War and Peace


A summary of the events surrounding the war in Iraq is available in Wikipedia while the American CNN news site has a detailed day by day war tracker diary in addition to maps, photos and stories about this conflict. The war in Afghanistan is explored in the Insight on Conflict site while the influence of the Taliban is explored on the BBC site. These two conflicts are simply exemplars of modern conflicts which bring into focus the broader issues of the ethics of war and peace. The current conflict in the Ukraine provides a contemporary exemplar for discussion.

Finding The Facts

Deducing the facts about the Iraqi situation is not easy. While almost every political commentator, and many Iraqis, agree that Saddam Hussein was a despotic and corrupt leader, there is little consensus about whether the overall situation justified the American and Allied intervention. An article by a former foreign correspondent, Clifford May, sets out the argument in favour of the invasion of Iraq, while the anti-war argument is outlined by The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. A large collection of links examining the situation from every angle is available on the section of the University of Phoenix site entitled Iraq War—Background to War & Debate while a BBC page entitled Iraq: Conflict in Context provides some historical background.


  • In point form summarise the situation in Iraq prior to the invasion of the Americans and allies.
  • Why was President Bush eager to go to war against Iraq?
  • According to Clifford May’s analysis what were the motives behind the US lead invasion of Iraq?
  • What were the main arguments against the war?

Broadening Perspectives

The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy contains a very interesting and reasonably accessible introduction into what actually constitutes war, its causes and how conflict seems entrenched in human nature and societies . It also examines briefly the thoughts of philosophers on how beliefs about human nature affect what we think about war, its conduct, avoidance or inevitability.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy also contains a good definition of war as well as a critical examination of pacifism. Both encyclopedias mention the ‘just war’ theory. This theory arose and was elaborated in the teachings of Augustine and Aquinas and will be looked at in further detail in the section ‘Understanding the Tradition’.


  • Do wars originate because of human nature, because of the clash of human cultures or as a result of rational decisions?
  • What values (if any) are important enough to be defended by war?
  • Explain the just war theory, the realist approach and the pacifist response to armed warfare, using a sentence or two for each.

Exploring Sacred Texts

Even a superficial reading of the gospels reveals that peace is a constant theme in the presentation of the message of Jesus, from the sermon on the mount (Mt 5:38–9) to Jesus’ rejection of violence at his arrest. The greeting of the risen Lord to his disciples is: ‘Peace be with you’ (Jn 20:21). But if we look to the New Testament for explicit instructions or models for Christian behaviour in regard to war and violence we will look in vain. Jesus tells Peter to put away his sword ‘for all who take the sword will perish by the sword’ (Mt 26:52), but he praises the centurion, not only a soldier but an officer of the army of occupation, as a man of faith (Mt 8:5–13). In this case, as in that of the centurion Cornelius baptised by Peter (Acts 10), there is no mention of the soldiers being instructed to give up their profession. Perhaps it was taken for granted but we simply don’t know.

Nor does the New Testament explicitly repudiate the Old Testament idea of a holy war against the enemies of God. The letter to the Hebrews rejoices in bloody victories over the enemies of God (Heb 11:32–4). The book of Revelations is full of military metaphors and invokes powerful images of the final battle between good and evil (20:7–9). Much of this, however, is clearly metaphorical. Paul, in particular, uses war as a model of the spiritual struggle, and in the most sustained passage on this theme (Eph 6:10–17) he insists that we must buckle on our spiritual armour in order ‘to spread the gospel of peace’. Unfortunately, throughout later Christian history, some Christians have misinterpreted the message, and confused spiritual conflict with physical violence.

In a series of four short articles entitled When is it right to fight? Australian Baptist Rob Benson explores the particular perspective that the scriptures give to ethical decision-making about war.


  • Having read and discussed the excerpts from the gospels quoted above, what is your sense of what Jesus requires of his followers in regard to the waging of war?
  • When is it right to fight? How would you respond in the light of the New Testament writings?

