Originally posted in Commonweal By Gerald W. Schlabach May 31, 2017
A year ago I participated in the Nonviolence and Just Peace Conference, an historic event organized by Pax Christi International and co-sponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in Rome. At its close, the conference issued an appeal to the Catholic Church, urging that it “re-commit to the centrality of Gospel nonviolence.” The document reflected the consensus of eighty-some attendees from more than thirty countries—lay people, theologians, religious, and priests, including six bishops—that the church must abandon its reliance on “just-war” theory. By dedicating his 2017 World Day of Peace message to the theme, “Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace,” Pope Francis has signaled that church leadership is listening.
What is so wrong with the just-war theory? The answer lies in the way it overlooks and even undermines alternative approaches. The critique that emerged at the meeting was that while many Christians have come to assume that Jesus’ nonviolent teachings are impractical in the face of violence, they know little about the practice, power, or effectiveness of those teachings. When Pope John Paul II looked back on the 1989 revolution that brought down the Soviet empire, he did not credit Ronald Reagan or Mikhail Gorbachev, but resolute nonviolent action by ordinary people. And rightly so. Political-science researchers Maria Stephan (a participant at the Rome conference) and Erica Chenoweth have extensively surveyed conflicts around the world since 1900 and found that nonviolent resistance campaigns have been twice as successful as violent struggles.
Why have we relied on militarism and so often ignored the power of nonviolence? Arguably, the church’s centuries-old focus on “just war” bears great responsibility. In this view, just-war teaching has distracted Catholics from learning, developing, and practicing strategic nonviolence. At times it has excused them from even trying.
As an alternative, the conference called upon the Catholic Church to shift to a “Just Peace” framework for guiding its responses to war, violence, and injustice. Based in Gospel nonviolence, such an approach means much more than refraining from violence; in the words of the conference’s appeal, it offers a positive and proactive “vision and an ethic to build peace as well as to prevent, defuse, and to heal the damage of violent conflict,” even as it provides “specific criteria, virtues, and practices to guide our actions.” The conference’s request and great hope was that Pope Francis would issue an encyclical to call the church back to Jesus’ teachings and to underscore the power of active nonviolence.