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.↩
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
Chenoweth, Erica and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2011).↩
Jürgen Moltmann, The Theology of Hope (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993) 21.↩
James Keenan, Moral Wisdom: Lessons and Texts from the Catholic Tradition, first edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004) 161–63.↩
Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 21.↩
James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2013) 30.↩
Cone, Cross and the Lynching Tree, 72.↩
Cone, Cross and the Lynching Tree, 142.↩
Cone, Cross and the Lynching Tree, 115.↩
Cone, Cross and the Lynching Tree, 118.↩
Cone, Cross and the Lynching Tree, 148.↩
Ezek 37:11–14 (New American Bible).↩
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.
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.
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.
Special thanks to Andi O. Santoso and Jamie Pitts for discussions that shape this essay.↩
Malinda Elizabeth Berry, “Editorial,” Vision: A Journal for Church and Theology 20, no. 2 (2019) 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.↩
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.↩
Arnold Snyder, “The Birth and Evolution of Swiss Anabaptism (1520-1530),” Mennonite Quarterly Review 80, no. 4 (2006.): 501–684, at 2016.↩
Janna Hunter-Bowman, “Peacebuilding without Idolatry: Anabaptist Engagements with and Conceptualizations of the State,” Mennonite Quarterly Review XCVI, no. 1 (January 2022): 73–91.↩
John Richard Burkholder and Barbara Nelson Gingerich, eds., Mennonite Peace Theology: A Panorama of Types (Akron, PA: Mennonite Central Committee Peace Office, 1991).↩
David Cramer and Myles Werntz, A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2022).↩
Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, first edition (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007).↩
Joe Parkin Daniels, “The Mennonites of Liviney, Colombia – a Photo Essay,” The Guardian, November 17, 2021.↩
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.↩
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.
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.”
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).↩
The figures that follow are taken from Maryann Cusimano Love, Global Issues Beyond Sovereignty (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).↩
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).↩
From Just War Theory to Everyday Peace
In October 2020 the Ethiopian government was faced with an internal rebellion from the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which had been in power for more than twenty years. The Tigrinya people are located in the northern part of the country and form only 7% of the Ethiopian population, despite their political and military dominance. The Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who received a Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating a peace deal that ended over twenty years of conflict and political tension between Ethiopia and Eritrea, pushed for expansion of democratic space, liberalization of political space, freeing of political prisoners, upholding media freedom and inviting the Ethiopian diaspora to invest in their country’s economy. His coming to power in 2018 brought an end to the Tigrayan autocratic domination, but not without political consequences. He faced rebellion from the political stalwarts of the TPLF. Hence, when the government postponed the national elections in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions, the leaders of the northern Tigrayan region decided to go ahead with the elections in defiance of the government’s directive. To further provoke the government, the Trigrayan forces attacked a government military base. As a result, on November 4th, 2020 the Ethiopian government declared war against the Tigriyan forces.
The conflict escalated, and it seemed like the Tigrayan forces were defeated within a short time, but they picked up again and gained more territories against the government. Everyone called for a ceasefire and dialogue. The war continued, and in November 2021 the government gained an upper hand and pushed back the Tigrayan forces to the northern region. In the midst of all these events, more than two million people were displaced and thousands killed. A joint investigation report by the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and the UN Human Rights Office found that both parties to the conflict were responsible for gross human rights abuses which included extra-judicial killings, rape, torture, pillage, looting and destruction of property.1 The two parties to the conflict have now agreed to a ceasefire and peace talks.
I begin with this story of Ethiopia because it is a conflict much closer to where I live in Nairobi, Kenya. Ethiopia borders Kenya to the north, and I have been to Ethiopia a number of times to conduct peacebuilding workshops. In reference to the current conflict in Ethiopia, one may ask, could the conflict have been addressed differently? Were there any attempts at dialogue and mediation when the tensions were building up? What were the irreducible moral principles for both sides to the conflict? Moving forward, could peacebuilding strategies aimed at social, political, and economic inclusion, coupled with promotion of sustainable livelihoods (food, shelter, environmental protection, security, etc.) lead to peace and stability in Ethiopia?
