Symposium Introduction

Can one be a disciple of Christ and, at the same time, engage in the use of violence? This is one of the perennial questions of Christian ethics, and one of the most controverted. In formal theological discussions, it is typically framed in terms of a debate between two competing positions: “just war” on the one hand and “pacifism” on the other. Traditionally, Christians who endorse a just war framework have maintained that violence is not only permissible, but even sometimes morally required, in specific circumstances; the task of just war ethics is accordingly to elaborate the particular criteria that govern its use, with military conflicts between states comprising the paradigmatic cases considered. By contrast, Christian pacifists have seen engaging in violence as incompatible with following Christ, and often (though not always) considered it unconditionally prohibited. “Nonviolence,” for the pacifist, represents not only a binding moral norm, but an entire way of life—and the only way of life that is truly faithful to the teaching of Christ.

Lisa Cahill’s Blessed are the Peacemakers: Pacifism, Just War, and Peacebuilding represents a major intervention into this centuries-old debate. At one level, Cahill’s work affords a systematic overview of the just war and pacifist positions, which Cahill treats not as static “pure types,” but as dynamic, living traditions of Christian theory and practice that have evolved considerably over the course of their history (6). Among the book’s many strengths is its rich and nuanced analysis of each tradition, which conjoins extensive consideration of historical context to deep engagement with the substantive theological and ethical arguments advanced by just war theorists and pacifists. Through her historical approach, Cahill not only demonstrates the ongoing development of each tradition over time; she also reveals the variety of conflicting perspectives within each tradition. As Janna Hunter-Bowman, one of this symposium’s contributors, reminds us, drawing on Alasdair MacIntyre, a tradition is not a static body of consensus, but a “historically extended, socially embodied argument,” sustained as much by practices and institutions as by ideas and theories.1 And such is certainly true, as Cahill shows, of the just war and pacifist traditions. Indeed, her book is a remarkably lucid reconstruction of how the argument between and within these traditions has gone so far.

Simultaneously, however, Blessed are the Peacemakers is also an attempt to reframe and redirect the argument today. As Cahill states at the book’s opening, in addition to offering a “critical historical understanding of the Christian traditions of pacifism and just war,” she seeks to “illustrate the promise of a newer approach sometimes called ‘peacebuilding’” (1). “Peacebuilding,” on Cahill’s construal, represents not merely an alternative to its more venerable predecessors, but also a possible point of convergence between the two (18). It can play this mediating role because the peacebuilding paradigm seeks to shift the basic terms of the debate itself. Rather than asking whether and under what conditions violence is permitted, peacebuilders propose to ask instead: how can enduring peace—the antithesis of violence—be proactively cultivated within existing societies? In fact, Cahill maintains, “seeking and preserving peace and avoiding violence” is a common aim of all three Christian traditions, and one which they share with many non-Christians as well (26). Hence it is precisely around the shared, practical project of peacebuilding that Christians and non-Christians of different perspectives (not least, conflicting assessments of the permissibility of violence) can find common cause.

Though Cahill only treats peacebuilding directly at the beginning and end of her book, through the intervening historical chapters she also makes a forceful theological and ethical case for it. By beginning her historical narrative with a detailed interpretation of Jesus and the “reign of God,” Cahill recalls contemporary Christian debates about war and peace to their theological foundations. On her reading, nonviolence was central to the reign of God proclaimed and embodied by the historical Jesus. At the same time, in the wake of his death and resurrection, the reign of God remains a living, experiential reality, continually transforming the persons and communities who participate in it through their ongoing practice (70). Even in the midst of a fallen world, Christians and non-Christians alike are called to live according to the reign of God, which means opting for nonviolence to the greatest extent possible.

On the other hand, Cahill also contends that the prevalence of sin in human life is such that sometimes nonviolence itself can occasion greater evil than the use of violence would—even though from a Christian perspective recourse to violence always remains evil as well. Consequently, she claims, “a decision either to undertake just war, or to renounce any use of lethal force, constitutes an irreducible moral dilemma” (34). In other words, it is simply a fact of the human predicament that we find ourselves in situations where there is no way to avoid committing injustice and moral evil, even if ethical deliberation reveals one course of action to be clearly “better” than all possible alternatives (124). Cahill’s overarching argument about the just war and pacifist traditions is that neither has adequately reckoned with the reality of moral dilemmas, much less offered a convincing theoretical or practical response to them. Conversely, the existence of moral dilemmas comprises a key reason to turn to peacebuilding (34). Though a peacebuilding approach cannot decisively “resolve” such dilemmas (that would be impossible), it can at least recognize their reality and their prevalence. Still more importantly, on Cahill’s take, peacebuilding represents the best practical way of forestalling their occurrence, even if it is invariably an imperfect and fallible one.

Does Cahill succeed in her ambitious bid to reposition peacebuilding at the center of a centuries old debate? In this symposium, six contributors respond to Cahill’s argument from a variety of theological and ethical perspectives, disciplinary backgrounds, and political contexts. And to each, the author herself offers a lively rejoinder.

The conversation begins with a response by Eli McCarthy. McCarthy, a Catholic theologian who shares Cahill’s commitment to nonviolence, helpfully reconstructs the theological claims at the heart of her book, highlighting the connection between Cahill’s eschatology and her view of moral dilemmas. While endorsing much of Cahill’s case for peacebuilding, he challenges her to take a step further in the direction of nonviolence. Does even Cahill’s limited claim that violence and killing, though invariably “wrong,” may nevertheless be “justified,” go too far toward rationalizing and enabling them? McCarthy thinks it might, and proposes a strategy of “non-condemning” and “accompaniment” as an alternative way to address the dilemmas Cahill identifies.

In the symposium’s second essay, Anna Floerke Scheid presses Cahill from the opposite direction. Though Scheid agrees with Cahill that nonviolence is unquestionably morally superior to violence, she finds abiding value in the Catholic just war tradition. In particular, Scheid asks, should one be so quick to condemn the use of violence by subject peoples seeking to liberate themselves from oppression, or to suggest their use of violence is morally equivalent to that of their oppressors? Isn’t there a case to be made for the positive justice of violent tactics in at least some of these cases? In her own response to these questions, which is informed by Black South Africans’ struggle to end Apartheid, Scheid also considers the role of resistance and peacebuilding in combating racial oppression within the United States, before concluding with a theological reflection on the relationship between divine solidarity and human suffering.

Following Scheid, Janna Hunter-Bowman then engages Blessed are the Peacemakers from an Anabaptist, and explicitly pacifist, perspective. Appreciative of Cahill’s case for peacebuilding, Hunter-Bowman nevertheless seeks to complicate her account of the pacifist tradition. In fact, she argues, there have been a great variety of Christian “pacifisms”—of pacifist traditions, in the plural—each of which has been deeply shaped by the particularities of the context in which it arose and the practical challenges to which it responded. How might a fuller grappling with the historical plurality of pacifist traditions, Hunter-Bowman inquires, not only reshape Cahill’s larger narrative, but also contribute constructively to contemporary peacebuilding efforts, especially in the Global South?

The symposium’s second trio of essays, meanwhile, opens with a response by Robin Lovin. A leading scholar of Reinhold Niebuhr and “Christian realism,” Lovin calls attention to some of the serious obstacles contemporary political realities pose to peacebuilding of the kind favored by Cahill. Emphasizing peacebuilding’s late twentieth-century origins, he contrasts the circumstances in which it developed with the plight of many polities today, beset as they are by growing polarization, competing “alternative facts,” and the fragmentation of public discourse. Today’s would-be peacebuilders, Lovin argues, must give as much attention to renewing the public culture and institutions of liberal democracy as to resolving violent conflict or resisting oppression.

In the next response, political scientist Maryann Cusimano Love turns to the empirical dimensions of Cahill’s argument. “Why are theologians still debating whether peace is possible and whether war is endemic,” she asks, when ultimately this is an empirical question? Mounting a sharp critique of the just war tradition and “Christian realism,” Cusimano Love strongly endorses the peacebuilding approach favored by Cahill. Peacebuilding, she contends, is not only theologically justified, but pragmatically effective, as a variety of empirical studies demonstrate. Yet Cusimano Love wonders whether by training her focus primarily on history and the theological canon, at the expense of a deeper engagement with the empirical literature, Cahill has reinforced some of the limitations of her discipline, and presented her own case for peacebuilding less forcefully than she could have.

Finally, in the symposium’s concluding essay, Elias Opongo, SJ, Director of the Hekima Institute of Peace Studies in Kenya, speaks to the relevance of Cahill’s work for an African context. Like Cahill, Opongo sees peacebuilding as a more theologically cogent and practically effective response to the real dilemmas posed by violence than either traditional just war theory or stringent pacifism. At the same time, he challenges Cahill and other peacebuilding advocates to extend their analyses beyond conflict or post-conflict situations to the forms of “everyday violence” that pervade all societies, including putatively peaceful “developed countries.” In response to such everyday violence, Opongo asks, how can peacebuilders in widely differing contexts best promote “everyday peace” in our interconnected world?

In concluding, let me note that most of the essays for this symposium, excepting the response by Prof. Cusimano Love and the replies by Prof. Cahill, were completed before Russia embarked on its widely condemned war in Ukraine. Consequently, that conflict, which is still ongoing as I write, does not feature in many of the discussions that follow. Nevertheless, if anything, this recent outbreak of violence—one among many in the world today—only further underscores the immediate relevance of the issues debated here. The ethical questions of war and peace remain as urgent, and as vexing, now as they have for many hundreds of years, even as the tragic circumstances that impose them upon us continue to change.


  1. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 222.

Eli McCarthy

Response

Discerning Needs

Offering Accompaniment

In this response, I will first unpack some key arguments of Lisa Sowle Cahill’s significant and insightful book entitled Blessed are the Peacemakers. Second, I will explore a moral strategy of accompaniment as related to her arguments regarding peacebuilding.

Cahill’s Argument

Cahill is exploring the role of the Church and “sees peacebuilding as an alternative to more traditional forms of just war theory and pacifism and as an effective way to transform conditions of violence and lead to just and sustainable peace” (vii). She proposes that “peacebuilding best represents the Christian commitment to both nonviolence and political responsibility” (ix). Cahill calls “Christian theologians to take gospel nonviolence seriously” (x). “[P]eacebuilders, on her account, give almost exclusive priority to the positive and nonviolent cultivation of peace,” (1) which is seen as the most “realistic, responsible, and sustainable mode of conflict transformation (25). She says peacebuilding can correspond with a “just peace” framing (18).1

On the one hand, Cahill maintains, “killing is never unambiguously right because, even in self-defense, killing violates the inalienable dignity of another human being” (viii). On the other hand, she contends, “renunciations of the use of force (violence) are also morally ambiguous, insofar as an agent declines to rescue another” (viii). Cahill claims that “some moral decisions engage agents in irreducible moral dilemmas understood as situations in which there is no available course of action that does not somehow involve the agent in wrongdoing, even though the action on the whole may be justified” (viii).

Reflecting on both her own Christian tradition and various ethical traditions, Cahill claims that “all agree that violence is in no way a part of the eschatological unity of all things in God through the love of Christ and the power of the Spirit” (26). If this is our end, then we may wonder what means would demonstrate consistency with such an end, and thus not only better illuminate but also actually, in reality, transform us toward such ends? If this is the vision of human flourishing, what virtues would be constitutive of such flourishing? Cahill explains that “Jesus’s most characteristic teaching is undoubtedly the arrival of God’s reign, establishing an inclusive community of reconciliation and nonviolence” which has clear social and political implications (39).2

As we engage the Christian journey, “efforts to embody God’s reign in history will bring suffering and death,” Cahill acknowledges, “and yet God’s justice will prevail” (55). Although sin continues in significant destructive ways, and thus, suffering may occur through our nonviolent actions or resistance. Nevertheless, the ultimate power of reality is Grace (Rom 5:17) and this Grace is the way of nonviolent love. Even if, on occasion, it doesn’t appear to work in the short-term as we may have envisioned, we know that it is working. It is working in terms of the physiological dimension via mirror neurons that draw us in that direction, by illuminating human dignity, cultivating empathy, and actualizing integrative power, or especially when done with strategic planning. This often comes to light in the longer-term, similar in some respects to Jesus’ cross and resurrection.3 This is what nonviolence as the path to fuller truth helps us to recognize and actualize. As Benedict XVI observed, Jesus’ teaching about nonviolence “is realistic because it takes into account that in the world there is too much violence, too much injustice, and therefore that this situation cannot be overcome except by countering it with more love, with more goodness.”4

Reflecting on the Sermon on the Mount, Cahill explains that “the morally right act is simply but radically the act that demonstrates the forgiving attentiveness to the needs of others disclosed by Jesus and the will of God” (58). The “mandate” in difficult situations is to “enter into them by identifying the needs of those concerned as one’s own” (58). The adversary, aggressor, or violent actor is not to be approached in “self-righteous judgment, but in a compassionate desire to meet the needs of wrongdoers and victims as well as possible in difficult circumstances” (59). This practice of attentiveness to the deeper needs of stakeholders is precisely the method of nonviolent communication developed by Marshall Rosenberg.5 More broadly, it points to the role of Christians and others to commit to nonviolent accompaniment in very difficult, even violent situations. In a similar vein, Jim Keenan describes mercy as “entering into the chaos of another to answer them in their need,” while Leo Guardado describes nonviolence as “the witness of a Church of mercy.”6

In turn, Cahill argues that “the contribution of the Bible to ethics is at the level of community formation, not primarily at that of rules or principles, and this applies in the case of nonviolence” (69). To extend this point, this emphasis on community formation seems to signal the importance of identifying nonviolence as a core virtue, and thus as constitutive to human flourishing. So understood, nonviolence is the way we act in accord with human dignity and human flourishing.

Accompaniment

In this context of acting in accord with human dignity, I really appreciate Cahill’s nuance in drawing those who commit to avoiding violence to also acknowledge the harm that can occur when another person or group isn’t physically rescued in that immediate situation. This may call those with such approaches to cultivate a more robust understanding of active nonviolence as well as to increasingly train in nonviolent skills, in order to better protect and rescue those in need through creative, courageous, nonviolent strategies. For example, a more robust understanding of nonviolence would include a positive reverence for dignity and life, as well as the constant effort to avoid dehumanization and participation in other types of violence. Nonviolence is at once a core gospel value and the way of Jesus; a spirituality, way of life, distinct virtue, and capability; the power of love and imagination in action; the path to fuller truth and de-colonization; constitutive to integral ecology; a cross-cutting and intersectional approach to social issues; and a strategic methodology and constructive force for social justice, transforming conflict, breaking cycles of violence (ex. systemic, institutional, cultural, and direct), protecting all people and our common home, and building a sustainable just peace.7

I also appreciate Cahill drawing those who legitimize just war or justified violence approaches to acknowledge that killing, even to ostensibly protect another, is still an assault on human dignity. Killing distorts and violates human dignity because it obstructs the sense of sacred gift; lowers empathy; increases possessiveness; generates trauma in the parties involved, and in community members even across generations; and stimulates perpetrator induced traumatic syndrome, even moral injury and brain damage, to the one who kills.8 Pope John Paul II also argued that “violence destroys …our dignity,”9 while Cardinal Ratzinger, the eventual Pope Benedict, argued that “violence degrades the dignity of the victim and perpetrator.”10 Thus, Cahill wisely wants to transcend the double effect approaches to violence that suggest killing may be “justified without any culpability or remorse” (162). In turn, she suggests in irreducible dilemma situations “if killing is sometimes justified,” it is “never wholly justified” (161), while holding that such agents “should not be condemned” (162).

