Replace Just War Theory with Nonviolence—What about Syria and Genocide?

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A historic conference recently wrapped up at the Vatican that addressed the continued relevance of the traditional Catholic doctrine of just war theory.

Just war theory outlines the moral requirements surrounding the decision to use force and the ethical limits on using force justly. The decision to use force requires a just cause, right intention, a reasonable probability of success, and proportionality. It must be undertaken by a legitimate authority and only as a last resort.

The Church’s criteria for the justness of the conduct during the war include: all military action must be necessary to achieve the just end, all actions are done for the right intention, the military actions demonstrate proportionality in the good achieved as compared the harm inflicted on the enemy, and innocent civilians should be protected from unnecessary harm (it is always immoral to directly and intentionally target the innocent). It is never about the ends justifying the means; the means must be as pure as the end being sought. Despite the carnage inherent in war, the Church has taught that certain moral obligations must be maintained for a war to be just.

Instead of seeking to modify this traditional Catholic doctrine, the conference pushes for an encyclical advocating for nonviolence to replace just war theory entirely. The participants at the conference argue that there is no longer such a thing as just war and “suggesting that a ‘just war’ is possible also undermines the moral imperative to develop tools and capacities for nonviolent transformation of conflict.”

Supporters of this theory claim that instead of limiting the conditions for war, just war theory has often been used to exacerbate conflict and provide a pretext for aggressive, interventionist actions. Of course, moral rules cannot be eliminated simply because they are ignored or abused at times; Church teaching explicitly rejects that type of consequentialism. Ultimately, they contend that war is not the solution to stopping conflicts of any type and that non-violent means have been used with great success throughout history to resolve conflicts and overturn oppression.

To this observer, the call to systematically dismantle just war theory when Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has viciously butchered hundreds of thousands of his own citizens and Daesh is engaging in the ruthless slaughter of thousands of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Yazidis, and other religious minorities in territories they control sounds completely out of touch with reality.    Read More

Robert Christian in Ethika Politika on the Consistent Life Movement

Millennial editor Robert Christian argues that the consistent life movement should be more inclusive toward supporters of just war theory and the Responsibility to Protect, highlighting its failure to offer a realistic approach to ending the mass atrocities in Syria.

Is it really pro-life to do nothing while thousands are slaughtered each month, while barrel bombs shred innocent bodies in Aleppo? Are we really committed to life if our plan to protect it relies on a man—who has set children on fire to maintain his power—to turn around and willingly give that power up at a negotiation table as he’s gaining ground on the battlefield? At a minimum, if one believes in the worth of all, is it too much to say firmly and clearly: the mass murderer Bashar al-Assad must go?

The full article can be read here.

Inspired by Nelson Mandela

For many theologians, the death of Nelson Mandela – who has been a living symbol of peace, justice, and reconciliation –  invites reflection on core theological concepts like the imago Dei, which Mandela wore with profound beauty and dignity.

For my part, I was first exposed to Nelson Mandela and to South African history during my undergraduate education, and since then I have developed a passion that far surpasses intellectual curiosity for the cultures and peoples that make up the nation of South Africa, and for its heartbreaking and hope-rendering history.  In my development as a theologian I am indebted to the political and historical context of South Africa, so much so that my understanding of the most central theological concepts are all coloured in South African hues, or, if you like, steeped in Rooibos:  Jesus Christ is Liberator; suffering and sin are apartheid (and thus inextricably linked – sin causes suffering); forgiveness is something we struggle toward because we want to be free from anger, hatred, and desolation; we want freedom from the desire for revenge, which leads to self and communal destruction; the fullness of reconciliation is the space where truth, mercy, peace, and justice converge.  Reconciliation is God’s work – the fruit of salvation, divine grace.

Besides having the context of South African political history imbue my theological worldview, there are two specific theo-ethical commitments that Nelson Mandela and the struggle against apartheid have engendered in me.

