The goal of politics is peace, a process of coordinating and guiding human wills in the direction of discrete, proximate, and thus attainable goals that serve the communities in which people find themselves. As such, the goal of politics requires constant vigilance domestically and internationally as peace is never attained or claimed once and for all.
For the Christian, the pursuit of peace is guided by what has come to be known as the “just war” ethic or theory. That name is misleading in multiple ways, but the key and unifying point of the ethic derives from its commitment to pursuing peace by ordering political power to the legitimate goals of politics (and excluding thereby illegitimate goals stemming from “reasons of state”). In other words, the “just war” ethic is really and first an approach to politics as the moral exercise of power in service of justice, fairness, stability, and ultimately peace. The “war” ethic is not really and first about war, and is certainly not “pro war,” but the ethic can explain how sometimes power can be—and must be—expressed forcefully to restore, preserve, or advance those goods against threats to them.
So when we read recently in The National Catholic Reporter of a conference in Rome seeking to “move beyond” or replace the “just war theory” with “an alternative ethical framework for engaging acute conflict and atrocities by developing the themes and practices of nonviolent conflict transformation and just peace,” we cannot help but be worried that the conference organizers (who invited no just war thinkers) have everything backwards. Yes, as Christians we are and must be committed to peace. Yes, as Christians, we oppose violence. But the just war ethic is an ethic of peacemaking. Every Christian advocate of it and every non-Christian advocate of it commits himself or herself to the ethic as a means of limiting the powerful ruthlessness of war and directing the use of force towards those genuine political goods previously described. We must note, again, that this names a commitment to a process ordered by goals that are never fully achievable. True peace has been promised and granted to us by Christ’s activity alone.
To move beyond the just war ethic, or to search for an “alternative ethical framework engaging acute conflicts and atrocities” would be to eschew politics as oriented towards peace and the ethic that derives from that claim. The just war approach is not, as the author of the NCR piece suggests, an ethical framework for engaging atrocities, but a commitment to the good of the neighbor: neighbor as victim and neighbor as aggressor, even neighbor as enemy, whose vulnerability requires the political exercise of power in these circumstances. The just war ethic is not based in effectiveness, but in love: unlike the “alternative ethical framework” recommended by the author who believes Jesus taught a politically effective “nonviolent, positive way,” the just war ethic expresses a commitment to follow the peace that, in Pope Francis’ letter read to the conference, “flows from reconciliation with the Lord.”
Christians, as my former teacher John Howard Yoder wrote, do not base their renunciation of violence in claims that by doing so they can better achieve what violent means promises (see his Politics of Jesus, “The War of the Lamb”). They commit themselves to following the reconciling love located in the Jesus’ Cross. It is a strange thing to see the nonviolence advanced at the conference rooting itself in Jesus’ ostensible “resistance against the powers that be” and his “struggle” to relieve people from the “grinding suffering from an unjust political system that bled the people dry.” The nonviolence of Christians like Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas root themselves in the same Cross from which flows reconciliation with the Lord. We are all called to that Cross, and while we depart from Yoder and Hauerwas on the role of Christians in the use of force, we agree that effectiveness has never, and can never, be the measure of those who follow Him.
The good news for those who share this millennia old commitment to the judicious use of force in the name of peace comes from both the Holy Father, Pope Francis, and Cardinal Turkson, speaking at the conference. In their brief statements to the conference, they affirm the just war ethic and warn against “an incorrect interpretation of the religious concept of just war” (Statement of Cardinal Turkson to the peacebuilding conference). In his letter to the conference, Pope Francis reminds us that the Church has not denied the legitimate right of governments to use force and that “conflict cannot be ignored or concealed. It has to be faced.” We agree. The goal, again, is peace, a peace that extends the love of Christ so we might consider “our peers as brothers and sisters” (Statement of Pope Francis to peacebuilding conference).
Joseph E. Capizzi is Professor of Moral Theology at the Catholic University of America. He teaches in the areas of social and political theology, with special interests in issues in peace and war, citizenship, political authority, and Augustinian theology. His latest book is Politics, Justice, and War: Christian Governance and the Ethics of Warfare (Oxford University Press, 2015).
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