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LEADER RESOURCE 3: Beyond Just War and Pacifism

From an article, "Prophetic Nonviolence," by Paul Rasor, which appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of UU World. Used with the author's permission.

I believe we can move beyond this old divide by adopting an integrated model I call prophetic nonviolence. To move "beyond just war and pacifism" is not to abandon either tradition; it is to recognize that both perform important roles in our ongoing efforts to reduce the violence of war.

I begin with a fundamental commitment to nonviolence. Unitarian Universalists have always affirmed peace as among our most basic values. We have always worked to create the kinds of just communities out of which peace emerges, and we have long supported the use of nonviolent methods of conflict resolution. This is the legacy we share with pacifism.

At the same time, Unitarian Universalism has always been an engaged religion, one that tries to make a difference in the world. An important part of this engagement is our tradition of speaking prophetically—of bringing reasoned judgment and critique to bear on the social conditions that generate injustice and violence. In the context of war, this commitment has been well served by the just war model.

My proposal for prophetic nonviolence links our deep commitment to nonviolence with our historical practice of prophetic critique, and it is supported by several commonalities between the pacifist and just war traditions. Both share a presumption against war, a presumption based in part on a moral duty not to harm. Both put peace in the center of their ethical thinking and relegate war to the margins. Keeping peace in the center helps focus our critique and reminds us of the importance of peacemaking and other violence-prevention strategies.

In addition, both just war and pacifism are concerned with the limits of loyalty to the state. This is more obvious in religious pacifism, which often speaks of a higher loyalty to God. But this concern is also present in the just war model. By placing the burden of proof on those who would justify the use of force, the presumption against war reflects a basic suspicion of official claims. Ethicist Joseph Fahey says: "Today's nation states presume that young men and women are willing to kill other young men and women for their flag." This presumption is reflected in our national policies toward conscientious objectors, for example, who must make a case for not taking up arms. Both the pacifist and just war traditions take a principled stand against the official presumption that young people must be prepared to kill at the behest of the state.

Finally, the recent trend toward pacifism in many non-peace churches suggests a growing convergence of the two traditions. Roman Catholic teaching now recognizes just war and nonviolence as "distinct but interdependent methods of evaluating warfare" for both individuals and states. Fahey notes a similar shift in the liberal and mainline Protestant churches, which traditionally have depended on the just war model. "[T]he return in the late twentieth century to pacifism," he writes, "is perhaps the most notable feature of contemporary Christian teaching on war and peace." Our denominational study process may tell us whether Unitarian Universalists are moving in a similar direction.

Bases for critique

In our prophetic critique of the government's justifications for war, we will naturally draw on the just war criteria. These have a built-in familiarity and a rich set of interpretive traditions that make them extremely useful for this purpose, and public discourse about particular wars is likely to be carried on in just war language. However, as helpful as these criteria may be, we must remember that our real criteria—the true bases for our prophetic critique—are our own theological principles. Our critique must be our critique, grounded in our religious values and historical practices. Unitarian Universalist theological principles relevant to a UU response to war include these:

  • We affirm the basic unity of all existence. Beneath our individuality and our enormous diversity lies a profound relationality—an interdependent web—that connects us. This unity helps us envision a world in which there is no Other to war against.
  • Love is one of the deepest theological principles in our tradition. By affirming the value of love, we commit ourselves to creating relationships of compassion, respect, mutuality, and forgiveness. We commit ourselves to loving our neighbor, and to seeing everyone as our neighbor. We are challenged to think about how love might apply to international relations.
  • We affirm that all persons have inherent worth and dignity, including the right to a meaningful and fulfilling life. War obviously restricts the possibilities for human fulfillment.
  • Freedom is grounded in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Because human beings are free moral agents, any form of coercion or violence is an assault on our very humanity. War is the product of human choices, and human beings have the moral capacity to make different choices.
  • Justice is manifested in the right ordering of human relationships; war represents the breakdown of rightly ordered relationships. We have a religious obligation to create just communities and social structures, and an obligation to speak out against unjust practices and structures.
  • Power can be exercised for good or evil; it can create or destroy, liberate or oppress. War is an expression of coercive and violent power; peace and justice require cooperative forms of power. Power's ambiguous nature means that its use must be guided by our core values such as love and justice.

These principles suggest that in addition to applying the just war criteria, we must ask questions such as: Does this military action promote or inhibit unity among peoples? Does it express love and compassion toward our neighbors, or does it reflect fear and hate? Does it increase or restrict the possibilities for human freedom and fulfillment? Does it contribute to the creation of right relationships and just social structures, or does it harm these relationships? What kinds of power are being used, and by whom? These kinds of assessments will add power and depth to our prophetic practice.

Our challenge

Whatever position we adopt as a denomination, we need to be as clear and as theologically grounded as possible. Clarity will best serve individual members and congregations in their own discernment processes, and it will provide the most effective basis for strong prophetic critique. Any stance we adopt will be ineffective if it is simply a reaction to the current political situation. Instead, it must be a genuine expression of our Unitarian Universalist theological principles and religious values.

We need to honor the differences that exist among us. Any statement worth making will surely provoke disagreement. This is not a reason to avoid the issue or to take so noncommittal a stance that we don't really say anything. But we need to be careful to welcome and honor those who hold different views, and perhaps to remind ourselves that one of the tenets of liberalism is that nothing is ever finally settled.

We must avoid the dangers of political correctness. We don't have a very good record on this count. The ostracism suffered by those who held minority positions during World War I and the Vietnam War reflects an unfortunate streak of illiberal self-righteousness that runs deep, as any Republican in our midst can testify. By drawing on the commonalities between the just war and pacifist traditions and by emphasizing our Unitarian Universalist theological principles, I have tried to show that it is possible to formulate a position that can be endorsed by pacifists and just war advocates alike. My own proposal is surely not the only possible synthesis. Yet a question that haunts me is whether our members who serve in the military would feel less welcome if my proposal were adopted as a denominational stance. I truly hope not.

Whatever our individual views, we need to treat each other with compassion, respect, and love as we move through this process. However inclusive our intentions and our language, we cannot eliminate all disagreement, nor should we try to do so. The very process of discussion through disagreement can help clarify our ideas and make us aware of the unintended consequences of our own words. At the same time, we need to remember that we belong to a shared religious tradition and that our disagreements reflect our deeper levels of agreement—our shared theological principles and our shared commitment to peace.

Our current study process presents an opportunity to clarify our thinking, to air some long-hidden differences, and to make a strong public statement in support of our deepest values on one of the most important issues of our time. May we accept the challenge in a spirit of love and grace.

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Last updated on Saturday, December 10, 2011.

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