This week marks my one year anniversary working for the Unitarian Universalist Association as the Program Associate for Peacemaking. Working with amazing theologians, peace activists and dedicated Unitarian Universalists, I have learned a lot about what UU peacemaking looks like. In the next few days, I will be sharing just a few of the many realizations I have made when it comes to UU Peacemaking.

Monday: No Creed, No Peace Testament
Tuesday: Unitarian*Universalists’ long and difficult relationship with peace
Wednesday: Just War and Pacifism—A False Dichotomy
Thursday: Theology of Conflict
Friday: No Justice, No Peace

Just War and Pacifism—A False Dichotomy

As we have engaged in our Congregational Study/Action Issue on peace in our faith community, we have run up against a rather large wall. Many people think it is folly to study peace. People are afraid that if we devote our lives to peace, we will have to reject all violence. To reject violence in all its forms could essentially tie our hands when it comes to protecting ourselves and each other.

In our world, we seem to be given two choices in the face of violence: to not react to the violence in the name of peace; or, to strike back in a way that is just and responsible.

However, to try to squeeze our lives into one of these world views or the other is extremely difficult. The balance between Just War and pacifism is tenuous when they are our only choices.

Take for instance, Just War–a medieval Christian philosophy developed by St. Thomas Aquinas about the moral responsibility of governments and armies while waging war. It reminds us that war is ultimately for protecting the good of the society. A good war, according to Just War theory, prevents damage to civilians, is retaliatory in nature and is comparative in size to the initial damages. By following these rules, war can be moral and just. However, we find that Just War may work in theory but rarely (if ever) in practice. We find it is much more just and moral to prevent war in the first place.

The other option is pacifism. Pacifism is a spiritual and political practice that prevents people from using violence in any form. Rather, pacifists choose to interact with the world without using force. Pacifism prevents followers from joining the military or police forces. Many pacifists also eat plant based diets and refuse participation in other violent aspects of our society. But many critics of pacifism question this practice in the face of intense and personal violence such as the case of invasion of house or home, sexual assault, or genocide. Much like Just War Theory, pacifism cannot work for everyone in every situation.

Where does that leave us? We, as compassionate people, find war unpalatable but also feel an urge to protect society.

If we are to look at Just War and pacifism as the only two options, we don’t have a whole lot of choices. We will be constantly oscillating between two impossible points, neither of which are all that liberatory. However, what if Just War and pacifism are two points on a spectrum of behavior and beliefs?

If we are to create this spectrum where people are free to move from one end to another according to different situations and scenarios, we are able to work for justice at all points. After all, direct physical violence is only one type of violence. Political structures and cultural mores can also give deep psychological or physical violence that could add to the direct, physical violence that occasionally erupts.

So, as we move on our spectrum from pacifism to Just War and back, we are able to address all forms of violence rather than reject it. We can use political and economic force against nations and companies that uphold genocidal policies in Darfur, as well as send peacekeeping troops.
We can empower the police to protect the streets and resist people who may want to do us harm. We can also struggle against unjust structures or cultural expectations that harm our psyches and souls such as inequal health care systems or racism and homophobia.

Furthermore, we can explore new possibilities for building justice rather than specifically working to end violence. We can imagine worlds in which wars are not necessary and conflicts are dealt with in a healthy and transformative manner. This is the difference between Negative Peace and Positive Peace I wrote about a year ago.

So, in the end, we find that Just War vs. pacifism is a false dichotomy. Instead, they are two points on a spectrum that welcomes all instead of alienating others. The Unitarian Universalist search for peace is not intended to determine whether Just War or pacifism are the ideals we uphold, but how do we react to conflict in a manner that heals the world.

For more information on how we balance pacifism and Just War in our daily lives, please read this small group ministries curriculum I developed on the topic. Or listen to our previous teleseminars from UU theologians and leaders on peacemaking.

About the Author
Alex Winnett

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