War & peace
4 min read

Just War and Just Peace

As the Ukraine War passes another milestone, can any war be considered just? Christine Schliesser explores Just War theory and a possible path to Just Peace.

Christine Schliesser lectures in Theology and Ethics at Zurich University, and is a scientific collaborator with the Center for Faith & Society at Fribourg University.

Civilian evacuation across Irpin River during the Ukraine War.
Civilian evacuation across Irpin River during the Ukraine War.
Yan Boechat/VOA via Wikimedia Commons.

Will Germany deliver Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine? No? Yes? When? Media discussion of the war that the Russian Federation started against Ukraine in 2014 and that entered a new stage one year ago, currently centres on questions of weaponry. Who else will send tanks? And what about fighter aircrafts? No? Yes? When?  

In classical military ethics, which has long been dominated by the so called Just War Theory, these questions fall under ius in bello, the right conduct in war. This also includes discussions on proportionality, military necessity and the differentiation between combatants and non-combatants. 

Just War Theory has a long tradition in Christian thought. Church Father Ambrose argued that whoever does not ward off injustice from his fellow man (or woman for that matter) when he can, is as guilty as he who commits it. Ambrose’s student, Augustine, then developed this thought in more detail as he laid the foundations for what could be called a bellum iustum, a just war.  

Even before going to war, the criteria of the ius ad bellum, the right to go to war, must be satisfied. These include, for instance, a just cause, legitimate authority, prospect of success, right intention and last resort. We encounter these criteria again in slightly modified form in our modern international law. In view of these guidelines, of Russia’s breach of international law, and of Ukraine’s right to self-defence, the on-going war in Ukraine clearly seems to be a just war. Or is it?   

Nothing holy or just 

Two points need to be made in this discussion. Firstly, there are no just or holy wars. Period. Or as 150 churches, after the horrors of the Second World War, put it in Amsterdam in 1948: ‘War is contrary to the will of God.’ Wars are always an evil and an expression of the failure of human beings to strive for peace. This also holds true for the war in Ukraine. And this means that we need a new dimension in the debate, namely guilt.  

Every action – and inaction – here involves guilt. As the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was killed by the Nazis for his engagement in a plot against Hitler, put it:  

‘everyone who acts responsibly becomes guilty’.  

And even if we become guilty for the sake of the other person, our guilt remains just the same. Yet, as Bonhoeffer concludes, we trust in the grace of God, who calls us to responsible action. , Bonhoeffer’s ideas have been considered dangerous and easily misused to justify any crime, as forgiveness is always available.  Nevertheless, we must acknowledge the reality of guilt that pervades any war, including the war in Ukraine.  

Just Peace 

Secondly, recent years have seen a new kid on the block: Just Peace Theory. While Just War Theory looks at a conflict from the perspective of violence, Just Peace Theory puts the focus on peace. This includes adding a third set of criteria. Ius post bellum looks at justice after a war. We know that after a conflict is before a conflict. We therefore need to pay more attention to what happens after the weapons finally fall silent.  

Here, the experiences of truth and reconciliation processes worldwide can help. Both dimensions belong inseparably together and both already begin during a conflict, not just after it. Truth, for example, requires the documentation of war crimes committed by all parties to ensure the prosecution of war criminals later on. And reconciliation is the conditio sine qua non for sustainable peace.  

Russia’s war against Ukraine and its threats against NATO and Western countries demonstrate, not least that after the end of the Cold War, opportunities for genuine and sustainable reconciliation were missed as latent hatred, prejudices and stereotypes were allowed to linger.  

Just Peace Theory emphasizes that building peace is an art and a craft. It requires specific skills, training and preparation. It also requires virtues of grace, persistence and forgiveness, Countless documented examples world-wide supply empirical proof that these methods actually work. Perhaps it is worth devoting some of the $2,113 billion (2021) of global annual military expenditure for training non-military approaches to address conflict resolution? To learn how to build peace as much as how to wage war? No? Yes? When?  

Pathways to Peace

One such initiative is Pathways to Peace. Aiming at peace, justice and reconciliation in times of war, this initiative is currently being developed through the Conference of European Churches, a group of some 120 member churches in 38 countries. With their long-term involvement and intimate knowledge at the grassroot level, faith actors in civil society seem uniquely positioned to connect people, heal relationships, offer a new social imaginary and facilitate practical help.  

The objectives of Pathways to Peace include among others to facilitate safe spaces for honest exchange between Ukrainian and Russian church leaders, to develop a network of church leaders and other civil society leaders for exchange on the preparation of peace or to bring together European youth, in particular Ukrainian and Russian young refugees. 

The immense potential of faith actors in transforming conflict and building sustainable peace seems to have gone largely unnoticed in the public sphere. Given the prominence of faith in this conflict, it is about time that all relevant actors in our societies, including faith-based initiatives, joined forces to counter this major crisis of our time.  

