Prophetic nonviolence

illustration of person in military uniform with peace dove medal and person in business jacket with peace symbol pin

Toward a Unitarian Universalist theology of war and peace.

Image: © John Patrick

© John Patrick


The 2006 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Associa­tion posed this provocative question for congregations to consider over the next few years:

Should the Unitarian Universalist Association reject the use of any and all kinds of violence and war to resolve disputes between peoples and nations and adopt a principle of seeking just peace through nonviolent means?

The four-year process launched in 2006 to take up this question will lead to a "Statement of Conscience" for consideration by the 2010 General Assembly. A resource guide distributed to all UUA congregations asks:

Should we, the Unitarian Universalist Association and member congregations, adopt a specific and detailed "just war" policy to guide our witness, advocacy, and social justice efforts?

I suspect the denomination as a whole is ambivalent, as I suspect are many of us as individuals. I do not see any inevitable outcome, no single "right" answer to these questions. Unitarian Universalists have historically followed the just war model, but there have always been pacifists among us and we have long affirmed peace as a core value.

Many people assume that just war and pacifism are opposing positions, but they actually have much in common. Properly understood, both are anti-war traditions. Both seek to limit the use of violent force, and they will be on the same side in nearly all cases. More importantly, both pacifism and just war share several core commitments that are also reflected in Unitarian Universalist theological principles. By recognizing these commonalities, we can move beyond old divisions toward a position that integrates the two traditions. I will explore both traditions before introducing my own proposal.

Some people now argue that peacemaking should be recognized as a third anti-war theory. Practices that focus on preventing violent conflict are crucial, but many peacemaking advocates believe that pacifism or just war theories are still necessary to help us make moral judgments about actual wars, something that peacemaking itself does not do. Peacemaking, then, complements rather than replaces these traditions.

The just war tradition

The just war tradition is a framework for making moral judgments about war. There is no "official" version of just war theory. It originated in the Catholic Church during the fourth century CE, and since the sixteenth century it has also been part of Protestant thought, secular philosophy, and international law. The theory continues to be developed and debated.

Two very different understandings of the just war model have emerged. Although just war theory is used by some to justify most uses of military force, a more restrictive approach sees the theory as a tool for limiting the violence of war. The restrictive model is far more consonant with our liberal theological principles, and it is the perspective I will assume in this discussion.

The most familiar part of the just war tradition is probably its list of criteria. But just war analysis begins with a presumption against war; the criteria are applied to determine whether this presumption might be overcome in specific cases. There is no universally recognized list of criteria, though the main ones are widely recognized. They are usually divided into two groups. The first names the conditions that must be met before going to war (jus ad bellum, or the justice of war); the second addresses the actual conduct of war (jus in bello, or justice in war). I will focus on the first group since these are most relevant to our own question.

  • Just cause has to do with the kinds of actions or provocations that justify a military response. Today, the only causes generally recognized as justifying violent force are self-defense in response to foreign aggression and intervention in the face of a massive humanitarian crisis such as genocide.

  • Only legitimate authority—properly constituted governmental authority—can make a decision to go to war.

  • Right intention means that a war’s ultimate goal must be reconciliation and the restoration of justice. In addition, those who undertake war, even for a justifiable cause, should act not with arrogance or self-righteousness, but with humility, regret, and full recognition of the humanity of their adversaries.

  • Last resort is implied by the presumption against war; all means of nonviolent resolution must be exhausted before violent force can be morally justified. The widespread success of nonviolent movements for social and political change, along with effective methods of nonviolent conflict resolution and the resources of international peace institutions, have strengthened this criterion in recent years.

  • Proportionality requires that even if there is a just cause, a nation should go to war only if the good it will accomplish—or the evil it will prevent—outweighs the suffering it will inevitably cause. Critics note that this criterion is often invoked to excuse the killing of civilians in the name of some "larger good."

  • Probability of success requires a reasonable expectation that a nation can achieve both its immediate goal—fending off the invading army, say—and the restoration of justice that is always the ultimate goal of a just war. Otherwise, we end up with both the suffering we create by going to war and the evil we sought unsuccessfully to prevent.