In this context, I wonder if another way to think about such dilemmas might entail further reflection on the needs of stakeholders in these difficult situations, as Cahill points to in her reflection on the Sermon on the Mount and the moral call to identify the needs of others. For example, underneath the description or strategy of “justifying” certain types of killing may be an agent’s needs for acknowledgement or consideration of the intense difficulty of their particular situation.11 Also, underneath the description or strategy of “non-condemning” certain agents who kill in such situations may be needs for reassurance, inclusion, or community.

When we identify such needs then we may have a way to better break out of descriptions or strategies that can get us stuck in some destructive patterns or cycles. For instance, the strategy to “justify,” even in part, some killing can quietly till the soil for lethal activity that generates trauma in the stakeholders and community members involved, as described above. In turn, this strategy of “justifying” seems to raise some well-being issues and to meet the agent’s needs for acknowledgment and consideration less directly, if at all. Further, this strategy can also quietly till the soil for the practices of individuals, groups, or governments to prepare, train, and invest in order to be ready for such apparent “justified” situations. The emphasis or focus of activity related to hostile conflict too easily slides into staying ahead of potential adversaries in lethal technology and the arms race, winning the battle, dominating the other, or terminating the other even under the guise of the “common good,” “self-defense,” “necessity,” or “protecting the vulnerable.” In turn, these social and political patterns can generate cycles of de-humanization, domination, harm, and violence.12 Thus, the strategy to “justify” some killing may less directly function to meet needs for acknowledgment and consideration; it may also ultimately undermine meeting the need for safety, especially in any sustainable way.13

A slightly different strategy, especially for Christians and others, is non-condemning such agents while conjoining this to a focus on accompaniment.14 Accompaniment more directly meets the needs for acknowledgment and consideration of the significant difficulty of the situation. In addition, accompaniment would also meet the need for companionship. It could take various nonviolent forms at any stage of the conflict such as public speech, resource provision, identifying credible messengers, coalition building, bodily presence, shared physical risk in the moment, trauma-healing, empathetic listening, and restorative justice, etc. Nonviolent accompaniment would also include the non-condemnation of agents in such dilemma situations who may resort to killing, and thus, meet the needs for reassurance, inclusion, and community. Thus, we would not say to such agents before, during, or after “that was bad,” “you should be ashamed,” or “that was justified,” but rather “that was really difficult. We are with you. Significant harm occurred, so how can we better understand the harm, heal and break this cycle of violence?” With accompaniment in place of moral justification, the emphasis or focus more aptly entails breaking cycles of violence and increasing effective nonviolent strategies, which better meets the needs for safety as well as reliability. In turn, I also wonder if this strategy would more fully advance peacebuilding. I’m curious how Professor Cahill might respond to this constructive proposal.

In Cahill’s final section on practical strategies of peacebuilding, she identifies several constructive dimensions that I notice correspond to just peace norms.15 For instance, she identifies “women as essential peacebuilders,” (333) which corresponds with the just peace norm of participatory processes. “Formative or re-formative social practices” (338) corresponds with the norms of cultivating key virtues as well as forming nonviolent communities, cultures, and institutions. “Interreligious and intercultural cooperation” (341) corresponds with the norm of relationality. “Nonviolent resistance” (326) corresponds with the norm of nonviolent direct action.

Blessed are the Peacemakers is quite a remarkable book, and I am grateful for Lisa’s mentorship as well as opportunity to engage together on these critical issues.


  1. A Just Peace Ethic Primer: Building Sustainable Peace and Breaking Cycles of Violence, ed. E. McCarthy (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2020).

  2. Richard Hays, Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation: A Contemporary Introduction to Christian Ethics (New York: Harper Collins, 1996).

  3. Metta Center, “Mirror Neurons,” https://mettacenter.org/definitions/mirror-neurons/. Such neurons mirror what they encounter, so when offering nonviolent Love, we physiologically are drawing the body of the other towards and into that energy.

  4. Pope Francis, “Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace,” World Day of Peace Message, 2017, par. 3.

  5. Marshall Rosenberg, https://www.nonviolentcommunication.com/.

  6. James Keenan, Moral Wisdom: Lessons and Texts from the Catholic Tradition (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 124.  Leo Guardado, “Nonviolence: The Witness of a Church of Mercy,” in Expositions, Special Issue: The Future of Nonviolence in Catholic Social Teaching, vol 13, no.2 (2019), 54–75.

  7. Advancing Nonviolence and Just Peace in the Church and the World, ed. R. Berger, K. Butigan, J. Coode, and M. Dennis, (Brussels, Belgium: Pax Christi International, 2020).

  8. Rachel MacNair, Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress: The Psychological Consequences of Killing (Lincoln, NE: Praeger/Greenwood Publishing, 2005).

  9. Pope John Paul II, quoted in Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church (London: Continuum, 2004), 496; and in “Holy Mass in Drogheda, Ireland,” The Holy See, September 29, 1979, http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/homilies/1979/documents/hf_jpii_hom_19790929_irlanda-dublino-drogheda.html.

  10. Sacred Congregation, for the Doctrine of Faith. “Instruction on Certain Aspects of the Theology of Liberation.” Aug. 6, 1984; section xi, paragraph 7, http://www.newadvent.org/library/docs_df84lt.htm.[/footnote] And Pope Francis calls us to “respect our deepest dignity and make active nonviolence our way of life.”[footnote] Pope Francis, “Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace,” World Day of Peace Message, 2017.

  11. DC Peace Team, “Human Needs Chart,” 2021.

  12. Kelley Brown Douglas, “We Need to Declare a National Emergency on Deadly Policing,” in Religion News Service, Sept. 2, 2020. Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2015), chapters 2–3.

  13. For more on this discussion see Gerald W. Schlabach, “Just War? Enough Already,” in Commonweal May 31, 2017; McCarthy, “The Gospels Draw Us Further: A Just Peace Ethic,” in Expositions: Special Issue on the Future of Just War Theory in Catholic Social Thought, v.12, no.1 (2018), 80–102, “Catholic Nonviolence: Transforming Military Institutions” in Expositions: Special Issue on the Future of Nonviolence in Catholic Social Teaching, v.13 no.2 (2019), 113–36.

  14. John Paul Lederach, Reconcile: Conflict Transformation for Ordinary Christians (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 2014) 54. Here, he introduces the term “alongsideness” to describe the reconciliation art of accompaniment.

  15. Just Peace Ethic Primer, ed. McCarthy.

  • Lisa Sowle Cahill

    Lisa Sowle Cahill

    Reply

    Reply to Eli McCarthy

    Eli McCarthy is a stellar proponent of peacebuilding and “just peace,” and a skillful interpreter of Pope Francis’s leadership on the renunciation of violence. I deeply appreciate his accurate summary of my own claims, and his proposal to accompany (rather than judge) individuals caught in violence-ridden moral dilemmas, whether or not they resort to killing. I think we both agree that a distinctive virtue of the peacebuilding paradigm is that it can attract stringent just war theorists as well as pacifists, insofar as they concur in the priority of nonviolent strategies to make or sustain peace, define authentic and sustainable peace as also just peace, and embrace peacebuilding as a real-world political option that can be effective to end or avoid violence.

    I am grateful that McCarthy has honed in on a controversial claim of my book, one that I regard as equally central to the priority the book places on peacebuilding. That claim is that both justified killing and principled nonviolence that results in grave underserved harm are morally ambivalent. Any killing of a human being, even in self-defense or out of responsibility to protect others, calls not only for regret but for remorse, and could even be seen as guilt-incurring.  Conversely, refusal to kill, insofar as it involves foregoing the responsibility to rescue others from a dire threat, is also morally ambivalent. In such a case, nonviolence too calls for remorse, and may incur guilt. Frankly, this assertion of the irreducible moral ambivalence even of actions that are on the whole justified is hard to defend, or at least to do so clearly. In making the attempt, I rely on philosophers like W. D. Ross, Rosalind Hursthouse, Lisa Tessman, Michael Walzer, and in particular Bernard Williams, who explains that even justified actions may bring a “moral cost,” because “someone has been wronged.”1 As McCarthy recognizes, I do not accept that if a given unjust result for an impacted individual is “unwanted” or only “indirectly caused,” the agent is absolved from moral responsibility, remorse, and guilt. Yet I would not go so far as to say that agents caught in irreducible moral dilemmas should be condemned by others.

    For some of my readers and colleagues, this idea that a justified agent can be nonetheless guilty, and is properly remorseful, is perplexing, if not completely unacceptable. How can an agent be morally responsible for causing a harm regarding which they had no other choice, save deliberately to cause an even greater unmerited harm to another person or persons? McCarthy does not question my basic analysis, appreciating that even violence that is directed to protection of others is still “an assault on human dignity,” and, even in the best-case scenario, will inevitably bring evils such as greater insensitivity to life and trauma to the parties involved.

    Turning to those who nonviolently refrain from action to protect or rescue others whose lives are at stake, McCarthy does not seem to accept a parallel analysis, acknowledging only that “harm can occur.” He explains that nonviolence is “a core Gospel value and the way of Jesus.”  He also suggests (by means of rhetorical questions) that if it is true, as I say, that “violence is in no way part of the eschatological unity of all things in God,” then Christians should act only by means that “demonstrate consistency with such ends,” and “in reality, transform us toward such ends.” In other words, Christians should be nonviolent—unambiguously. My answer to this is that we are not yet living eschatologically within the full reign of God.

    As McCarthy admits, “sin continues in significant destructive ways,” and this is exactly why moral dilemmas arise in the first place. Even if the ultimate power of reality is nonviolent love (as McCarthy maintains), what love is called to do and is capable of doing historically may not coincide absolutely with its hoped-for eschatological future. Love of neighbor may in the extreme case include killing; more frequently it involves structures, policies and decisions—for example, economic sanctions–that result in death less “directly,” often affecting the most vulnerable and least deserving first.

    McCarthy identifies the need to train peacebuilders in “nonviolent skills” so that they can “protect and rescue” those in conflict situations; he also proposes that killers may be acting out of a need for “reassurance, inclusion, or community.” The terms of McCarthy’s analysis put me in mind of in-person, face-to-face peacebuilders, such as the Nonviolent Peace Force, a corps of Catholic peace negotiators among illegally armed paramilitary, insurgents, and government officials that I met in Colombia; Myla Leguro a Catholic Relief Services staff member who conducts a peace workshop in Mindanao, the Philippines; or Archbishop Paride Taban and his “Peace Village” in South Sudan. I agree that person-to-person peacebuilding is an important commitment and lens, and that it has shaped much of the Christian imagination around peacebuilding; it has been formative for my own thinking.

    Yet peacebuilding theorists must also attend to conflict circumstances in which victims of violence do not encounter perpetrators face to face, the power of a nation state may be arrayed against civilian populations, decision-makers may be distant from armed combatants, or the ideology and ethos motivating armed identity groups are virtually impervious to peacebuilding overtures. Maria Stephan has addressed the peacebuilding power of social movements in some of these circumstances in her work with Erika Chenoweth and in her essays for the United States Institute of Peace.2 But the intransigent nature of ongoing, organized, ruthless killing in Ukraine, Yemen, Myanmar, and in countless other places past and present brings home (to my mind) the genuine dilemmas that arise when peacebuilding is not an effective strategy, yet to kill (for example, in the name of self-defense, “Responsibility to Protect,” or aid to a national ally) is to capitulate to the aggressor’s terms of engagement, and to participate in a spiraling contest for power.

    This goes back to the dual thesis of this book: peacebuilding is always a Christian moral obligation, and often an effective political strategy, yet peacebuilding cannot resolve every unjust conflict, with the result that nonviolence can be as morally burdened as violence. For example, according to some scholars of international conflict, although Ukrainians have already engaged in nonviolent resistance to the Russian invaders with some success, “it is unlikely that nonviolent resistance against Russian aggression by itself can stop Putin’s aggression.” Still nonviolent resistance “can constitute a second front” alongside violent resistance, and is an important means to accompany resort to arms.3

    The primary or only Christian use of just war criteria should be to critique proposals for specific uses of force. Christian leaders and thinkers should focus on the argument for peace, and action toward that end; there are plenty of people available to justify war, reasons too often become rationalizations, and justification of war easily and rapidly pushes aside the mobilization of peace. This is why Pope Francis, while not condemning armed self-defense in principle, keeps insisting that no war, even a defensive war, is a genuinely “just war” in practice. All efforts must centralize nonviolent resistance and peacebuilding.4


    1. Bernard Williams, Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 37.

    2. See Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works:  The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (New York: Colombia University Press, 2011); and Maria J. Stephan,”How the Catholic Church Can Bolster Alternatives to Violence,” USIP, November 1, 2017; https://www.usip.org/publications/2017/11/how-catholic-church-can-bolster-alternatives-violence;  accessed June 14, 2022.

    3. Isak Svensson and Sebastian Van Baalen, “Can Nonviolent Resistance Stop Putin?,” Political Violence at a Glance (an online magazine sponsored by the University of California Institute of Global Conflict and Cooperation, and directed by Erica Chenoweth, Christian Davenport, Barbara Walter and Joe Young), https://politicalviolenceataglance.org/2022/03/11/can-nonviolent-civil-resistance-stop-putin/; accessed April 29, 2022.

    4. See Francis X. Rocca, “Is Ukraine’s War Just?  Pope Francis Hasn’t Said,” Wall Street Journal, May 5, 2022, https://www.wsj.com/articles/is-ukraines-war-just-the-pope-hasnt-said-11651758894;  accessed May 7, 2022. Pope Francis supports the right of the Ukrainians to self-defense: Religion Hub, “Pope blasts Russian ‘cruelty,’ lauds Ukrainian ‘heroism’,” Religion News Service, June 14, 2022, https://religionnews.com/2022/06/14/pope-blasts-russian-cruelty-lauds-ukrainian-heroism/; accessed June 14, 2022.

    • Eli McCarthy

      Eli McCarthy

      Reply

      Accompaniment as a way forward?

      Thank you for the intriguing response Lisa. I’m curious to hear more regarding what you think about the constructive proposal I offered around accompaniment in general as distinct from moral justification? Do you think this might be a way forward? Are there ways we can build this out more?

