The Just War Theory of Peacemaking

[1] Peacemaking is a part of politics. God wills peace for his creation, and God’s will for peace expresses itself partly through government’s work of preservation. This, anyway, is the view of Article XVI of the Augsburg Confession. Earthly peace depends upon political power, and, therefore, in the service of peace government may “punish evildoers with the sword” and “engage in just wars.” One function of just war theory is to explain the relationship between power and peace in international affairs. Government’s use of power in war, just as government’s use of power domestically, must be ordered to peace. Thus just war theory is a theory of peacemaking.

[2] That just war theory is about peacemaking is not evident to everyone. Many think the theory to be concerned solely with questions of justification, i.e., when is recourse to war justified, and what sort of military measures are permitted? This exclusive focus on questions of justification, however, inappropriately narrows the horizon of moral analysis. Robust analysis should attend not only to questions about whether war is justified, but also to broader political questions about the dynamics that lead to war and strategies for reducing war. A moral theory concerned only with questions of justification can never help us fashion a just peace.

[3] Partly in response to perceived deficiencies in just war thinking, some Christian scholars have begun advocating a “new” approach to the problem of war, a so-called just peacemaking theory. Glenn Stassen, one proponent of the approach, writes, “Just peacemaking theory is a new paradigm for Christian ethics alongside just war theory and pacifism. It answers a different question than just war theory and pacifism seek to answer: not the question of justification, but prevention.”1 The “new paradigm” consists of ten peacemaking practices, which are: support nonviolent direct action; take independent initiatives to reduce threat; use cooperative conflict resolution; acknowledge responsibility for conflict and injustice and seek repentance and forgiveness; advance democracy, human rights, and religious liberty; foster just and sustainable economic development; work with emerging cooperative forces in the international system; strengthen the United Nations and international efforts for cooperation and human rights; reduce offensive weapons and weapons trade; encourage grassroots peacemaking groups and other voluntary associations.2 Although these ten specific practices are by no means universally endorsed, one does hear voices throughout the churches calling for more sustained attention to peacemaking. For example, Presiding ELCA Bishop Mark Hanson recently called upon members of the Lutheran World Federation to “develop principles for a just peace that become as defining of us as have been the principles of just war.”3

[4] What should we say about this renewed call for peacemaking? First, Stassen and his peacemaking colleagues are right to push for moral analysis that extends beyond questions of justification to broader questions of political reality. But second, Stassen and his colleagues have failed to provide an authentic theory, because they have never addressed important questions about the relationship between peace and power. The peacemaking practices they put forth are free-floating and disparate, more applicable to, and more likely to succeed in, some circumstances than others. To count as a theory, “just peacemaking” needs to offer resources for evaluating when its practices will be effective and when they will not. Even on its own terms, “just peacemaking” is intended to supplement, not replace just war theory. That implies a recognition that certain conflicts require moving beyond peacemaking practices to the use of military force. “Just peacemaking theory,” however, provides no framework to determine when its peacemaking practices are contraindicated and military force needed. As Martin Cook has pointed out:
While [just peacemaking] says at various points that it recognizes that war and the use of military force for purposes other than war will continue to be an important element in the international scene, it is perhaps less clear than it ought to be in demarcating the boundaries between areas of international life where the just peacemaking practices might usefully be applied and those areas where military force remains an important element of international agency.4
Finally, Stassen is wrong to describe peacemaking as an alternative to just war theory. Just war theory is about peacemaking.5

[5] This becomes clear once we consider how the just war theory endorsed by the Augsburg Confession grows out of the Lutheran account of government as an order of preservation. Government has been ordained by God to preserve peace, which is the tranquility that comes from right order. Thus peace is related to both order and justice. Order depends on justice because the only enduring order is a just one, and justice depends on order because judgments of right presuppose a framework of order. The work of preserving order and justice depends upon the use of power, and sometimes force. Therefore God has commissioned this work of preservation to legitimate political authority. Without the exercise of political power on behalf of order and justice, human beings — to use Luther’s words — “would devour one another, seeing that the whole world is evil. . . .No one could support wife and child, feed himself, and serve God. The world would be reduced to chaos.”6

[6] This Lutheran view of government does not imply an unqualified endorsement of political power. It is a moral account of government, one that places political power in the service of order, justice, and other genuine political goods. Government rightfully exercises power, but it exercises power for a purpose. To borrow the words of Paul Ramsey, “The use of power, and possibly the use of force, is of the esse of politics.” At the same time, “the use of power, and possibly the use of force, is inseparable from the bene esse of politics.”7 Power is essential to politics. Government by its nature exercises power, such that you may never have government without the exercise of power. At the same time, this description of government must be coupled with a normative judgment about the use of power. Political power is to be ordered to the well-being of the body politic. The ordered relationship between power and purpose constitutes the bene esse of politics.

[7] Crucial, therefore, to the Lutheran theory of government is political intention. The primary moral question concerns the shape of political action. What is political power doing? What does it seek? And this concern with intention leads to just war theory. War, like every use of political power, must be politicized; which is to say, the use of power in war must be brought into relation with political goods. This central concern with the political act or with the teleology of power, within a Lutheran theory of government means that the central and governing criterion of just war theory is just intention.8