Lisa Cahill has put together a brilliant piece of work on the ethics of war and peacebuilding, tackling historical, social, and political perspectives of just war ethics while advocating for a peacebuilding approach. She observes that in the analysis of just war, pacifism, and peacebuilding we ought to understand that “violence is in no way a part of the eschatological unity of all things in God” (27). I agree with her position and add that while sometimes there could be need to use minimum force to disarm the aggressor, and stop deaths and human suffering, the end goal should always be safeguarding of human dignity and restoration of peace. For example, it is clear that in the case of the Rwanda genocide, without a military intervention, more people would have been killed. From this point of view, I take a more pragmatic position informed by the ethics of peacebuilding, which prioritizes dialogue, negotiation, social-economic inclusion, security, and peace. The moral dilemma is that even in those situations of seeking to save the lives of the majority, a few may die in the process. Cahill captures this moral dilemma and observes that that even in situations where force has to be used to save lives, there are always negative consequences of such actions. Hence, “renunciation of violence is not without its own human and moral price” (323). In the case of Ethiopia, the government had to make a choice between letting the country disintegrate into lawlessness and protracted conflict or bringing some order and sustaining peace.
Ethiopia has had many episodes of violent conflicts that have led to thousands of deaths and displacements. At the same time, militarization of war and peace has proven to be an unsustainable way of maintaining peace. To a great extent, the problem of Ethiopia is the lack of social inclusion and economic sustainability for the large nation of one hundred and fifteen million people. As Cahill notes, Christian social ethics puts emphasis on structures of justice, compassion, solidarity and special regard for the most vulnerable (31). In my view, the emphasis and debate should be on how societies can institute just structures for sustainable peace, regardless of whether we are talking of poor or rich countries, in conflict or at peace. Cahill seems to limit her analysis of just peace to societies in conflict or post-conflict situations. What would just peace look like in societies that are apparently in negative peace, where only a small percentage of the population enjoys and controls more than 90% of the national resources, where a large part of the population cannot afford health care, where racial, ethnic or religious discrimination cut off a section of the population from enjoying the national resources? This is what I refer to as systematic marginalization of the “unwanted” population. The unwanted exist in literally every society, both rich and poor, and they are often blamed for the conditions they find themselves in.
Conflict Prevention as a Strategy for Peace Sustainability
Just war theorists and nonviolent activists need to engage with the discourse of war prevention and systematic marginalization of the “unwanted.” Similarly, peacebuilding efforts should not just be limited to post-conflict reconciliation without including conflict prevention strategies aimed at long term peace sustainability. A component I would have wished to see discussed extensively in Cahill’s book concerns the role of external actors in conflicts and the complicity of western nations in creating and sustaining wars abroad. These western nations are “exporters of violence.” The conflicts in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Venezuela, among others, have largely been sustained by western interests. The just war discourse ought to draw attention to “exporters of war and violence” and call for moral responsibility on the part of external forces, as well as citizens’ commitment to stopping their states from creating violence in other countries. For example, Rwanda and Uganda have been involved in the Eastern DRC conflict with the justification of fighting the rebels responsible for creating insecurity situations in their respective countries. A number of Western nations have equally been involved in the DRC. Similarly, for many years, the US has been involved in exporting violence to Latin American countries, Afghanistan and Iraq. Cahill makes anecdotal references to internal and external violence by the USA (345) without getting into details of external violence. A much broader analysis of these conflicts would expand the just war ethics discourse, which limits the justifiability of war to the internal structures of governance and competing interests between nations. In line with a nonviolence commitment, it is vital to conscientize citizens against injustices committed by home countries abroad, particularly in relation to the enterprise of exporting violence.
Elsewhere in my book chapter “Just War and Its Implications for African Conflicts,” I question the applicability of just war ethics to civil conflicts in Africa.2 My main point of contention is that just war ethics is structured to evaluate wars between states but remains silent in situations where a legitimate authority is the oppressor of the population. In such situations, a civil movement or armed group that rises up against gross human rights violations may not be a legitimate authority, but may have legitimate reasons to stop human rights violations through armed resistance, when all the other peaceful options have been exhausted. I would have wanted to get Cahill’s perspective on the ethical evaluation of civil conflicts.
Many social ethicists struggle with the challenge of drawing a fine line between just and unjust war, without getting deeper into the complex nature of the conflict. Cahill has very well shown these complexities by giving theological discourses advanced by different theologians and ethicists like St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, John Courtney Murray, and Reinhold Niebuhr, among others. However, as noted above, the discussion needs to expand to bring in the just peace discourse beyond conflict or war contexts.
