The latest al Qaeda terror attacks have sparked renewed media coverage of Islam’s relationship with violence, and have spurred questions about the role of moderate and liberal Muslims in preventing the spread of extremism.
In America, the same schism plays out between Christian conservatives who invoke the “just war” theory of saints Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, and pacifists who identify with Christ’s nonviolent example and teachings.
The just war theory lays out criteria for Christians to follow when making the decision on whether or not to wage war.
The BBC provides a detailed history of the just war theory, its Christian origins, and its basic proscriptions that such a war:
— must be for a just cause,
— is declared by a proper authority,
— is pursued with a righteous intention,
— is a last resort,
— has a reasonable chance of success,
— has an end proportional to the means used,
— should not cause innocents harm.
Christian denominations such as evangelicals, Lutherans and Calvinists have drawn on the theory for centuries, according to Darrell Cole, a theologian at Drew University and a student of the Christian writer C.S. Lewis.
On March 31, 2003, Dr. James Dobson, president of the Colorado-based evangelical group Focus on the Family, said that Saddam Hussein’s brutality justified the invasion of Iraq.
An essay on the group’s Web site asserts that although war “goes against God’s original design for human relations and therefore grieves every reasonable person, God himself has decreed that such actions are necessary and just when done to protect the innocent and restrain evil.”
In October 2002, prior to the invasion, evangelicals supported military action against Iraq in greater numbers than the general American population, according to a poll released by the International Fellowship of Christians & Jews.
Sojourner Magazine, which represents a more liberal wing of Christianity, opposed the war in Iraq.
The magazine said that the teachings of the church forbid the invasion of a sovereign nation, and asserted that President Bush had committed an “act of spiritual arrogance” by invoking God’s name before invading.
The Sojourner editor said the Catholic Church’s threat to withhold communion for abortion supporters should be extended to supporters of the Iraq war, because Iraqi lives should be protected with the same fervor as the unborn.
Pacifist Christian groups and denominations such as the Mennonites, Quakers, Pax Christi Roman Catholics and some Baptists reject the “just war” theory entirely. Instead, they focus on Jesus’ peaceful example.
Quakers may be the most well-known pacifist denomination, according to the BBC.
Their commitment to pacifism is based on the belief that there is “that of God in everyone” and that Christians should follow Jesus’ example of self sacrifice.
In an open letter to President Bush prior to the invasion of Iraq, the Baptist Peace Fellowship said meeting Saddam Hussein’s violent regime with more violence is forbidden by the Bible.
The group opposed the war for pragmatic reasons, such as economic and political costs, as well as spiritual concerns.
According to Pax Christi, a pacifist denomination within the Roman Catholic Church, President Bush praised Pope John Paul II’s advocacy of a “culture of life” in which “human life at all its stages is revered and treasured.”
But a petition on the Pax Christi Web site decries the President’s “utter disregard” of the late Pope’s “unequivocal opposition to the invasion and occupation of Iraq.”
In January 2005 the Society for Christian Ethics went beyond notions of pacifism and just war to present a third alternative: just peacemaking.
They argued that conflicts can be ultimately be avoided through international treaties, human rights movements and economic development.
The just peacemaking theory does allow war if these strategies don’t work. Critics say this invalidates it as an alternative to pacifism, according to PBS.org.
An essay on Counterpunch.org asserts that the differences in scriptures cited by just-war theologians and pacifists are so disparate that they seem to be “following two completely different books.”
The difference, according to the essay, is that pacifist and “mainline” Christian denominations are inspired by the book of Luke, which “advises Christians to love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you and pray for those who mistreat you.”
Fundamentalists, on the other hand, draw heavily from the book of Romans, in which disobedience to divinely guided leaders will “invoke the wrath of God.”
Writing on the Touchstone Magazine Web site, Cole, the Drew University professor, said that C.S. Lewis considered Christian pacifism a “theological mistake,” albeit an honest one, that results from emphasizing too few Bible verses.
According to Cole, the apostle Paul and the Book of Romans clarified Jesus’ admonition to “turn the other cheek.”
What is meant by that, Cole writes, is that Christians should leave “vengeance to God, who works his vengeance on the evildoer through the State’s use of the sword. Christians are called upon to support the State, which has been ordained by God just for the purpose of using the sword to establish and maintain justice (Rom. 12-13).”
Newsdesk.org editorial intern Martin Leatherman provided primary research & writing for this report.
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“Just war tradition”
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
“Just War in Iraq”
Christianity Today, December 9, 2002
“An open letter to the Catholic bishops: Reclaim the full gospel of life”
Sojourners, June 24, 2004
“The great Christian schism: Make war or make peace”
Counterpunch, May 9, 2003
“War is not the answer: An open letter to President George W. Bush”
Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, August 6, 2002
“The war in Iraq remains a defeat for humanity: Resources on the Ongoing war and occupation in Iraq”
Pax Christi USA.org, July, 2005
“Dobson supports war efforts in Iraq”
Focus on the Family, March 21, 2003
“War and Peace”
Focus on the Family, 2003
“The Problem of war”
Touchstone Magazine, April 2003
“Conservative Christians biggest backers of Iraq war”
Common Dreams, October 10, 2002
“Religion and ethics”
BBC Religion & Ethics
“Christian ethicists advocate just peacemaking as corollary to just war”
PBS.org, January 14, 2005