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Wednesday, February 6, 2008

This week at UU theology of peace.

Unitarian Universalist theologian Paul Rasor explores the history of Unitarian and Universalist responses to war and draws on both just war theory and pacifism to introduce "prophetic nonviolence," a distinctively UU response to war. His essay also takes up the General Assembly's four-year congregational study/action issue on peacemaking. If your congregation has not yet given input to the process, the deadline for the draft Statement of Conscience is March 1, 2008; here's how you can get involved. (Rasor's essay appears in the upcoming Spring issue.)

[Update 5.8.08: Paul Rasor's longer essay, "Beyond Just War and Pacifism: Toward a Unitarian Universalist Theology of Prophetic Nonviolence," from which his UU World essay was adapted, has now been published in the Journal of Liberal Religion. An incompletely formatted web version, without footnotes and bibliography, is also available. There's also a ton of material related to the congregational study/action issue on peacemaking at UUWiki.]

From the archives, Neil Shister probed the ambiguities of UU thinking about war and John Buehrens cautioned against repeating our history of dividing into righteous camps in times of war.

In the news this week, Jane Greer reports on the UUA Board of Trustees meeting in January, where the board reaffirmed its commitment to hold the General Assembly in Florida, despite a controversial photo ID requirement. The board also approved new rules for the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, accepted a sixth independent affiliate organization, and talked about the possibility of providing a stipend for the moderator.

And Sonja Cohen tracks Unitarian Universalists in the media.

Copyright © 2008 by Philocrites | Posted 6 February 2008 at 7:57 AM

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Jeff W.:

February 6, 2008 12:52 PM | Permalink for this comment

The Paul Rasor article on Unitarian-Universalism and war/peace is quite long. I can understand if many people will therefore avoid it, but I want to at least make a plea for folks to stick with it and try to get through as much of it as possible. This is a really fine piece of writing, which very clearly and fairly lays out the different perspectives on war and peace, including how they have manifested in our denominational history. No matter what side you take or if you are undecided, I think everyone who reads this article will come away better informed and therefore better equipped to make decisions about these important matters.

Bill Baar:

February 6, 2008 06:37 PM | Permalink for this comment

Razor wrote: Many people assume that just war and pacifism are opposing positions, but they actually have much in common.

I don't know why he assumes that. Just visit Wikipedia on Just War and you'll find under alternative theories,

Revolution and Civil War: Just War Theory states that a just war must have just authority. To the extent that this is interpreted as a legitimate government, this leaves little room for revolutionary war or civil war, in which an illegitimate entity may declare war for reasons that fit the remaining criteria of Just War Theory.

Anyone familiar with the revolutionary 60's would point out the case for and Pacifism as two preserver the status quo theories.

Bill Baar:

February 6, 2008 06:41 PM | Permalink for this comment

PS Our Church's Social Action debated Just War and Pacifism as opposite ends of the spectrum and I suggested they were far from opposites citing Revolutionary Theory. (Have you all forgotten Che, Mao, and Eldrige Cleaver?)

The committee also suggested most of the congregation didn't think much about the issue which I thought a bit of a stretch given the times.


February 6, 2008 07:37 PM | Permalink for this comment

Some of us find both pacifism and just war theory pretty useless.

The hardest problem for pacifists is usually law enforcement. If someone murders a child in my neighborhood, should the community put him in jail. Channing, King, and Gandhi all said yes. Adin Ballou said no. Emerson said yes, but he would rather not be involved personally. I have no idea what "prophetic nonviolence" means in this context. In any case, it is a very small step from approving of police preventing murder in one's neighborhood to approving of UN peacekeepers preventing murder in Bosnia.

Just war makes no sense to me. How can a complex social phenomenon like a war be just or unjust? Aquinas was answering the question "When can a Catholic monarch wage war without endangering his soul?" His answer has a lot to do with intent. That's fine for Aquinas because he was worried about the monarch's relationship with God, who presumably knows the intent. It is useless for me.

Suppose hundreds of Senators and Congresspeople vote to support a war. How can I know their intent? Even if I could, suppose 60% of them supported the war for lofty reasons and 40% did so out of mean calculation. Does that make the war 60% just?

History is a complicated evolving process. Even if one particular decision can be described as just or unjust the way it plays out isn't always the same. Some people, especially Iraqis, would argue that the US decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was unjust, but that ongoing efforts to prevent civil war and protect civilians from terrorists who use mentally disabled women to kill civilians are just.

Finally, there is the problem of differing moral perspectives. Suppose some people sincerely believed that by flying airplanes into buildings they could bring millions of people closer to God and eternal life. Does that pure intent make it just? If so, exactly what use is the concept?

In short, I think the concept of justice makes sense in the context of individual moral actions. I don't think being "just" is a property which can be legitimately ascribed to any particular war.

Nice article though. I especially like the review of UUism's checkered history with regard to the issue. Thanks.


February 7, 2008 07:34 AM | Permalink for this comment

Bill, when Paul Rasor says that "some people assume" that just war and pacifism are opposites, he is explicitly not saying that he assumes that. In fact, he's signaling that he's about to challenge that very assumption.

Also, the concept of "right authority" does include the possibility that a sovereign can forfeit his/her legitimacy, which would make it possible to overthrow or break away from an illegitimate government. (Thomas Aquinas explicitly acknowledges that, in extreme circumstances, regicide may be justified.)

Bill Baar:

February 7, 2008 08:54 AM | Permalink for this comment

Yes, I know... but it would have been helpful if Razor explained the some people he had in mind with a cite or two.

My social justice committee was some of Razor's some people and pinned the continuum on our Church's bulletin board and had members pin where they stood on the line.

I refused. Both models reactionarly status quo and opposed to revolutionary change (ok if you want to argue Ghandi but his tactics more exception than practical rule).

I thought it was a way to avoid talking real issues on revolutionary change and why sometimes you need to make a revolution.

I don't know why UU's are into these polar frames. It's handicap to good thinking.

Anyway, Razor would have served us better here citing some of the culprits.


February 9, 2008 10:11 AM | Permalink for this comment

uuwonk, do you see any merit in a religious organization trying to come up with principles to use when a nation considers going to war? It may be that the framework provided by pacifism or by just war theory don't suffice. What would you want to see in a more sufficient set of principles?

Bill, meanwhile, continues to feel the attraction of revolution, but I suspect that there's just not a groundswell of interest among UUs for adding a theory of revolutionary violence to the current study/action issue.


February 11, 2008 03:37 PM | Permalink for this comment


The real problem for UUs is "What is the right ethical action when one's elected government wages a war one considers to be immoral?" This is a very difficult question for UUs because individual conscience is in direct oppostition to community and democracy. We honor conscience but are aware that a society in which people don't respect elections their side loses will have neither democracy nor peace.

I don't think this is an issue that can be resolved. I think we should respect a range of opinion. But issues of individual morality are certainly the proper province of religion. I don't think religious organizations should be attempting to legislate foreign policy. It's a waste of time. The real problem will always be "What do you do when the President gets it wrong?"

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