Stumbling Toward a Just Peace

In the mid-1980s, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ voted for our denomination to become a "Just Peace" church. This was seen as an alternative to the Christian model of "Just War" which sanctioned war under some conditions. Just Peace, on the other hand, tried to envision a world without war -- a world where just systems of commerce and diplomacy would negate the need for war.

The question we face today is how to employ "Just Peace" as a working model for peace building in a world so torn apart and complex. Without question, the complexities we face now are even more difficult to navigate from what those seeking peace during the Cold War encountered. Can "Just Peace" be a model for addressing the messy conflict in Syria and Iraq, which involves the terrorist group ISIS?

Theologically, Just Peace is predicated on the belief that...

Just Peace is grounded in covenant relationship. God creates and calls us into covenant, God's gift of friendship: "I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them; and I will bless them and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore" (Ezekiel 37:26). When God's abiding presence is embraced, human well-being results, or Shalom, which can be translated Just Peace.

The concept of a Just Peace was originally developed within the context of the Cold War and largely within the confines of Christian bodies, both Protestant and Roman Catholic. With the end of the Cold War the Just Peace movement largely went dormant. In the last decade, however, new life within the movement has emerged and this time the movement has been reborn as an interfaith enterprise.

Ten organizing principles were developed to advance Just Peace, and have now been expanded to include Christian, Islamic and Jewish perspectives in the recent book Interfaith Just Peacemaking, with The Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite as editor:

1. Support nonviolent direct action.

2. Take independent initiatives to reduce threat.

3. Use cooperative conflict resolution.

4. Acknowledge responsibility for conflict and injustice and seek repentance and forgiveness.

5. Advance democracy, human rights, and religious liberty.

6. Foster just and sustainable economic development.

7. Work with emerging cooperative forces in the international system.

8. Strengthen the United Nations and international efforts for cooperation and human rights.

9. Reduce offensive weapons and weapons trade.

10. Encourage grassroots peacemaking groups and voluntary associations.

These principles, which Glen Stassen also first helped to develop, have the potential to help create a more just and peaceful world.

While many Christians are pacifists, with great Biblical justification, other Christians have found room within these principles to advocate a "responsibility to protect" in the event of genocide or other crimes against humanity. I myself advocated limited military intervention in Libya to stop Col. Muammar Gaddafi and his forces from carrying out their clear intent to inflict massive civilian casualties in a vain and hopeless attempt to maintain their grip on power.

Still, my default position is always non-violence. Even with the best of intentions the use of violence always falls somewhere in the category of sin. Violence is always a failure of the human imagination.

Others, however, disagree and believe that non-violence should always be employed. I am myself reminded of that quote from The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. which reads: "The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it..."

What then should our response be to ISIS, Syria and others who would commit genocide or employ the use of chemical weapons?

The Friends Committee of National Legislation recently released a letter signed by over 50 leading theologians. In read, in part:

We understand and deeply share the desire to protect people, especially civilians. However, even when tactics of violent force yield a short term displacement of the adversary's violence, such violence toward armed actors is often self-perpetuating, as the retributive violence that flares up in response will only propitiate more armed intervention in a tit-for-tat escalation without addressing the root causes of the conflict. We see this over and over again. It is not "necessary" to continue down this road of self-destruction, as Pope Francis called the hostilities of war the "suicide of humanity."

The signers of the letter call for numerous "just peace" steps: They call for strengthening international bodies working to bring stability and relief to the region, call for an arms embargo to be enforced among all the plays, demand a disruption the "Islamic State's $3 million/day oil revenue from the underground market" be halted immediately, that renewed efforts to bring reconciliation and peace building to Iraq's tattered post-invasion society being initiated by the international community, and that U.S. airstrikes that so-often fuel resentment be halted while humanitarian aid is increased. These are "Just Peace" principles put into action.

President Obama, who has come under fire for not rushing into the civil war in Syria or committing ground troops to fight ISIS in northern Iraq, understands the power of the just peace model. He said when accepting the Noble Peace Prize that our times "require us to think in new ways about the notions of just war and the imperatives of a just peace."

The president went on to say:

..."peace is not merely the absence of visible conflict. Only a just peace based on the inherent rights and dignity of every individual can truly be lasting."

And that:

"...a just peace includes not only civil and political rights -- it must encompass economic security and opportunity. For true peace is not just freedom from fear, but freedom from want.

It is undoubtedly true that development rarely takes root without security; it is also true that security does not exist where human beings do not have access to enough food, or clean water, or the medicine and shelter they need to survive. It does not exist where children can't aspire to a decent education or a job that supports a family. The absence of hope can rot a society from within."

President Obama clearly aspires to seek a justice peace even as we acknowledge that six years into his presidency the complexities of our age have made the work difficult at best.

The biggest obstacles to peace in our time include not just power hungry leaders intent on conquest but world citizens paralyzed into inaction when faced with the magnitude of our problems and a sizable minority of the American population that has abandoned reason and logic for absolutes that end dialogue and crumble the common good.

This op-ed is excerpted from a sermon delivered at Forest Grove United Church of Christ in Oregon on September 7, 2014.