Public reasoning and ekklesial reckoning

Commentary on the Vatican conference calling for “spirituality and practice of active nonviolence” to displace church focus on just war

Ken Sehested

We must acknowledge the essential defect in the just war tradition, which is the assumption that violence can
somehow achieve justice. And we must with equal courage acknowledge the essential defect in pacifism,
which is the assumption that justice can somehow be achieved simply by opposing violence.

—Ivan J. Kauffman, “If War is Wrong, What is Right? The New Paradigm”[1]

            Ever since Pope Francis was selected to lead the Holy See three years ago, the Roman Catholic Curia watchers have had a field day with his many uncommon statements and actions. The most recent bustle had US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaking at a Vatican conference on economic inequality, just days after the issuance of Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), a papal exhortation reframing the plight of divorced Catholics and “all those living in any ‘irregular situation.’”

            Almost lost in news coverage was the groundbreaking conference, “Nonviolence and Just Peace: Contributing to the Catholic Understanding of and Commitment to Nonviolence” (11-13 April), jointly co-sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and Pax Christi International, the unofficial global Roman Catholic peace network. What’s at stake—with an unclear outcome—is the Church’s 1,700 year-old “just war” doctrine, traced back to St. Augustine in the 4th century and systematized by Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. It outlines precise criteria as to when violence can be morally justified in opposing oppression.

            Opposition to just war thinking isn’t limited to the so-called “peace church” traditions, including the several bodies of Mennonite, Brethren and the Society of Friends (Quakers). There is a long, if thin, tradition of pacifism in Roman Catholic tradition (likewise within Protestantism), not all of which is limited to clerical exemption from military duty. What sets this particular conference apart was its urging the world’s largest unified-leadership religious body—within Vatican walls and with the assent of one Vatican agency—to “no longer use or teach ‘just war’ theory.”

            In his letter welcoming the 80 conferees from across the globe, Pope Francis expressed support for “revitalizing the tools of nonviolence,” particularly given the current global reality he aptly named “world war in installments.” However, he also referenced the church’s teaching of “the right to legitimate defence” should peaceful settlements fail.


Reactions in the Catholic press

It keeps the peace. In a dominating, intimidating sort of way.
—Boeing advertisement for its Apache Longbow attack helicopter

            Given the origins of just war theory in Catholic tradition, and its centrality to church social teaching, anxious reaction to the conference’s final document, “An Appeal to the Catholic Church to Re-Commit to the Centrality of Gospel Nonviolence” (hereafter, Appeal), was immediate. “[A]t the end of the day, in this vale of tears, it is hard to imagine the Catholic moral tradition could ever dispense with just war theory,” wrote Michael Sean Winters in The National Catholic Reporter. As with other similar commentaries,[2] Winters concludes pacifism “has little to offer in the way of protecting the innocent.”[3]

            This likely will be the most searing question posed to any with doubts about the sufficiency of just war doctrine. What about Syria? What about slavery? And, as always, what about Hitler? Then there is the popular view of Jesus’ command to love enemies as moral prompt but not for replication; that it is for personal interactions but not for geopolitical relations. Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic book, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics, covers well this common assumption about the nature of things, known as “Christian realism.”[4]

            Its premise is that “people sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.”[5] Is it any wonder that the growing body of literature attesting the effectiveness of nonviolent struggle still struggles to find a readership?[6]

            When the binary of pacifism versus just war is posed—the choice between suffering violence or afflicting it—the only thing that’s clear is that our language is impoverished, and we have a diminished vision of to Whom we belong as people of the Way of Jesus and to what we are called to do. The challenge before just war objectors is: Can we point to rival, realistic and spiritually-informed political strategies that are alternatives to policies that assume the need for political domination through superior fire-power?


Just peace

Praying for peace is a little like praying for a weedless garden.
—John Stoner

            The Appeal’s proposal “that the Catholic Church develop and consider shifting to a Just Peace approach based on Gospel nonviolence” is highly suggestive. It properly emphasizes the proactive over the reactive tense of peacemaking; understands that what Scripture speaks of as shalom is rooted in justice; and calls attention to concrete strategies to preempt war fever knowing that the origins of warfare must be addressed in their underlying and localized causes. And it calls to mind the evocative phrase by Glen Stassen on the need for “transforming initiatives”[7] in the work of reconciliation.

