“Peace, Peace” — And There Is No Peace

The Churches and Modern Political Violence

Mr. Weigel’s essay was originally delivered to a conference on “Deception and Deterrence in ‘Wars of National Liberation,’ State—Sponsored Terrorism, and Other Forms of Secret Warfare,” sponsored by the American Bar Association.

There is, in a sense, something odd about inviting a theologian (even one engaged in the public marketplace of ideas) to a conference like this. For the theologian’s immediate task is the understanding of revelation as that is perceived and lived in the Church and in its tradition — and if there is one thing we ought to agree is not the priority task of the Church, it is (to advert to the title of this panel discussion) “appraising, deterring, and defending against wars of national liberation and totalitarian aggression.”

And yet I think I have a legitimate claim to being part of this discussion. For the Church is in the world, even if not entirely of the world, and in a democracy, the quality of the Church’s debate over issues of peace, security, and freedom is bound to have an impact on the public discourse over these great goals of our common life. This seems particularly true in the United States, for Americans are an incorrigibly religious people and our religious institutions play a large role in forming individual consciences, as well as the public conscience, on the issues this conference is exploring.

The Church’s first task in the public arena, as the Catholic bishops of the United States taught in their 1983 pastoral letter The Challenge of Peace, is to be a moral educator. The Church’s first task is not to be a lobbyist for particular policies (although that is a constitutionally legitimate activity for individual believers and for religious agencies). How well, then has the Church (and by “the Church” I will mean here the leadership of American Christianity) done as a moral educator when the public debate has turned to the question of “appraising, deterring, and defending against ‘wars of national liberation’ and totalitarian aggression”?

One should not gainsay the difficulty of the moral task here. Revolutionary violence in its twentieth century form, guerrilla warfare, and terrorism- -the distinctive modern forms of armed conflict- -have put heavy strains on the Church’s classic just-war theory. How is one to judge the just cause and the “right intention” of those who take up arms in the cause of “national liberation” (which our forefathers did over two hundred years ago)? Who is the “competent authority”? How is war “declared”? How does one measure proportionality of ends and means? Who is a “non-combatant,” with a legitimate claim to the noncombatant immunity enshrined in just-war theory’s principle of “discrimination”? What does reconciliation with the enemy, the terminus ad quem of just-war theory, mean today? Those who debated the moral legitimacy of the Second Indochina War, and U.S. participation in it, have some idea of the complexities involved here, when classic just-war theory engages modern guerrilla and counter-insurgency warfare. Then there is the whole matter of terrorism, which drives these same questions to perhaps the boundaries of the theory.

So the task is a difficult and daunting one — especially when one factors into the equation the grim realities of totalitarianism, a form of human tyranny without precedent in our common history, and one surely not foreseen by Augustine, Aquinas, Suarez, Vittoria, and the other fathers of just-war theory.

But difficult tasks are just that, difficult, not impossible. If the Church is to insist, as I think it must, that the problems of “wars of national liberation,” terrorism, and totalitarian aggression fall within the ambit of moral reason — are part of the human universe which is a moral universe — then it must think through the moral dimensions of the issues posed by this conference.

There has been far too little of that thinking going   on in our churches over the past generation. The churches’ role during the Vietnam debate, and still more recently and cogently, in the debate over U.S. policy in Central America, has not been that of a wise moral educator. It has, in the main, been that of a partisan for particular policies. That would be ecclesiologically problematic even if the policies in question seemed those which the virtue of prudence would recommend as most likely to advance the causes of peace, justice, security, and freedom. Unhappily, and again in the main, the formal leadership of the mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic churches of the United States has tended to be a partisan for those forces least inclined to take moral claims seriously, least inclined to honor the immunities of just-war theory, least inclined to lead to a just peace in which law and politics replace mass violence as the means for resolving political conflict. That the principle domestic lobby for the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua has been the American religious community, illustrates the problem. That some Church leaders seem tempted to abandon the reformist democracy of Corazon Aquino in the Philippines, and to thereby line up with the murderous forces of the New Peoples Army (NPA), suggests that the problem is not hemispheric in character.

What is going on here?

While it is tempting to write off religious support for the Sandinistas, the NPA, the PLO, and the African National Congiess (ANC) (and religious opposition to the Nicaraguan democratic resistance, Mrs. Aquino, Palestinian moderates, Jonas Savimbi, and the reformist forces of Helen Suzman and Mangosuthu Buthelezi) as just the ignorance of clerics who have gotten in over their heads, I believe the problem is more critical. It is a problem of ideas, defective ideas, which have created a set of filters through which reality has been misapprehended, and prudential judgments badly skewed.

A parenthesis here: there are surely those in the churches’ “social justice” bureaucracies who know exactly what they’re doing, and do it anyway. That is, there are those who want the Salvadoran FMLN (Faribundo Martr National Liberation Front) to replace the democratically elected Duarte government, who want Vinicio Cerezo to fail in Guatemala, who want the NPA to win in the Philippines and the ANC to take power in South Africa, who want the Sandinistas to consolidate their power in Nicaragua so that their self-proclaimed revolution-without-borders can have its impact throughout the Western hemisphere — and beyond. I grant all that. But these people are, in a sense, the lesser problem. They can be identified and, having been identified, they can be and should be removed from positions of authority and responsibility in religious agencies. The even more serious problem lies, not with these folks, but with the great majority of the “engaged,” those who truly want to act for peace, security, and freedom, but who end up supporting the FMLN, the Sandinistas, the NPA, the ANC, and Mr. Arafat.

