Is there such a thing as a just war? Can the massive death and destruction of armed conflict ever be morally justified by followers of the Prince of Peace?
For the first disciples of Christ the answer was a resounding “No!” During the first 300 years of Christianity it was unthinkable for followers of the nonviolent Jesus to kill a human being. They took most seriously Jesus’ command: “But to you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other as well. … Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”
Typical of early church teaching on nonviolence, St Clement of Alexandria said to wealthy Christians: “Contrary to the rest of men enlist for yourself an army without weapons, without war, without bloodshed, without wrath, without stain – pious old men, orphans dear to God, widows armed with gentleness, men adorned with love.”
In 1982, St John Paul II declared: “Today, the scale and horror of modern warfare – whether nuclear or not – makes it totally unacceptable as a means of settling differences between nations.”
Pacifism, the just war theory, and war are very personal issues for me. Over 33 years ago, I was honorably discharged from the US Army as a conscientious objector. While firing an M-16 at pop-up targets, I realized as a follower of the nonviolent Jesus I could not aim a weapon at another human being, pull the trigger, and kill him or her.
After the US-led invasion of Iraq, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI – then known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – prophetically said, “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.’”
So, within a prayerful, honest and respectful atmosphere, the Catholic Church and all Christian churches desperately need to seriously study, debate, dialogue and reevaluate the just war theory in light of the nonviolent Jesus, the early church’s pacifist stance, the impossibility of satisfying all of the just war theory’s principles, the immeasurable indiscriminate harm caused by war – including the vast resources wasted that should instead be used to help the world’s poor – and the unhealthy nationalism and militarism adhered to by countless Christians.
It is essential for us to remember the words of the famous Trappist monk Thomas Merton: “The God of peace is never glorified by human violence.”
Recently Pope Francis prayed, “Lord God of peace, hear our prayer! “We have tried so many times and over so many years to resolve our conflicts by our own powers and by the force of our arms. … how much blood has been shed … our efforts have been in vain.
“Now, Lord, come to our aid … Give us the courage to say: ‘Never again war’ … Make us sensitive to the plea of our citizens who entreat us to turn our weapons of war into implements of peace.
“Lord, defuse the violence of our tongues and our hands. Renew our hearts and minds, so that the word which always brings us together will be ‘brother,’ and our way of life will always be that of : Shalom, Peace, Salaam!”
And to that, let the people of God say Amen!
Tony Magliano is a US-based, internationally syndicated social justice and peace columnist.
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