The just war tradition raises many difficult issues, even apart from the difficulty of applying the criteria in specific cases. First, the name "just war" seems to imply that war can sometimes be just. But this is not what the theory claims: a "just war" is never just. As Michael Walzer explains:

Just is a term of art here; it means justifiable, defensible, even morally necessary (given the alternatives)—and that is all it means. . . . [J]ustice in the strong sense, the sense that it has in domestic society and everyday life, is lost as soon as the fighting begins. War is a zone of radical coercion, in which justice is always under a cloud.

The term justifiable is better, but still problematic. John Howard Yoder, a leading Mennonite peace theologian, argues that to say that a war is justifiable within the meaning of the tradition is to say only "that a case can be made" for it.

Second, just war theory is often criticized for making war easier to justify by rationalizing it. This can happen if the criteria are applied as a checklist to go over during war preparations, or if they are seen as a hurdle to get over rather than a moral boundary we should be reluctant to cross. Yoder uses the term "toothless just war talk" to describe those who misapply the just war tradition by using its language to justify war rather than to restrain it.

A related danger is what Glen Stassen calls "tunnel vision." Just war theory provides a basis for moral critique of inappropriate military force, but it does not propose constructive alternatives. "If the only ethical theory we have is one that focuses on when military action is right or wrong," he writes, "its tendency is to focus our discussion on military action and away from other effective actions."

On the other hand, the restrictive model has brought just war increasingly closer to pacifism. One factor in this trend is the reality that in modern warfare, several criteria are probably impossible to meet. Some argue that since all wars will violate at least some of the criteria, no war can ever be justified. The result is that the peace presumption has been strengthened, and just war analysis is now, according to Todd Whitmore, "much more likely to condemn a particular instance of war than to justify it." Philosopher Jenny Teichman describes this view as just war pacifism.

For Unitarian Universalists, a key benefit of the just war approach is its assumption that decisions about war and peace are always subject to moral criticism. Walzer argues that just war "is a doctrine of radical responsibility" because it holds officials morally accountable for decisions that affect the lives of thousands of human beings. The restrictive just war model is therefore a valuable tool that can help us frame our prophetic critique.


Pacifism is a philosophical or religious stance of opposition to war. Beyond this simple description, however, pacifism is difficult to define. Yoder points out: "There is no such thing as a single position called pacifism, to which one clear definition can be given and which is held by all pacifists." In fact, he counts twenty-nine different types of pacifism. In addition, a variety of terms is used to describe these different positions, and these terms are not always used consistently.

The word pacifism did not appear until the early twentieth century. Previously, nonresistance was the term used by most Christian pacifists to describe what we now call pacifism. Today, nonviolence is probably the term most commonly used as a synonym for pacifism, though nonviolence is also used in other contexts. Because of these ambiguities, none of these terms should be used without clarification.

It is common to distinguish between absolute and conditional pacifism. Absolute pacifists are opposed to any form of participation in war. For many, pacifism is a personal stance, and not necessarily a political stance. Pacifists might refuse to participate in war by becoming conscientious objectors without necessarily opposing a government’s decision to go to war in a particular case. But for most absolute pacifists, opposition to war is both a personal and a political commitment. They not only refuse to participate in war, they reject war itself as an option for settling disputes among nations.

Absolute pacifism is normally based on adherence to a core principle, such as the biblical command "do not kill." At first glance, this appears to be an easy form of moral decision making, since the same rule always applies. But this appearance is deceptive. Does it mean no war, or no violence of any kind, or no killing? Should the biblical commandment be translated as "do not kill" or "do not murder"? And absolutes are difficult to maintain in practice because there are always hard cases.

Conditional pacifism begins as an anti-war position, but allows that force may be justified in particular circumstances. This stance raises several issues as well. First, we have to be clear about what the exceptions are, and whether we are open in principle to other exceptions. Then, we need a mechanism for identifying the kinds of real world circumstances that trigger the exceptions. Is there a principle we can apply, or do we just decide on a case-by-case basis? If there is a principle, how is it different from the just war model? After all, just war is basically a form of conditional pacifism.

