Applying Just Peace Theory to Obama's UN Speech

By Valerie Elverton Dixon 09-25-2009

Just peace theory is the middle way between pacifism and just war theory. It recognizes the moral force of nonviolence and the goal of a world that solves its disputes through nonviolent means. At the same time, just peace theory is realistic in recognizing that violence still stalks the world. It holds that while war is evidence of failure, human greed, fear, anger, vengeance and intransigence too often lure us into a violent response to violence. Thus, just war principles help us to adjudicate the righteousness of the fight.

However, just peace theory proceeds from the conviction that peacemaking is day to day work. Its aim is to prevent the crises that can explode into violence. Just peace theory is proactive rather than reactive.

Reading President Obama's speech to the United Nations General Assembly through the lens of just peace theory, we can see where his four pillars of peace are consistent with just peacemaking. Truth, respect, and security are three broad categories into which we can group ten just peace principles -- nonviolent direct action; independent initiatives to reduce threats; cooperative conflict resolution; acknowledge responsibility for conflict and injustice and seek repentance and forgiveness; advance democracy and human rights; foster just and sustainable economic development; work with emerging cooperative forces in the international system; strengthen the United Nations and international efforts for human rights; reduce offensive weapons and the weapons trade; encourage grassroots peacemaking groups and voluntary associations. (See Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices For Abolishing War edited by Glen H. Stassen.)

President Obama's four pillars of peace -- non-proliferation and disarmament; the promotion of peace and security; preservation of the planet; and a global economy that advances opportunities for all people -- share with just peace theory the recognition that peace comes when we initiate it. We have to take the initiative. This means that the responsibility for making peace in the world rests with each of us.

It is our responsibility, especially in democratic nations, to hold our leaders accountable for the actions they take in the world in the name of our security. It is also our responsibility to craft a culture of peace. We have to find a new vocabulary for effort and struggle and commitment. Everything is not a war.

We ought to not only speak truth to power and expect our leaders to tell us the truth, but speak truth to ourselves, our family, friends, and neighbors. We ought to not only expect our leaders to have respect for the dignity of all humanity, but we ought to respect ourselves, the least among us and the strangers in our land. We ought to insist that our leaders work toward ending the threat of nuclear, chemical, and biological warfare, and we ought to work against local gun violence. More people die daily from small arms in the world than from weapons of mass destruction. President Obama told the world's leaders: "real change can only come through the people we represent." That means us. We ought to recognize world peace as our own personal work and working with others make it not only a distant utopian dream but an expectation.

Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at JustPeaceTheory.com. 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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