      Just for clarification perhaps and not necessarily something I’m looking for a response on is the following. Although not dependent on this, one potential aspect of the accompaniment proposal is how it connects to a needs-analysis and the implications for the strategy of “justification.” I’m exploring what needs might be underneath for those persons who may seek “justification” for their killing. For example, let’s consider some person or some group who are in a really difficult situation that seems like a moral dilemma perhaps, and they seek justification for their killing another. The desire for justification may in part be about the need for acknowledgement or consideration by others for the really difficult situation they are in. However, by justifying the killing we can actually contribute to a dynamic that causes the person or group who kills to experience more trauma, even generational trauma, lowering of empathy, obstruction to the sense of sacred gift of all persons, increased possessiveness, and even moral injury or brain damage. Thus, by justifying the killing we run probable risk of harm to their own well-being and soul. So, if we attend to the deeper needs in a way that’s more likely healthier for the full person or group, then it seems like accompaniment as described in my original post may actually satisfy the needs for acknowledgment and consideration. There can be other relevant needs more related to the action (strategy) of killing itself, such as safety of course. That is also considered in the initial post.

      Likewise, underneath the desire to ‘not be condemned’ for killing in a really difficult situation may be the needs for reassurance, inclusion, and community. So I’m not saying here that persons or groups who kill in such situations may be acting out of a need for reassurance, inclusion or community. In this case, I do think that ‘not morally condemning’ such persons or groups does in actuality help to meet those particular needs, and thus, it’s included as part of the accompaniment approach later on in the original post.

      Moving forward together…

Anna Floerke Scheid

Response

Resistance and Resurrection

“The risen Christ, present in the Spirit, empowers the social and political missions of the church. Global poverty and violence challenge all biblical scholars and theologians to draw every possible connection between the gospel of the reign of God, the cross as divine solidarity with human suffering, the risen Christ, and the real political world” (50). I take this passage—a task set to theologians—as a starting point for my initial reflections on Lisa Sowle Cahill’s Blessed are the Peacemakers.

The Gospel of the Reign of God and Divine Solidarity with Human Suffering

As Cahill notes, Jesus’s embodied praxis on behalf of the reign of God precipitates his collision with Roman imperial powers, ultimately leading to his arrest and execution (54). Jesus’ violent and untimely death on the cross is a result of his life lived in solidarity with and liberation for the oppressed. In the language of Catholic social teaching, Jesus lived with a preferential option for the poor and oppressed. Cahill affirms, “Jesus came not only to promise eternal life, but to live and die on the side of the poor, and to enact and enable their historical liberation” (50).

My scholarly interaction with the just war tradition grows from my own experience of the foundational nature of this preferential option in Jesus’ praxis of the Reign of God. In 2003, early in my theological studies, I traveled throughout South Africa’s urban and rural shanty towns, connecting with organizations caring for people with HIV/AIDS and their families. Many of those with whom I visited had, just a few years earlier, voted for the first time. They had been part of a historic election, held after a decades long struggle against the heretical and despotic apartheid regime. South Africa’s revolution had included nonviolent and armed tactics. While Christian ethics could easily affirm the active nonviolence of ordinary South Africans, it was considerably murkier on the violent tactics carried out by the trained guerilla soldiers known as Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”), the armed wing of the African National Congress. Christianity’s just war tradition had neither emerged from, nor centered on, the suffering of oppressed people. It did not seem to be compatible with a preferential option for the poor and oppressed since it had, as Cahill points out, “developed from the perspective and politics of elites within powerful empires or nations” (8). At the same time, it seemed absurd to condemn the violent actions of those who sought to free themselves and their communities from the horrors of apartheid, as though their violence was equivalent to that of their oppressors.

My experience with citizens of what was then being called “The New South Africa” convicted me with the notion that peoples who are severely oppressed by their own government have a moral right to defend themselves against violent repression, and to liberate themselves from the causes of their suffering. It was in building relationships with those ordinary South Africans who had marched, struck work, and even taken up arms against apartheid and its enforcers, that I came to confess with Oscar Romero and Desmond Tutu: “I believe in the theology of liberation.”  I am convinced that connecting the gospel of the reign of God with the cross as divine solidarity with human suffering means engaging in active solidarity with the oppressed and supporting their political resistance as they seek to destroy demonic and despotic political powers that disenfranchise, impoverish, imprison, torture, and murder them with impunity.

There can be no doubt, though, that from both the perspective of Christian ethics and the social sciences, active nonviolence must form the bedrock of just revolution. As Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth’s landmark study shows, active nonviolence is, in general, demonstrably more effective than armed tactics at rooting out oppression and building a sustained peace.1 It is also the cruciform way of political resistance: Jesus tells his disciples to take up their cross and follow him. Solidarity that protests against the causes of suffering must be prepared to suffer the consequences.

And yet, even acknowledging the clear moral superiority of nonviolence, I still affirm the moral right of those who are violently oppressed by their own governments to liberate themselves. In the same way, Cahill acknowledges the moral bind proffered by situations of genocide and ethnic cleansing, when one might affirm that military intervention to protect the innocent is a lesser evil that doing nothing as they are slaughtered. For Christians, these affirmations necessarily involve recognition of the inescapability of sin on this side of the eschaton, and our seemingly inevitable participation in it, even as we clamor that our intentions are for peace and justice, or that our impulses arise from a “responsibility to protect” or even a preferential option for the oppressed in the way of Jesus. Cahill frequently insists that those inclined both toward both pacifism and the just war tradition acknowledge this reality of what she calls “irreducible moral dilemmas.”

In my opinion, nowhere is Cahill’s point about irreducible moral dilemmas made more powerfully and illustratively than in her discussion of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. While Cahill notes that the details of Bonhoeffer’s participation in the plan to assassinate Hitler are unknown (299), he undoubtedly wrestled with how to demonstrate responsibility for resisting the political realities of the Third Reich, especially its antisemitic violence. Bonhoeffer’s life and writings demonstrated a readiness to face “the practical realities of responsibility and guilt,” and he understood that “responsible human action is …characterized by ‘correspondence to reality’” (300). Cahill quotes Bonhoeffer: “In the end ‘those who act responsibly place their action into the hands of God and live by God’s grace and justice’” (301). In facing the political realities of his context, Bonhoeffer followed “Christ [who] demands identification with the suffering of the Jews, and active responsibility on their behalf, to the extent of accepting the possible guilt involved in taking a life” (303). Ultimately, Bonhoeffer did not, according to Cahill, seek to be free of the guilt and remorse of the irreducible moral dilemma he faced, but rather “was willing to share [the guilt of the Nazis and their supporters in the German population] and make restitution on their behalf, while remaining in solidarity with their victims, to whose suffering he gave priority” (304). A cruciform life, like Bonhoeffer’s, suffers the sin of the world, submits to God’s judgment, and has faith in God’s mercy.

In the U.S. context white supremacy remains the most potent violent force that demands political resistance. In the final chapter of her book, Cahill discusses historically recent acts of white supremacist violence, and the response of groups like Black Lives Matter and the Moral Mondays movement led by Rev. William Barber. Indeed, Black Americans have been engaged in nonviolent resistance against racial injustice for centuries. There have been gains in freedom and dignity, but there has also been horrific backlash. Because of this, the coalition building that Cahill describes in the final chapter of her book seems particularly important. As forms of nonviolent resistance, rallies and marches are tried and tested tactics. There were signs of hope insofar as more white Americans showed up for racial justice by participating in marches in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. At the same time, participating in an occasional rally or march will do little to build peace in terms of racial justice in the U.S. unless participants are drawn into the daily work of democratic engagement. Building a just peace in the U.S. context will require educating students for civic virtues. It will mean organizing broad participation in calling and writing campaigns demanding government deliver on the protection of voting rights; immigration and criminal justice reform; taxation that results in a fairer distribution of wealth and resources; a deflated military “defense” budget; and the redirection of government resources to things like education and health care. Marches and rallies are important for dealing with immediate crises that lend themselves to clear, sharp demands (such as arresting or charging a police officer responsible for killing someone). But the gritty, daily work of democratic engagement is the way to sustainable racial justice and equity in the U.S.

 

Divine Solidarity with Suffering, the Risen Christ, and the Real Political World

Political resistance as a form of peacebuilding arises, like all peacebuilding practices, from hope, and hope generates new and creative forms of resistance. Even when solidarity with the oppressed causes the peacemaker to suffer, hope remains. Cahill understands this deeply: “Peacebuilders carry on despite profound obstacles and devasting losses…even when they do not meet with success, and even when their efforts risk death…The Christian virtue of eschatological hope not only bestows us with trust and courage from beyond ourselves but it is enhanced and increased by practical action for this-worldly goals” (360-61).  Indeed, for Christians, hope is born from despair, not in spite of it. This insight points to the critical connection between the suffering of the cross and the hope of the resurrection, as well as our participation in both.

For German theologian Jürgen Moltmann, Christian faith “finds in the cross the hope of the earth.”2 In a similar way, James Keenan insists that hope is kindled in the airy gap between what we yearn for and what we’ve lost;3 the chasm between the ideals that we desire for our political communities, and their worst abuses. This yearning points to “why,” for Moltmann, “faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart …Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it.”4 Hope is the first impulse of resistance to unjust suffering. Without it, active nonviolence is impossible; where there is hope, suffering provokes protest.

Black liberation theologian James Cone powerfully illustrates the connections between the cross, solidarity, and resurrection in the real political world. Cone describes Jesus’ crucifixion as “a first century lynching”5 and he argues that Black resistance to white supremacy derives, in part, from their sense of Jesus’ solidarity with them in their suffering. The cross “mysteriously empowered them to fight against impossible odds,”6 even under the threat of torture and death.

As an example, Cone describes the resistance work of Nellie Boroughs, an anti-lynching advocate who urged Black people not to yield to the temptation to be passive in the face of white terror. “Don’t wait for deliverers” she told a large congregation “…there are no deliverers…. The Negro must serve notice to the world that he is ready to die for justice…We are a race on this continent that can work out its own salvation.” 7 Burroughs is famous for the words she used to urge Black people to resist white supremacy and build peace with justice: “Work like everything depends on you. Pray like everything depends on God.”

For Cone, Christian hope begins in our faith that “Jesus is who he is”—that is, the resurrected Christ. Christian faith involves the conviction that the resurrected Jesus is presently involved in struggles for liberation and freedom from oppression. The resurrection is God’s own resistance against sin, suffering, and death, and God’s vindication of Jesus’s praxis of the reign of God: [EXT]“When God raised Jesus from the dead, God affirmed that Jesus’ historical identity with the freedom of the poor was …divinity taking on humanity for the purpose of liberating human beings from sin and death …the Resurrection is a political event. The politics of the resurrection is found in its gift of freedom to the poor and helpless. Being granted freedom while they are still poor, they can know that their poverty is a contrived phenomenon, traceable to the rich and powerful in the world. This new knowledge about themselves, disclosed in and through the resurrection, requires that the poor practice political activity against the social and economic structure that makes them poor. Not to fight is to deny the freedom of the resurrection.”[/EXT]8 Likewise, Cone argues that “Jesus is who he will be,” extending this connection between resurrection and resistance into the eschatological kingdom. The resurrection is the hope of all crucified peoples that they are already in possession of a liberated future, through the resurrected Christ. Cone is adamant that this hope leads neither to dismissive spiritualization of present suffering (i.e. God will reward you in the hereafter for the suffering you endure patiently now), nor does it reduce hope to an intellectual idea to be analyzed. “Rather” Christian hope “is the praxis of freedom in the oppressed community.”9 Thus, the cross sustains those who endure injustice, “not for suffering, but in their resistance to it.”10 Resistance to suffering is the same kingdom praxis that led Jesus to the cross, and that inspired God to vindicate Jesus by raising him from the dead. Resurrection hope thus generates Christian resistance to oppression, even to the point of enduring suffering voluntarily, as Cahill describes Bonhoeffer having done. Christian hope grants the courage necessary to resist unjust political realties; indeed, to put our bodies where Jesus’ body is—on the cross—so that God may put our bodies where God put Jesus’: outside the empty tomb.

My own prayer for hope in peacebuilding and resistance comes from the book of the prophet Ezekiel. Through the prophet, God reassures the war weary Israelites. They lament, “Our bones are dried up. Our hope is lost,” and yet, “Thus says the Lord God:  O my people, I will open your graves and have your rise from them, and bring you back. Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and have you rise from them, O my people!  I will put my sprit in you that you may live…thus will you know that I am the Lord. I have promised, and I will do it.”11


  1. Chenoweth, Erica and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2011).

  2. Jürgen Moltmann, The Theology of Hope (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) 21.

  3. James Keenan, Moral Wisdom: Lessons and Texts from the Catholic Tradition, first edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004) 161–63.

  4. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 21.

  5. James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2013) 30.

  6. Cone, Cross and the Lynching Tree, 72.

  7. Cone, Cross and the Lynching Tree, 142.

  8. Cone, Cross and the Lynching Tree, 115.

  9. Cone, Cross and the Lynching Tree, 118.

  10. Cone, Cross and the Lynching Tree, 148.

  11. Ezek 37:11–14 (New American Bible).

  • Lisa Sowle Cahill

    Lisa Sowle Cahill

    Reply

    Reply to Anna Floerke Scheid

    Anna Floerke Scheid’s book, Just Revolution: A Christian Ethic of Political Resistance and Social Transformation,1 is an extended theological-ethical reflection on the unusual peacebuilding perspective she brings to her essay here. That perspective arises from her accompaniment of South Africans confronting “despotic” oppressors not only with peace but with violence, an experience that drew her to support their cause.

    As Floerke Scheid notes, Black South African Christians maintained peaceful, nonviolent strategies throughout their contest with apartheid. She stresses that active nonviolent resistance is the first and foundational Christian response to unjust suffering, and the “bedrock” of just revolution; in fact it is more successful than violence in bringing sustainable peace. Floerke Scheid also eloquently describes “Jesus’s nonviolent praxis on behalf of the reign of God.” With James Cone, she grounds Christian hope for successful resistance to injustice in the resurrection. Christian hope, she writes, involves protest against “reality as it is.”

    Yet “trained guerilla soldiers” of the African National Congress claimed a moral right to armed force in the name of self-defense and liberation from repression. Their example and struggle convinced Floerke Scheid of the rightness not only of their cause but of their means of last resort. As she explains: “the cross as divine solidarity with human suffering means engaging in active solidarity with the oppressed and supporting their political resistance” against “demonic powers” that “imprison, torture and murder them with impunity.”

    Since the cross is the paramount illustration of the forgiving nonviolence of Jesus, how is it compatible with armed resistance and killing?  Floerke Scheid does not exactly explain this, and seems to shift the grounds of the argument to justice: “I still affirm the moral right of those who are oppressed by their own government to liberate themselves.” I support this move, though I also think that active love of neighbor could support the use of armed force as a lesser evil than bystanding, given what Floerke Scheid calls, “the inescapability of sin on this side of the eschaton and our seemingly inevitable participation in it.” She agrees with Dietrich Bonhoeffer (and me) that Christian moral responsibility means “accepting the possible guilt involved in taking a life.” This is what makes any killing a moral dilemma. Her example from South Africa shows why absolute nonviolence would have presented a moral dilemma too.

    Floerke Scheid’s commentary on the last chapter of my book leads in some provocative directions. In that chapter, I identify racism, white supremacy, and the Black Lives Matter movement as factors in home-grown U.S. conflict and peacebuilding initiatives. I hold up the women founders of #BLM (Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi) and William J. Barber III, founder of the Poor People’s Campaign, as strong and effective nonviolent resisters to white supremacy.

