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Renewing the Peace Movement

One part of promoting a consistent ethic of life is a cause very dear to my heart, namely, the pursuit of peace, of finding ways for nations or other communities to resolve their conflicts nonviolently, without resort to the organized, large-scale killing that is war. In this piece, I will explain precisely how, as a Christian and specifically a Catholic, I understand the pursuit of peace and why this cause is important to me. I will then offer some comments on the peace movement in the contemporary United States: my hopes for this movement and future peace activities that I think could be valuable.

I should say that I am writing on these topics as a layman, in two different senses of the term. I am a layman in the literal sense: I am not a member of the Catholic clergy nor am I a theologian, a scripture scholar, or a church historian. I am simply a Catholic who tries (very imperfectly) to understand Church teaching on peace and war. I am also a layman in relation to the peace movement: I am not a veteran peace activist but only someone who has done some study of American peace activism and had a peripheral, sporadic involvement in certain peace movement activities. I hope my perspective, such as it is, will be useful to others concerned with peace activism, however.

My Catholic faith calls me to strive for peace. While the Catholic Church, unlike the “peace churches” such as the Quakers and Mennonites, is not pacifist and allows for war being justifiable, at least in theory, there is nevertheless a long tradition of Catholic peacemaking. This tradition arguably goes all the way back to Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount that “Blessed are the Peacemakers” and has continued since then (i). St. Augustine, although generally thought of as one of the fathers of the “just war theory”—the idea that war can be justified in certain circumstances—nevertheless wrote that “it is a higher glory still to slay war itself with the word than men with the sword, and to procure or maintain peace by peace, not by war (ii).” Various popes, both ancient and modern, have tried to act as peacemakers by mediating among nations: in the ancient world, Pope Innocent I (A.D. 402-417) served as a mediator between the Roman Empire and the Visigoth King Alaric I, and Leo I (440-461) made similar overtures to Attila the Hun and Genseric the Vandal; in the modern era, Pius IX (1846-1878) tried to mediate the Franco-German War of 1870, Leo XIII (1878-1903) argued for a papal role in international peacemaking, and Benedict XV (1914- 1922) exerted himself trying to make peace among the warring powers in the First World War (iii). More recently, the fathers of the Second Vatican Council’s declared in 1965 that “as it points out the authentic and noble meaning of peace and condemns the frightfulness of war, the Council fervently desires to summon Christians to cooperate with all men in making secure among themselves a peace based on justice and love, and in setting up agencies of peace. This Christians should do with the help of Christ, the Author of peace (iv)."

This rich Catholic tradition of pursuing peace is the most fundamental reason for my concern with the pursuit of peace. I also have two more specific and personal motivations for peacemaking. While I accept the Catholic notion of just war, contemplating actual historical wars leaves me with a rather different impression. The specific, real-life wars that I can claim to have some knowledge of are those closest to me in time and space, namely, the wars that my own country, the United States, has fought over roughly the last hundred years. Given what I know of those wars, I do not judge any of them to have been justified according to a strict application of contemporary standards for just war. Such a long history of fighting unjust wars—combined with the various other injustices of American foreign policy—makes me extremely skeptical about my government’s uses of military force. To show great caution in endorsing the use of such force and instead to pursue and promote alternatives to military force in international relations seems a much wiser course for Americans to follow, given our nation’s history.

The last reason why I am so concerned with peace activism is also the one that provides much of the passion and urgency I feel for this cause. Beginning in the 20th century, war has become deadly in a way that even the bloodiest wars of the past were not. Humanity now possesses weapons that can kill on a scale previously unknown and bring about what, with little exaggeration, can be called “the end of the world.” The dangers of nuclear war receive less attention today than they did at the height of the Cold War and the arms race, but they still exist. The United States and other nations still possess these weapons and—as the recent crisis with Russia over Ukraine and tensions with China in the Pacific region show— conflicts among nuclear powers can still arise. In the future we might not be as lucky in avoiding disaster.

Given this situation, finding stable and effective ways for nations to resolve their disputes peacefully, without being tempted to use or even threaten to use nuclear weapons, is imperative. The historian Michael Bess, in writing of the nuclear legacy of the Second World War, powerfully summed up the significance of our current situation:

Because, for all these reasons, I am concerned with peace, I would like to see the growth of a large, energetic peace movement in the United States. Major popular movements for peace have emerged in the United States in the past—most famously in the opposition to the Vietnam War, but also in the late 1950s and early 1960s against nuclear testing and in the 1980s against the nuclear arms race. A renewal of this kind of activism in the form of a stable coalition of people and groups that oppose wars and preparations for war by this country is sorely needed. Such a coalition, if large and active enough, would be a force in American political life that both major political parties would need to take into account and that could— perhaps—move national security policy in a more positive direction.

