Pacifism, Pacification, and Peacemaking

Thursday, 8 April 2004

Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday, a celebration of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to the adulation of many. Some of his followers saw this mode of ingress into the city as symbolic of his claims to be the promised messianic king. In particular, they remembered that when David made Solomon king, he had him placed on his own royal mule and paraded through Jerusalem, while strategically placed crowds proclaimed his accession to the throne. It soon became apparent, however, that Jesus had come in peace; he had no intention of claiming an earthly throne, much less trying to attain in by force. One of the titles that Christians assign to Jesus is "Prince of Peace." Through the centuries the church has always given at least lip service to the idea of peace, but Christians have gone about trying to achieve peace in vastly different ways. Two of the most prominent ways in which Christians have historically approached the subject are pacifism and pacification.


The early church was a religion of a minority of people in the Roman Empire, primarily drawn from the lower classes. Because Christians as a group were relatively powerless, the tradition of pacifism came naturally. Many accepted outrageous treatment, and even martyrdom, at the hands of Roman government officials. Rather than defend themselves, they acted in accord with the words of Jesus and the apostles: "Do not resist the evildoer"; "Love your enemies"; "Do not repay evil for evil"; "If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all." Stories from the first three centuries of the common era abound with examples of Christians who willingly gave up their lives for the cause of Christ: Stephen, James the son of Zebedee, Peter, Paul, Ignatius, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Perpetua and Felicitas, Christians from Lyons and Vienne, among many others. Many early Christians refused to serve in the army or to assume any office where they might be called upon to pass judgment on others. In the second century the church leader Tertullian urged Christians to pray for the emperor and his armies, but in regard to their behavior, he said, their primary loyalty was to God.

After the time of Constantine, when Christianity became first legal and then, eighty years later under Theodosius, the official religion of the empire, pacifism was still practiced by a minority of Christians. Francis of Assisi preached pacifism, urging the church to engage in dialog with the Saracens rather than attempt to exterminate them through crusades. In the wake of the Protestant, Radical, and English (Puritan) Reformations, the historic "Peace Churches"--including the Mennonites, Brethren, and Quakers--adopted pacifism as the official position of their churches. These groups continue to bear witness by word and example, opposing war on principle.


The second prominent historical approach--or, more properly, set of approaches--dealing with peace may be called pacification. Whereas pacifists locate the locus of peace within the individual Christian, or the Christian community, pacificationists recognize that establishing peace sometimes requires action: people must sometimes be pacified. What the boundaries are of appropriate Christian conduct with regard to pacification have long been a matter of debate. On one side were those who justified using the cross as a symbol of warfare by claiming that real peace was only possible within an orthodox Christian community. So, for example, Augustine favored repressive imperial measures against a group of "heretics" called the Donatists. Olaf Tryggvason, who became king of Norway in 995, accomplished the conversion of his homeland, sometimes by persuasion, but often by force, killing many who refused to convert. Of course, the most glaring example of this form of pacification is the series of wars known as the Crusades, in which Western Christian leaders, both religious and civil, justified their assault on Muslims (and sometimes Eastern Christians) on religious grounds. Wars between Catholics and Protestants in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were also based to some extent, at least ostensibly, on the need for pure Christianity.

Not all Christians who believed in the need for pacification, at least on occasion, were as ruthless as the crusaders and their spiritual comrades. Many recognized Christianity's roots in pacifism, but they believed that circumstances sometimes demanded abandoning that tradition in favor of a more pragmatic approach. The most important development on this side of the pacification stream was the Just War Theory. Augustine (despite his blind spot when it came to the Donatists) was a principal early architect of the theory. Augustine taught that (1) war must have a just cause; (2) war must be motivated by the cause of justice rather than a desire to inflict harm, wreak vengeance, gain power, etc.; (3) war must be waged by a legitimate authority (i.e., a state); (4) war must be a last resort; and (5) war must be conducted justly. Later theorists added other criteria, such as the need for a formal declaration of war, sparing noncombatants, likelihood of success, and proportionality. Most churches today reject the excesses of extreme pacificationism and accept the Just War Theory in some form.


As the U.S. and U.K. prepared to invade Iraq a year ago, the majority of Christian leaders who voiced an opinion stated their belief that the Just War criteria didn't justify the war, though a minority thought that it did. The Peace Churches, of course, opposed the war, as did many people of other faiths and many people without religious affiliation. Some Christians opposed to the war went a step further, however. On 18 February 2003 a group of Christian leaders from the U.S., led by Sojourners editor Jim Wallis, joined other church leaders from the U.K., the Middle East, and South Africa to meet with British Prime Minister Tony Blair and offer alternatives to war. These alternatives included increased weapons inspections, stepped-up attempts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, addressing the problem of poverty that pervades the region, and building interfaith relations. Although their overture was ultimately rebuffed, they demonstrated that a third alternative exists to pacifism and pacification: peacemaking.