    Floerke Scheid states that “In the U.S. context white supremacy remains the most potent violent force that demands political resistance.” When one considers the ongoing scandal of the killing of unarmed black men and women by white police officers, it is hard to disagree. If Floerke Scheid is right, does it follow that violent resistance is justified, as for the armed wing of the African National Congress? To be clear, I do not see any Black leadership in the U.S. today advocating violent resistance, especially leadership in the Black church. Moreover, there are reasons to think armed revolution would not be effective. Yet, famously, an issue separating Martin Luther King and Malcom X was the moral justifiability of violent revolution against a racist polity, in comparison to the morality and effectiveness of nonviolent Black Christian “defenselessness,” as Malcolm called it. Malcolm himself did not engage in or endorse specific acts of violence, but he could be interpreted to accept its justifiability in principle. Violence cannot be justified unambiguously. Yet, given the reality of sin in the world, could its use against white supremacy at least present a moral dilemma? Or under what conditions could it do so?

    Floerke Scheid does not elaborate an answer. Instead she turns from protests against police violence, as forms of nonviolent resistance, to the broader and deeper “daily work of democratic engagement.” And surely this should be fundamental. Building and sustaining democracy and just peace extends to comprehensive reforms on such issues as voting rights, immigration, criminal justice, fair taxation and wealth distribution, and the relative size of the defense budget vis-à-vis the budget for social welfare programs. Fair. Also a very tall order, depending to a large extent on white people. What happens in the interim? Just war theory, pacifism and peacebuilding are attempts to limit the moral focus to a specific, urgent problem: the political use of violent force. Daily democratic engagement is essential to comprehensive social justice, but it is not a short-term answer to an immediate threat to life. At the end of the day, a basic, practical ethical question remains: are there any specifiable criteria to decide when the moral evaluation of conflict-pressured agency should tip toward nonviolence or violence, given that either could entail moral guilt?

    Criteria for justifying the unjustifiable are applied with bias, encourage distortion, and foster rationalizations, all sinful proclivities that have always dogged Christian just war theory. Hence the crucial importance of peacebuilding as a practice and lens through which to consider any and all Christian ethical solutions to armed political conflict. The presumption is always in favor of active nonviolence, keeping the possible justifiability of violence at the very margins of moral attention.


    1. Anna Floerke Scheid, Just Revolution: A Christian Ethic of Political Resistance and Social Transformation(Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015).

    • Eli McCarthy

      Eli McCarthy

      Reply

      Jesus, the Resurrection, and the Path of Dignity?

      I really appreciate Anna’s contribution to this discussion. She has a nuanced way of unpacking critical issues. I love how she helps us focus on Jesus, take white supremacy seriously, practice democratic engagement, and lean into hope.

      Her attention to and call for democratic engagement is a great example of active nonviolence. As we know, active nonviolence is much more than protests or even resistance broadly understood. It is a form of constructive conflict or what Gandhi called constructive program, and what Jesus calls loving our neighbor and contemporary theology may refer to as social justice. Gandhi even suggested that the constructive program was the most important part of nonviolence compared to the obstructive program, i.e. non-cooperation with injustice and violence, such as strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, social noncooperation, etc.

      I also find helpful the attention to Jesus’ resurrection and resistance to sin, the preferential option for the poor and oppressed, and the focus on historical liberation. She says, “Christian hope grants the courage necessary to resist unjust political realities; indeed, to put our bodies where Jesus’ body is- on the cross.” One of the things I’m wondering about is the kind of resistance Jesus offered. It seems the type of resistance Jesus models for us is active, courageous nonviolent resistance. This is ‘how’ we “put our bodies where Jesus’ body is—on the cross.” This is how sin and death are overcome; and how the resurrection has transformative power.

      Notably, in research [https://www.ericachenoweth.com/research/civil-resistance-what-everyone-needs-to-know] related to mixing nonviolence with violence, such as situations of nonviolent resistance with violent flanks; they find that violent flanks reduce a movement’s effectiveness by making broad-based, diverse participation less likely and by reducing the chances of armed security force defection. It also increases the chances of violent repression by the adversary and puts those involved in nonviolent resistance at more risk. Their message and goals get obstructed as the adversary diverts attention to the “violence” that must be stopped, and they use it to paint the overall resistance as violent, and thus, of less credibility. Governments that attack otherwise nonviolent movements in these circumstances are more likely to get away with harm. Violent flanks also reduce the ability of the movement to generate support from potential allies. Movements with violent flanks were 2x less successful. Such movements sometimes succeed in spite of violent flanks, yet they are more likely to lead to polarization, authoritarian institutions, and civil war. And, they certainly undermine the democratic engagement that Anna wisely points to in her comments.

      In turn, it seems the more we lean on violent resistance or mass organized campaigns of violence associated with war, the more likely we are to cultivate habits that correspond to less durable democracies and more to authoritarian politics. Such habits include domination, distrust, bitterness, hatred, corruption, domestic violence, generational trauma, and militarization.

      As Anna seems to agree, the more we lean into the work of supporting mass organized, coalitions of nonviolent resistance, the more we cultivate habits, both in persons and societies, that correspond to more durable democracies and human flourishing. Such habits include broader participation in politics and society, consensus-making, coalition building, engaging conflict constructively, empathy, humanization, creativity, and compassion.

      Regarding the claim that there is a “moral right to defense,” this raises some important issues and an opportunity for development. I agree that it makes moral sense to resist an aggressor, rather than ‘do nothing.’ If for Anna, this means a moral right to violent defense, then I’m curious if she also acknowledges that killing violates our dignity as Cahill argues?

    • Anna Floerke Scheid

      Anna Floerke Scheid

      Reply

      Myth Busters?

      Thanks to Lisa for her challenging and thoughtful response to my essay. I agree with her statement that “active love of neighbor could support the use of armed force as a lesser evil than bystanding.” I also affirm what I take to be Lisa’s point that even intellectually to affirm a right to armed resistance against a murderous repressive state demands that ethicists develop criteria that can guide us in understanding when such a move could be morally justifiable (even acknowledging its sinfulness, and our involvement in an irreducible moral dilemma). For example, Lisa asks whether, given the violent ideology of white supremacy and the extrajudicial police killings of unarmed black people, it follows that “violent resistance is justified” in the U.S. context. My short answer is no, it doesn’t. A more thorough response, I think, as to when armed resistance could be justified demands that the just war tradition be engaged from below; that is, from the perspective not of powerful nation states or Empires, but from those enduring violent state-sponsored repression. I have attempted to do that in chapter four of Just Revolution. There I re-envision the criteria of the just war tradition from the perspective of those facing repressive state violence to determine not only when armed resistance might be justifiable (jus ad armed revolution) but also how those means ought to be limited to decrease harm and increase the probability of post-revolutionary political reconciliation (jus in armed revolution).

      To be clear, my point about the gritty work of democratic engagement is not separate from my understanding of whether or not armed political resistance can be justified! I would suggest that unless we develop a more robust, democratically engaged citizenry we can expect further disenfranchisement which is one step on the way to greater authoritarianism and increases the likelihood of political violence and repression. As long we have the capacity to vote, to call, to write, to visit our elected officials, we have a duty to do so. Certainly this is part of our duty to to voice our concerns. More critically though, I would suggest that it is part of a duty to claim our own own nonviolent power, and make ourselves responsible for reforming unjust structures and preventing new anti-democratic policies that can lead desperate people to consider more radical forms of political resistance. It is through the slog of basic democratic engagement that we preserve democratic institutions, regulate social media to decrease the spread of disinformation, reform the criminal justice system, create citizen police-review boards, abolish the use of solitary confinement, combat attempts at voter disenfranchisement, decrease the outsize role of corporate dollars in elections and a host of other aims that I would argue prevent us from ever finding ourselves thrown upon the rocks of last resort and reasonably contemplating armed resistance. Acts of political engagement or resistance exist on spectrum from the most basic forms of political engagement to radical (and perhaps even desperate) forms. The more we collectively commit to regular, widespread, and consistent use of the basics (voting, calling, writing, and visiting elected officials), bolstered at times by more confrontational nonviolent direct action like marches, boycotts, and creative civil disobedience, the less likely I think we are to even perceive a need to engage much more radical tactics like sabotage or armed revolution.

      Unfortunately, many Americans are convinced by the myth that they are powerless, and are thus woefully disengaged from democracy. I would argue that busting that myth and teaching people how to exercise and access power justly ought to be a priority of peacebuilders in the U.S.

    • Anna Floerke Scheid

      Anna Floerke Scheid

      Reply

      To Eli

      Thanks for this thoughtful response Eli. To answer your question, yes, I agree that violence, including killing, harms human dignity.

    • Eli McCarthy

      Eli McCarthy

      Reply

      To Anna

      If you acknowledge this, then I wonder if claiming a moral right that functions to violate and lower our sense of the dignity of another and one’s self is the most constructive way to proceed? This is in part why I’ve proposed an accompaniment approach as being more constructive to actually preventing violence, breaking cycles of violence, better ensuring protection, and yielding a more sustainable just peace.

    • Janna Hunter-Bowman

      Janna Hunter-Bowman

      Reply

      Reply to Anna Floerke Scheid

      Anna, I deeply appreciated your essay. Your engagement with Cahill brought aspects of your work to light in new ways for me. I look forward to learning more. When it comes to the use of violence, I share a refusal to condemn the oppressed for taking up arms. My stance is also shaped by spending time with particular communities negotiating the crush of injustice and direct violence. That said, this stance does not make my voice emergent from pacifist streams particularly special, however, since two-aeon pacifists with a strict church/world binary writing in the 20th century, liberationist pacifists in the same era, and anti-violence engaged pacifists seeking transformation today would, arguably, likewise refuse to condemn. This is of course distinct from investing in a positive justification that develops into something more like a position. I wonder if you would find this to be an accurate description of what Cahill describes as your “unusual peacebuilding perspective.” Assuming as much for the moment, my question after reading your essay concerns moving from the position emergent from walking with South Africans to application in the United States today, or where I thought the line of thought was taking the piece. The question is one that Cahill poses in her response: “When one considers the ongoing scandal of the killing of unarmed black men and women by white police officers, it is hard to disagree. If Floerke Scheid is right, does it follow that violent resistance is justified, as for the armed wing of the African National Congress? To be clear, I do not see any Black leadership in the U.S. today advocating violent resistance, especially leadership in the Black church. Moreover, there are reasons to think armed revolution would not be effective.” Thanks again for your work!

    • Lisa Sowle Cahill

      Lisa Sowle Cahill

      Reply

      Reply to Anna Floerke Scheid

      Anna, thanks for your rely to my reply. I think two points (also in your book) are extremely valuable and well worth reiterating:

      1. Just war theory is not adequately evaluated unless the just war perspective has been “engaged from below.” This includes not only those proposing to use violence, but those who are suffering its effects. The fact that they do not all reject violence (South Africa and Ukraine) is a reason to exercise caution in condemning self-defense in the name of gospel nonviolence as Pope Francis has (been cautious and not condemned Ukraine). The facts that most people suffering the concrete, contextual, unjust effects of “just” war a. do not have any significant access to armed force, and b. are often clear in their demand that there be NO MORE WAR (as was the Francisco de Roux, S.J., head of the Colombian Commission for the Clarification of Truth, Coexistence and Non-Repetition at a lecture at Boston College last week) are reasons to approach just war theory with a huge hermeneutic of suspicion and to adamantly prioritize nonviolence.

      2. Just war theory and nonviolence advocacy in their different iterations come with and build different cultures. A thriving democratic culture in which either approach could be pursued responsibly and effectively is extremely hard to find, both historically and now. This in fact is a major concern of Robin Lovin in the essay he will post next week. I often feel or fear that just war theory in particular is is deployed as a theoretical argument without adequate practical consideration of what will ensue once violence (or more violence) is unleashed.

Janna Hunter-Bowman

Response

Commentary on Blessed are the Peacemakers

The late summer 2021 invitation to participate in this symposium about Blessed are the Peacemakers crossed in cyberspace with a note that I sent to Lisa Sowle Cahill about the book. At the time I was preparing to teach “Christian Attitudes Towards War, Peace and Revolution” at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary for the first time in five years. John Howard Yoder taught the course at the seminary for decades and shaped the content I inherited, which presented pacifism and just war as dichotomous alternatives. I stepped away from it after teaching the course one time because dealing with his legacy in the wake of revelations about his own sexualized violence was demanding more of my intellectual, social, and emotional energy than I was willing to give at that point, so early in my career as a teacher and scholar. Stepping back into the themes of the class with Cahill’s book was a whole different experience. As I wrote to her that day, instead of battling Yoder’s ghosts as I synthesized just war and pacifism to make  the case for Christian peacebuilding, I was now entering the space with a trusted and creative senior colleague. As a result, preparing the class was not only exciting but also an unexpectedly moving experience. It was with this spirit of gratitude and collegiality that I worked through the book with MA students in Theology and Peace Studies and MDiv students from the Global South and North last semester, and it is with this spirit that I write now.

Blessed are the Peacemakers makes contributions to two disciplines. For students of peacebuilding, Cahill provides a critical historical overview of the pacifism and just war traditions’ respective contributions to peacebuilding, which supports her novel (for peacebuilding) emphasis on the importance of formative and reformative social practices to a just peace and the relevance of the concept of social sin to peacebuilding. These are dimensions of the robust peacebuilding lens that she turns to the United States, which is particularly notable given that the book was published in 2019 and that the US field of peacebuilding was, at that critical juncture, self-consciously grappling with the fact that it had focused on global challenges nearly to the exclusion of domestic ones. Cahill deftly moves into the fray with subtle analysis and a creative constructive proposal that opens space for further efforts.

For students of Christian ethics, Cahill provides a critical historical overview of the traditions of pacifism and just war then synthesizes them to transcend the binary alternatives in favor of the approach of peacebuilding. Peacebuilding is an “heir” of Christian just war and pacifism (19),  but moves beyond the historical experiences of western Europe and North America that most defenses of just war theory and pacifism took as their points of departure (24). It does so by centering the vantage point and “existential situations of those most affected by war” and other forms of violence (19). In Christian peacebuilding perspective, faithfulness entails witness that contributes to the reordering of reality, rooted in gospel nonviolence and the conviction that Christ’s coming really does make all things new (2 Cor 5:19) (36).  It therefore challenges and transforms personal and structural injustice. Cahill writes that Christian peacebuilding is a “theological ethical interpretation…from the side of those who not only have been war’s victims—the majority of whom are civilians in the Global South—but also live in societies in which guarantees of basic material and social goods and of human rights are precarious or nonexistent” (18).