I agree with Cahill that most conflicts in Africa have largely been due to lack of social-political inclusion, but I would add that a good number of conflicts in the world are equally about social, political, and economic exclusion. Even countries that are not in overt conflicts like the United Kingdom, United States, Kenya, Ghana, and Canada have experienced conflicts due to social-economic marginalization of certain parts of the population. According to Funds for Peace Fragility Index Report 20213 in 2020–2021 the US saw the largest protests in the country’s history in response to police violence which were often met by a heavy-handed state reaction along with sustained efforts to delegitimize the election process, which escalated violently in early 2021. Despite the country’s abundant material wealth and an advanced health system, political polarization, a lack of social cohesion, congressional gridlock, and misinformation contributed to a failed response that left over three hundred and fifty thousand dead by the end of the year and a steeper contraction in GDP than any time in the past sixty years.
If these figures are accurate, the number of people who died from direct and structural violence in the United States in 2020 is much higher than the number of people who died in violent conflicts in Somalia, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic combined during the same year. While circumstances are obviously different, and contextual representations equally variant, it is important to include the debate on “everyday violence” (which I discuss below) into the equation of ethics of war and peacebuilding. In other words, with the diminished prevalence of inter-state conflicts, shouldn’t the focus among social ethicists now move towards peace sustainability efforts and creative management of the “everyday violence” that often lead to instant deaths or slow deaths of large parts of the population?
We need to consider what I call preventive peace—a deliberate attempt to sustain and maintain peace through compromise, dialogue, negotiation, and broader inclusion.4 This is more or less in line with the just peace ethics that Cahill discusses extensively. In the case of Ethiopia, perhaps the war could have been avoided if the prime minister had considered a much more inclusive approach to his political strategy. This accords with Cahill’s explanation that “A negotiated peace will cede some institutionalized power to competing sides, meaning that power is shared among greater and lesser perpetrators and possibly that no one authority among greater and lesser perpetrators and possibly that no one authority has firm control” (329).
Often incumbent leaders tend to develop a tendency towards indispensability. I am working on a theory to explain such political circumstances and I refer to it as alternative leadership deficiency theory—the attitude that there is no alternative leader or government to lead the country except the incumbent. Such leaders rally their supporters towards certain ideologies bent on threats, intimidation, violation of human rights, and disrespect for the rule of law. However, in situations where a large part of the population feels marginalized, oppressed or cut off from the benefits of social well-being, there could be an uprising or persistent conflict. In Africa this has been experienced in Mali, Senegal, Togo, Guinea-Conakry, Sudan, and Uganda, among others. Unfortunately for the case of Mali, Guinea-Conakry and Sudan, the uprising ended in coup d’état, not the solution that the citizens wanted.
In her discussion of peacebuilding approaches to conflict, Cahill reiterates that nonviolent resistance can build into a revolution even in the most difficult situations. It would have been interesting for Cahill to get into the details of the how of nonviolent resistance in situations of intense human rights violation. She has given a number of examples of how nonviolence has worked in different contexts, but the book would have been enriched by more discussion of the complexities of nonviolent resistance and strategies for exploiting the new spaces in social media, internet and the like that have now provided additional opportunities for peacebuilding. For example, references to the use of cellphones to capture police violence in United States is a good example mentioned by Cahill, which could be developed further into “social media non-violent resistance.” Cahill could also have elaborated on how a society can push for nonviolent resistance in situations of comfort where certain sectors of the society are marginalized and the majority choose not to see or act—for example, human rights violations against migrants or refugees, racial or religious discrimination, and political exclusion. This discussion is partly covered in the section on “Violence and Peacebuilding in United States.” There Cahill rightly states that “[t]o build a lasting peace, it is essential to engage structurally with injustices that cause tension, and to reach the root causes of conflict, furthering development” (338). Hence, structural transformation is fundamentally important.
From Everyday Violence to Everyday Peace
I have argued above that given the reduced conflicts between nations, just war ethicists should focus the discussion much more on strategies that can help societies move from everyday violence to everyday peace. In other words, social ethicists ought to question the normalization of physical and structural violence underscored by a capitalist framework of economic and political dominance by the rich and multinational corporations, and subsequent marginalization of the poor. In reading Cahill’s book, I noticed that perhaps the book could have reduced the historical and theological background on just war discourse, and instead focused on ways to address the changing dynamics of conflicts within the “everyday violence” conceptualization. The just war ethicists seek to standardize the interpretation of conflict, war and peace, typically from a top-down narrative, and in the process may fail to see the everyday violence. Hence, the need for more concerted efforts towards the everyday peace.