Christian peacemakers draw heavily from the traditions of pacifism, taking seriously Jesus' teachings and personal example of nonresistance. Like the pacificationists, though, they understand that inaction in the face of injustice can be a form of collaboration. Many leaders of the American Civil Rights Movement drew on Christian pacifist teachings, but they also followed the example of Mahatma Gandhi, in developing nonviolent strategies for bringing about social change. They understood that the appropriate application of pacifism was not passivism but activism. The annual nonviolent protest against the School of the Americas in Columbus, Georgia, is another example of Christian peacemaking.

Many Christians today recognize the bankruptcy of the Just War Theory, which has been used historically to justify untold violence and suffering in the name of Christ. Nor are they satisfied with a form of pacifism that says no to war but doesn't take positive steps to address injustice (it must be noted that many members of the traditional Peace Churches are fully committed to peacemaking). Those who advocate peacemaking as an improvement over both pacifism and pacificationism must answer several questions. What actions are permissible to peacemakers, and which should be avoided? What should be done when violence threatens on a large scale? Are defensive wars or wars of intervention (e.g., to stop genocide) still an option for Christian peacemakers? Is peacemaking just an ideal, or is it really a practical approach in every case?

What Can Peacemakers Do?

Peacemakers must first and foremost be peaceful. Violent acts or violent speech nullifies the message that the peacemaker seeks to promulgate. Within the parameters of peaceful behavior, many specific types of activity may lead to peaceful resolutions of conflicts. Nonviolent protests, letter-writing campaigns, speaking up to defend the cause of peace, blogging, teaching a class on the importance of peace and justice, signing petitions, participating in marches and parades to promote peace, studying history and politics (especially current events) from a theological perspective that is committed to peace, and promoting conversations among people on different sides of a controversial topic are all legitimate ways to promote peace.

What Should Be Done when Violence Threatens?

No sane person wants to live in a world of violence, but people sometimes get caught up in a mob mentality and do things that they would never do on their own. Others believe that their situation is so desperate that violence is their only recourse. The Hutu slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda is an example of the first, and Palestinian and Iraqi suicide bombers are an example of the second. In both cases, leaders who are not committed to peace spur on the gullible and the credulous to commit unspeakable acts, often on religious or nationalistic grounds. The key word for peacemakers in these circumstances is "threatens." It is important to recognize the telltale signs of impending violence and intervene before it happens. As used here, violence means overt violent acts. Structural injustice (a.k.a. structural sin) is another form of violence that is often not recognized. Where there is structural injustice, there is the potential for violence. Peacemakers who see examples of structural injustice can work to defuse the situation before overt violence breaks out. In Rwanda, the animosity between Hutus and Tutsis long predated the 1994 genocide, and major international efforts at peacemaking might have prevented the bloodshed.

Are Defensive Wars Still an Option?

There are two problems with this question, one semantic and one structural. The semantic problem is that the word war is inappropriate in a context of peacemaking. Terminology can be important. In 1947 the U.S. Department of Defense was created from the merger of the Department of War and the Department of the Navy. Despite the abuses of U.S. military might past and present, the name change was more than just a euphemism, at least in theory. President Harry Truman understood that war in the nuclear age was more dangerous than it had ever been, and the creation of the United Nations offered hope for a world without war. The name Department of Defense was an implicit promise to the world that the U.S. would not engage in wars of aggression, and the Department of Defense stands as an indictment against all the U.S. government's failures to live up to this ideal. The fact that the word defense can be used--or abused--in many ways, including the current Bush administration's policy of preemptive war, demonstrates the weakness of the word defense, even if it is preferable to war. Congressman Dennis Kucinich has proposed the creation of a Department of Peace, which would institutionalize a U.S. commitment to peace. This brief foray into U.S. political history illustrates the problem with the word war: its connotations of violence are unacceptable to peacemakers. The so-called War on Terrorism and War on Drugs are hampered by an almost exclusive focus (at least in terms of the dispersal of funds) on violent attempts to address serious problems. Even Johnson's War on Poverty (which seems to have been abandoned since the presidency of Jimmy Carter) was ill-named.