O what has gone wrong in these minds? I believe that eight things have gone wrong: eight changes in the intellectual correlation of forces which, taken together, account for today’s situation, in which the formal leadership of American religion acts as an obstacle to wise public policy in the face of wars of national liberation, terrorism, and the totalitarian threat.

(1) A soft utopianism has displaced the dialectic between Christian realism and Christian idealism in which the Church’s classic social ethic used to operate. That the Kingdom of God, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, can be a political work of human hands- -even violent human hands — is a widespread commonplace in the churches today.

(2) The political meaning of “peace” — rightly-ordered political community in which law and politics resolve conflict without the threat or use of mass violence — has been displaced by a psychologized understanding of peace, with its corollary view of political conflict as epiphenomenal, a matter of “misunderstanding” or “bad communication.” The result has been a church leadership utterly unable to grasp, much less respond to, the ideological commitments that motivate a Daniel Ortega, a Joe Slovo, or an NPA chieftain.

(3) Neo-isolationism, in both soft and hard forms, has become epidemic in the churches political, strategic, and policy analysis. That the wretched of the earth are wretched because of American cupidity and stupidity is now a first principle in many deeply committed, activist minds. Thus the churches’ role is twofold: to get America “out of the way” of history (“the way” being that of the NPA, the ANC, the FMLN, the FSLN, and the PLO), and to bring home, in a reverse mission, the facts of life in El Salvador, Nicaragua, the Philippines, South Africa, and the Gaza Strip as perceived by those on the “underside of history” — which, invariably, means those for whom leadership has been claimed by the forces of “national liberation.”

(4) American religious leaders today are not, in the main, theoretical pacifists; they could not be, and still countenance revolutionary violence in the Third World. But they are, in the main, functional pacifists when the issue to be engaged is the proportionate and discriminate use of military force by the United States for the ends of peace, security, and/or freedom.

Recall the almost universal religious condemnation of the Grenada action in 1983 (an action for which the Grenadians seem, to put it mildly, grateful). The impact of “Vietnam,” not so much as a set of historical facts but as a paradigm for the suffering that happens when American armed force is brought to bear in the world, has been colossal here. In many religious leadership circles, the invocation of the trump Vietnam is enough to end debate on, say, the situation in Nicaragua (and before that, in El Salvador and, I predict next, in the Philippines of the 1990s).

(5) The leadership of the churches has adopted a Group of 77-influenced view of the dynamics of international politics and economics in general, and of the U.N. system and the entire system of international law in particular. So, while the churches protest U.S. withdrawal from the UNESCO of Mr. M’Bow, they cheer Abram Chayes when he defends the Sandinista regime against the United States in the Hague Court. Little attention is given to the ways in which international legal and political processes could help insure democratic transitions in the Third World, save in instances like the Contadora process which seem doomed to failure.

(6) The boundaries of political obligation have become, in a paradox that defies physics but is ideologically understandable, both elastic and incredibly narrow and rigid. National patriotism — moral obligation to an existing, democratic political community — is rarely if ever celebrated as a virtue. “Global citizenship” is the preferred term, and this usually translates into moral obligation toward the world’s underclass and their self-proclaimed tribunes in movements of “national liberation.”

Conversely, church leadership gives little or no thought to the question of moral obligation to the world’s democrats. That there is a democratic revolution in the Third World, which would seem to merit the support of people committed to peace, security, and freedom as these have been understood in the classic Christian social-ethical tradition, is not an idea that is received with great enthusiasm in the churches’ “social justice” bureaucracies and in many of our most prestigious theology schools. (Three weeks ago, I made an argument on behalf of the democrats of Central America at a two-day sanctuary conference at the Harvard Divinity School; my remarks were received with a mixture of sharp hostility and bewilderment.)

(7) In the wake of Vietnam, church leadership became, in the main, anti-anticommunist. To be a forthright anti-communist (even a forthright anti-communist who has put ten years into work for peace) is, in contemporary religious leadership circles, to invite all sorts of opprobrium onto one’s head. Here, the impact of the Vietnam-era New Left has been profound, and has been reinforced by the general anti-anticommunism of the American elite culture (the prestige press, the universities, the Ed Asner wing of Hollywood, etc.).

(8) Finally, many religious leaders in the United States have lost confidence in the American experiment in liberal democracy itself. And if this be Babylon, or even a mild, consumerist version of the same, why should one expect the U.S. to act for good ends in world affairs? How much simpler to accept the view that the evils of a racist, corporatist, sexist America inevitably lead to “imperialist” actions abroad. (This current feeds the neo-isolationist current noted above.)