First, Mandela convinced me of the veracity and viability of the just war tradition, and the importance of exploring its relevance for oppressed peoples.  Mandela believed that those who are violently repressed by their government have a moral right to limited armed resistance.  The Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, when apartheid police opened fire on unarmed protestors killing over 60, marked what Mandela himself saw as a turning point in the struggle against apartheid.  Following the massacre, the African National Congress (ANC) met to consider how to respond.  A great debate arose regarding whether or not to implement a program of armed resistance.  Since its inception in 1912, the ANC had carried out only nonviolent forms of resistance. Some members, including then ANC president and Nobel laureate, Albert Luthuli, arguably a mentor of Mandela, contended that pacifism was a matter of absolute principle and that nonviolence was the only moral option for resistance.  In his autobiography The Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela recounts how he believed

“that nonviolence was a tactic that should be abandoned when it no longer worked.” (275)

“Abandoned” here is too strong a word, I think, since Mandela himself argued just the opposite after the implementation of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed wing of the ANC. When describing this new phase of armed struggle, he said:

“Certainly the days of civil disobedience, of strikes, and mass demonstrations are not over and we will resort to them over and over again.”

Nevertheless, Mandela felt that a regime which gunned down its own civilians left the oppressed with little alternative other than to take up arms.  While his post-apartheid commitments to forgiveness and reconciliation have led some to believe that Mandela was an absolute pacifist, the debate between those who advocated for armed resistance and those who opposed it illustrates that Luthuli was the ANC’s witness for pacifism, not Mandela.

Over the course of several years studying conflict and peacebuilding, I have been horrified and sickened by warfare.  Many times I have considered rejecting entirely the notion of a just war, and instead adopting a position more akin to pacifism.  It is, at least partially, Mandela’s insistence that a repressed people have a right to defend themselves, indeed to liberate themselves, that keeps me committed to the best ideals of the just war tradition;  the notion that justice is a prerequisite for true peace, and that when peace and justice are gravely threatened, people may be called to die, and yes, even kill, to reconstitute true peace.

No one sums up this ideal better than Mandela himself. On trial for his life following the first attacks by Umkhonto,  charged with sabotage and fomenting armed revolution, Mandela famously declared:

“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But…if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Second, Mandela has convinced me of the necessity of pursing post-conflict reconciliation, and of integrating this idea into the just war tradition.  It is well known that Mandela emerged from his twenty-seven year imprisonment on Robben Island not to cry for revenge or retaliation, but rather to encourage South Africans to build a just peace that would include the reconciliation of the national community.  Given that apartheid constituted the absolute antithesis of reconciliation – recall that the word “apartheid” means “apartness” – the call for reconciliation from Mandela was certainly extraordinary.

But to me, what is even more remarkable than Mandela’s role in initiating the Truth and Reconciliation Commission after the fall of apartheid, is that he, like many oppressed South Africans, viewed interracial reconciliation as a goal, even during apartheid’s brutal repression. Throughout the movement against apartheid, South Africans referred to the goal of post-revolutionary reconciliation as “the struggle within the struggle.”*

In this way, Mandela and the people of South Africa point to the of the importance of engaging in armed conflict only with a heart open toward future reconciliation.  This kind of “right intention” in armed conflict – an intention to reconcile – ought to be a guiding principle for how warfare or armed resistance is conceived and conducted.

In closing his autobiography in 1994, Nelson Mandela wrote:

“I have walked that long road to freedom.  I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way.  But I have discovered that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.  I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come.  But I can rest only a moment for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended.”(626)

For nearly twenty more years, Nelson Mandela walked the road.  Madiba, it is finished.  You have climbed your last hill.  Rest.  The work of building peace, justice, and freedom is ours now.  Thank you for helping to pave the long road.

Dr. Anna Floerke Scheid is a professor of theology at Duquesne University. This post is also featured at Catholic Moral Theology.


