SPC Forum Address 21 June 2018

May ‘vetera’n become a word just for history books. J J. flickr cc.

A significant life-and-death concern we have had to grapple with over the centuries is that of war and peace, conflict and nonviolence.

One doctrine that has evolved to provide moral guidance is the Just War doctrine. It accords with our instinctive belief, our traditional sense of righteousness, that a war can be just when undertaken for what is defined as a just and defensible cause or reason. The justice of such a war is believed to be established when it meets certain criteria that have been developed over time. These include, for instance, the condition of proportionality – is the military response proportionate to the provocation? Has every option for peace been tried so that it is the last and only option left? Many wars have proceeded, or claimed to proceed, on the basis of Just War criteria.

For instance, a short time before the declaration of war on Iraq a delegation of ecumenical heads of churches met with President George W Bush in the White House to dissuade him from taking that action on the grounds that the intended war was not the solution, as all attempts to secure peace had not been exhausted.

But the President insisted that the war was just, that all aspects were carefully considered, and even requested the church leaders to pray for its success. A few days later in January 2003 he authorised the commencement of hostilities. The disastrous consequences are still being felt by the people of Iraq and the world. It was one more example of a war deemed just but with dire effects, demonstrating yet again that war can destroy what it claims to defend.

On the other hand, during the horrors of World War II, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a prominent German theologian, concluded in the spirit of the broadly accepted criteria for a Just War that it was justified to assassinate Adolf Hitler since in light of the war’s extensive destruction it was no longer justifiable. He reasoned that the removal of Hitler, the prime source of the extensive suffering being experienced, would benefit humanity.

However, given the prevailing understanding of patriotism, Bonhoeffer was exposed, declared ‘an enemy of the Fatherland’, and executed. World War II proceeded with its immense violence that only ended when Hitler took his own life in 1945. How different history would have been had Bonhoeffer succeeded in his attempt to save lives.

In extreme cases, when a judgement is made that is grounded in absolute moral clarity and is free of spurious motives, the Just War doctrine incorporating its criteria may offer a way forward in a complex situation that cannot be resolved in any other way. Hence, Catholic and ecumenical thinking will not generally reject it outright, and neither has Pope Francis. He is aware, as also are ecumenical thinkers, that arriving at a doctrine is a complex and evolutionary process continually building on and shaped by previous learnings and teachings while balancing the many considerations emerging in a multi-faceted human community.

However, as the leader of a global believing community, Francis is also acutely conscious that the weight of Catholic (and ecumenical) social teaching based on the Gospels and Jesus’ life and message is centred on nonviolence and peace. This was the focus of a landmark conference in the Vatican in 2016 on “Nonviolence and Just Peace”. Organised by Pax Christi at the invitation of the Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace, it brought to the fore the more contemporary concept of Just Peace in place of Just War that has been a default position for so long.

This was against the backdrop of churches sadly having rejected, ignored or fudged Jesus’ teaching. For centuries they have embraced the Just War doctrine endorsing pacts with forces that promoted violence, or tolerating or staying silent on such outcomes. Inconsistent with Jesus’ life and ministry, the doctrine often functioned to legitimise and perpetuate war rather than prevent it.

More importantly, it enabled a mentality wherein violence was readily used as the fallback position in situations that had become seriously adversarial. It limited our ability to find nonviolent responses, resources and skills needed to undertake this work. Such an unwholesome outlook continues to pervade our political and social decision-making. The Catholic Nonviolence Initiative (CNI) established by Pax Christi is designed to study and point to alternatives to violence.

Non-violence: a style of politics for peace

Following the 2016 Vatican Conference, Pope Francis issued the seminal 50th Annual World Peace Message in 2017 titled Non-Violence: a Style of Politics for Peace. In light of what I have said earlier, this statement did not outright reject the Just War formulation. One can see a place for the possible use of ‘just war’ criteria, but the theory was not explicitly mentioned in the text. One can perhaps see a link in this with what Pope Benedict had wondered aloud, still as Cardinal Ratzinger, if “today we should be asking ourselves whether it is still licit to admit the very existence of Just War”.

