July 7, 2003
Virtually every Christian tradition is trying to have it both ways on war. Twenty years ago the U.S. bishops published The Challenge of Peace, which explicitly paired just war and pacifism as legitimate Christian responses to war. Three years later, Methodist bishops in the United States made a similar affirmation. And although historic peace churches like the Mennonites and Quakers can hardly be expected to reciprocate by embracing just war thinking, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, did prompt some of their leaders, ethicists and peacemaking practitioners to affirm international rule of law as the best framework for responding to terrorism. And that implies international enforcement mechanisms that is, policing.
Surprisingly, policing has received far less attention in Christian ethical thought than warfare. In crucial ways, war and policing follow very different dynamics, and neither just war thinkers nor pacifists have quite faced up to these differences. To do so together, however, could help point a way through the long impasse between pacifism and just war for the good of both Christian unity and international peacemaking. This is especially important, lest policing be definitively usurped as a euphemism for its opposite — domination of the international system by a single superpower that is able to flaunt or distort international law. Iraq, not Al Qaeda, is now dominating our headlines, of course.
In the context of 9/11 terrorism, the U.S. bishops urged relatively more attention to nonmilitary work that addresses the causes of terrorism; in the context of Saddam Hussein’s tyranny their policy recommendations have largely remained within a just war framework. But what happens when a war is not just? Who decides? And what moral obligation is there to suffer, or even surrender, when the only apparent alternative is to wage an unjust war, thus committing murder? Neither just war theorists nor the Catholic Church, which has long championed the theory, have fully faced these questions.
But historic peace churches have also found they must have it both ways. For they have had to acknowledge the need for someone, somewhere, to use potentially lethal violence to preserve order in a fallen world. The case of the Mennonitesthe community to which I belongis especially instructive here. Historically they have been more reticent than Quakers to participate in local police forces or to imagine conditions under which they might participate in international policing.
After Sept. 11 the best alternative to military retaliation many pacifists could advocate was to treat the attacks as a crime and to try the terrorists in international law courts. A Mennonite Central Committee statement upheld the call of Jesus to love enemies and live as peacemakers, but it also called on governments to exercise restraint and respect for the process of international law and diplomacy.
The veteran Mennonite peacemaker John Paul Lederach, now on the faculty of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, called for a multifaceted response to Sept. 11 that would address root causes and strengthen the international system. He also recommended recourse to the United Nations, to Islamic courts of law and to domestic and international policing.
But appeals like this do not specify who would apprehend the criminals, how the arresting agents would operate and whether the political bodies that conduct international policing would have the support of pacifist churches.
Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine, stated the problem clearly. He had advocated the most extensive international and diplomatic pressure the world has ever seen against bin Laden and his networks of terror focusing the world’s political will, intelligence, security, legal action, and police enforcement against terrorism.
But, he acknowledged, when the international community has spoken, tried and found them guilty…we will still have to confront the ethical dilemmas involved in enforcing those measures. The terrorists must be found, captured, and stopped. This involves using some kind of force.
Wallis’s primary focus remained on the conditions of global inequity and superpower hubris that breed resentment and terrorism. Nonetheless, he was acknowledging that even if society did everything he and other peace activists called for, it would still require a police function.
War and Policing
The pacifist and just war traditions could not only achieve greater clarity about the war, but might even find this becoming less of a church-dividing issue, if they both paid more attention to ways in which war is significantly different from policing:
Political leaders draw on the rhetoric of national pride, honor and crusading to marshal the political will and sustain the sacrifices necessary to fight wars. This routinely produces the phenomena we call war fever and rallying around the flag, which make moral deliberation difficult, if not impossible. Police officials by contrast appeal to the common good of the community to justify their actions, seeking to defuse the emotions that lead to violence.
Even circumscribed warfare that meets the standards of the just war tradition is too blunt a tool to serve the police officer’s task of identifying and apprehending criminals. Police officers are expected to use the minimum force needed to achieve their objective, and are judged harshly if there is collateral damage of the kind that routinely occurs in warfare.
War can never be subject to the rule of law in the way that policing is. As Stanley Hauerwas notes, in good policing the arresting agent is not the same as the judging agent, but in war those two are the same. If the development of democratic processes since the time of the ancient Greeks teaches us anything, it is that no rule of law is possible without separating the roles of judge and arresting agent.
We have words like frenzy and berserk in our vocabulary because our ancestors noticed that in the heat of battle irrationality sets in. In this volatile psychological situation, soldiers can strike indiscriminately and draw on every emotion that Augustine’s theory of right intention would rule out. Police officials by contrast go to great lengths to prevent this phenomenon; and when it occurs, we condemn it as police brutality.
