From Just War to Just Peace

RELIGION, 2 May 2016

Bernt Jonsson – TRANSCEND Media Service

The Road Towards a Renewed Ecumenical Peace Theology

All wars are good wars, or at least better than any other alternative – subjectively speaking. If not, you wouldn’t have chosen these alternatives. The wars fought by you and your side are good, regarding both motive and warfare and they are driven by noble reasons. If that wasn’t the case, the warfare could not be justified. That’s the way of reasoning, isn’t it?

Political leaders in Israel use to talk about IDF as the most moral army in the world. Even if leaders in other countries may not formulate themselves in such terms, their thinking and arguing follows the same line. A more self-critical approach would be seen as unpatriotic. And as you know: Breaking the Silence has even been accused of being traitors.

However, there is one snag in viewing your own warfare as good and well motivated, and i.e. that the other side has the same scale of values. Your adversary too considers himself to have the reality, the values and the arguments on his side. Without any objective, neutral methods to evaluate and in the absence of impartial judges there is a great risk, that the victor writes the history as they did in the Nuremburg trials after WWII.

This doesn’t mean that the verdicts against the Nazi leaders were unjust as to the issue of guilt. They were guilty. The death sentences, however, they were a betrayal of the values the trial was said to be based upon. In addition the trial was to a large extent based on hypocracy.

In a war, estimated to have taken the lives of more than 60 million people, it is difficult to believe that any side has clean hands. Shouldn’t Churchill have been brought to court for the terror bombing of Dresden with at least 25 000 dead as a result of the fire storm? Shouldn’t the same have happened to Harry Truman for letting the nuclear bombs drop down on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Didn’t Stalin deserve an indictment for the murder of at least 4-5 000 imprisoned Polish officers in the Katyn massacre? Just to mention a few examples of mass murders without comparing them.

These three men and their henchmen got free. They belonged to the victorious powers. The victors do not only write the history but also the detention orders; they issue – if needed – new laws, and finally they are responsible for the opinion of the court – not technically but in reality. Most important though – the victors are found ”not guilty”.

This is not a new phenomenon. The objective distribution of guilt has always been a source of worry. The issue is annoying; it’s like a pebble in your shoe, or to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare: It gives you a feeling that there is something wrotten in the State of Denmark. Therefore, through the centuries there have been a lot of efforts to verify when and how and why a war might be ethically defensible.

The just war doctrine was such an effort to define objective criteria. The Roman author Cicero (106-43 BC) is considered to be its originator. The doctrine was later developed by theologians like Augustine (400),Thomas ab Aquino (13th century), Martin Luther (16th century) and Karl Barth (20th century). The same line of thinking could be said to be the basis of both the UN Charter and the Geneva Conventions.

The criteria can be organized in three categories:

  1. Jus ad bellum, i.e. how can you justify that you decide to go to war? First of all you should have tried in vain to use every possible way to solve the conflict peacefully. Further, the goal has to be just and to stay as such during the war. In addition the victory should be fairly certain and the result should compensate the harm caused by the war. Finally the war has to be decided by a legitimate authority: an absolute ruler, a government or nowadays the Security Council. Consequently, an armed rebellion can by definition never be justified.
  2. Jus in bello, i.e. the methods of the warfare have to be just. It’s difficult to see how this criterion ever can be fulfilled in modern wars. The advanced development of arms has as its goal to put the enemy out of action as efficiently as possible, which in reality means to kill. In modern international humanitarian law the criterion has been softened to the proportionality principle. You are not allowed to use more violence than is needed to solve the situation. The euphemism collateral damage ia used as a yardstick. When countries are criticized for giving way to assault, they haven’t been restrictive enough. And we do know that most of those dying in a war are civilians, non-belligerents.
  3. Jus post bellum, i.e. the peace has to be just in order not to lay the basis for a new war. In addition – and that’s quite new – the belligerents have to be accountable for their methods in the warfare.

In order to deem a war as just all the criteria have to be fulfilled. Taken seriously, wars of today with modern arms can never be justified and just. The old discussion between pacifists and supporters of the just war doctrine is over, should be over, it’s obsolete. The criteria in themselves make those who adhere to the doctrine pacifists, as long as they stick to their own criteria.

Apart from the first three centuries the line of thinking behind the just war doctrine has been dominant in all the major churches. Their wrestling with this issue has been seen in the history of the ecumenical movement too. When the World Council of the Churches met 1948 in Amsterdam for their first assembly, they stated the following:

”War as a method of settling disputes is incompatible with the teaching and and example of our Lord Jesus Christ. The part which war plays in our present international life is a sin against God and a degradation of man.”

This was in the aftermath of WWII. After Amsterdam, however, the WCC had for many years its critical focus upon the nuclear weapons, while they avoided to condemn the use of conventional weapons in clear terms. One of the reasons was certainly the solidarity with oppressed people and the goals of the liberation movements. The standard wording was for many years to express respect for pacifists but to accept war as a last resort, i.e. Jus ad bellum.

The idea with the just war doctrine was originally to ward off or at least to limit wars. In real life though the doctrine has come to legitimate wars – even today. Iraq and Afghanistan are examples of this. A war against alleged weapons of mass destruction and a war against terrorism. The application of the doctrine to these wars did not enhance the credibility of the doctrine. Should the churches and the ecumenical movement really accept and even bless wars at all? Aren’t they called by Christ, the peacemaker, to be agents of reconciliation in a troubled world?

A decisive turning point was the Central Committee meeting in Johannesburg 1994. The WCC staff had as usual prepared a well argued document leading to the traditional conclusion about ”last resort”. As Director of the Life & Peace Institute I participated in the rather small working group dealing with this document. I remember how fresh air was blowing through the room, when the general secretary of the Church of Brethren in United States said, that we cannot go on just repeating our old debates. In stead we must ask ourselves: What can the churches do to make peace?

