Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Goodbye, Just War Theory—We Never Really Knew You

"Prophets of Nonviolence - King, Day and Gandhi"
by Sr. Catherine Martin, O. Carm. Used with permission.

The Vatican is holding its first ever conference to evaluate its long-held doctrine on just war theory. Articles are here and here. First described by St. Augustine in the 5th century, just war theory has long been controversial. It describes circumstances whereby the Church can morally sanction some violence and war. While its focus in recent years is primarily on self-defense, many have treated it as a blanket endorsement for political states to make decisions at whim about going to war.

I applaud efforts to take a deeper look at whether some forms of violence, up to and including war, can be justifiable from the standpoint of the Revelation of Christ. You will not find me shedding any tears if we find a more positive, peace affirming framework.

That being said, I can't help but wonder if we would not be—pardon the expression—jumping the gun if we were to abandon just war theory.

It feels like breaking up with a girlfriend before we have ever really gotten to know her in the first place.


When I read closely the conditions whereby violence could be allowable under just war theory, I actually find a very pro-peace doctrine. You simply cannot meet the conditions otherwise. It takes a little bit of prayerful meditation to see this, but it does not require any theological slight-of-hand tricks. It is simply a matter of taking the conditions seriously and asking what must be done in order to meet them. The demands it asks of us are not easy, but the logic itself is straightforward.

To meet these conditions, individuals and nations must be active and engaged in the cause of peace. According to just war theory, violence is only an option as a last resort to protect the common good (#2263). It is entirely subsumed under the moral framework of self-defense. In this regard, it is very similar to the theology of the death penalty.

I will not do an exhaustive text study here, but here is a sampling of lines straight out of the Catechism:

• All citizens and all governments are obliged to work for the avoidance of war (#2308).

• Peace is not merely the absence of war (#2304).

• Peace cannot be attained on earth without safeguarding the goods of persons, free communication among men, respect for the dignity of persons and peoples, and the assiduous practice of fraternity (#2304).

• Peace is the work of justice and the effect of charity (#2304).

• Injustice, excessive economic or social inequalities, envy, distrust, and pride raging among men and nations constantly threaten peace and cause wars. Everything done to overcome these disorders contributes to building up peace and avoiding war (#2317).

If violence is determined to be necessary to protect the common good, there are very stringent criteria to limit the scope and evaluate the aims of said violence (#2309).

All this is to avoid committing the mortal sin of murder, i.e. breaking the 5th commandment. Given the dignity of life and care for the land, the goal is to do the minimum violence necessary to protect the common good and nothing more.

The above offers a rich call-to-action for justice and peace. Perhaps it's not the most imaginative or daring pathway to peace, but in a ramshackle sort of way, it promises to get us there. However, the Church and churchgoers often treat it like decorative wallpaper.  It's as if those composing it were just waxing poetic about peace in the abstract.  It's as if it came with an unspoken, nudge, nudge, wink, wink, nobody is expecting us to actually take this seriously. The demands of peace as spelled out here get very little attention in Sunday homilies.

To the contrary, these are serious statements that demand concrete actions. In fact, to come anywhere close to meeting these conditions, society would have to undergo a near-total overhaul. It is not just about violence, but also poverty, human rights, respect for the land and a bubbling-over infrastructure of harmony among all. These statements reject passivity and instead call us to be active and proactive for the cause of peace.

If we are to tackle such endemic sins as pride, economic injustice and social inequality—and if "peace cannot be attained" without the litany of terms presented above—then this is no side task to schedule between brunch and golf on a Saturday afternoon. From the level of individuals to governments, we are all called to lifelong, continual efforts not just to avoid war and violence, but to create the conditions for peace.

Before violence can be a last resort, all other efforts must be tried thoroughly and repeatedly. That's simply what it means to be a "last resort"—by definition.


Yet, we have named a doctrine by its option-of-last-resort.

Let's say I'm hungry. I plan to eat after work. There is meatloaf in the fridge at home. If it is spoiled, there is also some leftover fish. If that is also no good, I could visit one of a dozen restaurants down the street. If I cannot find any money, if each of my credit cards is declined or if all the restaurants are closed by the time I get off work, I could, as a last resort, simply fast for the evening and make plans to eat tomorrow. Taken together, I would not call this my "evening fasting plan." No, this is my "evening eating plan." If all else were to fail, I may have no other choice but to fast—but make no mistake, my plan is to eat, and there is a plethora of options available to make that happen. Fasting is highly unlikely and hardly worth mentioning, but it could, theoretically, happen.

So by a similar token, why is our "peace plan" called the "war plan?" It's misleading at best and contradictory at worst. Putting that much attention on the option-of-last-resort does not express much faith in the primary goal, which is the attainment of peace.

It is not surprising that just war theory has been so poorly understood, because it is quite simply poorly named. It vaguely pairs the word "just" alongside "war." It is not helpful to be so ambiguous on a topic that is so grave.

It might make sense to a theologian to start with the exception and work backwards to discover that this doctrine, which outlines the conditions whereby war could potentially be justified, is really about peace. Like I said before, it does not take extensive theologizing to get there.

Unfortunately, however, what I have often witnessed is that people hear the term “just war” and do some mental gymnastics along the following lines, saying:

‘Just War’ means the Church has implicitly justified war itself, is opting out of any and all decision-making as to the morality of any specific war and leaves all considerations entirely to the discretion of the political state. The Church therefore promises to turn a blind eye and not intervene while the state does what it wishes.

That is absolutely absurd. While it may be the role of the state to ultimately make the decision to go to war or not, to think that the Church should not weigh in on matters of life and death and advise on the morality of a war is unthinkable. Yet, turning a blind eye is exactly what many demand of the Church in light of just war theory. It is unconscionable that the Church would simply abandon its prophetic voice, shrugging its proverbial shoulders, resigning itself to the notion that war is simply the "state's decision."

