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Just peace despite war? In defense of a criticized concept

By Markus Thurau

In a Europe whose core values include peace and justice, the concept of just peace established in the churches forms the basis for the necessary legitimization of the armed forces in terms of peace ethics. Yet with the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine, church voices are increasingly calling for a revival of the doctrine of just war.

However, the two world wars had already clearly shown that the doctrine of just war had degenerated into a component of a nationalistic legitimization of war and could no longer provide adequate answers to the advancing technologization and totalization of modern warfare. Thus, after 1945, the churches came to realize that it had to be replaced by a doctrine of just peace. Consequently, this doctrine focuses primarily on the prevention of violence, civil conflict resolution and the creation of just, peace-promoting conditions and structures; it thus encompasses far more than a legitimizing criteriology, but without completely excluding military force as a last resort.

In addition, a return to the doctrine of just war is not compatible with the papal magisterium under Francis. In any case, he is following in the tradition of his predecessors by advocating an international peace order as a legal order. His call for the outlawing of war, his clear rejection of just war and his consistent adoption of the victims’ perspective can quite possibly be interpreted as a commitment to just peace and not (as is often assumed) as a solely pacifist stance.

Just peace, for whose connectivity to the political discourse there is sufficient evidence, can therefore by no means be denied its suitability as a model for the situation after the Zeitenwende (watershed moment). With all of the necessary “war readiness” (Kriegstüchtigkeit), its inherent change of perspective – i.e. the orientation towards peace (which originally was also inscribed in the doctrine of just war) – points to the overriding purpose of armed forces.

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