The concept of “everyday peace,” as explained by Roger Mac Ginty, calls attention to indicators of peace at a more localized level, with emphasis on what is important for the local communities in efforts towards conflict transformation.5 The “Everyday Peace Indicator” is a project of the Kroc Institute, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, and the University of Manchester, and aims at a bottom-up approach to analysis of indicators of peace. Mac Ginty and Firchow note that “the standardisation of conflict analysis models has resulted in a standardisation of narratives and descriptions.”6 Liberal peace discourse focuses on post-conflict peacebuilding and puts emphasis on the role of the state in peace and conflict. Hence, democratization, promotion of human rights, institution of the rule of law and security, and liberalization of the economy are key components of liberal peace. Centralizing post-conflict peacebuilding to the state ignores the grassroots efforts to promote peace and fails to assess other peace indicators that are crucial for a nation’s stability.
The everyday peace research, however, tends to focus on countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and does not look at systematic marginalization, violence, and discrimination in the so called “developed nations.” For example, gun violence is far higher in the USA than in most countries in Africa. In 2019 alone 38,730 people died of gun violence in the United States.7Preventable deaths through diseases, poor or expensive health care systems, and social-economic marginalization of parts of the population ought to be addressed globally. For example, according to UNICEF: [EXT]“Every two minutes, a child under five dies of malaria. Many of these deaths are preventable and treatable. In 2019, there were 229 million malaria cases globally that led to 409,000 deaths. Of these deaths, 67 per cent (274,000) were children under 5 years of age. This translates into a daily toll of nearly 750 children under age 5.”8[/EXT] This should not be acceptable in the twenty-first century. Most of these children are in Africa and Asia. There ought to be concerted nonviolence efforts to address such structural everyday violence.
I have found Lisa Cahill’s book thought provoking and critical on just war theory. She has drawn our attention to the changing context of just war theory and put emphasis on nonviolence and just peace approaches to peacebuilding. While noting the moral dilemmas in addressing the implementation of the just war principles, she calls for strong consideration of alternatives to violence. I have argued that given the diminishing number of inter-state wars, the traditional province of just war ethics, it is important to shift the focus of just war ethics to everyday peacebuilding as a strategy for addressing the everyday violence propagated by the unjust structures in our societies. Efforts towards everyday peace that take a bottom-up approach to peacebuilding while acknowledging the local agency of the citizens are fundamental to the transformation of our societies. We need to move from the comfort zone of pre-defined solutions to the complexities of contextual analyses that question the status quo of the governance systems, which tend to leave the majority of the population socially, politically, and economically excluded, treating them as the “unwanted” part of the population.
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights “Report of the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC)/Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Joint Investigation into Alleged Violations of International Human Rights, Humanitarian and Refugee Law Committed by all Parties.” https://reliefweb.int/report/ethiopia/report-ethiopian-human-rights-commission-ehrcoffice-united-nations-high-commissioner.↩
Elias Opongo, “Just War and Its Implications for African Conflicts,” Can War Be Justified in the 21st Century? Ethicists Engage the Tradition, ed. Tobias Winright and Laurie Johnston (New York: Orbis Books, 2015) 141–55.↩
Funds for Peace (2021). Fragility in the World 2021. https://fragilestatesindex.org/.↩
For more on this subject, see Elias Opongo, Ethics of War and Peacebuilding: The Unfinished Business (Nairobi: Hekima University College, 2020).↩
Roger Mac Ginty, Everyday Peace: How So-called Ordinary People Can Disrupt Violent Conflict (Oxford University Press, 2021).↩
Roger Mac Ginty and P. Firchow, “Top-down and bottom-up narratives of peace and conflict,” Politics, 36.3 (2016) 312.↩
“Over 38,000 killed in 2019 in US gun violence,” The News, https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/589740-over-38-000-killed-in-2019-in-us-gun-violence, 28 December 2019.↩
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 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.
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.
A Just Peace Ethic Primer: Building Sustainable Peace and Breaking Cycles of Violence, ed. E. McCarthy (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 2020).↩
Richard Hays, Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation: A Contemporary Introduction to Christian Ethics (New York: Harper Collins, 1996).↩
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.↩
Pope Francis, “Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace,” World Day of Peace Message, 2017, par. 3.↩
Marshall Rosenberg, https://www.nonviolentcommunication.com/.↩
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.↩
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).↩
Rachel MacNair, Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress: The Psychological Consequences of Killing (Lincoln, NE: Praeger/Greenwood Publishing, 2005).↩
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.↩
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.↩
DC Peace Team, “Human Needs Chart,” 2021.↩
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.↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
Just Peace Ethic Primer, ed. McCarthy.↩