top of page

Just War, Just Peace, Or What?


What should our attitude -- as individuals, social movements and nations -- be toward war? When, if ever, is war justifiable either as to our own participation or as a decision of a nation or social movement? How do we get to a meaningful peace? These questions have been discussed and debated for millennia, and may be even more vital in this day of advanced weaponry. They have been discussed by people from many different religious traditions, and from none. I will present some background and perspectives on the subject, primarily reflecting the ways Christians have grappled with these questions.

For the first three centuries after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, Christians were largely agreed that a follower of Jesus Christ could not be involved in the killing of other human beings. [1] For example, early church leader Tertullian (155-230 A.D.) said, "Under no circumstances should a true Christian draw the sword." Other prominent early church leaders such as Origen, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement, and Athanasius similarly held that a Christian could not be part of killing people.

In this period, the primary concern of the Christian community was the faithfulness of the believer. They were much less concerned with addressing how the state should act. The emphasis was on being a faith community which exemplified the way of life to which they were called by Christ, not on directly influencing the political sphere. The early Christian emphasis on believers not engaging in war was strongly reflected later in the testimony of the Historic Peace Churches (Quakers, Mennonites and Brethren).

With the conversion of Emperor Constantine, there was no longer the separation of the Christian community from the state which had existed in earlier days. Constantine was a great general, and the change in political status of the church resulted in church leaders revisiting the question of war and peace, this time with greater concern for the legitimacy of state actions.

Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas and others in the early decades of Constantinian Christianity developed a view of war called the Just War Theory (JWT), which became the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church. The JWT assumes war may be justified under certain circumstances, and is concerned with the criteria to be used to determine whether a war is just.

In its November 1993 statement, The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace [2], the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops outlines two sets of JWT criteria. The first set is about when lethal force may be justified:

  • Just Cause: force may be used only to correct a grave, public evil, i.e., aggression or massive violation of the basic rights of whole populations;

  • Comparative Justice: while there may be rights and wrongs on all sides of a conflict, to override the presumption against the use of force the injustice suffered by one party must significantly outweigh that suffered by the other;

  • Legitimate Authority: only duly constituted public authorities may use deadly force or wage war;

  • Right Intention: force may be used only in a truly just cause and solely for that purpose;

  • Probability of Success: arms may not be used in a futile cause or in a case where disproportionate measures are required to achieve success;

  • Proportionality: the overall destruction expected from the use of force must be outweighed by the good to be achieved;

  • Last Resort: force may be used only after all peaceful alternatives have been seriously tried and exhausted.

The second set is the moral standards for the conduct of armed conflict:

  • Noncombatant Immunity: civilians may not be the object of direct attack, and military personnel must take due care to avoid and minimize indirect harm to civilians;

  • Proportionality: in the conduct of hostilities, efforts must be made to attain military objectives with no more force than is militarily necessary and to avoid disproportionate collateral damage to civilian life and property;

  • Right Intention: even in the midst of conflict, the aim of political and military leaders must be peace with justice, so that acts of vengeance and indiscriminate violence, whether by individuals, military units or governments, are forbidden.

Within the Catholic Church as well as the rest of the Christian community, there has been increasing discussion about whether the JWT needs to be revisited. Most notably, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who has since become Pope Benedict XVI) said in a press conference about the Iraq War on May 2, 2003, "given the new weapons that make possible destructions that go beyond the combatant groups, today we should be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a 'just war'."

In my opinion, JWT has been a failure. Although widely accepted in theory, it seems to have done little to forestall wars or to impact how they are conducted. Instead, the idea that wars can be justified has been used as a cover to justify wars of leaders' own choosing. Generally those who conduct wars claim their wars are just, even though they don't really meet the JWT criteria. And there will usually be religious leaders who will bless each war their nation conducts, like the five evangelical leaders who blessed the Iraq War -- which any honest analysis would show fell far short of JWT criteria -- in a letter to then President Bush. [3] And, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger recognized, modern warfare with its ability to kill remotely usually results in a large majority of casualties being civilians rather than combatants.

In recent years, there has been increasing discussion of the concept of just peace. This has not jelled into a codified theory which churches or other groups have adopted. In fact, there are some very different tendencies among those who have written or spoken of the concept, which I will address here as two different streams, although the reality of the dialogue on this concept is more complex than that.