In his 2017 World Day of Peace Message, Pope Francis points to another way that is compatible with and affirms Catholic teaching, ecumenical thinking, the experience of aid, humanitarian and human wellbeing agencies, and the aspirations of all people of goodwill. In light of the growing groundswell of support for its adoption, the Pax Christi Vatican Conference sought a clearer articulation on how Just Peace is to be discerned in a world where conflict and violence, including structural and ecological violence, are ubiquitous, and life has become ‘collateral damage’.

The Pope’s Message is viewed as a first step towards this, and there are strong hopes for an encyclical later on ‘Peace and Nonviolence’ that could speak as eloquently as did Laudato Si’. Nevertheless, the Message already suggests pathways for peace-building.

Pope Francis quoted Blessed Pope Paul VI’s first World Day of Peace Message in 1968: “Peace is the only true direction of human progress – and not the tensions caused by ambitious nationalisms, nor conquest by violence, nor repressions which serve as mainstay for a false civil order”. Francis continued quoting Paul VI warning of “the danger of believing that international controversies cannot be resolved by the ways of reason, that is, by negotiations founded on law, justice, and equity, but only by means of deterrent and murderous forces.”

In Nonviolence: a Style of Politics for Peace, recommitting to the centrality of Gospel nonviolence, Pope Francis holds up the Sermon on the Mount wherein “Jesus himself offers a manual for this strategy of peacemaking”. While he sees the Beatitudes as “provid(ing) a portrait of the person we could describe as blessed, good and authentic”,  he calls the Sermon on the Mount and the Beatitudes “a programme and a challenge for political and religious leaders, the heads of international institutions, and business and media executives” to apply.

The ‘manual’ Jesus provides applies to both the personal and public realms, bringing forth a “style of politics for peace”. The Sermon on the Mount embodies a call to active nonviolence that counters and challenges injustice, and helps transform social processes. It is not just a surrender, a lack of involvement and passivity. Nonviolence is more than ‘not killing’.

In the view of Terrence J Rynne in his book Gandhi and Jesus: The Saving Power of Nonviolence, the underlying message of Pope Francis challenges “how enmeshed our culture is in the belief of violence, how national security and the ‘nation’ now command our deepest loyalty, how at risk we are because of false idols”. Gospel nonviolence as exemplified in “turning the other cheek” and “loving your enemy” is a “radically positive message” that can expose injustice, not just a negative refusal of violence.

While referring to examples of visionary people who have responded with nonviolence to help transform their societies, Pope Francis does not deny that war may sometimes respond to injustice. Yet, he asks, “where does this lead? Does violence achieve any goal of lasting value?”. The result rather is “retaliation and a cycle of deadly conflict” breeding even more conflict. In war, even winners can lose. Material gain and self-interest cannot be the basis of a genuine peace, of a genuine human community.

Pope Francis is increasingly concerned at the state of the world’s militarisation. Few have been more forthright in condemning the evil of war than Pope Francis. Warning of a brewing Third World War, he writes, “sadly, we find ourselves engaged in a horrifying world war fought piecemeal”. He has said that “many powerful people don’t want peace because they live off war… Some people make their living with their production of arms… It’s the ‘industry of death”. He has challenged the military-industrial complex – those who make and export armaments as well as exporting poverty.

As the Pax Christi Vatican conference pondered, a Just Peace does not eventuate from a single act. It is not akin to acquiring it as a finished product in a supermarket, or waiting for a deus ex machina who prevents disaster. Achieving Just Peace is a long process of continually nurturing a renewed culture of nonviolence and dedicating increased attention to effective nonviolent strategies in global politics.

In the words of Pope Francis, we need “to revitalise the tools of nonviolence…active nonviolence in particular”. These tools are small steps that the world community can take to foster good relations and help ameliorate or even eliminate the prospect of serious conflict down the line.

Tools of active non-violence

There is a cornucopia of possibilities for revitalising the tools of nonviolence, and active nonviolence in particular.

As responsible Christians and citizens, we cannot let governments and decision-makers gloss over the World Health Organisation estimates of 1.4 million people losing their lives to violence every year, and 2 billion people living in countries affected by fragility, conflict and violence. We have to question the world’s military expenditures, now more than 2 per cent of global GDP and, in 2018, set to hit a post-Cold War high of $1.67 trillion, with nuclear weapons possibly being included in defence arsenals as influential voices argue for their normalisation.