As with the just war theory, pacifism raises difficult issues. Some critics charge that pacifism precludes prophetic critique because it offers no standards for evaluating particular wars. If war is never justified, then no analysis of government policy is ever necessary, and no critical judgments need to be made—or can be made. Walzer sees this form of pacifism as a kind of cop-out, "the radicalism of people who do not expect to exercise power," and who therefore "are not prepared to make the judgments" that may be required. What he is really objecting to, it seems to me, is a lazy pacifism, a pacifism of avoidance.

This criticism makes an important point, but it overstates the case. Most pacifists I know, certainly among Quakers, are very concerned with making critical judgments about appropriate uses of power. It is also misleading to suggest that there is no critical message in the pacifist stance. Even absolute pacifists often point to the horrible consequences of particular wars, although the message is meant to be a general one against all war. Yet this general message can be seen as a form of prophetic witness against the idolatry of war. But the criticism nevertheless raises an important issue for UUs: Prophetic critique is an important part of our tradition, and any stance we adopt should make room for this.

Some have suggested that Unitarian Universalism might become a peace church. While I agree that we should affirm a basic commitment to nonviolence, I believe peace church communities would point to a radical difference in self-understanding. The just war model developed largely through principles of natural law, not through articles of faith or interpretation of scripture. To put it in terms we liberals are familiar with, just war is grounded in reason, not in revelation.

For the peace churches, pacifism is not a philosophical position; it is a way of life. The commitment to nonviolence does not come from being rationally persuaded that peace is the best policy, and decisions about war are not made through reasoned analysis or by applying a list of criteria. Instead, as Roman Catholic ethicist Lisa Cahill puts it, pacifism is "a practical embodiment of a religious conversion experience." It speaks through the heart, not through the mind. Cahill says that critics of pacifism often misunderstand this. Just war is basically a "rule-based approach to the problem of violence," and when just war theorists look at pacifism, they see a rule-based theory with only one rule. But this misses the point. Pacifism cannot be understood by trying to discern the types of violence it will or will not allow. Instead, it can be understood only by looking at "the core understanding of the Christian moral life upon which [it] is premised."

After working in a Quaker community for five years, I have come to appreciate the depth of a pacifist conviction that comes from the heart. This experience has also led me to the reluctant conclusion that this kind of total life commitment would be very hard, if not impossible, for most Unitarian Universalists. The peace church approach is sustained through a profound commitment to shared community practices, including historically and biblically grounded forms of communal discernment and accountability. This is more than a personal commitment; it requires not simply a religious community that supports its members’ individual searches for truth and meaning, but rather one that shares a deep commitment to live every dimension of individual and communal life in a spirit of nonviolent love. I don’t see this deep sense of religious community within Unitarian Universalism today. My own sense is that any form of Unitarian Universalist commitment to nonviolence will look very different than it looks in the historic peace churches.

Unitarian Universalist examples

Both pacifism and just war thinking have been part of Unitarian and Universalist religious practice since the early nineteenth century. Unitarian minister Noah Worcester (1758–1837) is considered the "founding spirit" of the first sustained pacifist movement in North America outside the historic peace churches during the 1810s. William Ellery Channing (1780–1842), the defining theologian of early American Unitarianism, wrote several sermons and extended discourses on war between 1810 and 1838. These have a strong anti-war flavor, but in the end, Channing held what can only be called a just war position.

Channing begins with a peace presumption: "There is always a presumption against the justice of war; always reason to fear that it is condemned by impartial conscience and God." He limits the reasons for war in terms that are remarkably similar to the standard criteria:

War, as it is commonly waged, is indeed a tremendous evil; but national subjugation is a greater evil than a war of defense; and a community seems to me to possess an indisputable right to resort to such a war when all other means have failed for the security of its existence or freedom.

And when war comes, it should always be engaged in "with a full consciousness of rectitude and with unfeigned sorrow."

