­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Brian Johnstone. 

dorothy day
Dorothy Day 1973 (Bob Fitch photo), Jim Forest, flickr cc.

The World Council of Churches at the Nairobi Assembly in 1975 pledged to live without resort to arms. The Catholic Church at the Second Vatican Council commended those who make such a commitment (The Church in the Modern World, 77). However, to live in this way is very demanding; it requires three things: deep spirituality, a critical relationship to the state and the prevailing culture, and a way of dealing with ‘exceptions’.  To support this claim, I draw on the experience of some Christian communities and individuals who have chosen to renounce weapons.  

The Waldensians were founded by Peter Waldo in about 1170. They lived a life of poverty in contrast to the prevailing culture and according to the Gospel. Originally, this movement renounced weapons.  However, the Waldensians were seen as a challenge to the authority of the Catholic Church and to the secular power of the period, and were violently persecuted. In self-defence, some took up weapons. The Waldensians, however, returned to their original commitment, and are now engaged in the promotion of peace.

In 2015, Pope Francis, in the name of Roman Catholic Church, asked Waldensian Christians for forgiveness for their persecution. The Pope apologised for the Catholic Church’s “un-Christian and even inhumane positions and actions”.

franz jagerstatter
Franz Jagerstatter stamp, Jim Forest, flickr cc.

In the thirteenth century, St Francis founded the Franciscans, whose way of life was dramatically critical of the culture of the period. Histories of peace movements mention in particular the Franciscan third order. The members were lay women and men who lived ‘in the world’, but sought to live a life perfectly conformed to the Gospel. They renounced the use of weapons.

This was not a tactic to avoid the violence of the age; it was based on their spirituality. They renounced arms, because the use of arms belonged to “this world”.  They sought to live, as far as possible, the life of the Kingdom to come. The tertiaries, as they were called, did not collaborate in the wars of the cities where they lived, and were thus a challenge to the secular powers.

The ‘peace Churches’ – that is the Church of the Brethren, the  Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), the Mennonites, and the Amish – also renounced weapons. Their renunciation was based on the Sermon on the Mount, and was supported by spirituality, a way of life. They also maintained a distance from the prevailing culture and the state. However, opposition to the use of weapons was not always maintained. An example is the division in the Quaker community in Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century over the acquisition of arms. However, the Quaker community now maintains its refusal to bear arms, and challenges government war-making.

Dorothy Day converted to Catholicism in the 1920s. As her autobiography indicates, she cultivated deep personal spirituality. In the 1940s, Day opposed all wars. This put her at odds with most US Catholic bishops, who held the ‘just-war’ doctrine, and with the US government. She based her objection to wars on the Gospels, but also on her interpretation of the just-war doctrine. She argued that the doctrine, correctly understood, rules out modern war. One who thinks within a gospel-based spirituality such as that of Dorothy Day sees the reality of war more clearly than others who lack such a vision. She does not distort the principles of the just-war doctrine, but reads them without equivocation.

The doctrine of just war has been interpreted by some authors as ‘a theory of statecraft’, but in such a view the interests of political power can skew moral thinking. Dorothy Day’s spirituality and critical attitude to the state enabled her to transcend such distortions.

Franz Jägerstätter was a family man, a farmer in Austria. Franz had deep personal spirituality, and became a member of the Franciscan third order. After the 1938 Anschluss that joined Austria to Germany, Franz was called up for military service, but refused to serve. He consulted several priests and even the Bishop of Linz, who all advised him to accept military service. Their argument was that Franz’s refusal to serve would make little or no difference to the Nazi war machine.

This is the kind of moral argument that is called consequentialism; it did not sway Franz. What mattered to him was not the difference his decision would make to the Nazi war effort, but the difference it would make to him, to his ‘soul’.  Franz’s refusal to collaborate with the German military was based on his reading of the Scriptures, but also on his interpretation of the just-war doctrine.

Like Dorothy Day, guided by his spirituality, Franz concluded that, according to the just-war doctrine, modern war is immoral. For Franz, there was another factor: he not only criticised the Nazi state, he rejected it as evil. The Catholic Church has finally recognised that Franz was right: it has declared him a martyr of conscience.

Bernard Häring was a Catholic priest who was conscripted into the German army, and served as a medical orderly. Later a famous theologian, for many years he accepted the just-war doctrine, but in 1986 he wrote: “… as I see it, we have to work firmly at this critical time to rid ourselves of the ‘just-war’ theory … The Catholic Church ought to make an unequivocal option for non-violent defence”.  For Häring, living without weapons became a goal to be pursued, a conclusion he drew from the Sermon on the Mount.

What of the way of dealing with ‘exceptions’?  When members of a peace community compromised and justified the use of arms, the community was able to recognise their failure, and later to reaffirm their commitment. The Catholic community has taken a different route. The Church has not absolutely abandoned the just-war doctrine; this gives it a way of dealing with emergencies such as ISIS. “We have to stop this kind of genocide”, said the Vatican’s representative.

Brian Johnstone is a Redemptorist moral theologian and emeritus professor, who has taught at Yarra Theological Union (Melbourne), the Alfonsian Moral Academy in Rome, and at Catholic University in Washington. He is continuing his writing and research in Melbourne.


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