[8] Conceiving just war theory around just intention allows us to grasp the unity of the just war criteria as discrete expressions of a single theory of political power. Just intention unifies the criteria, analogous to the way prudence unifies the virtues. The criterion of legitimate authority points to the Christian theory of government which locates the right to kill in the exercise of political power, but just intention explains and regulates that right by ordering political power to political goods. The criterion of just cause points to the necessity of wrongdoing before resorting to armed force, but just intention requires us to limit the kinds of wrongdoing that justify recourse to war by establishing government’s responsibility for a particular set of political goods only. The criterion of last resort indicates that the risks of negotiation enjoy order of privilege to the risks of armed conflict, but only because war aims at peace as specified by just intention. The criterion of discrimination is a specification of just intention in bello, because the intentional targeting of innocents is contrary to the legitimate pursuit of political goods, and hence contrary to requirements of just intention. The criterion of proportionality in bello is an objective measurement of discriminate intention. A military action that brings about a foreseeable and disproportionate number of civilian causalities cannot plausibly claim to be regulated by a discriminate and just intention. These just war criteria, conceived around just intention, become more than mechanisms for answering questions of justification, they become discrete expressions of a single concern with political power and its relationship to political purpose. The just war criteria are elements in a political ethic that indicate the kinds of considerations that must be brought to bear in the moral administration of political power.9 They pose questions about the purpose toward which power is being placed in a particular conflict, and by doing so they broaden the horizon of moral analysis.

[9] One important way the just war ethic broadens analysis is by directing attention to the “longitudinal” dimensions of a given conflict. By longitudinal I mean the broad context in which armed conflict occurs, the interweaving historical, sociological, and political dynamics that give rise to war. Thus, for example, properly understood the just cause question points to considerations of “relative justice,” that is, to the legitimate claims and interests of parties on both sides in a war. Although of modern provenance, the language of “relative justice” is an important way of answering a classical problem within the just war tradition, namely, can a war be fought with just cause on both sides? Because the theory of politics that gives rise to the just war criteria locates government’s right to wage war in its divinely ordained work of preservation, a pluralism of legitimate governments brings with it the possibility that two governments acting on behalf of national interests will clash in the international political order.10 Nevertheless, because the governing criterion of just intention requires anticipating the conditions of peace, questions about the cause of war cannot be formulated merely in juridical terms about immediate provocations. As Theodore Weber argues:

The criterion of just intention requires the contending parties to ask what has gone wrong with the prevailing organization of power that should encourage them to risk conflict. That is, it directs them to identify “causes” in relation to the disruption of order. It requires them to conceptualize a future organization of power — peace beyond the conflict — as the context for setting their objectives and employing and limiting their uses of military force.11
War always involves breakdown in order. Building an enduring peace, therefore, requires understanding and addressing the underlying dynamics that caused the breakdown. A just war ethic must search out the deeper, longitudinal reasons for conflict and seek to establish after the war an equitable relationship with the enemy.

[10] Precisely because just war theory requires attention to the full dimensions of conflict, it also points toward and encourages peacemaking practices as a way of addressing instabilities in the prevailing political order before those instabilities lead to war. To be effective, however, peacemaking practices must be employed within a conceptual framework that understands the relationship between power and peace, and understands, also, that war is sometimes necessary. Thus peacemaking should never be confused with pacifism. In the words of Theodore Weber:

There is no good reason to assume that nonpacifists cannot be peacemakers, or that pacifists, as such, are effective in peacemaking. As long as human beings are driven by original sin, worldly peace always will be a particular organization of power — some variable combination of force and consent. The art of peacemaking is to move hostile relations toward some denser combination of common consent, thereby reducing reliance on force while nevertheless presupposing its presence and persistence. Christian peacemaking, in practical terms, requires attention to the reordering and limitation of force in the reorganization of power.12 Indeed, if the Lutheran theory of government is true, then those who understand the relationship between power and peace are better suited for peacemaking than many an idealist. Certainly churches committed to the Augsburg Confession have no reason to relinquish the mantle of peacemaking to pacifists and the historic peace churches. We have our own theory of peacemaking; the just war theory of peacemaking.
Helmut David Baer is an Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Texas Lutheran University.


1. Glen H. Stassen, “The Unity, Realism, and Obligatoriness of Just Peacemaking Theory,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 23/1 (2003): 171.

2. See Glen Stassen, ed., Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices for Abolishing War 2nd ed. (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 1989); also Glen H. Stassen, “Resource Section on Just Peacemaking Theory,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 23/1 (2003): 169-170.

3. ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark S. Hanson, President, Lutheran World Federation, “Growing Together, Growing Apart” (Lutheran World Federation President Report to the LWF Council, September 2004).

4. Martin L. Cook, “Just Peacemaking: Challenges of Humanitarian Intervention,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 23/1 (2003): 242-3.

5. Commenting on so-called just peacemaking theory, Martin Cook writes, “All these observations point out sharply the need for a meta-theory that incorporates the important contributions of the just peacemaking practices, but also provides clarity in thinking about where just peacemaking might be useless or inappropriate. Ideally, it should also frame use-of-force questions in such a way as to provide guidance to coercive peacemaking endeavors and also continuing legitimate war-making employment of military force.” Cook, “Just Peacemaking:” 247. The meta-theory capable of incorporating “just peacemaking” that Cook calls for is none other than just war theory itself.

6. Martin Luther, “Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should be Obeyed,” trans. J. J. Schindel, Luther’s Works vol. 45, ed. Walther I. Brandt (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1962): 91.

7. Paul Ramsey, The Just War: Force and Political Responsibility (New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1968): 5.

8. On the centrality of just intention see Theodore R. Weber, “Vengeance Denied, Politics Affirmed: Applying the Criterion of Just Intention.” Societas Ethica Jahresbericht/Annual (2000): 170-6.

9. Ibid 170.

10. See Helmut Thielicke on “The Origins of War” in Theological Ethics, vol. 2. Politics, ed. William H. Lazareth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1969): 430-451.

11. Weber, “Vengeance Denied:” 174-5.

12. Theodore R. Weber, Politics in the Order of Salvation: New Directions in Wesleyan Political Ethics (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2001): 376.

H. David Baer

Helmut David Baer is an Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy at Texas Lutheran University.