5 min read

Dawkins is wrong about the nature of belief

You can’t rejoice in its collapse and like its cultural inheritance too.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

A man sits and speaks, against a background of a bookcase.
Dawkins on LBC.

Richard Dawkins sat in a tree,  

Sawing every branch he could see,  

As he sawed through the branch on which he sat,  

He raged, "It's not fair that I should go splat!" 

I am a recovering New Atheist. I was such a New Atheist that I have a claim to fame: I have given what-for to Anne Widdecombe and the Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja. I was there, as a spotty, greasy haired, angry teenager when Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry socked-it-to the Roman Catholics at an Intelligence Squared debate. The motion was ‘The Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World’. The question I asked was so poorly formed that the moderator deemed it a comment.  

I was a callow youth. Forgive me.  

I am now not quite so young and not quite so spotty. Now that I am a man, I have put away childish things. I have abandoned atheism and embraced faith in Jesus Christ. I am a priest in the Church of England, fully in favour of the Ten Commandments and the moral framework of the Church. Clearly, I’ve been on a journey.  

So, it seems, has Professor Richard Dawkins.  

The author of The God Delusion, and scourge of many public Christian thinkers and apologists, has recently made some turbulent waves. Having surfed the tides of New Atheism, he now seems to be swimming against the current. He is a proud ‘cultural Christian’. In an interview on LBC he forcefully defended the Christian inheritance of this country: 

“I do think that we are culturally a Christian country…I call myself a ‘cultural Christian’… I love hymns and Christmas carols…I feel at home in the Christian ethos… I find that I like to live in a culturally Christian country…” 

Professor Dawkins went on to clarify (several times!) that he doesn’t believe a single word of Christian doctrine or the Bible. He was cheered by the continued decline in the numbers of believing Christians in this country. This wasn’t his Christianity. He argued that the distinction between a ‘believing Christian’ and a ‘cultural Christian’ is such that one can be both a very firm atheist and a ‘cultural Christian’. He doesn’t want people believing the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection of Jesus, but he does want us to keep our Cathedrals and beautiful parish churches. At first reading this could be seen as positive - an unlikely defender of the Christian faith coming to the rescue of a beleaguered Church.  

It isn’t. 

What the interview demonstrated was that Professor Dawkins doesn’t really understand the nature of belief or the nature of culture. If he did, he would understand a basic principle: culture doesn’t just magically appear and grow. Culture is formed and maintained from fundamental beliefs.  

You can’t have the fruits without the roots. 

Professor Dawkins likes church music. He likes the architecture of grand Cathedrals. He likes living in a society with a Western liberal ethic. All three of these fruits have grown from roots of the Christian tradition, and not just any Christian tradition. They have grown out of the BELIEVING Christian tradition.  

Why on earth would people spend inordinate amounts of time and money building Cathedrals if they didn’t actually believe the worship of God was important? Why would musicians pour out the best of their creativity into sacred music if not for a love of Jesus? Why would they structure our society in a way that sees the care of the poor and oppressed as a fundamental necessity if they don’t take the Sermon on the Mount seriously? 

People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

Professor Dawkins finds himself living in a world that has been so shaped and saturated by Christianity that even our secularism has been called ‘Christian’. He lives in a Christian house. He likes it. Now he thinks he can have it and keep it while seeking to undermine and destroy the very beliefs that are the foundation, the stones, the mortar. 

He can’t.  

You don’t get to demand that everyone build their house on sand, and then complain that it is collapsing…and he does worry that it is collapsing. Predictably, he opened the interview by discussing his qualms about Islam and how he wouldn’t want this country to change from being ‘culturally Christian’ to ‘culturally Muslim’: “Insofar as Christianity can be seen as a bulwark against Islam I think it’s a very good thing.” I find this invocation of my faith offensive - not just because I believe my faith is ‘the truth’ (not just a club for angry atheists to bash Muslims with), but because it is so stupid! 

I use the word advisedly.  

It is a comment from a man who can’t seem to understand cause-and-effect. People who don’t believe strongly in something don’t fight for it. Rejoicing in the collapse of Christian belief while expecting it to protect you from other religions is about as obtuse as an individual can get. The Church grew, and spread, and produced the hymns and cathedrals and ethics that Professor Dawkins loves so much, because of people’s firm belief in Jesus Christ as our Risen Saviour. People died to spread this faith - THIS CULTURE! As Tertullian said: “…the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

It was this realisation that led me to where I am now. I found that everything I cared about flowed from the Christian faith I rejected, so I rejected it no more. I wanted to continue enjoying the ‘fruits’ of my ‘cultural Christianity’, so I stopped hacking away at the ‘roots’ of ‘believing Christianity’. Professor Dawkins is seemingly wilfully blind to this fact: ‘believing Christian’s make it possible to have ‘cultural Christians’. Take away the belief and just watch what happens to the culture. 

“I don’t was to be misunderstood. I do think it’s nonsense.” 

As a believing Christian I respond: can we please have our culture back, then?