* John W. de Gruchy, “The Struggle for Justice and the Ministry of Reconciliation” in Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, (no. 62, 1988, 43-52): 47.

Interview with Aimee Murphy of Life Matters Journal

The upcoming event Life/Peace/Justice: A Conference on Life Issues, which will be held in Philadelphia, PA on March 29, 2014, will feature discussions on topics relevant to life issues, ranging from euthanasia and abortion to unjust war and human trafficking.  Confirmed speakers include: Kelsey Hazzard (Secular Pro Life), Jason Jones (I am Whole Life, Movie to Movement), and Serrin Foster (Feminists for Life of America).  You can view a tentative schedule (some speakers are not yet confirmed) here.

Millennial editor Robert Christian interviewed Aimee Murphy, an organizer of the event and the Executive Director of Life Matters Journal, to discuss the event and her larger efforts.

Robert: Why did you start Life Matters Journal?
Aimee: I started Life Matters Journal because I saw a niche in the pro-life and pro-peace movements that was not being filled. My goals were twofold: to engage young people in a consistent ethic of life, and to host and perpetuate dialogue on these ever-pertinent issues of human rights and human life. Consistent Life, a more than 25-year-old group, has done an ample job at providing a network for peace-and-life-minded individuals and organizations. But I didn’t see youth getting involved in a consistent, intellectually honest ethic of life because they felt it was outdated or they wouldn’t “fit” in the existing movement. I see one of our roles as bringing this consistent ethic of life to a new generation, and in so doing, also encouraging young people to adopt this philosophy and take it with them in their own activism efforts, whatever their pet cause may be. Our main mission states our aim: “to end aggressive violence through education and discourse.” Dialogue and open lines of communication are of highest import when we work to change hearts and minds, and Life Matters Journal itself was the seed of an idea planted while I was at Carnegie Mellon University (a very liberal, secular “New Ivy” university), and our pro-life group was gaining no ground with students on campus. The main reason behind this?  No one would engage our arguments because they assumed we were right-wing religious extremists who held inconsistent values of human life. Once we established ourselves as nonpartisan, non-sectarian, and adhering to a consistent ethic of life — you would be amazed! — students actually began to engage us in conversation, and in so doing, make the connections about human rights and human life on their own. The key, of course, was opening the door to communication, and I believe that our policies (much the same as my student organization at university) do this more than amply.

Robert: You talk about changing hearts and minds.  How well do you think the pro-life movement does that?  Is that a top priority for everyone in the movement?
Aimee: Changing hearts and minds is integral to producing and perpetuating a culture of peace and life: you may enforce laws til you’re blue in the face, you may yell and hold graphic images til your voice goes hoarse and your arms hurt like the dickens, but if you do not change hearts and minds, abortion (and other acts of aggressive violence) will continue, even if clandestine and illegal.

There are some organizations dedicated to changing hearts and minds, there are some that don’t have that focus and instead work on law and policy, and there are others set in their ways that close down the avenues of communication with a swift, single blow. I don’t think it’s the top priority of every organization in the movement, but I think each different organization (as long as not so intentionally divisive or utterly compromising) may be necessary in their own way.

All of that being said, I think that the pro-life movement, in general, would do well to realize the breadth and depth of individuals who want to help our cause and do not feel welcome – whether that be because of their religion (or lack thereof), their sexual orientation, or their politics. While religion and political parties and sexual orientation matter (and may matter deeply and as for religion…of the ultimate importance), our shared humanity and saving the lives of fellow human beings is of the most immediate importance. A fireman does not ask another for their religious affiliation, political party, or sexual orientation before entering a burning building to save the lives of those trapped inside; I do believe that we need to open the doors of our movement wider than we have in the past.