If Christian peacemakers avoid martial language, they can rephrase the question posed above as "How can people defend themselves and others from violence?" The key is to distinguish between violence and force, between war and policing. Again, the difference is more than just semantic. When the police arrest a murder suspect, even if some force is involved in the apprehension, they have not committed an act of war. U.N. peacekeepers are well-named, even if their deployment sometimes exceeds their nominal function: they go into an area to keep peace, to separate armed parties from one another. That they are sometimes involved in what can only be called warfare points beyond the semantic problem to the structural one. The world today, on both an international level and within many (perhaps all) nations, has many structural injustices which favor war and inhibit peacemaking.

The United Nations was established in the aftermath of World War II to ensure global peace. It has succeeded in some ways and failed in others. One of its failures was guaranteed by the composition of the Security Council. The Security Council, which was charged with maintaining peace and security in the world, was an improvement over the inefficient structure of the U.N.'s predecessor, the League of Nations, but the permanent status granted to the World War II victors is both unjust and unworkable today. The veto power that the permanent member wield has led to numerous abuses, since no permanent member or country favored by a permanent member (e.g., Israel, a client of the U.S.) can ever be censured. This blatant, structural injustice is a cause of concern among many member states, and the cause of peace requires that it be remedied. An exaggerated emphasis on national sovereignty, coupled with states that are run by despots or that fail to uphold rights of their citizens, is another structural injustice that inhibits peacemaking. Wars of defense or wars of intervention are theoretically unnecessary--police or peacekeepers are sufficient in principle--but current structural problems often promote war rather than peace. Christian peacemakers need to expose the injustices in the system and work for reform. They should be aware of the changes proposed to the U.N. structure by Brazil's president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and others that might resolve some of the inherent tensions in the world community. But they should not be afraid to support police-style intervention to prevent genocide and other acts of terror that member states sometimes commit.

Is Peacemaking Just an Ideal?

One reason that many Christians today continue to support the Just War Theory is that they think that pacifism, while great in principle, isn't pragmatic. Christian peacemaking, as outlined above, addresses the problem of a passive pacifism and lays out a practical approach that can supplant the Just War with a Just Peace. War is inherently unjust, and Christians cannot both support war and be true to the teachings and example of Jesus. Christian peacemakers must work with peacemakers from other traditions to address the world's most serious issues, beginning with the many structural injustices that pervade the world. Terrorism breeds in places where poverty and oppression are rife. Christian peacemakers will advocate for the alleviation of poverty, in part by redirecting large parts of the unconscionable financial resources devoted to military spending to relieving human suffering and degradation. Conflicts between people of different ethnic groups and religious persuasions pervade the globe. Peacemakers will work to establish dialog, to find common ground, and to foster understanding of other points of view. They will also pressure their governments and the U.N. to isolate leaders who are obstacles to peace, regardless of whether they are leaders of militias or heads of state. Denial of human rights--freedom of religion, freedom of speech, equality of women and men--leads to conflict and violence. Peacemakers will work with governments that deny human rights and try to persuade them to reform, and they will encourage the international community to shun those that will not, regardless of possible negative economic consequences. Countries or regions with a strong military and/or imposing economic strength, like the U.S. and the European Union, must take special care not to wield their power like bullies, without concern for less powerful nations and economies. If powerful nations oppress the weak, Christian peacemakers will side with the weak, urging reform in the powerful governments and, if necessary, international sanctions against them. Finally, international law must apply to all nations equally. Peacemakers will demand that the U.S. abandon its pretense of superiority and ratify the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court. They will support the elimination of all nuclear weapons, improving on the unjust Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which institutionalizes the right of certain "privileged" countries to maintain nuclear weapons, and they will also demand the elimination of other weapons of mass destruction, including biological and chemical weapons. Finally, so-called WMDs are not the only, or even the biggest, threat of a military nature in the world today. Cruise missiles, ICBMs, fighter planes, battleships, hand grenades, and land mines are at least as great a threat to peace. Using the police vs. war analogy again, police departments have no need of any of these weapons. Peacemakers envision a world where these terrible weapons, and others like them, are unnecessary as well, and they will push for greater cooperation among nations and the gradual elimination of such weapons.

Peacemaking is an ideal, but it is also pragmatic. In a world where dangerous weapons, dangerous ideas, and dangerous people threaten the very existence of human life on the planet, peacemaking is not just one option among many, it is the only viable option. Either we make peace or we rest in peace. It's that simple.

© Copyright 2004, Progressive Theology

Progressive Theology