I believe that a dispassionate review of the trendsetting periodicals of the religious press in the United States over the past generation — Christianity Today, Christianity in Crisis (founded by Reinhold Niebuhr, no less!), America, the National Catholic Reporter, Commonweal, and Sojourners — will bear out the claim that these are indeed the intellectual filters through which much of America’s religious leadership reads “the signs of the times.” (I know it to be the case for the Catholic periodicals in question, as I demonstrated at excruciating length in Tranquillitas Ordinis). And thus it should come as no surprise, ideas having consequences, that the church leadership has not helped form a public conscience able to operate wisely for peace, liberty, justice, and security when the principle threat to those ends comes from modern wars of national liberation.

So what is to be done?

We badly need an argument over this problem in the American religious community and some of us are busily trying to get one started. If that argument is to lead to moral wisdom in these matters, it will focus on the contextual level of the debate outlined above. Empirical clarity is crucial here, but church leaders are unlikely to read the signs of the times more accurately in South Arica, Nicaragua, and the Philippines for so long as the filters through which the data is perceived remain those noted above. Among the intellectual cudgels to be taken up may be the following.

First, we must insist that the classic just-war theory contains, within its interstices and in its basic intellectual and moral trajectory, an actionable concept of peace: peace as dynamic, rightly-ordered political community. In modern terms, that will mean a preferential option for democracy, or, at a minimum, pre-democratic civil liberties in transitional Third World societies. That entirely honorable word, “peace,” has for too long been the monopoly of those who have created the most confusion in the debate over wars of national liberation and international terrorism. The forces of peace can be identified, and celebrated as such, today: they include men and women like Alfonsin, Duarte, Aquino, and the leaders of the Chilean National Accord. Here is the peace movement worthy of the name. Let it be named as such, and supported as such.

Second, we must reject the fuzziness that has surrounded the term “violence” in these debates, primarily under the influence of the theologies of liberation and their distorting distinction between “first violence” and “second violence.” When this distinction leads to celebrations of the “necklace” in South Africa, or to supporting the Salvadoran FMLN, something has gone desperately wrong. Albert Camus used to complain when, at the time of a guillotining, it was said that “justice is being done.” Don’t say that, Camus argued. Say, rather, that a man is having his head cut off. That is the fact. That being established, the argument over the justice of the act can be engaged. To obscure the meaning of “violence” is to weaken the sanctions against its use. I believe, with other just-war theorists, that there are occasions when that sanction against violence can and must be overridden. But those are last resorts, not first resorts, and it is morally imperative that the distinction between the two be firmly maintained.

Third, we must actively explore the various non-violent means available to effect the transition between traditional oligarchies or authoritarian regimes in the Third World and modern democracies. The Philippines provides the paradigm case here (and the impending abandonment of Mrs. Aquino by the religious Left thereby illustrates just how far out of line things have gotten). Or can anyone doubt that, for all its economic woes and political fragility, the El Salvador of 1987 is a moral improvement over the El Salvador of the Twelve Families (or the El Salvador that would eventuate under the rule of the FMLN)? Central America will continue to provide a testing ground for non-violent action, as will Chile, Paraguay, South Korea, and, just perhaps, several countries in Eastern Europe before the turn of the century.

There is no reason why those who currently reject the church’s present ideological position cannot concurrently be strong supporters of non-violent action as a means of forcing social change in authoritarian states and creating the minimal conditions of a civil society in states suffering under the totalitarian boot. The National Endowment for Democracy provides an important example of how this can be done by a partnership between American public funding and American non-governmental organizations.

Fourth, we must understand, and work with, the difficulties religious people have with the ideological politics of the late twentieth century. In a sense, the religious leadership’s inability to take seriously the ideological commitments and purposes of Marxist-Leninists is no more puzzling than the inability of our general population to engage these issues. We are, in the best sense of the term, a liberal society, and we find it immensely difficult to imagine that there are people who could act that way. And yet they do. Here, the weight of empirical evidence is so clearly against the current ideological drift in the churches that a calm, persistent application of the facts (as marshaled by organizations like the Institute on Religion and Democracy, Keston College, the Puebla Institute, and my own colleagues in the World Without War Council) is essential. And just may be, over time, persuasive.

Fifth, we must marry forthright and principled anti-communism to efforts to secure peace, security, and freedom. We are anticommunists because we know what communism does to those who fall under the rule of Leninist regimes. But we are also anti-communists because the power and purpose of Leninist states now poses a grave obstacle to the pursuit of the peace of dynamic political community within and among nations. We must, in short, rebuild the linkages among the concepts and goals of peace, security, freedom understood as institutionalized protections for basic human rights, the rule of law, the preference for non-violence — and anti-communism.

None of this is going to happen in the near term (although there are some encouraging signs among some members of the Catholic leadership, who have been forced by the current state of affairs in Nicaragua [especially the persecution of the Church] to reconsider how it is that their episcopal conference’s public policy agency was so wrong for so long about Central America, at the empirical, analytic, and policy levels). One can’t reverse the deteriorations of a generation in a year. But they can be reversed: if those of us who want an engaged Church insist, in and out of season, and even at the Harvard Divinity School, that peace and freedom go together, and that the cause of the world’s democracies is the cause of peace and justice.

George Weigel


George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books, 2019).

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