Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Internal Weaknesses of Just War Theory

Pacifists such as myself are not the only critics of Just War Theory. The standard form of JWT has also been criticized from within the tradition by some of the best current minds in moral philosophy. The Jewish philosopher, Michael Walzer, for instance, considers standard JWT to be too ahistorical and not attentive enough to the cultural contexts in which moral reasoning is done. He works to correct these efforts in his classic Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. Another internal critic of JWT is Alan Geyer, Professor Emeritus of Political Ethics and Ecumenics, Wesley Theological Seminary, and Senior Scholar at the Churches’ Center for Theology and Public Policy. The following list of weaknesses was compiled by Geyer and his wife, Barbara Green, of the Presbyterian Church USA’s Washington Office.

  1. JWT tends to obscure the ambiguities of justice in most conflicts. It’s a rare war in which all the responsibility is on one side. In most cases, there is plenty of blame to go around.
  2. Concentration on the justice of one’s own cause tends to make it difficult to be self-critical or to repent for the evil one’s own side has done–and repentance is usually both a pre-condition of reconciliation. Because JWT helps groups and nations avoid repentance, it also encourages group or national delusions of self-righteousness.
  3. JWT tends to react to the latest provocation rather than to a whole longitudinal series of historic events. In that respect it is much like a referee in a sport who sees and penalizes one player’s punch, but misses the prior kick that went unnoticed.
  4. Very seriously from the standpoint of Christian theology, Just War thinking tends to presuppose a large disjunction between justice and love. This has the effect of both relegating Christian love to individual one-on-one ethics and to “elevate” to a platonic or docetic (i.e., disembodied) ideal–irrelevant for the “real world.” But surely Jesus’ command to love enemies was meant precisely for this real world: we aren’t likely to have enemies in heaven or the Coming Kingdom, after all.
  5. JWT tends to define “justice” only in terms of violent resistance to military or terrorist violence against the nation-state or the forces of the status quo. (Notice, for instance, how hard it would be for a “just revolution” to meet the criterion of legitimate authority.) JWT thus tends to neglect the conditions of systemic injustice and oppression that lead to many wars.
  6. JWT tends to justify excessive human suffering and death (not to mention ecological degradation), dismissing them with euphemisms like “collateral damage.” JWT appeals to the principle of “double effect,” focusing on the intention of targeting policies and discounting the actual consequences of those policies.
  7. Thus, JWT tends to serve as the military ethic of the most powerful nations, rationalizing their policies against weaker powers and tending toward the unacknowledged conceit that “might makes right.”
  8. Finally, at least for Geyer and Green, JWT tends to reinforce unilateral decision-making in a world of multinational realities and the necessity of working for common security.

Another weakness of the JWT tradition is the way that the criterion of “last resort” can actually work psychologically to limit the imagination when creative conflict resolution skills are called for. Knowing that “if all else fails” one can always resort to force can result in moral laziness, in a national impatience with looking for alternative “resorts” to war. One issues an ultimatum and then says, “Well, we TRIED diplomacy but they just wouldn’t listen to reason.” If one rules out both appeasement of tyranny and violence from the start, one is forced to find creative alternatives to the “flight or fight syndrome.”

It is because non-pacifists like Walzer, Geyer, and Green have recognized such weaknesses within the Just War tradition that some have turned to work with pacifists in the development of the practices of Just Peacemaking. I will turn to those practices in my next installment before laying out a biblical case for gospel nonviolence.

August 20, 2006 - Posted by | just war theory


  1. Yes, pacifism has a limbering effect on the imagination, and JWT has a stiffling effect on the imagination. It takes great imagination and creativity to live nonviolently. If we know in the back of our minds that we have a last resort of violence, it stunts our creative search for peaceful solutions. One irony is that people see pacifism as limiting our alternatives. In reality, pacifism opens up the possibilities.

    Comment by Jonathan | August 20, 2006

  2. Jonathan, exactly. In following posts, I hope to show exactly that. Not that nonviolence always has nice, neat, answers that “work,” for it doesn’t. And the point for Christians is faithfulness rather than effectiveness. But nonviolence breaks the cycle of violence and death–chains of nonanswers, and, thus, is always internally liberating and often externally also.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | August 21, 2006

  3. Great post Michael. The war debate is one in which I am not very involved, but it’s always great to be informed of different perspectives.

    Comment by Chance | August 23, 2006

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