In the Face of War

This article has been reprinted by permission from Sojourners Magazine. “In the Face of War” first appeared in Sojourners Magazine January 2005.

[1] Our time – as every era – is a time of structured enemies. Yes, there are moments of true regard for the other, even moments of sheer poetry. Yet the fabric of society is always woven with dangerous conflict. Socially constructed hostilities and historically clashing interests riddle life. When they are not overt, they are latent. Soldier and citizen, colonized and colonizer, poor and rich, Irish Protestant and Irish Catholic, Hindu and Christian, female and male, worker and management, Palestinian and Israeli, even child and parent, partner and spouse, all know the same thing: No soul is immune from harm, no life is without violation, no zone is enemy-free. Do individual bonds and emotions matter here? Of course. But far less than power relationships that effectively structure animosity.

[2] The only real question, then, is whether there is an effective “ethic for enemies,” to use Donald Shriver’s term. Or, to sharpen it the way Jesus did, whether love of enemy is a life imperative itself and reconciliation of structured enemies the only way to a new creation. It certainly is so when mountain ranges and great oceans no longer put anyone out of reach of the other, and “advanced” technologies wrap mass destruction in small packages.

[3] What was revolutionary about Jesus and his way was new community created among structured enemies. In the community formed around the Nazarene, it was the reconciliation of a Samaritan woman and a Jew, a Roman soldier and a Palestinian peasant, the leprous and the clean, the stranger and the resident, Jew and Greek. They broke bread together; they shared the kiss of peace together with their goods and their lives; they resisted the powers of division and they showed another way, a way of altering their relationships so as to purge the violence within as well as without. They learned, in short, how to practice an ethic for enemies and thereby create profound community. Such community is much tougher to come by than any easy language about “embracing” and celebrating differences.

[4] Jesus’ gospel of peace bears, then, a double truth. First, we are enemy to one another and often to ourselves, trapped by malignant “principalities and powers” that we little understand. And second, we can, by the grace of God, practice love of enemy and live a new creation of wounded healers.

[5] Certainly we best hope that Jesus is right and love of enemy is possible, since all of us are enemies on someone’s list. But how does peacemaking happen? Recent revisions in Christian peace-thinking may be instructive.

[6] Setting and scope. The post-1989 “New World Order” confidently awaited after the collapse of communism, tagged by Francis Fukuyama as “the end of history,” is hardly to be seen. Nonetheless, the cover letter of the younger President Bush for “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America” asserts with confidence that “the great struggles of the twentieth century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom – and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise.” The “National Security Strategy” itself picks this up to assert a strategy “based on a distinctly American internationalism that reflects the union of our values and our national interests.”

[7] Here we need to make a clear distinction. It does seem that international trade as a source of wealth decreases war among nations. But this economic trade thesis should be distinguished from the political rule in international relations theory that democratic nations don’t war with one another. One is an economic thesis, the other a political thesis. The globalized economy widens the abyss between rich and poor within and across nations and excludes millions altogether, multiplying chances of local conflict. So while affluent democratic nations don’t often war with one another, their ways, when cast on the world scene, tend to exacerbate conditions that generate enemies and set the needs of some against those of others.

[8] Yet few of the experienced peacemaking organizations and networks, to say nothing of the U.S. State Department, have really taken on the political-economic causes of violence, instability, and injustice. In a U.S.-dominated world bent on seeing how far the logic of a neo-liberal economy can be the logic of society itself, this is a huge arena critical to the reconciliation of structured enemies.

[9] Anothers area of neglected peacemaking is violence against the earth (traditionally dubbed “progress”!). Just as there cannot be peace across an abyss between haves and have-not humans, there can be no peace without sustaining that upon which all are wholly dependent – namely, the whole community of life. Peacemaking means care of creation beyond our species just as it means living within sustainable limits. Yet little peacemaking, including security strategy, has instinctively included the environment.

[10] Add to this the fact that the firmness of nation-state sovereignty, in place since the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, is giving way to changing and confusing configurations of sovereignty. When conflicts turn deadly in this setting, it often means civil wars and internecine slaughter. Conventions among nations to make war more civilized-sparing the wounded, respecting civilians, not executing prisoners – are largely useless for these fights. Ordinary people are the targets. Nine times more civilians than combatants have died in recent conflicts. More aid workers than peacekeeping forces were killed in the field in the 1990s.

[11] In a word: Peacemaking after the deadliest of centuries (the 20th century, with somewhere between 170 to 190 million war dead) faces the atomization of societies beset by shifting configurations of unsure sovereignty. In this setting, peacemaking’s attention to the forces of the global economy and to threats to global and local life systems is mandatory.

