Leaving behind the concept of “just war”

The following report on the April conference was written by Ana Raffai, a nonviolence trainer from Croatia who attended the gathering, and was published in the Summer 2016 newsletter of Church and Peace, an European ecumenical network of peace churches, and peace-church oriented congregations, communities and service agencies.

Should we become atheists in order to understand that nuclear arms do not fit with the gospel and Christian faith? Or should we be agnostics to understand that any war is a mistake, that it is a lie – because war destroys what it claims to defend?

Such provocative questions were heard at the conference on “Nonviolence and just peace: a contribution to Catholic understanding and a commitment to nonviolence”, which took place on the invitation of the Pontifical Council for Justitia et Pax and Pax Christi International from 11 to 13 April in Rome.

The conference brought together 85 people from all over the world. Most of them are active in working for peace and human rights, and have a rich fund of knowledge about theology and peace theory. Priests and bishops, the members of Justitia et Pax are important for the support of nonviolent strategies in the work of the Roman Catholic Church. One of them was Bishop [Luigi] Bettazzi, one of the few remaining bishops who was at the Second Vatican Council, who radiates the spirit of Vatican II as he struggles for a church seeking justice.

Nonviolence is on its way back again in the work of the Roman Catholic Church. It is not a matter of inventing something new but of returning to the sources – to the experience of the early church. This means doing without the concept of “just war”, a concept which does not achieve its purpose of controlling war but instead has often served to legitimise it. Two basic aspects of nonviolence were represented at the conference: nonviolence as forming trust and relationships, and nonviolence as the struggle for justice, a catalyst to bring conflicts into the open, a strategy of resistance against injustice.

Several participants, above all priests and laypeople from Africa, had been living in circumstances of direct violence for decades. They stressed how important it was to build trust again and find strategies for nonviolent action based on dialogue or the readiness to dialogue. It was shattering to listen to the victims of abductions who underline their trust of every person, even to those who took them hostage. They bore witness to the fact that their attitude of loving the enemy, encouraged by the example of Jesus‘ humanity, had saved them from mortal danger. This attitude appealed to the humanity of their opponents. They were convinced that even among enemies there must be individuals willing to enter into dialogue. In their experience, dialogue begins not with the perpetrators themselves but with victims of violence, particularly women.

Some participants stressed that nonviolence was more than “not killing” and that condemning war was not enough to abolish war. Nonviolence is also a strategy in countering injustice, developing resistance strategies and methods of action. Dialogue is often no longer possible in the context of social injustices and it is not good – when thinking about nonviolence – to restrict it to dialogue. Sometimes nonviolent actions can create the necessary pressure to enable dialogue. In order to realise nonviolent alternatives, we leave the concept of just war behind us. That involves no longer using the term. It also means promoting ideas about nonviolence in educational situations, primarily in religious education, and enabling people to take nonviolent action.

French philosopher Jean-Marie Muller said that the world is ready to accept the nonviolent alternative. Maria Stephan’s research shows that nonviolent strategies are a successful model for action. It is crucial that all those involved in social change should participate. Everyone should ask the basic question regarding nonviolent action: what kind of person would I like to become thanks to this change? The goal of nonviolent resistance to injustice is to awaken humanity in every person. This nonviolent vision is founded on the understanding that everyone wants to be seen, heard and loved. From human encounter, inspired by Jesus, grows nonviolent change, which is always a free decision. This decision makes it clear what God we believe in, the Dieu des armées (God of armies) or a Dieu désarmé (unarmed God). Muller humorously calls the confusion about the admission of violence in the Christian context a “spelling mistake”.

Social changes call for new theologies and approaches to peace. The latest research shows the weakness of the R2P (responsibility to protect) concept, i.e. the moral obligation to defend the victims of violence with the use of force. Instead, the accompanying concept is to be developed, that of support through presence with the victims, so that the victims of violence are strengthened in their resistance, e.g. in Mexico or Colombia. Although the extent of violence is immense, the victims call for the immediate end to all violence, which they hope to achieve through their nonviolent resistance.

The powerful effect of the Rome conference derived from the participants, who were resolved to continue with their nonviolent activity. They gathered in order to change the paradigm of their strong church: away from a just war towards active nonviolence. With their well-founded enthusiasm for nonviolence they are endeavouring to “infect” Catholics all over the world. The final declaration of this conference is a real tool: an occasion for dialogue, in particular with representatives of the institutional church. The peace-builders are also willing to engage in dialogue and have formed an open working group that will continue the work.

Photo of Ana Raffai and Gerald Schlabach by Gerry Lee, Maryknoll

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