Channing also touches on the element of proper authority, and he includes a moral theory of government similar in some ways to the Catholic theory:

Government is instituted for the very purpose of protecting the community from all violence, . . . whether of domestic or foreign foes. . . . The very end and office of government is to resist evil men. For this the civil magistrate bears the sword.

But for Channing, war is ultimately a moral and spiritual problem, and this means that "peace without can come only through peace within."

Few if any other Unitarians or Universalists seem to have used just war concepts as extensively as Channing, but there are passages in the writings of other early figures that suggest the theory was familiar. Unitarian minister Theodore Parker (1810–1860), for example, used just war language in an 1848 sermon criticizing the U.S. war against Mexico. While the American Revolutionary War was justified as "a contest for national existence," in the Mexican War, the United States had neither a just cause nor just intentions. It behaved like a bully who, Parker said, "beats a little boy that cannot pay back his blows."

"Suppose the United States were invaded by a nation ten times abler for war than we are—with a cause no more just, intentions equally bad," Parker said. In this situation "the men of New England" would resist, and rightly so, he said, even though the case was hopeless. In a passage I find disturbing, he said, "I should rather see . . . every man, woman, and child in the land slain, than see them tamely submit to such a wrong—and so would you."

In terms of just war analysis, Parker is right on one count and wrong on the other. Taking up arms in defense against foreign invasion has always been recognized as a just cause. But fighting to the death would fail both the proportionality and probability of success criteria, because resisting in a hopeless cause brings about additional wholesale killing without fending off the evil caused by the invasion.

In 1846, two years before Parker’s war sermon, the utopian Universalist minister Adin Ballou (1803–1890) published Christian Non-Resistance, a book regarded as a major contribution to pacifist theory. Ballou’s doctrine of nonresistance is rooted in Jesus’ teaching "resist not evil." As Ballou interpreted it, this means "Resist not personal injury with personal injury." Instead, Christians have a duty to resist evil with nonviolent love. For Ballou, this included the use of non-injurious force to restrain violent persons or unruly children.

Ballou also advocated non-participation in government. Ideally, government would be based on divine law and would not enact or enforce any laws that violate what he called "the natural equality and brotherhood of mankind." But actual governments support "war, capital punishment, slavery, and all sorts of penal injury," and Christians who practice nonresistance should not participate in them. Ballou was not an anarchist; he saw government as a necessary evil and thought that Christians should generally obey the law. But the remedy for bad government is to educate people in the ways of Christian nonresistance and to create alternative models of good government. This is more or less what he tried to do at his separatist Hopedale community.

Despite the historical significance of Ballou’s work, it is not clear how much help it offers for our present denominational task. He seems to have intended nonresistance to describe a way of Christian living, and not a theory to be applied to actions of the government. He did not address the question of when, if ever, a state should resort to war, though he clearly thought war was contrary to God’s law.

The Civil War witnessed a sharp decline in liberal pacifism, and the tradition of Christian nonresistance remained marginalized through the end of the nineteenth century. World War I, however, brought a resurgence of pacifism, and one of the leading figures in this movement was John Haynes Holmes (1879–1964), probably the most well-known Unitarian pacifist in the twentieth century.

The minister of what is now the Community Church of New York, Holmes developed his own theory of nonresistance in his book New Wars for Old, published in 1916. Like Ballou, Holmes grounded his pacifism in Jesus’ teaching and agreed that nonresistance does not mean passive acquiescence; evil must be resisted. What Jesus meant was "do not resist evil with its own weapons"—violence with violence, force with force. Instead, we are "to meet injury with service and evil with good."

Unlike Ballou, Holmes applied these principles to international relations as well as personal relationships and argued that war is never justifiable, even in self-defense. If a nation is attacked, it should not resist with violent force even though it may be conquered. War cannot conquer the human spirit, he said, and this is what matters. Our ultimate loyalty should not be to the nation, but to the world, "the great circle of humanity."

While Holmes was an important figure in the pacifist movement, most Unitarians and Universalists supported World War I. The Unitarian General Conference voted overwhelmingly to support the war, and in 1918 the American Unitarian Association imposed economic sanctions on congregations whose ministers were not "willing, earnest, and outspoken" supporters of the war. Many pacifist ministers in both denominations lost their positions or were ostracized by their colleagues.

