Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Just Policing: How War Could Cease to Be a Church-Dividing Issue

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Just Policing: How War Could Cease to Be a Church-Dividing Issue

Article excerpt

All these considerations compel us to undertake an evaluation of war with an entirely new attitude.

Vatican II (1)

Defining effective international government in this way is of course setting an idealistic goal; but it is less idealistic than the idea that military action could be truly an instrument of justice.

John Howard Yoder (2)

If the best intentions of the just-war theorists were operational, they could allow only for just policing, not warfare at all. If Christian pacifists can in any way support, participate, or at least not object to operations with recourse to limited but potentially lethal force, that will be true only for just policing.

That, in a nutshell, is the twofold thesis of the "Just Policing" proposal. While its title relies on word play to anticipate that twofold thesis, its subtitle attempts a more steely precision. Driving this proposal is a thought experiment. It does not claim that we are upon the threshold of Christian unity vis-a-vis war quite yet. Rather, it is an exercise in imagining the "conditions for the possibility" of reaching that threshold. It seeks to chart how just-war and pacifist Christians might converge sufficiently that a new horizon would come into view, wherein we might then see more clearly how war could cease to be a church-dividing issue. Some such convergence may be possible if together we explore a conceptual territory that longstanding debates between pacifists and just-war thinkers have left surprisingly unmapped. Joint examination of policing, I suggest, may point us toward conditions for the possibility of agreement vis-a-vis war.

While the events of September 11, 2001, and debates in the months following prompted this thought experiment and crystallized its arguments, the principal occasion for its drafting was the international dialogue between representatives of the Mennonite World Conference and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Church Unity, which was roughly midway through its initial five-year cycle at the time. While casting an eye to other conversations among other Christian traditions, the concerns and contributions of the Mennonite and Roman Catholic faith communities inevitably receive the greatest attention. (3)

I. War: Can We Have It Both Ways?

Virtually every Christian tradition is trying to have it both ways about war. This may be a sign of honest puzzlement, or it may be a sign of diplomatic fudging, but it is surely one sign of an unfinished agenda.

The Roman Catholic Church has long been custodian of the Christian tradition of just-war deliberation, which began when Saints Ambrose and Augustine used arguments from such Roman thinkers as Cicero in order to justify some wars while disciplining all wars. Since Vatican II, however, the Catholic Church has also given a new level of recognition to vocational pacifism, at least. In the early 1980's, U.S. Catholic bishops writing on The Challenge of Peace explicitly paired the traditions of just war and pacifism or active nonviolence as legitimate Christian responses to war. (4)

Historic peace churches (Mennonite, Church of the Brethren, Society of Friends) certainly do not recognize the legitimacy of just-war thinking with an easy reciprocity that would mirror statements by "mainstream" Christian traditions. Yet in their own way, peace churches have found that they, too, must "have it both ways" by acknowledging the need for someone, somewhere, to use potentially lethal violence to preserve order in a fallen world. In the formative years of the sixteenth-century Radical Reformation, the Schleitheim Confession of 1527 gave this recognition classical expression for Mennonites by speaking of "the sword" as "an ordering of God outside the perfection of Christ"; accordingly, "secular rulers are established to wield" the sword that "punishes and kills the wicked" but "guards and protects the good." (5) Though conservative rather than activist Mennonites are more likely to quote the Schleitheim Confession today, many of the very Mennonites who most sought to oppose the "war on terrorism" looming in September and October of 2001 found themselves reflecting the logic of Schleitheim, nonetheless, as they called for alternative, international, judicial responses to terrorism that would still require some military or police force to apprehend the criminals. …

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