[12] Theory and practice. As Christian peacemaking leans into this world, it does so with broader scope and a wider search for appropriate practices. While not abandoned, the traditional paradigms of Christian pacifism and just war theory no longer control thinking. To see why, we need to know what those traditions shared and where they parted ways.

[13] Just as “pacifism” is wrongly taken by some to mean “passive non-resistance,” so “just war” is wrongly taken to be about justifying war. “Just use” is the better term, as the continuous effort to determine morally exceptional uses of deadly violence, wherever they may occur – in self-defense, as a police action, in the case of euthanasia, assisted suicide, abortion, etc.

[14] Both pacifism and just war assert that the Christian norm for the use of force is nonviolence and the common task is violence-reduction. Both agree that the way of Jesus rejects arms as the manner of God’s reign and instead gathers enemies into covenantal intimacy by forgiving and reconciling them. Both share the baseline conviction that the ministry of reconciliation is the shared calling of all Christians. Both agree that for Christians (and people of many faiths) true reality is a peaceable kingdom in which the well-being of each creature is bound to the security of all.

[15] Both also acknowledge that coercion is sometimes necessary to peace and justice in a world of stiff-necked peoples who bypass few chances to organize their own lives at the expense of their neighbors. And both contend that there should be guards against unchecked power: Any use of force should be held to the lowest required levels, be accountable for the consequences, and respect the humanity of those on the receiving end. Not least, both agree that the welfare of others, the enemy included, is to be placed within the same moral framework as one’s own and guided by the same standards.

[16] Where pacifist and just war advocates part ways is over the question of the exceptional use of one kind of coercion – killing violence. Just use advocates say there are morally permissible uses of exceptional, deadly violence in stringently limited ways, and just use theory has elaborated a set of criteria for measuring that.

[17] Pacifists argue the nonexceptional rejection of killing violence and do so on both ethical-prudential and theological grounds. The ethical-prudential argument is that lethal violence is self-defeating for society in the long run and usually the short run as well. It breeds relationships that generate estrangement, work from grudges and promote revenge, dehumanize the parties involved, and issue in further violence, which then tends to spiral and escalate. The theological argument is that Christians are called to a community whose way of life should not include killing any whom God regards as unqualifiedly precious and for whom God suffers in patient love; and there is no one for whom this is not the case. God is never glorified by our violence and our humanity is never honored through it.

[18] In recent decades pacifists and just use advocates have found themselves allies time and again. All weapons of mass destruction violate both just war and pacifist criteria, so these Christian peacemakers stood side-by-side in opposition to nuclear arms, for example, and worked together for nuclear disarmament. They joined in anti-apartheid campaigns in southern Africa and anti-regime campaigns in Eastern Europe. They jointly called for exploring and evaluating civilian-based defense systems.

[19] THE MAJOR POINT is that these traditional camps are now moving together into “just peacemaking” theory. Just peacemaking exemplifies the broadened scope and the widened search for practices in a world of multiple threats at close range. The broadened scope reflects attention to violence on far more fronts than just places of overt, armed, inter-group conflict. It includes, for example, a focus on domestic violence and child abuse, on human rights violations of all kinds, on anti-racism work, on gang conflict, on promoting processes of truth and reconciliation in transition societies, and on developing everyday means of conflict resolution for home, school, church, community, and workplace tensions and contentions. These supplement rather than replace the previous focus on war, civil conflict, and their aftermath.

[20] Just peacemaking has challenged just war advocates to pay expanded attention to two traditional just war criteria: the criterion of last resort and the criterion of just intention.

[21] The criterion of last resort says that the use of deadly violence is justified only when all other resorts have been tried and found unavailing. Attention now is naming those nonviolent (even if coercive) resorts and developing or reinforcing the means whereby they are tried; the Oslo processes and the road map for peace in the Middle East, for example, whereby parties not directly involved in the conflict mediate the peacemaking of enemies. Or the example of citizen-based mass initiatives such as those developed by Gandhi and King and now used around the world to wield steady pressure from below in order to get change from above. The land mines campaign is another example of a mass-based citizen initiative. A different kind of example is that of high school teachers and social workers teaching peer mediation skills to students to resolve conflicts that could otherwise lead to ostracism and harm. The same can be said for many community organizers and clergy addressing neighborhood conflicts.