            The currency of “just peace” language in recent years is noteworthy, as is the phrase “building a culture of peace,” the latter suggested first by a group of Nobel Peace Prize laureates, then adopted by both the United Nations and the World Council of Churches, who established a parallel “decade,” beginning in 2001, for “overcoming violence.”[8]

            The dilemma with just peace thinking is that its frame of reference is tilted toward addressing the final blossoming of enmity in open warfare by means of national and international action. For instance, the truly groundbreaking book Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices for Abolishing War,[9] a rigorous, creative effort by twenty-three scholars and edited by Glen Stassen, locates the agencies for change primarily in national and international arenas, thus distancing the levers of influence from the majority of people who want to add the incremental weight of their convictions for a different future.[10] It reinforces the sense that this vital work is best left to elites. If we are to promote a holistic understanding of peacemaking to marshal communities at every level we need a comprehensive analysis of violence, beginning with the capacity for evil of the human tongue[11] all the way up the scale to international war.

            In addition, while the just peace analysis provides an impressive inventory of tactical options, it is less useful as a strategic document in the sense that it does not address (at least not to my satisfaction) the overarching purpose and underlying vision for why, as people of faith, we should expend energy and risk assets in the outrageously ambitious pursuit of an end to the entrenched habit of human malice.

            If we are to mobilize a sufficiently large movement to address the root causes of war, we need an animating vision powerful enough to inspire risky exposure to every arena of human injury, rooted in and attentive to local communities. And we need it said in such a way that nonviolence is understood as the distinguishing mark of the “new creation” (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17) into which our faith is immersing us.


Just war legacy

Fair is foul, and foul is fair: Hover through the fog and filthy air.
—the Witches in Shakespeare’s “MacBeth,” Act 1, Scene 1

            In preparation for this article I wrote fifty people—pacifists and just warriors alike, academics-to-activists, who know something about the use of just war theory—asking if they could cite evidence of a potential war averted (or significantly altered) due to the constraints of just war criteria. More than half responded, and not a single one could name a case. What’s more surprising is the number who considered my question a novel one. If the just war matrix is to be an honest broker of policy decisions, surely there must be verifiable metrics.

            Careful thinkers that they are, a number who responded added qualifications to their conclusion: a negative is hard to prove; given the secrecy of deliberations prior to war, there may be still-classified examples of averted war; several affirmed that just war theory has significantly shaped internationally recognized documents like the United Nation’s “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” and the Geneva Conventions, war crime tribunals, not to mention military and police training protocols. And as recently as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Pope John Paul II (among numerous other communion heads) expressly employed just war theory in condemning the attack.

            The U.S. Administration, of course, argued for intervention using the same criteria. The latter fact only underscores what many see as the de facto use of just war theory as makeup hiding the blemishes on the face of war’s countenance.

            To say that war is against the will of God but is also, on occasion, a tragic necessity, is either hypocritical (at best) or deceitful (at worst). It creates a zone of legitimacy for brutal behavior masquerading as service to the common good. It assumes that creation is like a bucolic mansion which, nonetheless, has an unfinished basement where ugly, abominable things may be carried out to preserve the habitable space above. It accepts the notion that there is a space in which the stake of Heaven has no claim and the terms of God’s Reign do not apply. In our distorted imaginations we assume God’s tenure needs a little nudge by means of human enforcement.


Beatific vision

For the world has grown full of peril. And in all lands, love is now mingled with grief. . . . The Quest stands upon the edge of a knife. Stay but a little, and it will fail, to the ruin of all. Yet hope remains while the Company is true.
— Galadriel, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings

            My argument is not that just war theory be publicly displaced by principled nonviolence. My contention is simultaneously more daring and more modest. Namely, that the Church relinquish its world-governing assumption on the one hand while, on the other, focus attention on its distinctive charism.

            Our sights should be set on the two separate but intersecting realms in which we participate: an understanding that we do engage, without privileged voice, in the province of public reasoning while also attending our ekklesial reckoning.

            No one disputes that not even the most compassionate, courageous and intelligent people, institutions or movements can make things right. Hurts seem to forever find a home in our midst. And our commonwealth duty is to join with all other people of conscience in picking up the pieces, tending wounds, embracing the shell-shocked, drying tears, burying the dead, and devising appropriate walls to segregate harm’s effects. This is the work of public reasoning, a form of discernment which impels and guides public action for the purpose of the reduction of violence. People of faith bear no distinctive markings in such decisions.

            Our distinction comes by way of ekklesial reckoning, from the Greek word ekklesia, which the Apostle Paul used to indicate the early churches’ anatomy; and reckoning, a discernment of identity and orientation. Ekklesial reckoning involves continually being formed and fashioned in the insights and habits of God’s intention in Creation and promise of a new heaven and a new earth, of Heaven’s transforming initiative (“while we were still sinners Christ died for us,” Romans 5:8), an initiative which the Community of the Beloved imitates and enacts in the world. We do so without hubris, as if our calling warrants special favor from the Beloved; but simply because this is who we are (becoming), and this is what we believe God is doing in the world. So doing is not credit to some celestial savings account. This is how we breathe, for we are being steeped in the Breath of the Spirit.