We did better during World War II. The AUA again supported the war, but, under the leadership of President Frederick May Eliot, it was far more supportive of pacifists and conscientious objectors.

Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams (1901–1994) was among those who supported American involvement in World War II. Indeed, he regularly spoke out against pacifism before and during the war. He opposed the Vietnam War, however, at least partly because it violated the just war criterion of proportionality: "a nation should not undertake a war, if military success was obviously impossible, and if the damage inflicted was disproportionate to the good sought." Yet the only extended writing he seems to have done on just war theory is a lengthy essay in 1970 in which he applied the just war criteria as a test for determining when it was appropriate to engage in civil disobedience.

The Vietnam War proved divisive for Unitarian Universalists. Widespread anti-war activism in some ways reenacted in reverse the experience of World War I. This time it was non-pacifists who felt ostracized, and many people left our churches in the face of what they saw as anti-war absolutism.

It is precisely this sort of divisiveness we must avoid as we move forward with our denominational discernment. Among other things, we must explore ways in which the just war and pacifist traditions can be seen as mutually supportive rather than mutually exclusive.

Beyond just war and pacifism

I believe we can move beyond this old divide by adopting an integrated model I call prophetic nonviolence. To move "beyond just war and pacifism" is not to abandon either tradition; it is to recognize that both perform important roles in our ongoing efforts to reduce the violence of war.

I begin with a fundamental commitment to nonviolence. Unitarian Universalists have always affirmed peace as among our most basic values. We have always worked to create the kinds of just communities out of which peace emerges, and we have long supported the use of nonviolent methods of conflict resolution. This is the legacy we share with pacifism.

At the same time, Unitarian Universalism has always been an engaged religion, one that tries to make a difference in the world. An important part of this engagement is our tradition of speaking prophetically—of bringing reasoned judgment and critique to bear on the social conditions that generate injustice and violence. In the context of war, this commitment has been well served by the just war model.

My proposal for prophetic nonviolence links our deep commitment to nonviolence with our historical practice of prophetic critique, and it is supported by several commonalities between the pacifist and just war traditions. Both share a presumption against war, a presumption based in part on a moral duty not to harm. Both put peace in the center of their ethical thinking and relegate war to the margins. Keeping peace in the center helps focus our critique and reminds us of the importance of peacemaking and other violence-prevention strategies.

In addition, both just war and pacifism are concerned with the limits of loyalty to the state. This is more obvious in religious pacifism, which often speaks of a higher loyalty to God. But this concern is also present in the just war model. By placing the burden of proof on those who would justify the use of force, the presumption against war reflects a basic suspicion of official claims. Ethicist Joseph Fahey says: "Today’s nation states presume that young men and women are willing to kill other young men and women for their flag." This presumption is reflected in our national policies toward conscientious objectors, for example, who must make a case for not taking up arms. Both the pacifist and just war traditions take a principled stand against the official presumption that young people must be prepared to kill at the behest of the state.

Finally, the recent trend toward pacifism in many non-peace churches suggests a growing convergence of the two traditions. Roman Catholic teaching now recognizes just war and nonviolence as "distinct but interdependent methods of evaluating warfare" for both individuals and states. Fahey notes a similar shift in the liberal and mainline Protestant churches, which traditionally have depended on the just war model. "[T]he return in the late twentieth century to pacifism," he writes, "is perhaps the most notable feature of contemporary Christian teaching on war and peace." Our denominational study process may tell us whether Unitarian Universalists are moving in a similar direction.

Bases for critique

In our prophetic critique of the government’s justifications for war, we will naturally draw on the just war criteria. These have a built-in familiarity and a rich set of interpretive traditions that make them extremely useful for this purpose, and public discourse about particular wars is likely to be carried on in just war language. However, as helpful as these criteria may be, we must remember that our real criteria—the true bases for our prophetic critique—are our own theological principles. Our critique must be our critique, grounded in our religious values and historical practices. Unitarian Universalist theological principles relevant to a UU response to war include these:

  • We affirm the basic unity of all existence. Beneath our individuality and our enormous diversity lies a profound relationality—an interdependent web—that connects us. This unity helps us envision a world in which there is no Other to war against.