[22] The criterion of just intention says that the only justifiable use of deadly violence is to restore a just and enduring peace (revenge and settling scores are not justifiable reasons, for example, nor is protecting economic and political interests instead of lives). Careful, contextual attention to fostering the kind of society that makes for peace and justice moves to the center. Just intention is more than halting conflict, then; it is aiding and abetting “the beloved community” (as King put it). That in turn mandates attention to justice and community formation, indeed character formation and spiritualities that nurture peace.

[23] A just peace requires just peacemakers and institutions, systems, policies, laws, and rituals conducive to shaping the citizenry in that way. This is why the just use tradition has turned its attention increasingly to fostering democracy, enforcing human rights, pursuing sustainable development, building international networks, regional organizations, and the United Nations, reducing the arms trade, and attending to the kind of collective moral formation these require. Soulcraft is as vital to peacemaking as statecraft. The issue is how to “grow people up” as makers of peace and lovers of justice.

[24] In short, developing the implications of just intention and last resort has broadened the scope of traditional “just war” work. The moment of overt conflict itself is only one moment in the wider reach of just peacemaking.

[25] The peace ethic of non-pacifist churches has focused too long on deadly force and its threat (when and where deadly force is justified and how it might justly be conducted). This makes the exception to the norm – controlled violence – the agenda itself! Instead, the agenda should be more direct public expression of the full range of conduct becoming the Peaceable Kingdom.

[26] Unlike the just use paradigm, the Christian pacifist tradition does not – despite its opponents’ insistence – locate itself as a moral response to the question of violence. Pacifists do not begin with the conflict question, but with the question of Christian discipleship and its way of life. The commitment is not, in the first case, to, say, “do no harm.” The commitment is to embody communally and historically a way of life marked by the qualities of God’s domain. So grace and mercy, repentance and forgiveness, living well and dying well, hospitality, compassion, and equal regard – also for the enemy, as a kind of litmus test – are to find concrete expression in this community’s way of living together. Causing physical harm to the neighbor, and especially deadly harm, violates the way of life led by Jesus and asked of his followers – that is the reason violence is rejected.

[27] One can call this way of life “nonviolence,” as some pacifists have done (since Gandhi, mostly), but it is a rather poor choice. “Nonviolence” defines a whole way of life by saying what it is not, and uses an absence – non-violence – to state the positive of neighbor justice and enemy love. In this respect nonviolence is not notably better than, for example, white South Africans identifying black South Africans as “nie-blanc” (non-white) – defining who a people are by saying who they are not. In a word: For Christian pacifist paradigms, following Jesus as “premeditated reconciliation” would be more accurate than “nonviolence.”

[28] The challenge Christian pacifists face is to take the evangelical practices they identify at the heart of the Jesus movement and the early church and find their public forms for today’s world. What is the public expression of the politics of baptism, for example, in which Jew and Gentile, male and female, bond and free are rendered equals not by birth, but by reconciliation? What is the civic form of the eucharistic economics of breaking bread together so that there “might be no more poor among you”? What is the civic counterpart of forgiveness and the process of binding and loosing whereby those at enmity find step-by-step ways to break spirals of retribution? And how is the universal exchange of gifts institutionalized, whereby each community member has a contribution to the whole, and none is less important than another in the always-difficult ecology of community?

[29] Just peacemaking and its revisions live from a sharp distinction between peace-thinking and war-thinking (even war-thinking directed to peacekeeping). The pacifist traditions are correct: Genuine peace-thinking derives from peacemaking as a participatory enterprise that needs and accepts the widest range of gifts. It includes children, the elderly, and the generations between. It happens in homes and schools and in the workplace, recreation place, and worship place. There are no places peacemaking is inappropriate, no social boundaries it does not cross; its forms are so diverse that no one is without some contribution and responsibility. It is the most universal of undertakings.

[30] Pacifist practices are not just a firewall for containing conflict. They are the evangelical practices these traditions see as a whole way of life. Just peacemaking is the hard task of developing these as civic practices and not only ecclesial ones.

[31] It should not be lost on us that reducing terrorism and providing genuine security in a vulnerable world requires the positive practices of just peacemaking rather than peacemaking as a subset of war-thinking. It certainly requires peacemaking rather than the newly revived crusade tradition of the Bush administration’s war on terrorism. In crusade-thinking, just ends justify any means necessary, including extra-judicial killing, the world is carved into great warring camps of Good and Evil, and those who harbor “the enemy” are guilty together with those launching the attack on “freedom” and “civilization.” Crusade vs. jihad usually creates more structured enemies than it dispenses, and always more than it reconciles. It is the opposite of the great, enobling human venture of peacemaking.

Larry Rasmussen

Larry Rasmussen is ​Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, New York City