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