Cahill is spot on in identifying peacebuilding as an approach that centers those affected by war and multiple forms of violence, and which therefore contrasts with the dominant modalities for thinking about war from the viewpoints of social and political power (just war theory) or the citizenry of superpowers (twentieth-century pacifism). She is also clearly right that peacebuilding draws from the traditions of pacifism and just war. My participation in the theological and ethical turn to peacebuilding as a practitioner, scholar, and teacher does not lead me to agree in every way with Cahill’s formulation of this turn, however.1

As an engaged white scholar of peacebuilding from the pacifist camp in the United States (18), I reply to the book by drawing out pedagogical and peacebuilding implications of the time-honored account centered on obediential pacifism that Cahill recapitulates. I offer an emerging account rooted in recent historiography of Anabaptism as a heterogeneous, decentralized movement defying easy generalizations that contributes to the very kind of pluralist pacifisms that Cahill so rightly calls for. This opens the way to note the truth telling urged by the peacebuilders from the Global South whom I have the privilege to work alongside in the field and classroom.

I develop these points in response to the challenges that I confront and perhaps others share: to articulate and teach a pacifism-just war-peacebuilding trajectory that does not alienate and “other” people from the Global South and marginalized communities in the United States. I have in mind the “others” bearing the burden of wars called just; oppressed “others” beside whom pacifist (“messianic”) communities have no theological reason to stand; “others” for whom “we” care;  “others” on whose behalf “we” intervene; “others” whose experiences are unintelligible to “us” because their realities are sculpted by colonialism and neocolonialism, the “originating sin”2 that most forms of pacifism and just war cannot diagnose but in which they have been historically, and are today, complicit.

Obediential Pacifism

Cahill’s identification of strands of pacifist traditions was striking. She distinguishes two types of pacifisms, compassionate pacifism and obediential pacifism. These two historical modes of pacifism3 presumably help readers easily understand the development of thought and practice away from the dichotomous pacifism/just war binary and towards peacebuilding. Christian conversion, identity, and community are grounds for both types of pacifism (248). Obediential pacifism is defined in terms of the emulation of Jesus Christ and represented by the Anabaptists, like John Howard Yoder and, for Cahill, carried forward by Stanley Hauerwas. It turns on the challenge of the kingdom inaugurated by Jesus yet not fully present until the eschaton and is rooted in a history of Anabaptists who were steadfastly biblical in their nonviolence and emphasized discipleship (250, 257). In the interpretation Cahill recounts, discipleship included the formation of disciplined communities, linkage of faith and works, and rejection of violence and the “sword.” The heart of Christianity was not faith as such but nachfolge Christi, or following Christ. The gathered community discerned together what moral shape that following should take, though most characteristic was nonresistance and the sharing of goods (259). Cahill cites Mennonite church leader Harold Bender in support of this Anabaptist vision, which provides a symbolic theological anchor for the type of pacifism in focus. Bender in turn cites the testimony of Catholic theologian Franz Agricola in a 1582 treatise Against the Terrible Anabaptists: “Among the existing heretical sects there is none which in appearance leads a more modest or pious life than Anabaptists. As concerns their outward life they are irreproachable…” (259).

In this Anabaptist vision, the events at the German city of Münster are a “lamentable exception” (261) so unusual and atypical that they have no significance for Anabaptist theology or obediential pacifism. To make the long story of the “raging Anabaptists” short, traveling apocalyptic prophet Melchior Hoffman sought support for believer’s baptism, outlawed by the Holy Roman Empire, from church reformers. The thrust of his message was the imminent return of Christ. Exceeding his expectations, Anabaptists in Münster set up a militant community. Some aimed to prepare the way for the lordship of the returned savior through the kingship of Jan van Leiden, who took sixteen wives and performed executions personally. Troops of the bishop besieged the city, but it was able to hold out for sixteen months. Such facts not only inspire the artistic imagination but pose a real problem for the Anabaptist vision that is the lodestar for obediential pacifism. It “remains difficult to reconcile with sober Anabaptists elsewhere,” Cahill states (in a passage quoting Werner O. Packull) (262). Indeed. After all, Anabaptist discernment rooted in Scripture is supposed to usher forth nonresistance and an expectation of persecution, not a crusade-inflected violent revolution. And yet more recent social history suggests that although the Anabaptists in Münster did dramatically depart from social norms of the era, they are best not dismissed as an aberration but rather point to Anabaptist movements from below as a force of “rapid, fundamental and extensive transformation of the socio-political structure on the basis of a specific development within urban Reformation.”4 Contestation during that period of upheaval was real. I believe that the existence of facts that contradict Bender’s Anabaptist Vision and Yoderian obediential pacifism neither make a mockery of the pacifisms of other communities nor mean that principles of discipleship, community, and nonviolent love express convictions of the gospel any less. Not at all.

The events show that real arguments about “the sword” are a part of the Anabaptist history that gives us models of pacifism. These arguments are also evident in the letter from Conrad Grebel to controversial radical reformer Thomas Müntzer (not to be confused with the city of Münster, above) who engaged on the side of commoners and tried to advance the kingdom through the Peasant Wars. Grebel respected Müntzer ’s theology but firmly rejected his call to advance the gospel “with the sword” (258). The dilemmas posed by the Peasant War more broadly underscore the centrality of economics and questions of exploitation that concerned early Anabaptists who were penning letters with peaceful words. The Schleitheim articles of 1527 in Switzerland put great distance between Anabaptists and the peasant revolt, and nonresistance became a key tenet. How different groups were then “working out” the implications of this conviction—rejection of “the sword”—amidst diverse social, political, economic arrangements produced what we might today anachronistically call different kinds of pacifism. (Arnold Snyder observes, for example, that nonresistant separatist ecclesiology functions best amidst “unrelenting persecution, where magistrates are wolves and it is clear that none are the perfection of Christ,” and did not work very well in “shades of grey.”5 In contexts of increased toleration and protection, their posture relaxed, and relationships shifted.) In my teaching and scholarship,6 I therefore find it helpful to think about pacifisms and governance as constantly being worked out in history. As Cahill reminds us, Christian ethics is always negotiating historical developments that require discernment and dialogue with the world around us (6).

Perhaps better illustrations of the usefulness of thinking about a plurality of pacifisms in context are the booklet (cited by Cahill) called Mennonite Peace Theology: A Panorama of Types7 and the book by pacifist theologians David Cramer and Myles Werntz, A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence.8 In these texts, readers learn about various streams of pacifism and nonviolence that emerge, merge, and diverge at various places given environmental or contextual influences.  They include a wide range of perspectives (including realist, pragmatic, liberationist, womanist, and radical) and geographic locations (including Latin America, Africa, and Asia). So not only is Cahill’s project on target (pacifisms, in the plural, contribute to peacebuilding), but these streams show that pacifist traditions have many things to contribute in addition to obediential pacifism and compassionate pacifism. These too are pacifisms and forms of nonviolence that nourish Christian peacebuilding. Moreover, broadening the diversity of voices of pacifism and nonviolence so as to center the perspectives of violence-affected communities attends to epistemic injustice, and better accords with the core principles of peacebuilding itself.

The obediential type of pacifism helps to makes the case for peacebuilding by uplifting a kind of pacifism developed in US and European contexts. It became intellectually respectable in part through removing it from that context and the communities that were arguing about violence, peace, and governance. Peacebuilders from the Global South tell me that ahistorical “types” make it difficult for them to enter into conversations about pacifism, just war, and nonviolent resistance with their own experiences, and to think in comparative perspective, because the discourses “other” them. In contrast, and this is the point I wish to emphasize, presenting streams of pacifisms and nonviolence that place underlying theo-logics in relation to the social, economic, and political contexts in which they emerge—including colonialism and neocolonialism—invites a range of persons into a critical, ongoing, and very real argument about use of force and experiments with nonviolence. Voices from the Global South tell us that due to the multidimensional scope of wars and types of violence that they suffer and confront, sensitivity to the relations of power informing the context in which our discourses develop is key. Sensitivity to context, relations of power, and the legacies of trauma in parts of the world that are interpreted by those discourses is also key. I believe that it remains useful to cultivate the ongoing arguments (à la MacIntyre’s conception of tradition) about discourses of pacifism and nonviolence precisely because peacebuilding’s focus on nonviolent social action does not resolve the genuine moral dilemmas posed by the choice to use or not use force in every situation (Cahill’s moral dilemma) (33), or even the question of what constitutes coercion in each situation. A second reason it is useful to continue the conversation is that our language for talking about violence, justice, and peace is itself an interpretive resource with prejudicial flaws that makes sense of some experiences while rendering others unintelligible (thereby making some social experience/knowledge count and other social experience/knowledge not count).9 Women from the Global South insist that recognition of the colonial legacies that are embedded in our largely white malestream discourses make the task more urgent.

Cahill knows this. She conveys as much by clearly and repeatedly underscoring the pluralism of pacifisms (6, 25, 35) and stating that “pacifism, just war, and peacebuilding are not pure ‘types’ that have existed in the same way across history. Just as in any other sphere of social ethics, the Christian vocation to build peace and defend the innocent takes practical shape within specific contexts that vary geographically and over time” (6). What I am saying is that I find it helpful to carry that insight into the formulation of a pacifism-just war theory-peacebuilding narrative, particularly in making the turn from pacifisms to peacebuilding. Doing so contributes to Cahill’s project. At least that is how I see it. I wonder how Professor Cahill views the matter.

Conclusion

It is a matter of truth-telling, in the words of my students. When we have ears to hear the textured truth about our discourses from the perspective of those most affected by violence, we open ourselves to better understand and address the deep-seated patterns that exclude and treat difference oppressively. In other words, we become more sensitive to the conditions for the possibility of violence that peacebuilders want to redress. From where I sit, leaping from an obediential pacifist type to a peacebuilding type lets me off the hook too easily. Tracing the silence and absence in texts and then taking the key ideas to contemporary case studies are strategies that I have found helpful to wrestle with the legacies internal to our tradition and its historical manifestations. For example, how did nonresistant pacifism collude with National Socialism? Or, to take another example, today German-speaking colony Mennonites who previously lived in Mexico are setting up lucrative farms on land “cleared” by warring factions in Colombia,10 very much against the will of the Colombian Mennonites who inspired the neologism “justpeace.”11 How shall we understand the conflicting postures of these two Mennonite pacifist groups who trace their identity to sixteenth-century Anabaptists? What Bryan Massingale says with respect to white American Christians’ struggle with racism (in a passage cited by Cahill) is also true of Anabaptist pacifist contributions: “authentic transformation cannot evade social conflict, resistance and recalcitrance if it is to be of genuine service in the quest for social transformation” (356). This is key to what obediential pacifism-inspired Mennonite John Paul Lederach found in his work with pacifist churches and around the world as he pioneered approaches to conflict transformation and peacebuilding that are now widely recognized inside of Christian spaces and in the field of peacebuilding generally (332–33).

These are aspects of grappling not only with our contributions to peacebuilding but also with our limitations as we seek to become peacebuilders in scholarship and practice. For Cahill is very right when she states:

the wounds of war and human rights violations are deep. It is difficult to reconcile enemies, establish social trust, honestly face complicity and corruption, make reparations to victims, and overcome an ethos of impunity…. And though not guaranteed, peacebuilding is demonstrably and amply rewarded by concrete instances of success, when common humanity is recognized and solidarity renewed, when God’s healing presence is among us, and peace with justice seen and touched (262-263).

Ongoing engagement with our traditions of pacifism and streams of nonviolence is a part of our Christian vocation of peacebuilding. It is ever challenged and nurtured by the ways God’s presence is experienced in the margins of the page, borders of the already-thought, and, as Cahill underscores (62), in concrete and particular communities of the poor where the crucified and risen Christ is present today.


  1. Special thanks to Andi O. Santoso and Jamie Pitts for discussions that shape this essay.

  2. Malinda Elizabeth Berry, “Editorial,” Vision: A Journal for Church and Theology 20, no. 2 (2019) 3.

  3. Lisa Sowle Cahill, “Theological Contexts of Just War Theory and Pacifism: A Response to J. Bryan Hehir,” The Journal of Religious Ethics 20, no. 2 (1992) 259, 261–62.

  4. Ralf Klötzer, “The Melchoirites and Münster,” in A Companion to Anabaptism and Spiritualism, 1521–1700, ed. James Stayer and John Roth, 6 vols. (Brill, n.d.), 217–56, at 219.

  5. Arnold Snyder, “The Birth and Evolution of Swiss Anabaptism (1520-1530),” Mennonite Quarterly Review 80, no. 4 (2006.): 501–684, at 2016.

  6. Janna Hunter-Bowman, “Peacebuilding without Idolatry: Anabaptist Engagements with and Conceptualizations of the State,” Mennonite Quarterly Review XCVI, no. 1 (January 2022): 73–91.

  7. John Richard Burkholder and Barbara Nelson Gingerich, eds., Mennonite Peace Theology: A Panorama of Types (Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee Peace Office, 1991).

  8. David Cramer and Myles Werntz, A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2022).

  9. Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, first edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007).

  10. Joe Parkin Daniels, “The Mennonites of Liviney, Colombia – a Photo Essay,” The Guardian, November 17, 2021.

  11. John Paul Lederach, “Justpeace – The Challenge of the 21st Century,” in People Building Peace: 35 Inspiring Stories from Around the World (Netherlands: European Centre for Conflict Prevention, 1999), 36.

  • Lisa Sowle Cahill

    Lisa Sowle Cahill

    Reply

    Reply to Janna Hunter-Bowman

    Janna Hunter-Bowman calls me a “trusted and creative colleague,” an expression of confidence I wholeheartedly return. I am grateful that our collegial exchange here includes five additional scholars, all of whom I have known for years, from all of whose work I have profited, and to all of whom I am grateful for boosting my learning curve again. Hunter-Bowman brings to this conversation an Anabaptist ecclesial and theological heritage and a “peace church” contemporary lens. She also voices struggles shared by many women within traditionally male-privileging religious institutions.

    One of the most difficult of these occurs when one’s theological mentor (contemporary or historical) is discovered to have a record of sexual abuse that is totally at odds with their theological vision and reputation. Hunter-Bowman mentions the Mennonite pacifist John Howard Yoder, but Yoder is not alone: recent revelations about the giant of neo-orthodox theology Karl Barth, and the Catholic theologian and founder of L’Arche, Jean Vanier, come to mind. Learning from an intellectual “great,” while distancing oneself from the unsavory aspects of his personal history (from preaching the crusades to complicity with Nazism to committing or covering up gender-based violence) is another example of an “irreducible moral dilemma.” This, like dilemmas of conflict, must be negotiated with all available prudence and grace, and in full awareness that the courage of one’s convictions against violence and reconciliation in community and with perpetrators, are both called for yet sometimes hard to reconcile.

    Context is important, and those most vulnerable to violence must be prioritized. Like Anna Scheid, Janna Hunter-Bowman concurs that, unlike just war tradition, peacebuilding foregrounds the lives and voices of people who suffer the devastations of war in relative powerlessness, who are likely to live in the Global South, and who frequently live in societies where access to basic goods is still precarious. Hunter-Bowman points out that, like just war theory, the most influential twentieth-century pacifist theologies have come from “the citizenry of superpowers.”  She is looking for a complex model of pacifism, and by extension peacebuilding, that can account for the experiences of those who have not until now been part of the dominant “Western” pacifist theological conversation. They bring to it sensibilities informed by the reality of direct armed conflict, of economic exclusion, and of colonialism and neocolonialism.