Finally, I’d like to make a mention of the audience we are often trying to reach in the U.S. when we want to change hearts and minds. Our generation of millennials is more secular (atheist/agnostic) than past generations, yet also more pro-life. I think the pro-life movement has a responsibility to future generations to reach the millennials who’ve been lost in the culture war. Science is on our side, and we have the ethical foundations to change hearts and minds using facts before we shout “God says so.” Speaking as someone who came back to my Catholic faith long after I had become pro-life, I know that as a secular teen who was barely agnostic, I would have rolled my eyes at faith-based speeches and arguments for the pro-life cause. This is not to say that the religious heritage of the movement must be lost, but I really think we would do ourselves a big favor to “rebrand” the pro-life movement as one based on facts and science – a human rights issue – instead of on our faith in whatever religion or God we profess.

Robert: How do these ‘whole life’ or ‘consistent life ethic’ issues fit together?  What would you say to critics who argue that abortion is so important, it is a mistake to group it without other issues of
lesser importance?

Aimee: The issues in the consistent ethic of life (abortion, euthanasia, death penalty, unjust war, torture, embryonic stem-cell research, human trafficking, suicide, abuse, etc) fit together inasmuch as they are aggressive acts of violence, violations of human life and dignity. This is the root of why they fit together; it is not that they are of equal moral weight or that they are at every level comparable. I would posit (and I hope all would agree) that based on sheer numbers, abortion is the most grave act of human rights violations of our generation: as such, I believe it should be most important and take precedence in the work that we do. But in so doing, I do not condone other acts of aggressive violence, and I retain my voice that values each and every human being’s life at all stages, in all circumstances. I would put forth a sort of story that, in my mind, lays out why I think the consistent ethic of life is integral to pro-life work and human rights work in other areas:  A woman, visibly just barely pregnant, is walking down the sidewalk, towards an abortion clinic. You hand her a pamphlet listing her options, and hand her a coupon for a free ultrasound at the mobile unit just down the street. She looks up at you in tears and embraces you, exclaiming that she “never wanted to do it anyway.” Eight months later, after your help and that from the CPC, she gives birth to a beautiful baby boy. His name is Shawn. You love him, you gave so much to save his life… But 19 years later, he’s fallen into trouble. His mom had to work 3 jobs just to keep them afloat, and he fell in with the wrong crowd. He was involved in a burglary that turned into an accidental homicide. He pulled the trigger. Because he’s black and poor, he’s more likely to be sentenced to death. But you love him. You know he’s a good kid and he just made a mistake (as we all do, we’re fallen human beings). You fight to keep him off death row, you want him to have all the time possible to repent and give back to society. You want him to be rehabilitated. Or, an alternative scenario:  But 19 years later, his mother had married a man from Pakistan when Shawn was still a preschooler and she had taken him with her. Shawn is a Muslim by consequence and much less by choice, and he certainly does not fall in the militant category. He prays for peace and does his utmost to promote peaceful, nonviolent solutions. But he gets caught behind enemy lines on his way to visit a friend one day. He is struck by a drone sent down by U.S. planes. The basic moral, of course, is that Shawn’s life is the same human life from conception to natural death. There is no sweeping, broad “preborn rights” inasmuch as we fight for the right of every preborn human being to live. To value human rights at all, I posit, we must fight for the life of every human being. (This, of course, does not include the stipulations for warding off an aggressor and protecting self or community in self-defense, which I may elaborate upon later.)

Robert: What role does religion play in your efforts?  What role should it play in promoting a pro-life/whole life message?
Aimee: Personally, as a Catholic, I find my faith to be a rejuvenating source of “living water” and inspiration for my work. Christ himself told us “whatever we do for the least of these, we do for [Him],” and “You have heard it said ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’, but I say to you: bless your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” I find His example as quite the inspiration and without my faith I’m sure I would become easily discouraged and exhausted. I love spending time in front of the Eucharist to remind myself why I do what I do!

Of course, my personal faith is not the official religion of Life Matters Journal (or Life/Peace/Justice Conference). Our goal is to educate and promote discourse, and in so doing, I find that opening the dialogue to all faiths to be the most fruitful and educational. This is not to say that faith has no place in the conversation, but that we invite everyone to the table to save lives together. I am so much looking forward to having a whole slough of engaging and educational speakers join us for the Life/Peace/Justice Conference! We have a docket planned that presents so many different issues from a variety of perspectives.

