a one child policy, want a boy. Where is God when a baby girl is smothered? "God weeps with our pain," wrote Kwok.

God hates senseless, stupid acts of violence that hurt and destroy more than we do. What is more, the divine compassion embraces each and every one of us, the destroyed and the destroyers. That is more perhaps than the grieving can hear right now, but at some point we are going to have to hear it if we are not to allow evil to perpetrate more evil in revenge and enemy stereotyping.

Good and evil

One way to help people find an alternative doctrine of God to the simplistic "God wills everything" doctrine is to show that even in the midst of great evil, good is not absent. Just Peace theologies do not neatly compartmentalize good and evil. Certainly there is no greater good than those who give their lives for others. The New York firefighters and police who died in the first rescue attempts, the rescue workers who struggle in these scenes from Dante's lower reaches of hell embody human good at its fullest. Apparently, passengers on the flight that crashed in Pennsylvania attempted to resist the highjackers when they realized that they would be used to kill others. They died for their attempts, but their plane killed no one else. The outpouring of blood, surely the most vivid declaration of human solidarity with the suffering is another example. Evil is not justified because good results, but evil does not have the last word of who the human being is and can be.

But evil breeds evil in its very nature. The calls for revenge and attacks on innocent Muslim Americans are the seeds of this violence starting to germinate. Terrorism does not stop with the act itself, but with the rending of the fabric of human community in the making of enemies, of the engendering of suspicion, of the lie that peace is not possible. We are at a pivotal moment in these first days and weeks. Will the seeds of hatred be allowed to grow or will other crops be planted and harvested?

Interreligious dialogue

Every single religious person has a critical role to play in determining whether the good will exceed the evil as these events impact us. Religion is being used as a pawn in this conflict. As Christians, as Jews, as Muslims, as Buddhists, as pagans—as people of many faiths, we can resist being used.

Interreligious dialogue is a resistance movement from a Just Peace perspective. The more you know about your neighbors and their religion, the more you can resist those who would paint all people of a religion with a single brush. These extremists, who seem, from evidence gathered from the flight manifests, to have been Saudi and Egyptian Muslims, are no more representative of Muslim theological and ethical viewpoints than the Klu Klux Klan represents me and the theologies taught at Chicago Theological Seminary.

It will be a challenging thing for Christian religious leaders to read from The Koran in these days and weeks as we worship, but I believe we should. The Koran preaches the oneness of God and emphasizes divine mercy and forgiveness. God is almighty and all knowing, compassionate toward all creatures. God demands justice and fair dealing, kindness to orphans and widows, and charity to the poor. God judges harshly those who disobey God's commands. There are many ways in which Muslim theology sheds light on a Just Peace theology.

Even as texts of the Christian Scriptures and the Hebrew Bible have been interpreted to justify Apartheid, the Holocaust, the Inquisition, the conquest of Native Peoples around the world, the Crusades and other evils, so too can the words of The Koran be used to justify evil acts. That does not mean that the general ethos of Islam is hatred and violence.

It is the perpetrators and organizers alone who are the ones to be brought to justice. A whole people must not be demonized.

Justice or revenge?

The president has used the term "act of war" to describe these acts. Certainly we would be at war today had this act been that of a recognized foreign power.

But it may be that "war crime" is a better description. As we strive to find containers for our response to this act, the developing war crimes prosecutions from South Africa, from Latin America and from the former Yugoslavia may be our best models. Just Peace theory has drawn heavily on these insights on peace and violence from Africa, from Latin America, from Asia and from those working at the Hague. Those who designed this attack must be found and brought to trial for their acts.

Justice not mindless revenge against more innocents must be the focus of Christian ethics as we seek for ways to uphold moral leadership.

Toward healing

Nothing characterizes Just Peace theology more than an clear recognition of the differences of the way we view the world when we are powerful and when we are powerless. While nothing justifies terrorism, terrorists receive support from people who are so oppressed and marginalized that it seems there is no other way to make their voices heard. The United States must look at itself and its policies to determine how more just policies can be developed toward the whole Arab world and how we can encourage other nations to do the same. This will not cure terrorism, but it will tend to change the climate that harbors them and gives them support. And it will certainly help to deter the desire to blame innocent Arab Americans and Muslims around the world who had nothing to do with these attacks.


The practices of Just Peace are: 1) non-violent direct action; 2) independent initiatives to reduce threat; 3) cooperative conflict resolution; 4) acknowledge responsibility and seek repentance and forgiveness; 5) advance democracy, human rights and religious liberty; 6) foster just and sustainable economic development; 7) work with emerging cooperative forces in the international system; 8) strengthen the United Nations and international organizations; 9) reduce offensive weapons and weapons trade; 10) encourage grassroots peacemaking groups.4

Will any of these instantly end terrorism? Of course not. These practices tend to create the climates in which terrorism does not flourish. These practices require risk‹so does war-making. But in war making, especially the war on terrorism, we train terrorists to stop terrorists, who in turn become new terrorists who must be fought. Breaking the cycle of violence requires a whole new way of thinking and acting. That way is Just Peace.