The Origin of the Just Peacemaking Ethic

By Glen H. Stassen (January 2013)

In 1955, Martin Luther King, Jr., experienced a life-changing and indeed world-changing synthesis of Gandhi’s nonviolent direct action strategy with his own African American Baptist emphasis on Jesus’ teaching of love. When he experienced nonviolent direct action energizing people to achieve desegregation of public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama, Jesus’ teaching plus Gandhi’s strategy plus experiential engagement came together for him in a flash of revelation. Love as simply giving in to racist oppression would not solve the racism. But love as nonviolent direct action, joined with justice as deliverance, could.

A few years later, Charles Osgood published his book, An Alternative to War or Surrender. Osgood argued that continuing the nuclear arms race, trying to build more nuclear weapons than the Soviet Union was building, was only increasing the danger. Instead we needed a strategy of independent initiatives: Our side could take an independent initiative to reduce the threat to the other side, explaining that we wanted to reduce the mutual threat of nuclear weapons. The initiative should not leave us weak; we would still have far more than enough nuclear weapons to destroy any enemy. And it should be visible and verifiable—the other side would not trust mere words. We could announce that if the other side reciprocated with a similar initiative, then we could try another initiative. These are independent initiatives—independent from the years-long process of slow negotiations that seemingly never reduce anything but only legitimate what has already been built.

The example was president Eisenhower’s announcement that the United States would halt nuclear bomb testing for one year. He announced that if the Soviet Union reciprocated, then the suspension of tests could be extended, one year at a time. Nuclear bomb testing was easily detected by each side’s detection techniques, so it would not be simply relying on their word.  Eisenhower was responding to pressure from a worldwide peace movement to stop blanketing the world with nuclear pollution from test-exploding nuclear weapons in the atmosphere in Nevada. This shows the effectiveness of organized citizen action. Babies were dying from the fallout of radioactive strontium 90 getting in milk and concentrating in their small organs. When I was doing nuclear physics research in Washington, D.C., some days the radiation drifting over us from Nevada caused so much background interference in our Geiger counters that we could not do our research. People pushed Eisenhower to try an initiative. The Soviet Union did reciprocate, and both superpowers halted bomb testing for two and a half years. Then president Kennedy initiated a new testing halt, and again the Soviet Union reciprocated. This led to the Atmospheric Test Ban treaty of 1963 that has halted nuclear testing above ground ever since. We are no longer blanketed with nuclear radiation.

During this time, I was deeply engaged in the civil rights movement first in North Carolina and then in Kentucky, and was much influenced by Martin Luther King, Jr.—as Hak Joon Lee and I still are. And I was also deeply concerned about the nuclear arms race: the United States and the Soviet Union were building ten times as many nuclear weapons as it would take to cause the mega-explosions, the firestorms, and the worldwide radiation that would kill most of the world’s population, if they were used in a major nuclear war. Because of my own work in nuclear physics, I could not ignore the steadily increasing nuclear threat as easily as many have done. Furthermore, it was my own father who had initiated the proposal of a unilateral nuclear test ban and reciprocations during his exploratory negotiations with the Soviet Union.

At the same time, I was beginning to see the transforming initiatives structure of the Sermon on the Mount. I had my own flash of revelation: King’s strategy of nonviolent direct action and Osgood’s strategy of independent initiatives actually implemented Jesus’ transforming initiatives in the Sermon on the Mount! The question hit me: Why doesn’t Christian ethics have an ethic of peacemaking as transforming initiatives? Why do we only keep debating whether wars are justified, in Pacifism vs. Just War Theory without considering whether specific kinds of peacemaking initiatives should be taken? The gospel is about God’s initiatives of grace, not merely about what we are not supposed to be doing. Jesus’ central message is about breakthroughs of the reign of God, which are empowering initiatives, not merely about when we do or do not have permission to do more violence. Biblical realism is about diagnosing sin realistically and seeking deliverance, not merely about affirming some high ideals.

In 1969-72, I received three postdoctoral cross-disciplinary fellowships to research international relations and peacemaking at Harvard, and was a fellow of Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Then I spent 1981-2 on a sabbatical at the Protestant Research Institute in Heidelberg, researching peacemaking strategies of German groups and thinkers, and representing the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign to the European peace groups, and learning their strategies. When I returned to the U.S. in 1982, I began serving as co-chair of the Strategy Committee of the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, working on strategies of peacemaking with activists from throughout the U.S. while also teaching Christian ethics as my day job.

In 1981 and 1982, I began publishing articles arguing for a Christian ethic of peacemaking initiatives. Then Presbyterians, Methodists, the United Church of Christ, and Catholics published major statements on peace and war in the mid-1980s. They all said just war and pacifism are insufficient and called for a constructive ethic on peacemaking, as I had been urging them to say. Still, none of them developed that ethic or identified the practices of just peacemaking.

On January 17, 1991, president George H. W. Bush initiated the Gulf War against Iraq, which had invaded Kuwait. The week before, the Society of Christian Ethics in its annual meeting debated that impending war. They promised they would not only debate whether the war would be just, but also what initiatives should be taken to avoid the war. They broke that promise, voting only that the war would be unjust without advocated any constructive alternative to get Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.

I was angry. I knew only saying the war would be unjust would not deal with the problem and would be ineffective. Furthermore, I wanted to answer the need for a constructive ethic of peacemaking that the four church statements had called for. So I published Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives of Justice and Peace (Westminster John Knox) in 1992, identifying and arguing for seven practices of just peacemaking. In the concluding chapter, I showed that hints toward the practices of just peacemaking were already in many churches’ books on peace and war––church leaders should be able to support the ethic of just peacemaking.

My fellow Christian ethicists responded supportively. We organized a panel at the Society of Christian Ethics in which several key ethicists—Presbyterian, Catholic, Baptist, Methodist—each focused on one of the seven just peacemaking practices. The interest was huge; the room was packed, with standing room only. So I organized two conferences that produced the ten practices of just peacemaking, published in Just Peacemaking: the New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War (Pilgrim Press)—now already in the third edition. The conferences took place first at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Kentucky and then at the Carter Center in Atlanta. I had recruited 23 interdenominational scholars for these conferences, and remarkably, they reached unanimous consensus on the ten just peacemaking practices and on what we said together in the chapters of the book. We celebrated the miracle in a Sunday morning worship service (Quaker-meeting style) at the Carter Center.

It seemed to me that U.S. Muslims might have an interest in supporting something like the just peacemaking paradigm to show their commitment to peacemaking instead of terrorism, especially after the events of 9/11. I proposed to Fuller Theological Seminary faculty that we invite Muslim scholars to work with us to develop an interfaith just peacemaking theory. We invited Mohammed Abu-Nimer and Riffat Hassan and the Salaam Institute headed by Abu-Nimer at American University to work on developing interfaith just peacemaking theory. In this process, we produced two books: Resources for Peacemaking in Muslim-Christian Relations (Fuller Seminary Press) and Peace-Building by, between, and beyond Muslims and Evangelical Christians (Lexington Books).

Later Susan Thistlethwaite, one of the original 23 scholars, got funding from the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) and the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation for two conferences including Jewish scholars as well as Muslim and Christian scholars. Together she and I produced the USIP monograph that announced Interfaith Just Peacemaking, and then the book, Interfaith Just Peacemaking (Palgrave McMillan Press). I think it was also Susan, through her work in the Center for American Progress, who encouraged president Obama to advocate just peacemaking four times in his Nobel Peace Award address and to support all ten practices of just peacemaking. (Find more of what we have written about Obama’s Nobel Prize address at this link.)

It is amazing how the new paradigm of just peacemaking is spreading to many books on peacemaking by various authors––and even to president Obama. Thank God!

Additional Sources regarding the Origin of the Just Peacemaking Ethic

Here is an extended interview about the Just Peacemaking paradigm and following Jesus in contemporary context with our Executive Director, Glen Stassen, from some years back:

For more recent coverage, hear Glen discuss the Just Peacemaking paradigm during a conference at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, on September 14, 2012, at this link.