Omaha, Nebraska
Spring 1991
Volume 2, Number 2

Just War: Pacifism is Legitimate Option for Christians

Maryanne Stevens
Theology Department

From the first to the fourth century of the Christian era, most Christians would neither engage in Rome's military campaigns nor justify killing as a means to achieve one's goals. Jesus and his early followers stood in the Jewish prophetic tradition which hoped for an era of peace in which swords would be beaten into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4). Christians were not generally welcome in the Roman army and were barred from posts in the government because they refused to participate in the sacramentum militare, regarded as a necessary political act by the Romans. This was a quasi-religious ceremony honoring the emperor as lord and gift of the gods.

With Constantine's conversion (c. 313) and the struggles of the theologian Augustine (430) to reconcile earthly existence with Christian perfection, a theory of just violence became deeply rooted in Christian theology. Augustine found it impossible to untangle the good and the evil in earthly existence. Good is an aspect of evil, and evil both a source and a possible outcome of the good it seeks to achieve. Thus, because the rejection of violence could have a terrible price, one might have to accept the otherwise morally unacceptable alternative to engage in violence. Using work previously enunciated by various scholars, Augustine elaborated several principles for the conduct of a just war. Subsequently Thomas Aquinas (1274), Thomas More (1535), and various other church leaders have added to the "just war theory."

Violence is morally unacceptable because the presumption is always against taking the life of a human person. The human is understood to be made in God's image and likeness. This belief was confirmed in Jesus, who in human form, clearly and definitively reflected God and allowed all that was human to be embraced by God. However the just war theory permits a competent authority to reluctantly use violence to restore peace when all other means of negotiation have been exhausted and a just cause and the probability of success exist. However, the damage inflicted must be proportionate to the good expected by taking up arms, and non-combatants must be respected. When non-violence and justice are not simultaneously available, the just war theory grants priority to justice within the narrow boundaries of the principles enunciated. The most pressing questions for the just war theorist today arise because of the destructive power of modern weapons, which is far beyond the comprehension of the tradition. Largely because of these weapons, many Christian leaders question the acceptability of war as a means of settling disputes among nations.

Pacifism is also a legitimate option for Christians. The Christian pacifist refuses to recognize any justified use of violent force. Relying on Jesus' willingness to accept an unjust execution and on the understanding of God as the one who holds ultimate responsibility for ushering in the fullness of justice and peace, the pacifist argues that taking up arms in the cause of justice is self-defeating. The force of arms is only a sinful obstacle to God's coming. The pacifist, in contrast to the just war adherent, grants priority to non-violence and is willing to tolerate injustice if justice is only available through violence.

Pacifism and just war theory share common ground in recognizing survival as a relative value. The fullness of God's reign of love and justice is an eschatological reality, not available in history.