    As a pacifist, Hunter-Bowman takes exception to my overly simple classification of pacifism into two types: first, biblical, cross-anchored, and communally embodied “obediential” pacifism; and, second, the more politically active, humanistic, and tradition-spanning “compassionate” pacifism that aims for political results beyond simply bearing Christian “witness.” In the framework of my book, both types are portrayed as holding nonviolence as a moral absolute but for different reasons: fidelity to the nonviolent way of Jesus Christ in the first instance, and Christlike solidarity with human suffering in the second.

    Hunter-Bowman calls specifically for more nuance in representing theological-ethical traditions within Anabaptist-inspired, Mennonite advocacy for active nonviolence (“obediential” pacifism). A highly valuable part of Hunter-Bowman’s essay is the attention she calls to the content-shaping contexts—and hence the theological and practical nuances and shifts—of any historical trajectory of reflection on Christian use of violence, even one so seemingly coherent as Anabaptist pacifism. She emphasizes that there are “streams of pacifism and nonviolence” in which “theo-logics” respond to particular circumstances. This allows us to appreciate the true variability in Reformation-era Anabaptism itself, and to be alert to the ways in which contemporary Mennonite pacifisms from the Global South are responsive to distinctive power relations, social-political dynamics of war, and legacies of trauma.

    More specifically, the accentuated “imminent eschatology” of some early Anabaptists, at least in part a response to relentless political persecution and violence, encouraged a separatist community ethos of extremity and emergency. This could turn into fanaticism and delusion.  Notoriously, Jan van Leiden set up a group of sword-wielding Anabaptists in Münster who were able to hold off the local Catholic bishop’s forces for over a year—while adopting bizarre lifestyles ostensibly based on the Old Testament. Whereas I have tended to minimize this incident as a clear aberration with little bearing on Anabaptist or Mennonite identity, Hunter-Bowman warns, “not so fast.” In reality, she explains, whether killing could be justified was a live issue for Anabaptists and yielded “’real arguments’” about justified force, as in Thomas Müntzer’s case for the uprising of the disenfranchised in the “Peasants’ Wars.” Such arguments did not win the day in the landmark Schleitheim Confession (1527). That does not mean the dilemmas attending absolute pacifism have not been or are not real and urgent in the minds of Anabaptist and Mennonite theologians.

    Hunter-Bowman’s larger point applies: pacifism and varieties of pacifism are constantly being worked and reworked historically—just like the just war and peacebuilding trajectories.  She thus centers engagement with pacifism in a space that Anabaptists have always occupied: “in the margins of the page, borders of the already-thought…in concrete and particular communities of the poor where the crucified and risen Christ is present today.” This is a space in which many answers are not pre-given. Hunter-Bowman offers David C. Cramer and Myles Werntz’s Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence as a worthy review of the varieties of pacifism that “emerge, merge, and diverge” over time. They include the peacebuilding priorities and activities of thinkers who did not endorse nonviolence as a moral absolute, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer Thomas Merton, and “Christian realist” pacifists like Walter Rauschenbusch, who believe that, beyond adherence to principles or duty, results of decisions in terms of “facts on the ground” are an essential determinant of Christian morality.

    Hunter-Bowman’s variable pacifism seems to come very close to my inclusive “peacebuilding” category. She leaves me with the thought-provoking question whether, given Christian accountability to unique historical scenarios, it might be more accurate to characterize Christian scholars and activists as “coming from” the just war, pacifist, or peacebuilding “traditions” (or, e.g., the Catholic, Mennonite, Reformed, evangelical or Orthodox “traditions”).  If so, peacebuilding and even pacifism would be guided by a tradition’s value orientations, rather than by a priori and definitive action-deciding norms. The defining values of a tradition might take its practitioners to different choices and actions when contexts, options, and ramifications change, even as those practitioners strive to remain faithful to their values.

    • Janna Hunter-Bowman

      Janna Hunter-Bowman

      Reply

      Reply to Cahill

      As I read this response from Cahill, I am grateful for this opportunity to engage and learn from her, not just from her wisdom but her generosity. In this brief post, I offer two responses to comments in the final paragraph.

      Cahill writes that “Hunter-Bowman’s variable pacifism seems to come very close to my inclusive ‘peacebuilding’ category.” I agree that it comes close, yet I want to be careful not to conflate pacifisms and peacebuilding categorically. An often-discussed limitation of a form of pacifism, nonresistant pacifism, illustrates why. Nonresistant pacifism may be an embodied witness of the inbreaking kingdom of God in some times and places, yet it does not necessarily seek to transform unjust patterns of relationships (within or outside the community), imply a robust understanding of nonviolence, or engage others in pursuit of social transformation. These are three characteristic features of peacebuilding, as I understand it. I want to honor the witness on nonresistant pacifism on its own terms, as one Christian way of being in communal life together, even while I am often quick to highlight its limitations vis-à-vis peacebuilding. This is one reason I prefer and share Cahill’s language concerning the relationship between pacifisms and peacebuilding: pacifisms contribute to peacebuilding.

      Second, Cahill writes that I leave her with “the thought-provoking question whether, given Christian accountability to unique historical scenarios, it might be more accurate to characterize Christian scholars and activists as ‘coming from’ the just war, pacifist, or peacebuilding ‘traditions’ (or, e.g., the Catholic, Mennonite, Reformed, evangelical or Orthodox ‘traditions’).” While I do not begrudge anyone who wants to name and claim what we are calling a tradition as an identify, e.g., a pacifist, I tend to use the language of coming from a tradition for myself because I find it more precise. Furthermore, it speaks to the living, ongoing character of traditions nurtured and worked out in context. The ideas of Colombian Mennonite peacebuilding leader and human rights lawyer Ricardo Esquivia Ballesta speak to the point. Esquivia regularly reflects on living traditions in terms of streams, specifically an Anabaptist peace church tradition. He explains (I paraphrase): “the waters of rushing streams crash into rocks and flow continually. Churning, collision, and movement make streams high in oxygen; they breath life into the water and quickly decompose what is dead. In contrast, bogs have low levels of oxygen because water doesn’t flow in and out of them; they are more stagnant. Our peace tradition is not something for us to admire like a trophy on a shelf but to live, engage, experiment with, and test amid obstacles, sharp edges, and quick turns of history. This is what will oxygenate and give new life to our tradition.” The communal embodied experiments with pacifism and justpeace in which Esquivia has participated contribute to transformative approach to peacebuilding articulated by John Paul Lederach. Esquivia’s words both shape my perspective and offer a helpful description of what I have observed. Finally, thinking of coming from traditions as streams might provide a pedagogically useful way of speaking about the converging (and diverging) steams of pacifisms, justifiable war, and just revolution in peacebuilding.

      I want to end this response the way I began my first one, with an expression of my deep gratitude to Cahill for her vital contributions to this conversation through the decades. It is so much richer for her brilliant mind, generous and critical reading of texts, gracious accompaniment of junior scholars, and her remarkably open-handed hospitality in spaces like this forum. Those words are inadequate but at least that much must be said.

    • Lisa Sowle Cahill

      Lisa Sowle Cahill

      Reply

      Reply to Hunter-Bowman

      I continue to be intrigued and persuaded by Janna Hunter-Bowman’s reminder that Christian traditions on war and peace are not timeless blueprints with clearly defined borders and interior lines, prescribing a well-planned process of construction.  As she portrays Ricardo Esquivia Ballesta to imagine, they are living streams that “crash into rocks and flow continually,” something with which and in which participants “live, engage, experiment, and test amid obstacles, sharp edges, and quick turns of history.”  This is very useful for appreciating the distinctiveness as well as the occasional confluence of just war, pacifist and peacebuilding traditions—and theologically of the Augustinian, Thomistic (including Catholic social teaching), and Anabaptist/Mennonite theologies about politics, peace, justice, and armed force.

      There are mutual influences and connecting undercurrents in all these traditions that allow for “crossover” expressions in different historical situations, even if each tradition has its own center of gravity and forward-moving trajectory that is different from the others.

      The quandary of many “peacebuilders” over the morality of the war in Ukraine (specifically, Ukraine’s military response to Russian invasion) is a good example of how traditions readjust in the face of “obstacles, sharp edges, and quick turns of history.”

      The thought of Pope Francis as it has been communicated in public statements is illustrative.  In 2017, he released a World Day of Peace Message in which he restated the message of previous popes that violence does not successfully and sustainably resolve conflicts, and in fact, always perpetrates more violence. Instead he called for active nonviolence as a practical political strategy for peace.  At the same time, he did not then nor has he subsequently decisively repudiated longstanding Catholic “just war” theory—although he also believes there is  no such thing as a “just war.”  By this he means, I think, that war in practice is always unjust, whatever may have been the originating theoretical rationale.

      Pope Francis’s main message on Ukraine has been nonviolence, negotiation, and peacebuilding.  Many of his remarks on war could easily be interpreted as pacifist.  Yet in September 2022, he said Ukraine’s use of weapons for self-defense is morally acceptable.  In November, re-centering on peacebuilding and nonviolence,  he offered Vatican support to potential peace negotiations, adding that weapons can never defeat “hatred and the thirst for domination,” which are sure to reemerge, especially in view of the profits to be made through “the arms trade.”  Pope Francis has a hermeneutic of suspicion against just war rationales and their underlying motivations, that is more indebted to Augustine than to the Aquinas-derived common good framework that structures Catholic social teaching.  And, like most Mennonite pacifists, he is determined to keep advocating for and trying to embody nonviolence, no matter how hostile the political climate.

      Taken together, Pope Francis’s prayers, exhortations and hopes for peace are firmly set on a peacebuilding trajectory.  Yet the Catholic stream in which he swims includes an undercurrent in which armed force in desperate circumstances is neither condemned, nor unequivocally endorsed. By stipulating that  supplying weapons to Ukraine is acceptable only if “done under conditions of morality,” implies that what in theory is justified is unlikely to be so de facto.  Since at least the World War I papacy of Benedict XV, the pacifist stream flowing into Catholic just war tradition has been growing wider and stronger.  But at this point in time, at least as represented by Francis, the  prevalent Catholic stream is neither “just war” nor “pacifism,” but nonviolent and justice-seeking peacebuilding.

Robin Lovin

Response

Peacebuilding and Politics

Christian thought about war and peace is a complex body of history and doctrine. It develops continuously from Gospel instructions to soldiers in an occupied country (Luke 3:14) to arguments about nuclear deterrence in the closing years of the Cold War. The doctrine is, however, divided by traditions and historical contexts into schools of thought that are both difficult to connect and difficult to distinguish. Can we really draw a line that connects Augustine in the late Roman Empire to Reinhold Niebuhr at the height of the Cold War? Is a strategy of non-violent resistance a version of the pacifist’s principled rejection of force? Or is it a concession to circumstances, a version of the jus in bello rejection of force simply because there is no possibility of success using violent means? Lisa Cahill’s Blessed Are the Peacemakers is a masterful summary of the Western Christian arguments dealing with war and peace and a thoughtful formulation of the underlying questions that tie these sources together.

Throughout the historical review, Cahill is also making the case for a contemporary reconciliation of pacifism and just war thought in a strategy of “peacebuilding.” This, as she explains, is a response to specific global problems at a specific time in history, but it is also “the rightful heir of Christian just war and pacifism” (19). The implication is that Christians, and especially Christian ethicists, should stop arguing the case for just war or pacifism and begin adapting elements from both to a pragmatic “way of yoking gospel nonviolence to effective action for change, despite the existentially and morally ambiguous circumstances in which its mission must be embodied” (21).

These existential and moral ambiguities obviously include the results of peacemaking efforts. A movement to stop an armed intervention may, if it succeeds in preserving international peace, also preserve a repressive regime and put internal dissidents at risk of further persecution. Alternatively, support for intervention in a just cause to protect the human dignity of those dissidents may result in a collapse of internal order in which even more innocent victims suffer. Short of a principled pacifism that excludes all use of force or a permissive doctrine of jus ad bellum that justifies almost any use of force undertaken in a just cause, peacebuilders have to face questions about the outcomes of their actions, and they have to make their choices against a background of constantly shifting political experiences. The traditions of nonviolent resistance and just war reasoning provide resources, but not excuses.

These questions about the ambiguous results of peacebuilding are familiar, but what perhaps deserves further attention are the ambiguities of the political context in which it does its work. Strategies of peacebuilding assume a pluralistic society that offers wide scope for political involvement, supports institutions of civil society, and encourages free speech. As formal commitments, these tend to be assumed as the conditions of life in a modern democracy. But actual political cultures vary considerably within this framework. It is relevant to ask how these cultures support or inhibit peacebuilding activity, whether a political culture may at times itself be the focus of peacebuilding, and whether, indeed, political culture can develop in ways that render peacebuilding impossible.

The second half of the twentieth century provided many opportunities for the pragmatic application of Christian thought that peacebuilding suggests. The global conflict of the Second World War was followed by a confrontation between superpowers whose ideological divisions, especially in the early years, invited interpretation in terms of a Christian crusade. After the end of the Soviet Union, the crusading rhetoric was redirected against Islam, and today it returns to familiar warnings about the global ambitions of Russia and China. But for Christians seriously concerned about the theology and politics of peace, the armed conflicts and violent clashes that actually happened during the postwar years provided multiple opportunities for thinking about how to limit conflicts and secure peace for the future. East-West tensions played themselves out in a nuclear arms race that was brought under some measure of control by international agreements. Conflicts in Korea and Southeast Asia were contained and eventually brought to their ambiguous ends. Repressive regimes abroad and longstanding injustices at home were confronted by nonviolent resistance and by changes in law and policy that were shaped by theological understandings of justice and equality.

The politics as well as the theory of peacebuilding developed quickly under these conditions. Those who sought change could assess the specific details of their situation and draw on both pacifist and just war thinking to formulate their strategies. Sometimes justice could be realized through legislation and litigation, building political alliances that worked for civil rights, arms limitation, and international cooperation. At other times or in relation to other problems, a more bellicose political culture called for strategies of dissent and resistance that owed more to the traditions of pacifism than to theories of justice. Peacebuilding, we might say, became an articulate way of thinking about the theology of peace in modern democracies because the political culture in those societies gave space for its development. The political culture made it possible for theologians, churches, and religious movements to maintain a critical distance on their society. Moreover, they could adjust that distance as issues and circumstances required. Peacemakers could be organizers or dissidents, campaign workers or protest marchers, making pragmatic choices among the resources their faith provided. The result was a rich history of protest and politics and a developing body of thought shared and debated among the peacebuilders themselves. Blessed Are the Peacemakers covers the whole history of Christianity, but it is especially valuable as a study of how that history has been put to use in the recent past.

But what about today? The political culture of the late twentieth century provided many opportunities for peacebuilding in theory and practice, and the new millennium began on a hopeful note. The democratic revolutions at the turn of the century and the emergence of new forums for rapid, global, and open discussion raised hopes that peacebuilding strategies developed in the Western democracies could be extended in new ways into new places.