Robert: Which speakers are you looking forward to having at the conference?  What are the arguments they will be bringing to the table?

Aimee: I’ll just mention the ones I am most looking forward to at the moment, because it’s so hard to choose who might be my favorite!  Jason Jones, of I Am Whole Life and Movie to Movement, will be speaking for us about presenting a respect for the human person at all stages in our political activism from a more conservative perspective, while we hope to see Kristen Day of Democrats for Life and Mary Meehan present a similar case from a more liberal ideology as well. I am excited to see these pro-life and pro-peace activists teach us about working across party lines and helping to protect the foundational right to life.

Serrin Foster, of Feminists for Life, is a longtime friend and hero of mine, so I am thrilled to see her again and hear her witness for pro-life feminism and the history of feminism in the fight for equality for all humankind. And Bobby Schindler, founder of the Terri Schiavo Life & Hope Network, will give an unforgettable witness for the rights of disabled and elderly to life in the face of the threat of euthanasia.

I have not yet had the opportunity to listen to a Witness to Innocence exonerated death row inmate yet, and this might be the most gripping tale that I may get the chance of hearing at Life/Peace/Justice. These men and women who stand up against the death penalty in the U.S. are amazing witnesses of the risk we run of executing innocents with capital punishment.

Alas, these are just a small handful of the topics we hope to address (including abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, torture, unjust war, suicide prevention, embryonic stem-cell research, human trafficking, and more!), but it would take pages to cover the minutiae of what we hope to see discussed in our time with Life/Peace/Justice 2014. Our schedule includes both a secular and a Christian witness panel for some different topics, help for campus pro-life groups, and a forum for all attendees on practices, policy, and efficacy in our respective marketplaces of ideas. Our goal is both to educate and promote a discourse!

Robert: It would appear that no one will be speaking about the “responsibility to protect” or humanitarian intervention (including armed humanitarian intervention) at the conference. In the past, many ‘consistent life’ leaders have pushed their personal preference for pacifism and excluded others who support just war theory and the use of military force to protect the innocent from mass murder.  Are such supporters of force intentionally excluded from this conference?  Is there a place for strong supporters of military force to protect the innocent from mass murder in the consistent life/whole life movement?

Aimee: The official position of Life Matters Journal as an organization (but just one among many working on this event) is to “end aggressive violence through education and discourse.” As such, most on our board adhere to a strict interpretation of Just War Theory, though some on our board, and many involved with our work consider themselves pacifists and we welcome all, regardless of position on this particular spectrum against aggressive violence to join in the discourse. I, myself, adhere to Just War Theory due to my ethical foundations in the belief of human life as a basic human good to be protected regardless of circumstance, but I would not spurn those who support a slightly more interventionist approach as reprobate! While we do not have a speaker or panel this year directly speaking on Just War practices or Pacifism and the ethical gobbledygook that is therein involved (we are hoping to soon confirm a speaker who might tell their own story about being a Veteran for Peace, but this is slightly different in the exact quality of the presentation), I do hope to see in the future of Life/Peace/Justice an in-depth discussion on these matters.

I personally do believe that there is a place in the Consistent Life Ethic movement for individuals that support a strict Just War Theory approach to protecting human beings under attack, as I am one myself. I believe that Just War principles can be applied to defensive action of self and community, and that the principles of self and community defense could likewise be applied to our practices in wartime, or to come to the aid of one under attack. But Just War principles are many, and I would posit that our governments are not nearly so discerning as to make the just choice in most cases in our modern world. I do hope that such a witness (not mere Pacifism, but holding our military powers to a higher standard as in the Just War principles) would actually be quite effective in changing hearts and minds and bringing about a culture of life.