Global Currents article

Just Peace and Just War Must Go Together

Media reports of the April 2016 conference in Rome on “Nonviolence and Just Peace” began to appear as I was preparing for an extended stay in the United Kingdom.  On leave from my regular duties in the Department of Religion at Florida State University, I planned to spend Trinity term at Oxford as a visiting fellow of Christ Church College and a participant in the Changing Character of War Programme.

As it happens, lodging during my time in Oxford was provided by the Jesuit community located at Campion Hall, just across the street from Christ Church.  Not a Jesuit myself—nor for that matter, a Roman Catholic—I found that my new colleagues knew about and were interested in my work on jihad and just war.  And thus it seemed natural that, along with conversations regarding Brexit and the American presidential campaign, we would talk about the conference on nonviolence and its recommendations, not least the idea that the Catholic Church ought “no longer use or teach `just war theory’.”

In these brief remarks, I will not try to summarize these discussions or to represent the variety of opinions expressed. These conversations are worth noting, however, because they reinforced for me two convictions: first, that there is a great deal to be said regarding the role of nonviolent modes of addressing human conflict, a topic often neglected by interpreters of the just war tradition; and second, that severing the notions of just peace and just war, for example by setting aside the vocabulary of jus ad bellum and jus in bello is a mistake.  Indeed, I think we should combine these, and thus affirm that the notions of just peace and just war go together.

This is of course the claim of classic and contemporary interpreters of both just war and jihad traditions.  For people like Augustine or Thomas Aquinas, questions about the rightness of military action take place in the context of notions of statecraft, in which those charged with protecting the common good seek to implement policies that are both wise and just.  The point is to build or protect institutions designed to foster peace.  Similarly, Muslim scholars like the great al-Shaybani (d. 804) or al-Mawardi (d. 1058) responded to questions about armed force in conjunction with a positive political project.  As for modern accounts, John Courtney Murray and Paul Ramsey alike resisted the idea that just war thinking could be separated from an account of peace, while Yusuf al-Qaradawi’s recent treatise on The Jurisprudence of Jihad makes a similar point regarding Muslim tradition.

That said, I think it is fair to suggest that much of the discourse about just war and jihad proceeds in ways that ignore or elide the importance of nonviolent approaches to conflict.  Some years ago, Abdulaziz Sachedina made the point that those claiming the mantle of jihad ought to consider whether, in a given case, the cause of peace and justice might be better served by nonviolent rather than military means. Similarly, when one thinks about just war reasoning, the criteria—the aim of peace, reasonable hope of success, overall proportionality, and last resort—require those making decisions to make a conscientious assessment regarding the propriety of military action in a given case.  To put it another way, the question to be answered has to do with whether or not there are nonviolent approaches better suited to the dynamics of a particular circumstance.

In the practice of politics, good judgment is paramount.  As policymakers and as citizens, we find ourselves in constant need of that practical wisdom that Christian and Muslim thinkers alike describe in terms of the virtue of prudence—a kind of capacity by which human beings are able to navigate the complexities of conflict, all the while keeping their vision fixed on the goals of justice and peace.   No single approach serves in all cases.  For that matter, one could say that in many circumstances, a combination of means proves necessary, as when diplomatic initiatives are reinforced by military force, as well as by actions taken at the level of civil society.  Where things go wrong, as in any number of contemporary cases, errors of judgment often seem to involve an inflated sense of the efficacy of armed force, and a corresponding lack of understanding that ultimately, most conflicts require a political solution.  The conflicts in Syria and in Iraq can serve as an example.  With most attention focused on military action designed to reign in Daesh (the Islamic State), we ought not lose sight of the political crisis of which this is a symptom, as are other jihadist groups.  The unavoidable question looming on the horizon is how to build institutions capable of providing people in the region with security and a sense of belonging. In other words, how might variously situated actors encourage modes of governance that may be considered legitimate, in that they serve the common good rather than the good of small and elite populations.

In the service of finding an answer, there can be no doubt that interpreters of the just war and jihad traditions, as others, stand in need of a sustained engagement with advocates of non-military modes of conflict transformation.  Until and unless we are willing to rule out armed force altogether, however, the vocabulary of just war and jihad traditions also remains necessary.  For my part, it makes sense to affirm the claim of classic and contemporary accounts of the old traditions, and to say that notions of just peace and just war are not mutually exclusive, but rather travel as a pair.

Photo by Los Angeles Catholic Worker


John Kelsay
John Kelsay is Distinguished Research Professor of Religion, Ethics, and Philosophy at The Florida State University. Kelsay focuses on religious ethics, particularly in relation to the Islamic and Christian traditions. His current work deals with religion and politics. Professor Kelsay serves as editor of Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal, as well as Director of FSU’s Center for Humanities and Society.

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