There is an urgent need to advocate in the public arena for policies promoting nonviolent options for transforming conflict and protecting vulnerable people. Nonviolent options and strategies that have proven effective and less costly in many contexts for sustaining peace and security should be the first response to violent or potentially violent societal challenges. This is not a unique, novel or strange thing to say. It aligns with commitments already made by governments at intergovernmental levels and with the growing public outcry around the world for just peace and nonviolent solutions to intractable violence.

Article 33 of the 1945 UN charter states:

  1. The parties to any dispute, the continuance of which is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security, shall, first of all, seek a solution by negotiation, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice.
  2. The Security Council shall, when it deems necessary, call upon the parties to settle the dispute by such means.

A commitment to active nonviolence as a way of life and as an effective political strategy to inform work on the ground for just peace and reconciliation, human dignity, human rights and ecological sustainability is incompatible with policies at a national and multilateral level that rely too heavily on military arsenals and armed action. It is crucial that we advocate for  increased financial commitment by national and international decision-makers to public policies based on nonviolent strategies. These include:

  • Under our Responsibility to Protect, strongly support diplomacy and negotiation to prevent or transform conflict before it becomes violent. Develop reliable, extensive and commissioned research, for instance, into UN failures to intervene, as in Rwanda, in order to  promote a serious discipline on international community intervention based on  universally accepted guidelines into genocidal and other conflicts.
  • Strengthen the UN to implement its ‘sustaining peace agenda’.
  • Encourage mediation and peace processes by people and institutions with credibility, for instance, ‘eminent people’. Religious leaders can play a useful role in averting or resolving conflict. Unarmed civilian peace-keeping should be encouraged..
  • Facilitate exchanges between governments, NGOs and civil society for capacity-building on diplomacy and mediation.
  • Cooperation in sports.
  • Inclusion of women as key actors in community, national and international efforts to prevent violence.
  • Use nonviolent communication for resolution of political disputes. Nonviolent and non-aggressive statements, media, social media, and other forms of communication could help reduce/eliminate conflict and tension between groups or countries.
  • Rally support for nonviolent resistance campaigns, often faith-inspired, including through diplomatic backing and capacity building.
  • Develop serious nonviolence education materials for schools, teachers, educational institutions, media and the broader public.
  • Support trauma healing, truth and reconciliation, and restorative justice programmes.
  • Study and analyse the damage from present-day and future violent conflict to the earth’s ecology.

A serious effort to forge a different way of behaving would include imaginatively devising incremental limits on arms production, or removing the ‘sugar from the table’ for arms producers. Resources provided for research into this, and into making war less possible, and finding alternatives to war, would be money well spent. Just condemning war is not enough to abolish war.

The UN Sustainable Development Goals are an invaluable contribution offering a way forward. As Marie Dennis, Co-President Pax Christi International writes, they promote “the things that make for integral peace – economic justice, human dignity, a flourishing planet, and a world free from every form of violence.” They flow from a recognition that the way we now live is not sustainable and the extent of poverty pervading the world is indefensible. It is urgent to address widespread inequity and climate injustice effectively in light of the links between poverty, environmental degradation, and war or violence.

The SDGs call for a fundamental transformation in the economic, social and political life of the world in our times blighted by the ubiquity of conflict, discord and inequality. They can be considered to mirror some of the social teachings of our churches such as

  • people and nature are not to be considered as mere instruments of production
  • economic growth by itself without values of sharing and community will not ensure inclusive and sustainable societies
  • social equity must be a key component in managing the economy
  • political and related decision-making should consciously favour the excluded and vulnerable
  • the highest priority to be given to reducing poverty in its various forms

It is urgent that national and international budgets are committed to achieving by 2030 all of the SDGs,  including Goal 16 on conflict prevention and peace-building.

Caesar D’Mello is a consultant on development, peace, conflict concerns, and the impact of mass tourism and climate change on the Global South. He has had wide experience in Asia and Australia, and is associated with a number of groups, including Religions for Peace, and Pax Christi.






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