Two decades into the century, however, the situation is more ambiguous. Re-emergent authoritarianism makes it difficult to question government policy in large parts of Asia and Eastern Europe, and liberal democracy faces internal challenges to its discourse and questions about the legitimacy of its public reason. The new ways of communicating ideas and organizing action that seemed to offer the possibility of a global public discourse have instead provided ways to bypass the shared account of the facts that established media once provided. Sharply different views of reality give rise to polarized opinions that are exploited by political leaders who maintain power by appealing to extremes on the left and right, rather than seeking consensus in the center.

The polarization has become so entrenched that the terms we might use to begin a discussion of shared problems are often already the property of one side or the other. “Peace,” “dignity,” “rights,” and “responsibilities” have all been built into catch phrases and acquired connotations that identify the politics of those who use the words. Even “life” itself is suspect until the speaker identifies which lives are meant. This makes it easy to tweet about what you already believe, but almost impossible to discuss peace and security in relation to specific political choices. Before we begin peacebuilding, our choice of words assigns us a position.

Those who are on the other side find us unintelligible, if not evil. The only value that remains available for general use is economic efficiency. If it costs less, we may be able to agree on it. Other questions are difficult even to engage. Answers remain elusive, and blame is easily assigned to those who are shouting other slogans.

These changes are not confined to partisan politics. Increasingly, our public forums are designed to meet expectations, not to challenge them; to satisfy desires, not to raise aspirations. The task is not to inform or persuade, but to convince the audience as quickly as possible that you are offering what they already want. Not only businesses, but universities, charities, advocacy groups, and, indeed, peacebuilding organizations have thus become focused on market share.

As commitments intensify, people become less open to persuasion, less willing to listen, and quicker to question the motives of those who disagree with them. Convictions about civic equality and conventions of mutual respect erode, and so, eventually, do core assumptions about the discourse itself. Critical legal and social theories raise the possibility that “reason” is simply another form of power, wielded to silence those whose needs and goals do not fit the purposes of dominant groups. Rather than reasoned discourse among equals, the aim in speech and writing now seems to be a sharply honed critique that suggests the opposition deserves to be ignored and perhaps even suppressed. Instead of a forum for peacebuilding, public discourse becomes a field of conflict, a disputed territory where marauding bands claim space for their own purposes, only to yield it when displaced by a stronger force with a different idea of who is equal and what is reasonable.

In these circumstances, peacebuilders must give increased attention to the political culture itself, alongside the works of advocacy and education they undertake within the political system. Protest and dissent, which have never hesitated to pose hard questions to political leaders, must now begin to ask those leaders about how they characterize their opponents, what slogans they encourage their followers to chant, and which images appear on their billboards and t-shirts. Even those who seem to be on the right side on issues of defense and foreign policy must be challenged when their campaign rhetoric slips into terms that dismiss their opponents and polarize the discussion. Those who build support for peace and justice through research and education must take renewed care to focus their advocacy on specific issues and make clear the facts and sources on which their analysis depends. The classic strategy of democratic politics—to find common ground and build consensus in the middle—has now become a strategy of peacebuilding, too. Those who seek peace must be careful how they do it. The available models in use among political leaders and in the media often provoke conflict even when those who use them are trying to talk about peace. Insofar as peacebuilding has usually been a movement on the margins of political life, it may seem quixotic for peacebuilders to try to change the culture of politics as a whole. But if the current situation continues, any work we do to support the policies that make for peace will be frustrated by dysfunctional politics, and the peace movement itself may well be assimilated into the oppositions of an increasingly polarized society

Peacebuilding at the beginning of the twenty-first century thus requires attention to strategies of consensus as well as strategies of nonviolent resistance; and the theory of peacebuilding must give attention to the renewal of liberal democracy as well as to the criticism of its failures. This is difficult work, not least because it requires us to examine our own prejudices alongside those at work in the world around us. But peacebuilding has a long history, and its resources include an understanding of the way its terms have been adapted to changing political circumstances, from the assertion of justice against the military might of the Roman Empire through the demands for restraint and humility during the ideological crusades of the Cold War. If it seems too much to expect that we might be able to transform a domestic political culture of polarization and incipient violence, Lisa Cahill’s Blessed Are the Peacemakers is a hopeful reminder that the polarized arguments of pacifists and just war theorists across the centuries of Christian history have in our time been reconfigured into a theory and practice of peacebuilding.

  • Lisa Sowle Cahill

    Lisa Sowle Cahill

    Reply

    Reply to Robin Lovin

    Robin Lovin is a world-class scholar of Christian social and political ethics, and especially of the work of the World War II-era American theologian, Reinhold Niebuhr. From a center of gravity in Christian just war tradition, Lovin makes an observation similar to that of Janna Hunter-Bowman on pacifism. Christian thinking about war and peace is complex, developing, responds to specific problems at specific historical times, and reflects political experiences that are “constantly shifting.” To think of Reinhold Niebuhr and his “Christian realism” is to be mindful of circumstances in which peacebuilding overtures are not successful, and horrific violence and war crimes abound. Yet return violence inevitably entails moral, social, and political costs, including civilian deaths; human rights violations on all sides; destruction of material, social and political infrastructure; and the probability of ongoing recurrent violence. Sometimes there is no “just” available course of action; the 2022 invasion of Ukraine by Russia is illustrative. In such cases, national and international decision-making is motivated as much by national interests as by justice and humanitarianism. Nevertheless, as Pope Francis and faith-based peacebuilding organizations have protested,1 nonviolent initiatives bear promise and must not be abandoned.

    Lovin frames peacebuilding as a project for citizens of liberal democratic societies, claiming that “strategies of peacebuilding assume a pluralistic society that offers wide scope for political involvement, supports institutions of civil society, and encourages free speech.” This is the one point in his essay on which I disagree. As represented in examples given by other contributors to this forum, peacebuilding often occurs in zones of active conflict, such as South Africa (Anna Floerke Scheid) and Ethiopia (Elias Opongo). It can mean direct engagement with a would-be assailant (Eli McCarthy), or can require something like “obedience,” even when deadly defeat is likely (Janna Hunter-Bowman).  My own interest in peacebuilding emerged when I had the opportunity to be a theological consultant to the Catholic Peacebuilding Network, whose efforts were originally focused on faith-based peace activists in the Great Lakes region of Africa, Mindanao in the Philippines, and Colombia.

    A thinker who did primarily envision international activities of nation-states as a sphere of peacebuilding was the late Glen Stassen, whose Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace was first published in 1992.2 In a later edited volume, he and his collaborators propose ten steps to peace that include “independent initiatives to reduce threats among nation-states;” sustainable economic development; fostering cooperative international networks; strengthening U.N. protections of human rights; and reducing the weapons trade.3 But most contemporary peacebuilding theorists build from the experiences of local peacebuilders in the face of context-specific violence, not limited to liberal democracies.

    That being said, Lovin identifies an important direction for peacebuilding studies and action today: peacebuilding as a project for liberal states, internally. Supposedly democratic and “liberal” societies can either support or inhibit peacebuilding, and can do both or either for different constituencies within a given society at the same time. For these reasons, “it is relevant to ask…whether a political culture may at times itself be the focus of peacebuilding.” This analysis applies to the United States of America; I brought the peacebuilding frame to U.S. political culture to a limited degree in the book’s final chapter, where I offered #BLM and other attempts to grapple with white supremacy as instances of peacebuilding. Much more could and should be done to investigate the underlying cultures, political traditions, institutional failures, and corruptions of our tripartite system of government and of the political process. These factors render truly just, inclusive, and participatory political life impossible, if not peacebuilding itself.  Internal peacebuilding should include, Lovin urges, strategies not only of critique, but of consensus-building to renew “liberal democracy.”

    That is what peacebuilding is mostly about, in fact—not necessarily the construction or reconstruction of Western-style liberal democracies, but the surmounting of past histories, intransigent stereotypes, and enduring hostilities, so that common humanity and shared investment in a constructive future can make cooperative political life possible. And if United States citizens could through peacebuilding “transform a domestic political culture of polarization and incipient violence,” it would affect more than our internal political life. It would help uproot causes of violence nationally and internationally. Elias Omondi Opongo laments (in the last essay in this series) that the U.S. is a huge and powerful exporter of violence when it serves economic, geostrategic, or political gain. True. Moreover, as Maria Stephan and Erika Chenoweth have argued, military powers tend to see armed force as the solution to any conflict abroad that either violates international norms or, more often, threatens their own interests.4What if, instead of investing funds in more arms, the United States and other powerful nations funded nonviolent resistance groups and movements?5 Under certain conditions, civil resistance that is widespread, includes diverse stakeholders, and is sustained can make a difference in ending violence, even under repressive, violence-prone regimes.

    Lovin reminds us, though, that peace-seeking behavior abroad by the U.S. will be less likely  in proportion to obstructionist and distracting divisions at home, and that peacebuilding itself is liable to become a political provocation. He is definitely onto an intractable problem, especially since U.S. political conflict is driven by several radical, systematic, and entangled issues, such as the economy, economic interests, and wealth inequality; racial-ethnic injustices and resentments; class differences and tensions; regional differences in culture and religion; and control over and distortions by mass media and social media. (Elias Omondi Opongo raises similar considerations, from the standpoint of the international fallout of these same problems and conflicts.)

    My basic reaction to this is that if ethics and Christian ethics are to be at all productive, they have to target a specific set of problems or at least a category of problems. Any problem or category inevitably entangles in a complicated (“intersectional”) way with others, given the nature of human social existence. Contributing complications to a targeted analysis can be addressed as they arise in context, if not comprehensively resolved.

     An important message that I take from Lovin’s essay is that U.S. scholars and practitioners of peacebuilding should be more attuned to the specific ways political realities in their own country affect the conflicts they assess worldwide, and make it a point to target some of them explicitly and energetically. One example on which work is currently being done is the way U.S. demand for minerals drives the transnational extractive industry and unregulated local mining, which in turn produce armed conflict and political disarray in resource-rich but poorly governed countries, as well as numerous other evils like destruction of the natural environment, child labor, human trafficking, and violence against women.6 On this one issue at least—U.S. demand for minerals and other natural resources, the extractive industries that supply them, and the connection to violence—public consciousness of complicity in injustice is growing.

    Christian ethics will never fully comprehend, much less theoretically assess, nor even less resolve, all the factors of justice and injustice that impinge on any pressing moral or socio-political concern. I believe this is an inherent limit of Christian ethics, but also the premise of its opportunities: to take on specific injustices, in solidarity with “the poor,” and with hope that a bad situation can be changed for the better. We can’t promise that, on the whole, the world will become more just, but we can trust that Christian politics can increase justice.


    1. See Gerald O’Connell, “Pope Francis calls for an Easter truce in Ukraine, leading to ‘peace through a true negotiation’,” America, April 10, 2022, https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2022/04/10/easter-truce-ukraine-pope-francis-242800; accessed April 26, 2022; and “Pax Christi USA joins national faith-based organizations in urging support for courageous, creative actions of nonviolence in Ukraine,” https://paxchristiusa.org/2022/04/22/pax-christi-usa-joins-national-faith-based-organizations-in-urging-support-for-courageous-creative-actions-of-nonviolence-in-ukraine/; accessed April 26, 2010.

    2. Glen H. Stassen, Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992).

    3. Glen H. Stassen (editor), Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War(Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2008).

    4. See Erika Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, The Role of External Support in Nonviolent Campaigns: Poisoned Chalice or Holy Grail?, International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, February 2021, https://www.nonviolent-conflict.org/external-support-for-nonviolent-campaigns/;  accessed April 26, 2022; and Erika Chenoweth, Civil Resistance: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021).

    5. As in Ukraine, such groups have engaged in direct confrontation of invading soldiers, encouragement of defections from opposing forces, public protests, obstruction of enemy movements, e.g., by removing road signs and forming human blockades. They might benefit from increased intelligence capabilities, cybersecurity safeguards, capacity to launch cyberattacks on Russian military communications or weapons systems.

    6. See for example, Caesar A. Montevecchio and Gerard F. Powers, eds., Catholic Peacebuilding and Mining: Integral Peace, Development, and Ecology (London: Routledge, 2022). This publication is sponsored by the Catholic Peacebuilding Network, includes multiple international authors from affected regions, and is an open access publication, that can be downloaded and printed.

Maryann Cusimano Love

Response

Theology That Smells Like the Sheep

Pope Francis tells us we need theologians who are like shepherds with the “smell of the sheep,” theologians who are grounded in the realities of their flock. Professor Lisa Cahill’s book, Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Pacifism, Just War, and Peacebuilding, is a welcome move in the direction Pope Francis urges. Cahill describes the important movement toward just peace, or what she dubs the “peacebuilding approach,” beyond the just war vs. pacifism debate. She includes concrete examples of peacebuilding, particularly in the last chapter, which are drawn from encounters with peacebuilders, many facilitated by the Catholic Peacebuilding Network. While people in conflict zones embrace just peace approaches, and examples of just peace practices abound, scholarship has lagged behind practitioners. Lisa Cahill’s book, and works by other peacebuilding scholars, are efforts to help scholarship catch up with practice.

Discussing matters of race, religion, and politics is often taboo, even in the study of taboos. Professor Cahill does an immense service by teeing up this important conversation. Cahill goes beyond the foreign policy focus of many books on peacebuilding. In her concluding chapter she offers a thoughtful and necessary application of a just peace and peacebuilding lens to U.S. domestic politics. Though the book was published before the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. capital, she nevertheless presciently describes the rising political violence and polarization in the U.S., and the need to use peacebuilding tools not only in conflicts abroad but also at home in the U.S.

The data supports Cahill’s conclusions. In North America and Western Europe, right wing terrorism, including violence by white supremacist groups, are responsible for 82% of deaths from terrorism. Right wing terrorist attacks have increased by 320% in North America and Western Europe in recent years. The U.S. Department of Justice continues to name white supremacists as the chief terrorist danger in the U.S. As Christopher Wray, President Trump’s appointed Director of the FBI, testified to Congress, “January 6 was not an isolated event. The problem of domestic terrorism has been metastasizing across the country for a long time now and it’s not going away anytime soon. White supremacists have been responsible for the most lethal attacks over the last decade.” This data, worsened by greater polarization during the pandemic, only increases the salience of Cahill’s suggestions.

Is peace possible? Is it practical? Is peacebuilding naïve? Is violence inevitable and at times necessary? Cahill correctly reports that a principle point of contention in the theological and philosophical debates among the just war, pacifist, and peacebuilding camps is the possibility of social change and the possibilities of peace. The assumptions are that Christian “realism” is realistic, while peace is rather utopian and likely not achievable in this fallen, sinful world. But these assumptions are false.

Cahill describes this frame and accurately analyzes how open the various camps are to the possibilities of social change and peace. Professor Cahill makes the case that God’s kingdom is not only some distant future, but the reign of God is present tense and inbreaking, bringing change in Jesus’ time and also in our own. Cahill weaves in examples of peacebuilding around the world, showing that peacebuilding and change are possible, even in communities that have suffered horrific violence. She cites anthropologist Douglas Fry’s case studies of the Iroquois Confederacy in upstate New York and indigenous communities in Brazil as communities that value cooperation and peacebuilding. At one point late in the book (283) Cahill notes that international wars have drastically declined since WWII. But much more can and should be said on the topic. At times she “buries the lead,” in ways entirely consistent with her fields of theology and philosophy on these matters. Cahill correctly summarizes the debates in her discipline. But the theological debates are undernourished by data.

