General Assembly: GA Presentations: Presenter views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UUA.

Beyond Just War and Pacifism

General Assembly 2008 Event 2019
Presenter: Rev. Dr. Paul Rasor

The Rev. Dr. Paul Rasor introduced the participants to the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Committee Study/Action Issue (CSAI) initially posed at the 2006 General Assembly. Study of this issue will result in a Statement of Conscience to be considered in 2010:

  • Should the UUA reject the use of any and all kinds of violence and war to resolve disputes between peoples and nations, and adopt a principle of seeking just peace through nonviolent means?

Rasor shared two sub-questions which he has explored extensively in a recent UU World article, "Prophetic Nonviolence: Toward a UU Theology of War and Peace":

  • Should the UUA adopt a specific Just War policy to guide our witness, advocacy and social justice efforts?
  • Should UUA reject violence in any form?

Posing these sub-questions might incorrectly suggest that Just War theory and pacifism are incompatible ideas at opposite poles. In reality, Rasor says, they have much in common. Both share moral commitments to reduce violence and both are supported by UU principles of peace. Our challenge is to bridge this perceived divide by finding a hybrid solution.

Although Rasor has examined this topic in depth, Rasor confessed to the gathering that he now thinks he made a mistake, in terms of what he did not say in those two recent articles. Reflecting that he didn't go far enough, Rasor wants to explore a third alternative: the notion of just policing, an idea which may hold great promise.

Just War

Rasor outlined the Just War model and its two dominant versions. The "hard" model emphasizes the need to restore order as a condition for peace, thereby justifying military use. The "restrictive" model focuses on restoring social relationships. The latter is most consonant with pacifism and UU principles of world peace.

Just War criteria begin with presumption against war, and the burden of proof is on those who advocate war, making it a conditional pacifism. Just War theory assumes political leaders are morally accountable. On other hand, the Just War model can rationalize war and blur the moral boundaries. A deeper problem is that Just War may be part of an historical narrative which legitimizes war.


Difficult to define, pacifism is more that a philosophical stance opposing war.

The "absolute" model—opposition to war in any form, as a personal or religious commitment—is hard to find, and still harder to maintain. The "conditional" model is open to the possibility that military force may be necessary. But how to make such exceptions? The strength of pacifism, Rasor observes, is its focus on the moral priority of peace. However, some say pacifism precludes prophetic critique, and errs in ignoring the dynamics of a particular situation.

But we know the world has changed irrevocably since 9/11. Both Just War and pacifism are suited to traditional war, now an outmoded paradigm. New realities, such as terrorism, challenge these old doctrines. Having only two options—war or no war—is a limited palette. They offer solutions without true justice; it's not enough to 'just say no.'

Rasor then introduced two new alternatives based on these holes in the traditional approaches.

Just Peacemaking

Rasor calls just peacemaking a prevention strategy, encouraging practices that prevent war. It places focus on changing social and political structures that enable war, in order to promote democracy, the economy and humanitarian rights. Rasor sees this approach as complementary to the traditional ideas.

Just Policing

The idea of just policing gained momentum after 9/11 among people who felt that terrorism merits a response. By proposing a nonviolent response to situations of conflict, it is an alternative to both war and to inaction. Based on the assumption that policing is not the same as war, the actual practice of just policing would still need to be evaluated, in terms of sufficient cause, tactics, etc.

Here, Rasor sought direction from our theological principles. Does a policing mission promote unity? Does it lead to expression of love and compassion? Does it increase or restrict human freedom? Does it contribute to right relationships and social structures?

Whatever position we take, he declared, we should be as clear and theologically grounded as possible. Our CSAI will be ineffective if it simply reacts to current situations. While we must honor our differences in views of war, yet we must beware of being so noncommittal that we say nothing—a danger of political correctness.

We do well to remember the principled open-mindedness which can make us suspicious of finality, cautioned Rasor. We must be open to the possibility that we are wrong.

"We religious liberals let ourselves off the hook—we might be tempted to respond by saying debate of Just War and pacifism is irrelevant." He warns, "That would be a mistake."

The study process of discussing through disagreement can make us aware of consequences of our words, he said. It gives us an opportunity to clarify our differences and to make a statement of our deepest values. In this way, such study serves a pastoral as well as a political function.

About the Presenter

The Rev. Dr. Paul Rasor is director of the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom at Virginia Wesleyan College. An ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, he earned his Ph.D. in theology from Harvard Divinity School; he also holds degrees in music and law from the University of Michigan.

He is the author of Faith Without Certainty: Liberal Theology in the Twenty-first Century (Skinner House Books, 2005).

Reported by Toby Haber; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.