“Fools” for Christ

You shall know the truth, and the truth will make you odd.
—alternate rendering of John 8:23, attributed to Flannery O’Connor

            The challenge we face as heralds against assumed realism was keenly cited by Countess Crawly (played by Maggie Smith) on “Downton Abby.” “Hope,” she insisted, “is a tease to keep us from accepting reality.”

            We are not sectarian in the popular sense of the word, separated from “worldliness” in the self-sanctifying attempt at moral purity. We are sectarians—“foolishness” was how Paul often characterized the Gospel announcement (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-30)—in that we believe another world is not only possible but is in fact on its way—present already in those with open rather than grasping hands—as an era beyond scorched time. We believe the future is more than a projection of the present or replay of the past. We are adventus people, formed by the beatific vision of a future beyond all currently available calculations, one that does not obliterate creatureliness but grows from its compost.

            Years ago I was invited by a denominational leader to speak at a national conference on peacemaking. In her letter of invitation, my friend Carole wrote, “We want you to speak to the question of ‘why should we work for peace when folk just need to get saved?’”

            Knowing her sense of humor, I kept reading to get the real topic. But that was it. Dumbfounded at first, it suddenly occurred to me how insightful her request really was. Other than the few go-to texts on peace and justice in Scripture, our congregations are largely unaware of how saturated all of the Bible is with God’s passion for reconciliation, for the right-relatedness of every part of creation, for shalom in all its rich and varied meanings.

            The unfortunate thing is that our communities are largely unaware of the fact that God is more taken with the agony of the earth than the ecstasy of heaven. As a Christian, if you don’t get the Incarnation, you’re largely clueless about everything else. The fact that the text of John 8:32 is inscribed in marble in the Central Intelligence Agency lobby is indication we have significant recovery work to do.

            Until we effectively communicate that the failure to love enemies is to hedge our bets on Jesus, we will lack the necessary leverage to inspire self-forgetful engagement with the world’s pain. Unless our constituency learns to deprivatize teaching about forgiveness and repentance (spirituality is always personal but never merely private), repurposing them to social realities, these notions are largely mute in a world weary of boorish piety. Not until our catechisms point to joy—rather than moral heroism or gritty endurance—as the center, the substance and the circumference of our secret power, will our mobilizing lead to something other than exhaustion.

           It does not surprise me that a way out of our philosophical sinkhole (otherwise known as the just war versus pacifism debate) would be pioneered by those from the tradition arguing most vigorously for moral assessment of conflictive aims. As the child of pietist-revivalist rearing, it was a Catholic author, years ago, who in a single sentence first alerted me to the demanding work of prayer hitched to the imperative work of justice. It was a personal parting of the water. If you know any of those who had a hand in the Vatican conference on Gospel nonviolence, write them to say thanks. And stay tuned for further developments.

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[1] In Just Policing, Not War: An Alternative Response to World Violence, edited by Gerald Schlabach (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2007), a collection of essays done by participants in a 5-year dialogue of Roman Catholic and Mennonite theologians seeking common ground.

[2] See Daniel Petri, “Replace Just War Theory with Nonviolence—What About Syria and Genocide?”, Millennial; Gretchen R. Crowe, interview of Gerald F. Powers, “Powers: Catholic social doctrine is ‘just peace,’” Our Sunday Visitor, 20 April 2016; Damon Linker, “Will Pope Francis dump the just war doctrine?”, The Week, 19 April 2016.

[3] 25 April 2016.

[4] We often forget that just war theory shares a moral presupposition with pacifism, namely, that violence in defense of myself is not justified, but such in the defense of innocent neighbors is.

[5] The sentence is variously attributed to George Orwell, Winston Churchill, Rudyard Kipling and John Le Carré.

[6] See, for example, John Dear’s “The facts are in: Nonviolent resistance works,” a review of Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan’s Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, National Catholic Reporter, 16 October 2012 . Watch this 12-minute video, “The Stunning Success of Nonviolent Resistance,” by Erica Chenoweth.

[7] Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press), 1992.

[8] For more background, see: “International Decade for a Culture of Peace and Nonviolence for the Children of the World” ; the “Decade to Overcome Violence” of the World Council of Churches (WCC) ; the United Church of Christ “Just Peace” resolution of 1985, with its reaffirmation in the 2015 General Synod ; and the 2013 “Statement on the Way of Just Peace” by the WCC

[9] Pilgrim Press, 1998. Note: this work and the previously cited book by Stassen share the same title but have different subtitles.

[10] A notable exception is the book’s final recommendation, urging “grassroots” activists to support governmental and nongovernmental initiatives.

[11] Among the most blistering texts in Scripture is the Epistle of James’ warning (3:5-8) of the devastation that can be caused by human speech. The same book (4:1-2) also makes explicit the economic roots (“cravings” in the New Revised Standard Version) of war.

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