Pacifist/Just-war Dialog Starters

An attempt…to justify [a] war for the individual Christian citizen, after it has been judged incompatible with the ministry of the church, is a refusal to be honest with the absolute priority of church over state in the plan of God.
– John Howard Yoder, The Christian Witness to the State

For members of the discipleship community, there are two choices in regard to the morality of war.  The first is the just-war theory, and the second is total pacifism.  There is no other way.

Pacifists and just-war theorists hold much more in common than they hold in opposition.  For instance, pacifists and just-war theorists both hold that a Christian’s loyalty to the way of Christ comes before any loyalty to the nation-state, and thus deny the ultimate lordship of Caesar.  Both hold that war as such is an evil that must be reigned in as much as possible.  And both are willing to face the wrath of the nation-state rather than violating their ‘unrealistic’ moral commitments.

So it is a tragedy that the majority of efforts of both parties go into protesting the other rather than into their mutual goals of reigning in violence and witnessing to the lordship of Christ.

To begin dialogue, I would propose the following conversation starters.

  • Given that the majority of church-goers know nothing of either pacifism or just-war doctrine, and simply support whatever wars their national leaders tell them to, how can we educate the church on these matters?
  • Seeing that so many in the world pay lip service to the just-war tradition while denying it both in bellum and in bello, on the basis that warfare itself has changed since the formulation of the theory, what specific applications can we make for the theory in modern- and future-war scenarios?
  • What can be done in an increasingly post-Christendom age to strengthen the restraints on national fighting deemed out of line with just-war criteria?  This is as important to the pacifist as to the just-war theorist.
  • A war that does not meet just-war criteria is not an “unjust war.”  From a Christian perspective, there is no such thing as an unjust war.  A war that does not meet the criteria is something other than war – it is terrorist action, or genocide, or something else.  How can the church witness to the just-war doctrine specifically in its use of language?
  • Just-war doctrine developed primarily out of the writings of Plato and Aristotle, which Augustine and later Aquinas developed.  How can the church develop and practice a more Christocentric just-war doctrine?
  • Would we be willing to call for surrender before supporting a war effort that could not be won without resorting to unjust methods of warfare?
  • In the aftermath of WWII, the Nuremberg trials made it clear that an individual is morally and criminally responsible to disobey an unjust order, yet selective service laws in the United States continued to specifically disallow draftees from being conscientiously opposed to specific wars.  While across-the-board pacifists could qualify for CO status and be placed in other national service positions, just-war objectors had the choice to serve or be jailed.  While the U.S. doesn’t seem likely to reinstitute a draft, how can both pacifist and just-war churches support one another in their commitment not to shed blood unjustly?
  • Many just-war churches have members serving in branches of the armed services.  What kind of support can be given to these members in times when the church deems a particular war their members are fighting in, or the means used to fight it, unjust?
  • Many pacifist churches (particularly the Quakers) are tapped to address international conflict before it turns to formal declaration of war, but considered irrelevant once the fighting begins.  How can pacifist and just-war churches form partnerships that are effective at all levels of international conflict?

Before much of this dialogue can take place, there needs to be an overarching discussion with frankness and repentance on both sides.  Too often pacifist churches have simply washed their hands of service to the world and withdrawn into sectarianism.  Too often just-war churches have given lip service to the just-war doctrine while practically supporting whatever war their nation calls on them to support.  Too often pacifists have refused to work with their just-war brothers and sisters, and have judged them as lovers of violence.  Too often just-war churches have disregarded their pacifist brothers’ and sisters’ call to a life of total discipleship.

Much of the dialogue will be over the nature and apparent shortcomings of just-war doctrine, as well as the nature and apparent shortcomings of pacifist withdrawal.  Ultimately, parachurch ministries not unlike the Fellowship of Reconciliation need to be created, bridging the pacifist and just-war divide, working for common goals, such as the witness to the supremacy of Christ and the abolition of war.

As a pacifist or just-warrior, do you resonate with these thoughts, or find fault with them?  How can such dialogue be fostered in the first place?  Help me out here.


  1. Introduction to Just War Theory from
  2. The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, A Pastoral Letter on War and Peace by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops
  3. Beyond Just War and Pacifist: Nonviolent Struggle Toward Justice, Freedom and Peace in The Ecumenical Review, by Gene Sharp
  4. Speak Truth to Power: A Quaker Search for an Alternative to Violence by the American Friends Service Committee

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