Community Policing as a Model
What most distinguishes good policing from warfare are the relationships police forces have with the populations they are sworn to protect. Community policing is a new name for an old strategy that gets police out of their patrol cars, onto the street, into town meetings and integrated into neighborhoods. It has been described by Christopher Freeman Adams in The Christian Century as a shift from military-inspired responses to crime to one that relies on forming partnerships with constituents. It employs health and human service programs as well as more traditional law enforcement, with an emphasis on crime prevention. It represents a change from a reactive model of law enforcement to one dedicated to developing the moral structure of communities.
This is how pacifists like Lederach urge us to respond to terrorism. Terrorism is not located in any one territory, he notes. It instead uses the power of a free and open system for its own benefit. Its threat is like a virus, which uses the host system’s resources to destroy the host. And you do not fight this kind of enemy by shooting at it, Lederach says. You respond by strengthening the capacity of the system to prevent the virus and strengthen its immunity.
Is Just Policing Possible?
Ours is a world that suffers from crime, unjust aggression, exploitation and wholesale abuse of human rights. In such a world, love of neighbor and protection of the innocent seem at times to require the judicious use of violent force. It thus seems mere common sense that war may sometimes be necessary to protect innocent third parties and maintain order between nations, just as the use of police force does within a given community.
The just war tradition has gained much of its credibility by imagining war to be like police action, without facing up to how different the dynamics of warfare can be from policing.
But pacifists, at least Mennonites, have traditionally not served as police officers. At mid-20th century, Guy F. Hershberger wrote that the Christian is called to live a life on a higher level than being involved in police work. Later his student John Howard Yoder wrote, The question, May a Christian be a policeman?’ is posed in legalistic terms. The answer is to pose the question on the Christian level: Is the Christian called to be a policeman?’
There are precedents both in Mennonite practice and among leading Mennonite thinkers for seeing policing as a different from warfare. Mennonites have been leaders in developing nonviolent alternatives to the criminal justice system and have created programs for victim-offender reconciliationwith restitution rather than retributive punishment as the judicially recognized consequence of crime.
Viewing the enforcement of international law as just policing would allow pacifists to integrate the contributions they have been making to international peacemaking into a process of just policing, without requiring them to condone warfare even in exceptional cases.
For persons from the just war tradition, the possibility of applying the model of community policing in the international arena gives Catholics an opportunity to fulfill the Second Vatican Council’s mandate to undertake an evaluation of war with an entirely new attitude. It is also a way to respond faithfully and practically to the increasingly critical approach to warfare that Pope John Paul II has initiated.
For all of this to become a political reality, the world’s Christian community will need to take leadership in applying already-proven strategies for nonviolent action to the defense of whole populations, which we currently refer to as national defense.
The U.S. bishops pointed in this direction in their 1993 pastoral letter, The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace, by declaring that the vocation of peacemaking [is] mandatory for all the faithful. They also recognized that the church must seek to foster communities where peaceable virtues can take root and be nourished.
When they turned to policy recommendations, however, the bishops were far more specific about steps the nation-state should take than about steps the church itself should take. To be faithful to its peacemaking vocation, the Catholic Church needs practices that are church-wide and parish-deep. It needs institutions that correspond to the magisterium’s teaching that the just war tradition begins with a strong presumption against violence, allows wars only as an exception and does so only as a last resort.
Perhaps in this time of great change, the international church should explore doing nothing less than developing a nonviolent peaceforce of its own. This is something pacifists and just war Christians could cooperate in, and it would provide a model for governments in making the transition to new forms of conflict prevention and national defense.
The church is history’s archetypical transnational society, along with Diaspora Judaism. When Vatican II described the church as a transnational pilgrim people of God who have renounced direct political control, it created the conceptual space for a nonviolent army to achieve the political goals of the people of God.
The Catholic Church could begin this process by forming strategic think tanks and pilot projects for the nonviolent defense of peoples, building on parish experience throughout the world, diocesan social justice offices and its college and university justice and peace studies programs. Without such efforts Catholics serving in the military and in international police forces stand little chance of fulfilling the just war criterion of last resort.
Just as Mennonites must now contemplate a historic reversal to their rejection of governmental responsibilities, the concept of just policing would require Catholics to contemplate an equivalent transformation in political theology and pastoral practice.
To institutionalize practices involved in just policing, after all, Catholics will need to act in ways that may at first be uncomfortably countercultural for them. But in the context of what Pope John Paul II has called the modern culture of death, there may in fact be no other way to be pro-cultural, in the best and most human sense, than to be countercultural at strategic points.