  • Love is one of the deepest theological principles in our tradition. By affirming the value of love, we commit ourselves to creating relationships of compassion, respect, mutuality, and forgiveness. We commit ourselves to loving our neighbor, and to seeing everyone as our neighbor. We are challenged to think about how love might apply to international relations.

  • We affirm that all persons have inherent worth and dignity, including the right to a meaningful and fulfilling life. War obviously restricts the possibilities for human fulfillment.

  • Freedom is grounded in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Because human beings are free moral agents, any form of coercion or violence is an assault on our very humanity. War is the product of human choices, and human beings have the moral capacity to make different choices.

  • Justice is manifested in the right ordering of human relationships; war represents the breakdown of rightly ordered relationships. We have a religious obligation to create just communities and social structures, and an obligation to speak out against unjust practices and structures.

  • Power can be exercised for good or evil; it can create or destroy, liberate or oppress. War is an expression of coercive and violent power; peace and justice require cooperative forms of power. Power’s ambiguous nature means that its use must be guided by our core values such as love and justice.

These principles suggest that in addition to applying the just war criteria, we must ask questions such as: Does this military action promote or inhibit unity among peoples? Does it express love and compassion toward our neighbors, or does it reflect fear and hate? Does it increase or restrict the possibilities for human freedom and fulfillment? Does it contribute to the creation of right relationships and just social structures, or does it harm these relationships? What kinds of power are being used, and by whom? These kinds of assessments will add power and depth to our prophetic practice.

Our challenge

Whatever position we adopt as a denomination, we need to be as clear and as theologically grounded as possible. Clarity will best serve individual members and congregations in their own discernment processes, and it will provide the most effective basis for strong prophetic critique. Any stance we adopt will be ineffective if it is simply a reaction to the current political situation. Instead, it must be a genuine expression of our Unitarian Universalist theological principles and religious values.

We need to honor the differences that exist among us. Any statement worth making will surely provoke disagreement. This is not a reason to avoid the issue or to take so noncommittal a stance that we don’t really say anything. But we need to be careful to welcome and honor those who hold different views, and perhaps to remind ourselves that one of the tenets of liberalism is that nothing is ever finally settled.

We must avoid the dangers of political correctness. We don’t have a very good record on this count. The ostracism suffered by those who held minority positions during World War I and the Vietnam War reflects an unfortunate streak of illiberal self-righteousness that runs deep, as any Republican in our midst can testify. By drawing on the commonalities between the just war and pacifist traditions and by emphasizing our Unitarian Universalist theological principles, I have tried to show that it is possible to formulate a position that can be endorsed by pacifists and just war advocates alike. My own proposal is surely not the only possible synthesis. Yet a question that haunts me is whether our members who serve in the military would feel less welcome if my proposal were adopted as a denominational stance. I truly hope not.

Whatever our individual views, we need to treat each other with compassion, respect, and love as we move through this process. However inclusive our intentions and our language, we cannot eliminate all disagreement, nor should we try to do so. The very process of discussion through disagreement can help clarify our ideas and make us aware of the unintended consequences of our own words. At the same time, we need to remember that we belong to a shared religious tradition and that our disagreements reflect our deeper levels of agreement—our shared theological principles and our shared commitment to peace.

Our current study process presents an opportunity to clarify our thinking, to air some long-hidden differences, and to make a strong public statement in support of our deepest values on one of the most important issues of our time. May we accept the challenge in a spirit of love and grace.

© 2008 by Paul Rasor. This article appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of UU World (pages 26-33). 

Related Resources

  • Creating Peace.Statement of Conscience adopted by the Unitarian Universalist Association at the 2010 General Assembly. (
  • Peacemaking.Resources related to the 2006-2010 congregational study/action issue. (
  • Peacemaking Resource Guide.Materials distributed to congregations about the 2006-2010 study/action issue. (

Companion Articles