One stream seems to be basically a refinement of JWT, or even a broader attempt to justify contemporary wars. In a May 2003 editorial for the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University [4], John Moser suggests a just peace theory based on the concept of war not being so horrible due to technological advances, including non-lethal weapons. President Obama, in his Nobel Peace Prize speech [5], spoke of a just peace based on respect for human rights. The President acknowledged that "this concept of 'just war' was rarely observed." However, he said, "the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace." The President has gone on to lead the nation in conducting three simultaneous wars abroad, and using Special Forces in 120 countries. Some might wonder if the President's approach is really a contemporary version of the "Pax Romana" of Jesus' time where the theory was that peace is something a dominant imperial power imposes by force on the world.

The other stream seems to be concerned with uniting the ancient Christian abhorrence of war with a sensitivity to the social conditions which foster peace. One inspiration for this is the Riverside Church speech given by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. [6] In it, he spoke of "the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism," thus tying together peace and social justice issues.

Just Peace Theory in this stream has been developed by Christian ethicists such as Dr. Glen Harold Stassen [7] and Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon [8]. Dr. Dixon unambiguously writes, "there is no such thing as a just war." [9] She maintains that "our security is found, not in the power of the military, but in the power of a better idea, in the power of a better vision of what it means to be human." [10] She elaborates, "A just peace is only possible through the presence of justice." [11]

The holistic vision of Jesus, Dr. King, Dr. Stassen and Dr. Dixon seems to me to be what the world needs. It reflects the fact that the means does condition the ends. You don't get peace by waging war. You don't get justice by acting unjustly. While the President and conventional wisdom may deride this vision as too idealistic and impractical, I believe it is in fact the only practical way to achieve a far better world.

One way of addressing the question of the practicality of eschewing war is the theory of the creativity of the foreclosed option. [12] When you foreclose one option, it inspires human creativity to explore other options that one might never have even dreamed about without the one option being foreclosed. Violent "solutions" seem quick and easy. We are used to using them. We tend to ignore the long-term negative impacts they have. If we foreclose the use of violence, we may be forced to draw upon our creativity to find other alternatives. While they may be harder to envision and perhaps even implement, they may not have the negative side effects that violent approaches have.

The wave of predominantly nonviolent topplings of oppressive regimes we have seen in my lifetime are a good example. The initiators of these efforts often did not come from a basis of religious or ideological commitment to nonviolence. However, seeing the regime's massive ability to use violence, they have determined that violent overthrow was impractical. Thus they have often adopted a nonviolent discipline which results in massive sympathy for them when the regime uses violence against them.

Examples can be seen in other areas such as foreclosing abortion and foreclosing the eating of meat. Having worked in the environmental area, I am keenly aware in the history of environmental regulation that industries which argued that the regulations would impose insurmountable burdens found that instead they unleashed the creativity of their scientists and engineers, and that the costs of compliance were often far less than anticipated and in some cases companies actually achieved savings through more efficient, more environmentally responsible processes.

What we need is more people pursuing the opportunity for a better world which can be realized by adopting a holistic just peace ethic and unleashing human creativity by foreclosing options where the means are inconsistent with the ends sought.

Bill Samuel has been involved in the peace movement since his childhood in the 1950s. As a teenager in the 1960s, he became involved in the civil rights movement, with his first arrest or "baptism by fire" (as a pastor called it) at age 16 in an open housing sit-in. In the 1970s, he began to be involved also in the pro-life movement. He currently serves as President of Consistent Life (, an international network for peace, justice, and life.


[1] For an excellent recent scholarly work on this subject, see Consistently Pro-Life: The Ethics of Bloodshed in Ancient Christianity by Rob Arner, Pickwick Publications, 2010.

[2] The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace, A Reflection of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops on the Tenth Anniversary of The Challenge of Peace, November 17, 1993,

[3] Letter to President George W. Bush, October 3, 2002, from the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, signed by Richard D. Land, Chuck Colson, Bill Bright, D. James Kennedy and Dr. Carl D. Herbster,

[4] John Moser, Do We Need a "Just Peace" Theory?, May 2003, Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs,

[5] See for text of speech

[6] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Beyond Vietnam -- A Time to Break Silence, Delivered 4 April 1967, Riverside Church, New York City,

[7] Glen Harold Stassen, Just Peacemaking, Westminster John Knox Press, 1992.

[8] See Valerie Elverton Dixon's Just Peace Theory Web site at

[9] From a Just War to a Just Peace Paradigm, Valerie Elverton Dixon, August 10, 2007, p. 1.

[10] Ibid, p. 4

[11] Beyond War and Peace, Valerie Elverton Dixon, December 23, 2009, p. 1.

[12] I am indebted here to the work of Dr. Rachel MacNair in The Psychology of Peace: An Introduction, Praeger, 2003, see particularly pp. 99-100.

Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.

bottom of page