Pacifism, Overly-Strict Just War Theory, Both Problematic in War on Terror, Christian Thinker Argues

WASHINGTON – Both pacifism and an overly-strict Just War Theory are inappropriate responses to the War on Terror, theologian William Abraham argued Monday at the Institute on Religion and Democracy's Diane Knippers Lecture.

"In dealing with terrorism," Abraham says, "we live on the edge of a moral apocalypse." The response to terrorism from political leaders, therefore, "may land in places where our standard moral markers have been destroyed."

"In such circumstances," he continued, "the only moral compass that may remain is the mandate to do the least bad thing in the circumstances. The best moves we can make by way of the justification of our actions is that we do the least evil we can, given all the options available. We can engage in justified action, but the depth of evil that we face has obliterated the option of just action or just war."

Abraham is the Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Southern Methodist University's Perkins School of Theology. The lecture was based upon his most recent book, Shaking Hands with the Devil: The Intersection of Terrorism and Theology.

Abraham distinguished between two types of pacifism, pragmatic pacifists and religious pacifists, and two types of Just War Theory, maximalist Just War Theory and minimalist Just War Theory.

Pragmatics pacifists, he explained, have sought to develop certain practices as an alternative to the use of force. Their work is empirical, and looks for evidence that their practices are effective.

Religious pacifists, on the other hand, find their authority in what they view as divine will. They may engage in many of the same practices as pragmatic pacifists, but unlike the pragmatic pacifists, those practices do not need to show any evidence of success to maintain their devotion to pacifism. In fact, suffering and death are often expected outcomes among the religious pacifists.

Abraham rejects both forms of pacifism because they abrogate any recourse to protect the innocent from attack.

"Applied to the response to terrorism," he said, "pacifism would require that we respond to terrorism without the use or sanction of lethal force. We would have to deal with terrorism without armed police and without soldiers. More generally pacifism entails that we have to construct states without recourse to the ultimate sanction of force. On the face of it, this whole way of thinking is nonsensical."

Since pacifists enjoy the peace and security provided by a state's use of force that they oppose, Abraham also describes them as "freeloaders within the current social and political arrangements."

The maximalist Just War theorists codify a set of strict criteria for determining when war is justified. The problem with this position, Abraham believes, is that the criteria are too inflexible to deal with the War on Terror, which is unlike the types of wars that Just War Theory was developed to address.

Just War Theory was developed for when a nation-state attacks another nation-state. The terrorists that are being fought in the War on Terror, though, are not a nation-state. Because of this, and other assumptions built into Just War Theory, Abraham argued that some of those Just War Theory criteria no longer apply.

"Thus," he said, "a critical assumption that we need to have in place in order to apply a strong version of just war theory is missing. There is no conventional enemy, complete with a state and a conventional army; and there is often no standard declaration of war. In addition, it is often impossible to determine a reasonable chance of success and to work out a just sense of proportionality by way of response."

Instead, Abraham advocates the minimalist Just War position. Rather than rely upon a strict codification of Just War Theory, Abraham prefers the use of human judgement informed by Just War Theory. This, he argues, is more consistent with the Just War tradition.

"What is critically at stake in responding to terrorism," he said, "is that we be justified in what we do rather than that we be just in what we do. It would be wonderful to be just, of course, but justice is not always possible. It is this insight - that we be justified in what we do - that lies at the base of the just war tradition."

About 90 people were present for Abraham's lecture, and there was a question-and-answer time afterward. One questioner asked him about his use of the phrase "least evil," which is quoted above.

"Who decides which is which [the greater or lesser evil]," the audience member asked.

"We do," he answered. "And there's no running away from having to make judgments ... you can't outsource this problem.

"We have to make the judgments. We got to make them in our families, in societies, in the church, in society, and I think that's the way it's meant to be. ... [A] marvelous moment in the life of Jesus [was] when he was asked how to decide how the will was to be decided. And he said look, go home and sort this out amongst yourselves. There's a tremendous dignity, in my judgment, in human beings having to work this stuff through."