That was the very starting point on the road towards a just peace. Church of Brethren is one of the historic peace churches. Mennonites and Quakers are the other two.

The fact that we met in Johannesburg was important. The apartheid regime was to be replaced, but the political violence was still very present. The WCC response was to start a Programme to Overcome Violence, four years later changed into Decade to Overcome Violence parallell to the UN decade for a culture of nonviolence for children (2001-2010). The task was no longer only to make good and balanced statements but to act. The Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Palestine and Israel, which started in 2002, is an example of this.

The new strategy had its roots in the WCC Assembly in Uppsala 1968 and the controversial decision to support the civilian activities of the liberation movements. It was an expression of the sensitivity the ecumenical movement has shown as to the issues and social movements over the years:

  • 60s: The struggle against racism; both the civil rights movement in the US and the liberation movements in Southern Africa
  • 70s: The protection of the creation; the first wave of the ecological movement
  • 80s: The struggle against the arms race; the large international anti-nuclear movement
  • 90s: Peace with justice – with the East-West conflict dismantled, the North-South perspective came back, even officially through the Millennium Goals
  • 00s: Just peace – issues like development, peace, environment, climate are holistically weaven together in movements like Fair Trade and Global Social Forum.

It wasn’t to be taken for granted that the WCC would be able to keep the relationship to the movements. There have been tendencies to limit and to ”churchify” the ecumenical movement, to let it become petrified in church politics and to put breaks on the radicalism through a new order of consensus decisions. However, the reality seems to have been too pushy to make this possible. The healthy tension between church and movement has been preserved. At the same time, a paradox has become very visible:

The churches in the South have very often been in the forefront as to the broad political issues, while several of the churches in the West have been dragging their feet. As to human rights for individuals, i.a. for homosexuals, the positions have often been reversed. Behind these attitudes are probably not only theological differences but also different understandings of what a society is.

What builds a community? Is it the sum total of all the individuals? Or is it the sum total of families, of groups, of clans? Or maybe of both the individuals and the groups? The perspective gives you the tool of interpretation.

Let me return to the peace issue. In Busan, South Korea 2013 the WCC Assembly confirmed the new position with emphasis on just peace. On the road to Busan there were many stops before and after Johannesburg 1994:

  • 1988-98 The ecumenical decade of churches in solidarity with women
  • 1990 in Seoul: the churches were recommended to develop a nonviolent peace service
  • 1992-95 WCC member churches sent observers to South Africa in order to reduce the violence
  • 2001-10 The Decade to Overcome Violence tried to engage the churches through different activities, i.a. Peace to the City (7 cities) and Living letters = delegations to 20 countries with internal conflicts

Theological texts – summarized in Just Peace Companion – were circulated to the member churches and revised. Admittedly, the churches in Sweden played a very passive role in this discussion. However, not least thanks to the German churches the International Ecumenical Peace Convocation was organized in Kingston, Jamaica 2011 as a follow up of the Decade. Almost 1000 participants came and endorsed An Ecumenical Call to Just Peace. And this was the basis for the decisions at the WCC Assembly in Busan, South Korea 2013.

Among peace researchers two concepts have been used for several decades: Negative peace and positive peace. Negative peace is = non-war, the absence of war. Traditional security politics has this emphasis. Positive peace is a wider holistic concept, similar to shalom, salaam.

The ethos within the ecumenical movement has changed from a discussion about the terms of negative peace and of the just war doctrine, which is now considered more or less as obsolete. The positive peace is in focus. What can the churches do to promote this? A Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace became the catch-phrase to summarize the ambition.

There is a general upgrading of the value of the many nonviolent forms and options for resistance and struggle – to be true not only in the churches. And if there have been pacifists trying to avoid the plight of worldly affairs, they have had to leave their hiding-places.

Just peace is a fourfold matter:

  1. Peace in the Community, just conditions in the relationship between people, including indigenous people, refugees and migrant workers
  2. Peace with the Earth, respect and protect the creation, eco-justice, climate change etc
  3. Peace at the Marketplace, economic justice, fair use of resources and people
  4. Peace among the Peoples, human security in stead of national security only

However, there is one issue that still requires an answer. Kofi Annan had the executive responsibility to withdraw the UN troops from Rwanda exactly when their presence was most needed. Later as the UN Secretary General he asked the World Council of Churches to develop a sustainable ethics for the international community and its responsibility to protect people, who didn’t get the protection by their governments. In UN terminology this task has become known as R2P, Responsility to Protect. How should such a protection be implemented? With which methods?

There is a provisional answer in the document Just Peace Companion. There you will find a discussion about just policing, i.e. actions along the lines of the police task to solve the situation using violence as little as possible and to work  as far as possible – to prevent the development of violent conflicts.

Let me summarize:

As to the issues of war and peace there is a new focus. Now it can be stated and said firmly: The calling and the task of the church is to be a peace church. That is nothing less than a basic paradigm shift in theology and Christian ethic.


Bernt Jonsson: Half of my life I have been a journalist in press, radio and television in Sweden with a focus on culture, politics and religion. 1983-89 I was a political adviser on peace and disarmament at the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. 1990-99 I was Executive Director at the Life & Peace Institute, Uppsala – an international ecumenical centre for peace research and action. During 2000-2001 editor in chief for a church weekly and then a freelance journalist with the Middle East as a particular interest. Publications: Fredspolitik för 90-talet (1989), Peace Policy for the 90’s (1990), På väg mot befrielsen (2007) – a book about Swedish solidarity with the liberation struggle in Southern Africa. I have been following the ecumenical movement from the 60’s, and the changing attitude to war and peace is nothing but a dramatic paradigm shift.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 2 May 2016.

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