Just war does not mean that all war is justified and that the Church washes its hands of any critical feedback for the decisions of a political state to enter into a war. It simply means that the Church holds for a legitimate right to self defense that could include violence as a last resort.

The "just war" name sounds like a marketing trick right out of the Karl Rove playbook. It's reminiscent of "right to work" laws, which have virtually nothing to do with the lofty ideals of "work" and "rights." "Just war" comes across like a blank check for war, but if you read the fine print, there is hardly any conflict that could possibly meet its conditions. In the confusion, the Church is locked in an analysis paralysis, rendering itself ineffective at being a prophetic voice to the state. In my more cynical moments, I sometimes wonder whether this confusion was in the plan all along.


Imagine archeologists from the future figuring out how to fly a 20th century airplane having only discovered a small portion of the instruction manual for guidance—the section on how to parachute out of a failed flight. They could piece together what the plane was supposed to do by taking the emergency exit instructions and working backwards from there: If we parachute when X, Y and Z are failing, then we can deduce that X, Y and Z need to be operational, even though it is unclear from this portion of the manual how to make that happen.

This is the problem we run into by building a theology of peace out of just war theory. "Just war" is the failsafe when all else has fallen short. We need to be much more explicit about what we mean by "all else." Just war is not cut out to be our entire peace plan but rather just an addendum.

Differently said: I would drop out of flight school if the instruction manual were entitled "Just Parachuting." Likewise, it's hard to take the Church's mission of peace seriously when the textbook has the words "Just War" on the cover.


War and violence sound like terrible things the Church has no business getting involved in, but there is a fundamental moral question in play: Is violence ever an allowable option or does the Christian call require total nonviolence in all circumstances? Will some violence end up reducing the total amount of violence? Just war theory takes the sobering view that violence will be almost impossible to avoid in this broken world.

The difference between just war theory and total pacifism is slim. It is a scandal that this remains an untold story of Catholic theology. Both approaches requires a tireless pursuit of peace. The only difference is that one side will allow violence as an absolute last resort while the other will not. In either case, both sides should look virtually identical to the casual observer, as they would be spending the overwhelming majority of their attention on fostering peace.

I would like to think that the question of violence is something that people of goodwill can struggle with. I hope so, because I struggle with it myself. What draws me to consider total nonviolence is that many of the greatest spiritual leaders throughout history—in the tradition of Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., St. Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, or even, dare we say, Jesus of Nazareth—have opted for it. Also included are many in the Anabaptist and Catholic Worker movements who have personally shared with me jaw-dropping stories of their commitment to nonviolence. Still, I am not there, yet.

As food for further discussion, I am willing to consider that maybe the difference is not so slim—maybe there is a Grand Canyon-sized gap between total nonviolence and violence as a last resort. Maybe the latter, even by opening the door to violence just a little, misses the Way of Jesus by a long shot.  Perhaps that is why just war theory has not been able to be the vehicle for peace that it promises to be on paper. That is a discussion for another time, but it is worth at least suggesting it here.


We seem to focus almost all of our entire theological attention on whether or not violence can be justified in some situations and very little attention on the overwhelming Christian duty to create conditions where war and violence either cannot exist or are avoided when they do. This involves a serious change in culture, adoption of preventative measures and fostering the well-being of the people and land.

All too often, theological debate around just war theory centers around the tactical considerations when a nation is on the brink of war. There is far too little discussion about what it means to promote peace and avoid war in a long-term, proactive way. That’s the piece we almost completely ignore when we talk about just war theory. Just war is not something to bring out of the closet when an enemy army is marching on our gates, but rather its mandate for a lifestyle of peace is something to consider each day.

In order to take just war theory seriously, we must promote peace vigorously and support the economic initiatives, human rights and fraternal harmony necessary for the avoidance of war. Just because there is a slim allowance of some violence as a complete and total last resort does not mean that Church just throws up its hands and turns a blind eye to all state-sponsored decisions for violence. That is a logical fallacy that is all too often the narrative around just war theory.


Perhaps Pope Francis said it best:

A person who thinks only of building walls, wherever they may be—and not bridges—is not a Christian.

Yes, there may be a time for a wall. Perhaps we can find ourselves so backed into a corner that a literal or metaphorical wall is the only legitimate response to a given situation. Nevertheless, I will never be convinced of the need for a wall until substantial efforts have first been made to build a bridge.

Just substitute “waging wars/peace” for “building walls/bridges” and the same applies. Whether you are against all wars or whether you concede some allowance for them, make no mistake—the Christian life is one of fostering peace. The debate about limited violence vs. total nonviolence is important, but let's not allow that to obfuscate this more unifying point.


Keeping war and violence as last resort options is based on the assumption that nonviolent means of self defense will not be as effective as violent ones. Given the stunning success of movements for peace around the globe in the past century, it is worth asking whether we could ever exhaust the potential for nonviolent means of solving conflicts. Furthermore, given the immensely destructive capabilities of modern military systems, we should also consider whether the violence of modern war could ever be restrained enough to meet the stringent requirements of just war theory. In other words, a "just war" may be as mythical as a unicorn, a purely theoretical construct but not something we are ever going to see in real life.


The question may not be whether just war theory is wrong but whether it has ever been taken seriously in the first place. I am lead to a robust vision of the peaceable kingdom the deeper I delve into it. But given the way it has been used and misused to justify all sorts of violence, as well as it's extremely indirect—or downright misleading—name, perhaps it is long overdue for a rebranding.

So maybe breaking up with just war theory is a good idea. Perhaps she is not so bad after all, and it may be a shame we never saw her full potential, but let's face it: If we don't know her after 1,500 years, perhaps we never will.


1 comment: