Leading Christians have lent moral backing to military action against the self-proclaimed “Islamic State” (ISIS), citing the Just War doctrine. Christian pacifists, meanwhile, have struggled to suggest convincing alternatives at a time when preaching nonviolence can seem naïve, even heartless. But does the Just War tradition give its adherents a blank check in such a situation? We turned to Ron Sider, founder of Evangelicals for Social Action and a dean among Christian pacifists, who lately has been talking about a truce with Just War Christians – while challenging all of us to go beyond easy answers.

Plough: In your forthcoming book Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands but Most Christians Have Never Really Tried (Baker, 2015), you argue that both Just War Christians and pacifists have an obligation to confront injustice with nonviolent resistance. Can you elaborate?

Ron Sider: Nonviolent action is an ethical demand that applies to both pacifists and Just War Christians. All Christians are called to be peacemakers. But neither pacifists nor Just War adherents have made much careful, systematically planned use of nonviolent action, even though again and again nonviolent action has proved to be effective. So that’s the core of my message. Nonviolent action, if given a chance, is stunningly successful. For example, the Solidarity movement defied the Soviet Union and they won.

Over the past half year, ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria have committed horrific atrocities. Most people, including many churches, believe that nonviolent methods won’t work. Do you agree?

People committed to nonviolence do not always have instant solutions to the messes that military policies get us into. There is plenty of evidence that shows how in different kinds of situations nonviolent strategies have been amazingly effective. But in the short run, nonviolent actions are not always, or automatically, successful. It’s not very likely, at least at this point, that ISIS will respond to a nonviolent peacemaking team, or even to substantial numbers of nonviolent people taking action.

Of course, military action isn’t always automatically successful either, and often has unintended consequences. ISIS terrorism, according to some, has only been able to flourish because of the decisions made by the United States and its allies in 2001 and 2003 to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. What’s your view?

A young boy at the funeral of a fighter from the Women’s Protection Unit, a militia made up of Kurdish women. The fallen fighter was killed in action defending the besieged Syrian border town of Kobani in November 2014. Photograph by Aris Messinis / Getty Images

ISIS has certainly not come out of a vacuum. In 2003, except for some American evangelical leaders, the global Christian community said that even on the basis of Just War criteria, invading Iraq was not justified. The Pope said it. Christian leaders around the world said it. Many American Christian leaders said it. So I think one thing peacemakers, including pacifists like myself, need to do is to help their societies actually apply the Just War criteria carefully and consistently. That doesn’t mean presidents won’t ignore us, but if enough people speak out and enough political pressure builds, it can make a difference.

Yet even apart from ISIS, the idea of nonviolent action strikes most people as unrealistic, somewhat like the medieval Children’s Crusade.

This is why we must re-educate people. We now know that nonviolence works. It has worked again and again, as we have seen especially in the last fifty years. And it has worked even without very much training or very much analysis. I don’t pretend to be a sophisticated tactician of nonviolent campaigns, but I tell story after story in my book about amazingly successful nonviolent campaigns.

For example?

We can go back to the first-century Jews who offered to die rather than allow Roman military standards to be displayed in Jerusalem, causing Pontius Pilate to remove the standards. In the fifth century, Pope Leo I rode to meet Attila the Hun and his armies as they approached Rome and turned them back. Then there’s the nineteenth-century truce between Argentina and Chile that was effected by a bishop from each side who preceded the troops. The twentieth century was rich with examples, the best known of course being Gandhi’s leadership in India and Martin Luther King Jr.’s peaceful Civil Rights Movement in this country. But there are countless others from across the globe: peaceful demonstrations in El Salvador and Guatemala that contributed to the collapse of violent dictatorships; a “nonviolent fleet” consisting of three kayaks, three canoes, and a rubber raft that blocked the path of a huge freighter and helped stop the flow of arms between the United States and Pakistan; the Alagamar land struggle in Brazil in the late 1970s; and the list goes on. Christian Peacemaker Teams have had real success in reducing violence in Colombia.

In addition, there are historical might-have-beens, such as in the early 1990s at the time of the collapse of Yugoslavia, which led to war in the Balkans. Nonviolent action would have had a powerful effect if at that time leaders from the Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches had marched into the region of conflict and said: “We come here in the name of Jesus. You can kill us if you want to, but we’re going to stand between you and your religious and ethnic enemies.”

Similarly, I believe nonviolent direct action might have worked in confronting Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe.

Okay, but are there no exceptions?

My intent is not to convince people that nonviolence always works quickly or easily; I’m not going to argue that in every situation of violence there is a short-term nonviolent solution. Rather, my argument is this: Look at all the historical successes of nonviolent action, despite the fact that we haven’t invested much of anything in terms of time, money, study, and strategizing. With that in mind, what we need to do across the board in the Christian church, whether you are a pacifist or a Just War person, is to call for a lot more investment in nonviolent action. We need something comparable to the war colleges – academies where we can carefully analyze nonviolent tactics and determine what works and what doesn’t. Compared to what we have for military training, for nonviolent action we have almost nothing.

I think that Christian Peacemaker Teams and other such interventions are one way to do that; they ought to be vastly expanded. But it’s also important to keep in mind the broader context, as Glen Stassen points out in the book Just Peacemaking. He and many other scholars – some of them pacifist and some of them not – have shown that there is a wide range of nonviolent ways that can help resolve conflict in the world. I think an honest, realistic, sophisticated analysis of how, when, and why nonviolent tactics work will help us understand more clearly where it’s wise to invest time and to engage.

A Kurdish refugee in Mursitpinar, Turkey, who fled the fighting around Kobani in October 2014. Photograph by Jordi Bernabeu Farrús / Wikimedia Commons

You’ve said that nonviolent action is a mandate of Christian ethics whether one believes in Just War doctrine or in pacifism. In fact, your book carries a foreword by Richard Mouw, the former president of Fuller Theological Seminary, who calls himself a “defender of Just War theory.” How might Just War adherents and pacifists work together?

Pacifists and Just War Christians need to assess each situation together. With some frequency, there will be situations where applying the Just War criteria will lead us to conclude, “This war should not be fought, this invasion should not take place. An alternative must be found.” There may be, however, other situations where Just War Christians will conclude that they must go to war.

But the Just War theory requires that war is a last resort, and until you’ve tried all reasonable nonviolent alternatives, war is not a last resort. Unless Just War Christians are ready to test all reasonable nonviolent alternatives, the Just War position has no integrity. Likewise, pacifists have no moral right to pretend their way is better unless they are willing to run the same risks in a nonviolent struggle against evil as soldiers do in battle.

You’ve been at this work for decades, calling on Christians to live justly and to take responsibility for peacemaking. Do you see signs of progress?

It’s been thirty-seven years since my book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger was published – I’m just revising it for the sixth edition, which will come out next year. At the time I wrote it, most evangelical leaders said that the primary mission of the church is saving souls and doing evangelism. There was a huge debate for several decades over whether or not social action and working for social justice was also an important part of the mission of the church. That debate has been won almost across the board. Evangelical leaders now advocate that we’re supposed to do evangelism and we’re supposed to do social justice. By contrast, in theologically liberal and mainline circles such a holistic approach hasn’t been so readily embraced. If you don’t believe in the deity of Christ – if you don’t believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation – then there’s not much point in proclaiming the gospel. But among most evangelicals around the world today, evangelism and social action are an integral whole.

Take for example the International Justice Mission and the way it has grown so fast, or think of the Justice Conference and of all the younger evangelicals who are involved in it. And as a matter of fact, over the last four decades poverty has been substantially reduced in the world. Of course, there are still around 1.2 billion people who try to live on $1.25 a day. There is still desperate poverty in the world, yet the progress has been enormous.

In Christian circles nowadays, it sometimes seems that “justice” has become an overused word. Are we in danger of losing sight of the power of the gospel and how it can change people’s lives?

I’m actually quite worried about this. I want to say: “Hey, do you care as much about evangelism as you do about social justice? Do you care as much about how there are millions of people who have never heard about Jesus as you do about the fact that there’s enormous poverty and injustice in the world?” I certainly do not want to go back to a one-sided emphasis on evangelism, but neither do I want to see a repeat of a one-sided social gospel movement whose only concern is to improve the outer conditions of the world.

You’ve recommended that the church should make a massive investment into nonviolent action by researching tactics and building institutions to carry it out. How would you respond to those who say, “Hold on – is that really the church’s task?”

As I’ve said for decades now, the first thing the church should do is be the church. If it’s not being the church – whether it’s crossing racial lines or working for justice for the poor – then preaching policy changes to the government is nothing but hypocrisy. It’s a farce to try to persuade Washington to do what we Christians don’t live out. Our first priority is to be the church and to live out the justice and peace of Christ.

But as we do this, we will also be compelled to reach out to others, and in so doing we will not only tell people about Jesus, how to follow him and accept him as the Lord and Savior he is, but in his name and motivated by his love we will work to change society. Christ called us to be peacemakers and to spread the gospel of peace in every way we can. That is where we need to put our energies and resources.

Interview by Peter Mommsen on October 9, 2014.

The Criteria: What’s a “Just War?

Just War doctrine is accepted by a wide range of Christian traditions. As summarized in the Catholic Catechism, it requires that the following “strict conditions” must be fulfilled for a war to be legitimate:

  • The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  • All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  • There must be serious prospects of success;
  • The use of arms must not produce evils or disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition. (CCC, para. 2309)

Although Just War doctrine goes back at least as far as Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430), it was not the teaching of the early church. In fact, Christian leaders of the first centuries overwhelmingly prohibited the use of lethal force for any reason. See Ron Sider, The Early Church on Killing: A Comprehensive Sourcebook on War, Abortion, and Capital Punishment (Baker Academic, 2012).