NEWS STORY: Christian Ethicists Advocate `Just Peacemaking’ as Corollary to Just War

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c. 2005 Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly

MIAMI _ Almost two years have passed since the start of the Iraq war, but on the eve of President Bush’s inaugural and elections in the still volatile Middle East nation, the issues of war, peace and nation-building still dominate much of the debate among Christian ethicists.

In a significant shift, a number of scholars are looking at taking a proactive approach to peacemaking rather than merely shunning war.

At the 2003 meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics, just two months prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, most criticized the impending conflict either by arguing that a pre-emptive invasion did not meet standards of Christian just-war theory or by advocating pacifism.

At their 46th annual gathering on Jan. 7-9, some members of the society proposed what they say is a potentially powerful third alternative: the application of “just peacemaking theory” as a method of diffusing current conflicts and preventing future wars.

“When we debated the Iraq war in this society two years ago, it was based on just-war theory,” said Glen Stassen, a professor of Christian ethics at the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary and author of “Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices for Abolishing War.”

“What’s happening in the society today is an increasing adoption of just peacemaking theory.”

Arguing that conflicts can be best resolved _ and ultimately avoided _ through international treaties, economic development and a greater push for human rights, Stassen and other scholars said pacifists had failed to offer the American public an alternative to the war in Iraq.

“Just saying no doesn’t work; you’ve got to state clearly the alternative, which was, `Let the inspections work,’ ” Stassen said.

Just-war theory claims violence is justifiable in the defense of innocent people, but only when formally declared by a legitimate government that has exhausted all diplomatic alternatives.

Just-peacemaking theory pushes for advance diplomatic engagement while allowing for military action where appropriate.

The theory was first presented as an alternative to pacifism during a panel at the 1995 meeting of the Society of Christian Ethics, a nondenominational association of 950 scholars and theologians primarily from the United States, Canada and Europe.

A decade later, the idea has proven increasingly appealing to Christian thinkers struggling to develop appropriate responses to the threat of terrorism, genocide and inter-religious conflict. Since then, several books and some 40 articles on just-peace theory have been published.

But not everyone agreed that just peacemaking theory can serve as a stand-in for pacifism.

Scott Davis, a professor of religion and ethics from the University of Richmond who presented a paper at the Miami meeting on comparative religious ethics and war, noted that just peacemaking, unlike pacifism, presupposes the necessity of war.

“Just peacemaking amounts to not much more than the exhortation to take seriously a better peace as the proper object of any just war,” Davis wrote in an e-mail message.

Much of the debate over the role of Christian ethics in foreign policy centered on the Iraq war as scholars discussed the best way to achieve stability.

While criticism of U.S. military policy in Iraq echoed in conversations throughout the conference, several panelists voiced support for an extended American military presence in Iraq and called for more troops.

Nigel Biggar, a just-war theorist from Trinity College in Dublin, said security would have to precede peace in Iraq. “Premature withdrawal would be a disaster,” he said.

Biggar also acknowledged the shortcomings of just-war theory when applied to Iraq, citing a Foreign Affairs magazine article that said the Bush administration offered some 27 reasons for going to war.

“One question for a just-war theorist is, which reasons do you take as the real ones?” he said.

Other ethicists proposed using just peacemaking theory as a corollary to the concept of just war.

David Hollenbach, professor of social ethics at Boston College, insisted just-war theory and just-peacemaking theory are interrelated systems for securing peace.

He said some conflicts require military intervention, while others are best resolved through treaties and negotiations.

Hollenbach argued for simultaneous war and diplomacy, drawing on Sudan,where a civil war in the south killed 2 million people while the Sudan conflict in Darfur has killed 70,000 people.

He advocated both a multilateral military intervention in Darfur, where militias have engaged in ethnic cleansing, and peacemaking through diplomatic pressure in southern Sudan.

“A strong commitment to peacemaking and nonviolence and the just-war theory remain complementary, and the two conflicts in the Sudan reveal why,” he said. “Military intervention in (Darfur) is justified and indeed morally required.”


Still, several scholars present took issue with the use of military force as a method of peace building.

“Our mindset is fixed so that peace building comes after conflict,” said international peace studies lecturer Linda Hogan, also of Trinity College in Dublin. “We’re fixated on military interventions.”

Scholars also voiced concern that Christianity had become too closely associated with the policies of the Bush administration in the mind of the public.

“Some of President Bush’s rhetoric has led people to believe the war in Iraq is a Christian war,” Stassen said.

When an audience member asked what churches and religious leaders could do to counter that impression, Stassen replied:

“We should all get a sandwich board that says `Repent’ and walk through the streets.”

(Alexandra Alter is a religion writer at The Miami Herald. For more on Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, the PBS television news show, see


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