Do Pacifist and Just-War Ethics begin with “a presumption against violence”? If so, on what principle or obligation is such a position based? Recent scholarship has debated this question with opponents and proponents both referring to the classical just war theory for their respective support. We will explore the tradition as it was developed in the works of St. Augustine and St. Thomas, and engage contemporary interpreters to discover and focus on the biblical, moral and theological sources of the debate, and to discuss implications for Christian discipleship and possible impacts for those who make war decisions as well as those who conduct wars.

The just-war tradition offers a set of criteria that ought to guide those who make war decisions as well as those who conduct wars. These criteria although varied, can be grouped into two categories: jus ad bellum (decision to go to war), and jus in bello (the conduct of war). Under the assumption that war is an evil but might be necessary in certain cases, a burden of proof is required and it is that burden of proof that the Just-war criteria seeks to regulate . In contrast, “Pacifism” is a mode of moral deliberation that rejects war and violence on biblical, moral and theological grounds.

Historically, these two systems of thought have been deemed incompatible as shown by their contrasting positions above. In recent studies however, the aforementioned divergence is debated and convergence in some moral sense proposed. James F. Childress proposed such convergence over thirty years ago. Basing his argument on the logic of prima facie duties put forward by W. D Ross , Childress argued that both just war and pacifism share a prima facie starting point namely, a “presumption against violence” or “presumption against war”. He writes, “Whether their arguments are based on Scripture or human reason or experience, pacifists and just warriors both share the same starting point-war is at least prima facie wrong and thus requires justification. They differ; however, because absolutist pacifists deny that war can ever be justified, while just warriors hold that it can sometimes be justified.” He continues, “the just war tradition can best be understood as recognizing a prima facie duty not to injure or kill others and that this prima facie duty implies a presumption against war, that is, against the use of violence as the direct, intended physical attack on other human beings.”

Jesus the greatest interpreter of God’s will

In many of his writings connected to the just war tradition, John Howard Yoder questioned the adequacy of the entire just war mode of moral discourse as a guide for a people who claim that their first moral obligation comes from the teachings and example of their Lord and savior Jesus Christ who taught them to love God with all their hearts, minds and soul and second to love their neighbor as themselves and showed that love by loving his enemies all the way to the cross of Calvary. Such love, can hardly endorse killing enemies. Lisa Sowle Cahill writes on Christian discipleship, “to the extent that conversion and discipleship involve total reorientation of life, they lead the Christian convert to imitation of God’s perfect righteousness and mercy (Matt. 5:48), an ideal sure to have practical consequences. She continues, “The subsequent problematic of Christian social ethics has been to define the substance of the life of converted discipleship, as well as to establish practically the meaning of Christian moral faithfulness in a sinful world.”

Christian Discipleship

Matthew 5-7 commonly referred to, as “The Sermon on the Mount” constitutes a clear call to Christian discipleship. When Jesus sat on the mountain to teach his disciples, he rolled out his mission in the same way Moses rolled out the Ten Commandments at Sinai marking the beginning of a new people with a new set of lifestyle separate from other nations and other deities. This sermon is a disclosure of the kingdom of God and a stipulation of the lifestyle of those who were to become part of that new community. Like Moses Jesus went to the mountain to unveil the new plan and define its characteristics and its subsequent mission.

This community is to be “a city on a hill” modeling God’s peaceful new order in which reconciliation is preferred over anger (5:12-26), lust is not ignored(5:27-30), fidelity in marriage is a virtue(5:31-32), words are simple yes or no(5:33-37), revenge has no place(5:38-42), and loving one’s enemies is preferred to living in hatred and rage(5:43-48).
Like the Torah, the Sermon marks the beginning of a new people of God and fulfills the Torah and the prophets (5:17-20) with Jesus as the new authority in this new community and hence the superior interpreter of God’s will.
He established a greater righteousness in the form of antitheses; “you have heard that it was said to the men of old…. but I say to you….” The righteousness that Jesus called the disciples to is rather intense and exceeds the standards of Israel’s expert interpreters of the Torah. At the end of the sermon, the disciples marveled at his teaching saying, “he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes” (Matt. 7:28).

This kingdom Jesus unveiled to his disciples is radical and counter-cultural. Instead of using weapons of war as means to settle disputes, the community of Jesus’ followers strive to practice meekness, mercy, purity, devotion to justice and peacemaking, and welcomes suffering and persecution in the name of faithfulness to their Lord.
They experience the Lord’s blessings as they faithfully follow and live out the radical vision and mission he unveiled in the sermon. This community of believers today is the church.

I would argue that based on the teaching of the Lord, nonviolence is a default Christian position which ought to outweigh the other duties if it becomes a competing duty in the order of prima facie duty. Richard Miller commenting on “the presumption against violence” in Aquinas which was a major part of a the paper that I shortened here argues that overriding the prima facie duty does not mean erasing the prior one but that the prior duty ought to leave moral traces which continues to function.

My hope is that when the non-violence position cannot be absolutely followed due to the reality of the “not yet” nature of the kingdom of God, the just warriors and those who make war decisions must adhere to a strict observation of just war criteria although this has eluded us in history so far and in my opinion weakens the just war argument.

I therefore stand in agreement with John H. Yoder that “Nonviolence is thus the a priory stance, to which violent action is an exception needing in each case to be justified.” Hence Just- war and Pacifism in this analysis do converge in the moral dictum, “do no harm” and hence presume against war as first duty even though historical just war tradition did not explicitly state so but the fact that war was restricted tells us a lot. Lets follow our Lord who loved his enemies all the to the death penalty without turning back on his commitments. That is what faithful Christian discipleship is about.


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