Such a movement could productively focus on a number of specific causes within the larger goal of peace: opposition to the use of drones and other new “high-tech” methods of killing (which I suspect will continue to be a major issue); opposition to what is euphemistically called “covert action” by particular branches of the military or intelligence agencies; and, of course, opposition to nuclear weapons. If a specific military action by the United States, such as the Iraq War, arises, peace activists can of course mobilize in opposition to that, but by also working against ongoing issues that are not tied to a specific conflict we can avoid being purely reactive to whatever crisis might in the news at the moment and—perhaps—can build up participation and institutional strength through sustained efforts.

I think champions of the consistent life ethic might be particularly well positioned to inspire a renewal of the American peace movement because we can draw recruits and ideas from pro-life activists, who are already highly motivated and organized. Different social movements can support and inspire each other—in the 20th century, the peace movement and civil rights movement had a mutually reinforcing relationship—and I think the pro-life movement and peace movement can help each other in this way. As we are all well aware, of course, pro-life activism has tended to be associated with a political agenda that includes support for American military interventions, but—as Life Matters Journal routinely proves—not all pro-lifers feel this way, and I think peace-minded pro-lifers can be the nucleus for at least one branch of a renewed peace movement.

Another energetic social movement that peace activists can reach out to as a potential source of support is the environmental movement—if peace activists return to the cause of opposing nuclear weapons that offers an obvious point in common with those concerned with protecting the environment.

Also, one technique that I think peace activists would do well to borrow from pro-lifers is the practice of having a major national gathering at the same time every year, such as the March for Life. I don’t expect such a gathering will generate much more media attention or other impressions on the wider world than the March for Life seems to, but these kinds of gatherings are very valuable for activists as opportunities to meet other activists, build networks, exchange ideas, and get energized. One possibility would be to try to hold such a gathering every August to mark the anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Such a gathering could be held in Los Angeles, San Francisco or another city with a large Japanese-American population. This type of location would also offer an opportunity to commemorate the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War and to take a stand not only against war but against the domestic civil liberties violations that so often accompany it.

Last, to attract as wide a following as possible, such a movement needs to be ideologically diverse. Just as the pro-life movement has been limited by its association with conservative politics, I think an overly close association between peace activism and progressive politics would be a disadvantage for the peace movement. To provide an illustration, the website for one of the oldest American peace groups, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, describes the Fellowship’s work by saying “we challenge economic exploitation, work to eradicate racism and religious intolerance, and call attention to imperialistic U.S. foreign policy (i)." These are all admirable and worthy goals, but the language used—particular the provocative phrase “imperialistic U.S. foreign policy”—is likely to appeal primarily to progressives while potentially alienating those with differing perspectives. Not everyone who opposes or is uneasy about American military intervention necessarily feels comfortable with the characterization of U.S. policy as “imperialistic” or agrees that economic exploitation and racism are closely connected with war.

Rather than appealing to a particular political constituency, a revitalized peace movement should welcome anyone who opposes American military intervention and the massive military establishment that makes such interventions possible. It should be open to a diversity of views on other political issues and on questions such as which influences or interests cause war or make it more likely. Activists of a social democratic bent, for example, might identify “economic exploitation” rooted in corporate influence or a capitalist economic system as the culprit. Those of a more libertarian persuasion might argue that excessive government power is to blame. The peace movement should be open to both views and not insist on either.

A broad, diverse peace movement can be a powerful force within American political life and we should begin the vital work of building it.

This article was adapted from a talk delivered at the Life/Peace/Justice Conference on March 29, 2014.


1. Matthew 5:9.

2. Letter to Darius, quoted in John Eppstein, The Catholic Tradition of the Law of Nations (Clark, NJ: The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 2008), Google eBook, 77.

3. Thomas J. Massaro, S.J., and Thomas A. Shannon, Catholic Perspectives on Peace and War (Landham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield), 16, 18-19.

4. Gaudium et Spes, 77; reprinted in David J. O’Brien and Thomas A. Shannon, Catholic Social Thought: The Documentary Heritage (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1995), 219.

5. Michael Bess, Choices under Fire: Moral Dimensions of World War II (New York: Vintage Books, 2008), 287.

6. “Demilitarizing Life and Land,” Fellowship of Reconciliation, accessed April 1, 2014,

photo courtesy of Jonathon Coleman, some rights reserved.

photo courtesy javacolleen, some rights reserved.


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.

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