Just War Theory – January 2002

Question: Does process theology call us to be pacifists or to support just war theory?

Publication Month: January 2002

Dr. Cobb’s Response

Process theology does not lend itself to absolutes, whereas much pacifism proceeds from the absolute rejection of killing people. Hence, the answer might be a fairly simple No. But there are also forms of pacifism that do not depend on absolutes. Pacifists can argue that war always does more harm than good, that there can be no solution to the escalation of evil and suffering by that means, that we should, accordingly, envision and witness to other possibilities. This kind of argument a process theologian must take very seriously.

Recently Marjorie Suchocki has written a book redefining sin as unnecessary violence. Part of her point is that sin is to be seen first and foremost as the evil we inflict on other creatures. Since war is organized and institutionalized violence of the most horrific sort, her argument certainly raises the question of whether it is ever “necessary.”

That question moves us closer to the traditional just war theory. The church has tried to specify the circumstances under which it is morally right to go to war. The theory is good, but the sad fact is that the church rarely addresses controversial concrete cases well. Time after time it is only pacifists who oppose unjust wars.

The theory requires not only that the cause be just but that in conducting such a war the costs will be low. That is, even if one has a just cause, this does not warrant paying a disproportionate price in the lives of one’s own citizens. Neither does it warrant inflicting huge injustices on the people of another country. And the war cannot be deemed “just” if success in rather short order is not probable.

It is obvious that such a theory cannot support both sides in a war. If one is just, the other is not. Most often neither side is justified. Yet rarely have churches condemned their own governments for going to war. It is true that a late stage in the Vietnam conflict, the Catholic bishops in the United States declared that this was not a just war. Unfortunately, they made very little of their decision and did not seriously attempt to persuade American Catholics to oppose the war.

This does not mean that there have been no just wars. It does mean that they have been rare and that the just war teaching of the church has not led to much opposition to the numerous unjust wars. In retrospect we must acknowledge that pacifists have usually been right in their refusal to participate.

World War II is a good test case. There have been few instances when a nation has been led by a more vicious ideology in its effort to conquer others. Was the United States right to enter that war and thereby tilt the scales toward victory by the allies? Surely this was a far better outcome than victory by Nazi Germany! Was the advantage worth the enormous destruction of life and property involved in attaining this victory?

I do not know the answer. If we had not entered the war, let us suppose that Germany would have extended its rule over all of Europe. If there were no further resistance, probably that rule would not have been as harsh as wartime occupation policies, but the resulting Europe is not one we can contemplate happily.

On the other hand, the worst result of the extension of German power, the annihilation of the Jewish population of Europe, was not prevented by the war. We could have done much more to reduce Jewish suffering by speaking out strongly and admitting an unlimited number of Jewish refugees to our country than we did by fighting. If Great Britain would have been occupied, we could have evacuated Jews (and others most likely to have been singled out for genocide or punishment) from there beforehand. The cost of measures of this sort would have been tiny in comparison with the war.

But perhaps the Nazis would not have been satisfied to rule all of Europe. If we did not resist militarily, perhaps they would have conquered North America as well. Where then would the Jews have gone for refuge? How terrible would life have been under the global power of Hitler? How long would it have taken for German rule to have mellowed?

Or consider another pacifist scenario. For Nazis to rule other nations they required the active cooperation of citizens, often leaders, in those countries. What if, instead of military resistance, whole peoples practiced nonviolent non-cooperation. The conquerors would then have to provide complete bureaucracies out of their own ranks. These would still find the work extremely difficult without the cooperation of ordinary citizens. Governing conquered nations would prove extremely costly and have few rewards for the conqueror. Of course, the cost of nonviolent non-cooperation would have been high. Perhaps tens of thousands would have been executed, but in comparison with the slaughter of war it would have remained small. There are those who are convinced that if we devoted the resources we now put into military preparedness into preparing the nation for nonviolent non-cooperation, we could deter conquest without the huge mutual destruction of war.

For Christians to decide that they are called to envision and witness to alternatives to war, even when the enemy’s victory is a truly horrible prospect, seems both reasonable and admirable from the point of view of process theology. Without such envisioning and witnessing the prospect of the world reordering itself on a more peaceful basis is poor. Without severe critics of war, the likelihood is that the churches in all countries will continue to countenance unjust wars. There is an important role for pacifists.

The question of whether the Allied cause in World War II was just remains unanswered by all this. The real options did not include systematic passive resistance. At the time, I judged the war just. To this day I lean in that direction.

More relevant today is whether the war against the government of Afghanistan was just. A case can certainly be made for this. It was a winnable war in quite a short period of time. The government that was destroyed was unjust to many of its citizens, especially women, and it was hospitable to terrorists who had attacked us. There is a chance of replacing it with a stable, representative government that will be much more just to its people.

But a case can also be made against it. Our ostensible purpose, bringing to justice the chief suspect in the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, had a good chance of success through negotiations which we refused. Our bombing caused many civilian deaths and unexploded bombs are likely to kill more over the years. Far more deaths may be caused by the war’s interruption of famine relief. Almost certainly the number of deaths resulting from the war will vastly exceed all the deaths caused by all terrorist attacks to date and in the foreseeable future. There is no assurance that the new government will, over the years, bring peace and justice to Afghanistan.

Less relevant to the decision is the question of the relation of our real purposes to our ostensible ones. It seems that we had decided by summer to overthrow the Taliban. We may have been waiting for some new terrorist act that would provide the immediate justification and have done less to prevent this than we might otherwise. We were less interested in bringing bin Laden to justice than in destroying the terrorist bases. Probably our policies were dictated as much by our desire for access to Caspian oil as to punish terrorists. None of this may affect our judgment about the justice of the war, but it should guide our thinking about the wider context.

If we make the uncertain supposition that the war against Afghanistan was just, does that make the overall war against terrorism just. Here, I think, the answer is a more emphatic No. It is an open-ended war without clear goals. There has been no definition of the terrorism that is to be eliminated. One suspects that it is only terror directed against us that we are committed to destroying, and that we do not plan to abandon the use of terror against others. We continue to support terrorist groups in Latin America when they are supporting our policies there.

Consider the recent act of terrorism by Pakistanis against India. Does that justify the invasion of Pakistan by India as the act against us justified the invasion of Afghanistan? If so, are we committed to joining India in this attack? Fortunately, we are not reasoning in this way even though some of our rhetoric would call for it. Since we want Pakistan as an ally, and since an attack on Pakistan would be met by fierce resistance and perhaps nuclear attack, our diplomacy calls for mediation, not war. Clearly we do not plan to go to war against all terrorists. The war on terrorism will be carried out selectively to suppress opposition to our global hegemony and to justify the most hawkish tendencies in U.S. foreign policy.

Christians who are not pacifists find it hard to speak clearly on war. Yet surely this is a matter of great concern. As a process theologian I do not see how we can avoid judging wars individually, while realizing how very easy it is to rationalize our own nation’s prejudices. I believe that the open-ended declaration of war against terrorism is providing a context in which our nation will pursue its narrowly nationalistic foreign policy with the constant threat of military force. It will intensify anger against us at least throughout the Muslim world. It is already being used to justify repressive tactics at home and abroad, and we can foresee that this situation will worsen. We should declare vigorously that this war is profoundly unjust. We should be prepared to make, in opposition to it, the kinds of sacrifices that Christian pacifists make in their opposition to war in general.