This is clear in the current debates over the war in Ukraine. As I describe in my writings,1 unfortunately many just war theorists and pacifists debate current events with no knowledge of or use of the pertinent data. They make binary and linear assumptions about conflict which are not true. “Christian realists” are not very realistic. For example, Cahill describes my just peace principles and practices of participation, restoration, right relationship, sustainability, and reconciliation. Ukraine is practicing these principles now even during the war. They are expanding participation beyond elites and combatants, inviting companies, civil society groups, and people and countries outside the conflict zone to work for peace. They work on restoration even during the conflict, providing for basic human needs, humanitarian corridors, food, music, arts, and trauma healing, even while the war is ongoing. They advance right relationship with direct outreach to Russians, while using Ukrainian language, religion, hymns, flags, and culture to establish right relationship, rather than acquiescing to Putin’s demands that they should not exist. Ukrainians practice sustainability during the conflict, working to end reliance on Russian fossil fuels and protect the environment, including nuclear energy plants, to establish more durable bases of peace. And they advance reconciliation through courageous truth-telling and public acknowledgement, creatively using social media to provide transparency, accountability and tell the truth of the war, while Russia tries to conceal its war crimes.

Ukraine does not limit itself to either just war or just peace traditions. The just war tradition tells you how to limit conflict; it tells you nothing about how to build peace. Just peace principles and practices are extremely practical and apply at all times and all phases of conflict; they are not confined to conflict prevention and post conflict reconstruction only. Instead of pitting traditions against one another, we need a both/and, not an either/or, approach, as Pope Francis, Cahill and I urge. Ukrainians have been proceeding in this both/and manner, engaging in dialogue, peace talks and negotiations for full and partial ceasefires, using nonviolent resistance methods even while the bombs are falling, setting up humanitarian corridors, documenting evidence of Russian war crimes and genocide, while also engaging in defense. As of this writing the Ukrainians are engaging in defensive operations against weapons systems, digging trenches to stop Russian tanks, targeting the wheels of military vehicles, shooting down incoming Russian missiles before they kill, while also reaching out to Russians and encouraging Russian soldiers to stop fighting, using music, art, and media to strengthen nonviolent resistance. Just peace must proceed during conflicts, and just war limitations can help to support just peace. In bello limitations on conflict help to move communities out of cycles of conflict. War crimes harden hearts and fuel demands for revenge, making it harder to rebuild communities during and after wars. After WWII, international norms and laws were created against invading, conquering, and erasing the existence of another country. The international outcry against the Russian invasion of Ukraine is evidence of how accepted and institutionalized this norm is today.

Why are theologians still debating whether peace is possible and whether war is endemic and necessary? Cahill skillfully takes us through the theological and philosophical debates, but this is an empirical question. The long-term trends are that peace is breaking out around the world, despite the current conflicts in Ukraine and elsewhere. War has drastically declined since the horrific violence of the twentieth-century’s world wars. As I describe in my recent book, we have more people and more countries than ever before in human history.2 The number of countries has nearly quadrupled since the end of WWII, and global population has tripled since 1950. Wars have drastically decreased by more than two-thirds in that same time period. In social science we define and empirically track the number of wars, defined as major armed conflicts in which more than one thousand people die in a calendar year. At the end of the Cold War there were thirty-four wars, major armed conflicts. By 2000 the number of wars dropped to twenty-five. In 2010 there were only fourteen wars. By 2020 there were eight wars. While Ukraine unfortunately is added to the war tally, other countries such as Colombia and the Philippines are experiencing greater peace. As wars decrease, terrorism has also decreased, because most terrorism and most high casualty terrorist attacks occur in warzones. Terrorism has decreased by more than half in the past five years. Similarly the casualties in war have also decreased. When calculated on a per capita basis, the rising global population numbers and shrinking numbers of wars and casualties from war show an even more striking decline. Human development has vastly improved over the same time frame; poverty and child mortality declined while literacy and life expectancy increased. There is ample evidence to support Cahill’s theme of the inbreaking Kingdom.

These trends are not static or universal, as shown in the war in Ukraine. Afghanistan and Syria remain trapped in recurring cycles of violence, while many other countries have been able to break out of the conflict trap. The numbers of minor armed conflicts have been increasing, which must be addressed. But this is also not surprising. As more major armed conflicts end, many conflicts simmer with smaller numbers of casualties for some time. Peacebuilding is not an on/off switch that yields instant results. As Cahill notes, it takes time and long-term commitment, despite many dangers and setbacks.

Unlike Cahill, many theologians and philosophers who write about the just war tradition today have never set foot in a warzone, and have few connections with the people most impacted by war, who are working to build just peace. Christian “realism” is not very realistic, and is based on empirically incorrect assumptions, such as that war among countries “remains a permanent characteristic of their relations to each other,” that violence is effective, and that it is “the only alternative” to capitulation to injustice (Cahill quoting Niebuhr, 290 and 293). Cahill correctly notes that Niebuhr and other leading theologians were responding to the extreme case of Hitler and World War II, and focused primarily on these European wars. At the time they wrote there was not much larger data by which they could examine the validity of their assumptions. Today that is not the case. We now know that throughout history and especially today international war between countries is rare, and is even more rare, among countries that do not share a border. Most war, historically and today, is internal, civil war. Extensive empirical research, and the entire field of Peace Studies, created after World War II, offers data that disproves many of the assumptions made by so-called “Christian realists,” yet most of these theologians and philosophers, even today, ignore this research.

We set out to change this when we created the Catholic Peacebuilding Network twenty years ago. Our activities bring together peacebuilders on the frontlines of conflict around the world with academics and theologians, including Professor Cahill, who write about these topics for mutual learning and capacity building in ways that help those most impacted by conflict. We raise the voices of those who are too often not heard in debates about the principles, practices, and policies of war and peace. We facilitate “Encuentro,” encounter, and dialogue in order to mutually strengthen peacebuilding capacity in theory and practice.

Professor Cahill’s excellent book includes the experiences of people in warzones outside of Europe, building a more grounded and accurate approach. Cahill concludes that peacebuilding is gradual, multidimensional, and fallible; nonviolent resistance works; violence leaves deep wounds and requires a comprehensive response; women are essential peacebuilders; formative or re-formative social practices are key to lasting and just peace; and interreligious and intercultural cooperation is necessary to build just peace. These are excellent and sound conclusions. But I would like to hear more about them, more of her own analysis of these matters, and the evidence upon which she draws these conclusions. Most of the book is an excellent and thorough retrospective analysis of what other theologians have said about just war and pacificism. She works to include alternative voices and is more inclusive than most of her contemporaries. Yet the bulk of the pages are devoted to discussing the views of “the canon” of primarily white, male, European and American theologians; we don’t encounter another woman’s words in the text (not footnotes) until page 24. Cahill notes that “women are essential in peacebuilding,” and she provides some inspirational examples of women creatively waging peace in conflict zones around the world, such as Nobel Peace Prize-winning efforts in Liberia of Leymah Gbowee. Cahill laments the failure to fully implement the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Inclusive Security, and admirably lays out the case that all humans have rights. Yet these passages are devoid of the data that support her argument.

Cahill urges greater appreciation and inclusion of women in peace processes. Yet we don’t hear the evidence-based case; women’s participation builds peace that lasts. It’s not just good theology to include women. It’s pragmatically necessary. When women participate in peace processes, the parties at war are more likely to agree to peace talks, are much more likely to achieve a peace accord, and states are much more likely to achieve lasting peace post-conflict.3 Peace accords are 64% less likely to fail, and 35% more likely to last at least fifteen years when women are included as negotiators, mediators, and signatories in the peace process. Women help in conflict prevention also. As a country increases the number of women in the legislature by five percent, that country becomes five times less likely to use violence when confronted with an international crisis (perhaps because women are more likely to use a “collective or consensual approach” to conflict resolution). Most of the world’s wars, throughout history, are started and waged by men, while women lead the peace movements. There is a lively literature about the origins of male violence—is it nature or is it nurture?—as well as anecdotes about the rare exceptions to this finding, the few women leaders who have led their countries into war (most of this data comes from two leaders, Golda Meir in Israel and India’s Indira Gandhi). There are careful qualitative studies of women’s leadership in peace movements, and quantitative studies showing that societies with greater gender equality are less prone to conflict, both internally and externally. The empirical data support Professor Cahill’s conclusions.

Lisa Cahill’s Blessed Are the Peacemakers should be required reading in college classrooms. This is theology that smells like the sheep, and she uses examples of the “in-breaking kingdom” of peacebuilding in the U.S. and around the world. This is important because Pope Francis urges a more reality-grounded approach, not only to create a “field hospital” Church that is more pastorally oriented (although he certainly encourages that). Encuentro, dialogue, mutual learning, and peacebuilding are more than pastoral tools. We go to the margins because Jesus is there. In our warzones, in our frailties, Pope Francis notes, is a “theological place of encounter with the Lord.”


  1. See, for example, Maryann Cusimano Love, “What Kind of Peace Do We Seek? Emerging Peacebuilding Institutions and Norms of Just Peace,” Peacebuilding: Catholic Theology, Ethics, and Praxis, ed. R. Scott Appleby, Gerard Powers, Robert J. Schreiter (New York: Orbis Books, 2011); Maryann Cusimano Love, “Just Peace: From Versailles to Today,” Religion and Peace, ed. Francesca Po (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell, 2022); Maryann Cusimano Love, “Interreligious Peacebuilding and Fratelli Tutti,” Interreligious Peacebuilding: Routledge Handbook of Religious Literacy, Pluralism, and Global Engagement, ed. Chris Seiple, Dennis Hoover (London: Taylor and Francis, 2021); Maryann Cusimano Love, “Just War or Just Peace?” Expositions: Interdisciplinary Journal of the Humanities, 12, no. 1 (2018).

  2. The figures that follow are taken from Maryann Cusimano Love,  Global Issues Beyond Sovereignty (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).

  3. The figures that follow are taken from Maryann Cusimano Love, “Women Peacebuilders Internationally: Invisibility, Ideas, Institutions,” Women, Religion, and Peacebuilding: Illuminating the Unseen, ed. Katherine Marshall, Susan Hayward (U.S. Institute of Peace Press, 2016).

  • Lisa Sowle Cahill

    Lisa Sowle Cahill

    Reply

    Reply to Maryann Cusimano Love

    The work of Maryann Cusimano Love is a terrific resource for a Christian social ethicist, especially a Catholic: she is a political scientist with a comprehensive grasp of Catholic social teaching, and she can supply plenty of empirical evidence not only that peacebuilding “works,” but that women are its most effective agents. I have used her work on these and other points in the past (especially in Chapter 10 of Blessed Are the Peacebuilders), and am pleased to receive more evidence in her present essay. I particularly like her observations that, “societies with greater gender equality are less prone to conflict,” and that when governments and peace processes include women in political office and as authorities in peace processes, conflict and violence are much less likely. I see us both as committed to peacebuilding, to women peacebuilders, and to a hopeful approach to politics that is inspired by Jesus’ ministry of the reign of God, the resurrection, and the presence of the Spirit of the risen Christ in church and world. Hence, my second chapter is titled, “Jesus: The Reality of God’s Reign and the Possibility of Peace.”

    That being said, Cusimano Love would like to have seen in the book a stronger “evidence-based” affirmation and original analysis of the global decline of war in favor of the global expansion of peace; more data and analysis in favor of women’s peacebuilding success; and less attention to “the views of ‘the canon’ of primarily white, male, European, and American theologians.” The approach of my book reflects the fact that I position myself as a theologian (not a social scientist), with a base (not a limit) in the “Western” theological tradition. The book aims both to explore the legacy of major thinkers in this tradition for a theology and ethics of war and peace today, and to lift up what I see as a decisive shift in this tradition with the advent and expansion of peacebuilding.

    Hence, I began the investigation with the Bible, moving on to the received theological “greats,” especially Augustine, Aquinas, and the Reformers. It is lamentably true that for the most part these are all white, European men (though that’s an equivocal description of Augustine, since he was born in and returned to North Africa, after having worked in Italy for over a decade as a young man). The reality is that theology has not been an equal-opportunity vocation for most of Christian history. I do draw in some women scholars as guides to the “classic” male figures, and treat those few women who rise to prominence in the Christian war and peace traditions (e.g., Joan of Arc, Catherine of Siena, Margaret Fell, Dorothy Day). These are of course more numerous as time goes on. In the last chapter of the book, on peacebuilding, women are the primary agents featured, and are brought to bear on Christian peacebuilding both practically and theologically. The focus is on the Liberian women’s peace movement and the women-led Black Lives Matter movement.

    Throughout the book, I do offer some evidence and even “data” to back my assertions about war, peace, peacebuilding, and women’s participation today—but I am not a social scientist.  Therefore, I do not venture any original research on my own, nor do I offer much analysis of the data in the sources, except to investigate what light it might or might not shed on theological claims or alternatives. For the most part I try to stick with findings that are noncontroversial or at least well-substantiated from a social science point of view. This brings me to a point of “fact” that I am unsure how to evaluate: Cusimano Love’s claim that major armed conflicts have dropped steadily since World War II, while peace and human development are maintaining an upward curve. I would like to believe this (and for a time took the claim at face value), but I note that the matter seems to be controverted among data-driven researchers. In April of this year, Foreign Affairs published a collection of articles debating the nature and extent of ongoing violence, despite the decline of wars between or among nation-states.1 Regional wars, civil wars, cross-border violence perpetrated by armed groups, and the seizure by nations of small territories beyond their boundaries have not ended and may have increased. Erica Chenoweth, who with Maria Stephan has championed the moral imperative and practical feasibility of mass movements as vehicles of nonviolent change, has a new book outlining the factors that both support and obstruct success.2 As a non-expert on the data, I won’t adjudicate this controversy, but its liveliness and the trenchant observations of participants on both sides make me cautious about taking as a premise of my own thinking that, globally speaking, “war is in decline.”

    I don’t find this a barrier to agreeing with Cusimano Love that “the reign of God is present tense and inbreaking,” bringing change in our own time. This is a crucial message and she proclaims it eloquently. Peacebuilding is possible, important, mandatory for Christians, and sufficiently effective in enough cases that Christian peacebuilders can and should hope for peace and work for peace nonviolently in specific, targeted conflicts. Even qualified success in a specific case can be a monumental accomplishment, and one that inspires abundant energy, solidarity, and determination for the road ahead.


    1. See especially Tanisha M. Fazal, “The Return of Conquest?  Why the Future of Global Order Hinges on Ukraine,” Foreign Affairs, May-June, 2022, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/ukraine/2022-04-06/ukraine-russia-war-return-conquest;  accessed April 29, 2022.  See also United Nations 75th Anniversary website, “A New Era of Conflict and Violence,” 2020, https://www.un.org/en/un75/new-era-conflict-and-violence;  accessed April 25, 2022.

    2. Erika Chenoweth, Civil Resistance:  What Everyone Needs to Know (New York:  Oxford University Press, 2021).

Elias Opongo

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November 30, 2022, 1:00 am

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