The Common Good

Beyond Just War Theory

Just War Theory is a mode of analysis that lists criteria by which war may be considered righteous before, during and after its execution. The criteria to consider before a war are: declared by legitimate authority, just cause, right intent, reasonable hope of success, last resort, and announcement. The criteria to consider during war are: non combatant immunity, proportionality of damage to good that will result, limitations on weapons and tactics. Young scholars in Christian ethics are developing criteria to consider after war such as reparations, truth and reconciliation, and refugees.

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Just war theory has a long history inside of Christianity. It is a middle way between holy war and pacifism. However, Just Peace Theory occupies the ground between just war theory and pacifism. From the perspective of just peace theory, just war theory is only war. It presupposes war. It comes into the discourse at the moment when a conflict reaches a crises point and the possibility of war. The conversation becomes about making the case for war using just war principles. In contrast, just peace theory presupposes peace. The discourse becomes about what the nation is doing to preserve the peace. Further, just peace theory moves beyond just war theory because just war theory is unrealistic in the face of the nature of war itself.

For example: before a war we consider just cause. In reality, the causes of war are always multiple, complex and entangled. So, underneath arguments about defense and humanitarian intervention there often lies an economic intent. Further, once war begins, no one can ever know how successful a nation will be in executing the war. Just war during war calls for the immunity of innocents, the protection of noncombatants from being targets of violence. Realistically, innocents always die in war. Some will object that this is an argument of moral equivalency. It is. The blood and tears are equivalent; people are equivalently killed and physically and psychologically injured. An innocent ecology is equivalently wounded.

Moreover, the nature of warfare is to defeat an enemy by any means necessary, and this includes using weapons and tactics that will demoralize the enemy even if that means killing innocents. Just war theory cannot come to terms with this reality.

Just peace theory understands that peacemaking happens every day, that the only just war is the war that we prevent because there is no such thing as victory in war. War itself is a defeat of human reason, communication, truth and respect. At the same time, just peace theory recognizes there may be times when a military force ought to deploy to protect vulnerable populations or to enforce a peace agreement.

September 21 is the UN International Day of Peace and Global Ceasefire. It is a day when the world can pause to think about ways to make justice and peace the project and the goal of daily life.

Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at She received her Ph.D. in Religion and Society from Temple University and taught Christian Ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School

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