Understanding the Catholic Tradition

The Early Church

A reasonably detailed account of Christian responses to war and military service in the early church shows the development of Christian thought about the morality of war in the period before Constantine.

Augustine of Hippo (354–430) was the greatest of the Western Fathers of the Church and a major influence on all subsequent theology. He first formulated the most influential of all Christian theories on war, the so-called just war doctrine partly as a corrective to the “might is right’ idea so predominant in ancient societies. Augustine regretted the necessity for violence but, as a last resort, it seemed to him necessary for the survival of society.

In the Middle Ages

In medieval Christendom, Augustine’s ‘just war’ approach to war and peace was adopted alongside frequent reasssertions of the Christian pacifism of the Early Church.

However, around the ninth century a new, or rather a revival of a older idea appeared, that of the ‘holy war’. This idea of war was God-inspired, against God’s enemies, with special spiritual rewards promised for the participants. The major form this took in medieval history was the crusade.

St. Thomas Aquinas

At the same time theologians began to develop further the ‘just war’ theory, by spelling out the conditions for justice in going to war and in the way of fighting wars, to limit severely if not outlaw, war. St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica produced the most influential statement of these conditions, one which is still the basis of modern just war theory. Aquinas maintained that, to be just, a war must be declared by a ruler who has authority to do so; it was to be fought for a just cause; and it must be fought with a just intention—that is, to do good not evil.

By the end of the Middle Ages Christendom had adopted three largely incompatible approaches to war: pacifism, ‘just war’ under certain conditions, and ‘holy wars’ in the service of God. Vestiges of these different approaches remain to the present day.

The Modern Era

‘Just war’ thinking continued to influence Catholic thinking about war during the twentieth century. At the same time the Church played an important peacemaking role in both world wars and since. The Papacy in particular, since being freed of its temporal power in 1870, has acquired immense moral influence, and been able to act as an impartial international umpire. For example, the Pope played a key role in the Cuban missile crisis and nuclear disarmament talks and many attribute the collapse of Eastern European Communism partly to the influence of Pope John Paul II.

The Second Vatican Council

In the wake of World War II and the dawn of the nuclear era, the Second Vatican Council of the Church took a first step towards a modern theology of peace. This was outlined in the pastoral constitution The Church in the Modern World. This document was a kind of program for further thought and action, and the Church has far from digested it or exhausted its possibilities.

Nuclear War

The Church has spoken out most strongly on the issue of nuclear warfare. Because the use of nuclear weapons involves the deaths of thousands of innocent non-combatants, the indisputable conclusion is that this use can never be morally defensible.

The twentieth century also saw a recovery of the pacifism of the early church. The Catholic Worker Movement, the Cistercian monk Thomas Merton, and Jesuit Daniel Berrigan, leader of the Ploughshares movement, stand out in this field.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church

Finally, the Catechism of the Catholic Church summarises the Catholic position on the right and duty of legitimate defence (2263–7), but qualifies it by reference to an overriding duty to preserve the peace (2302–2317). The Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace in 1994 succinctly summed up the Catholic position on war and peace:

In a world marked by evil and sin, the right of legitimate defence by armed means exists. This right can become a serious duty for those who are responsible for the lives of others, for the common good of the family or of the civil community. It is this right alone that can justify the possession or the transfer of arms. It is not, however, an absolute right; it is coupled with the duty to do all possible to reduce to a minimum, and indeed eliminate, the causes of violence. (The International Arms Trade: An Ethical Reflection , Vatican City 1994, #5, p.12.)

The challenge of peace in the 21st century is crucial. The role of the Church in helping to bring about peace in the world is one which is central to its mission and destiny.


  • Why was the Early Church so ‘pacifist’?
  • What are the characteristics of a ‘just war’ according to St Augustine?
  • What was a ‘holy war’? How was it justified?
  • Has the Church’s attitude to war changed in the modern era? How might this be explained?
  • Choose one of the post World War II Popes (Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul II). What were key characteristics of his teaching on war and peace?
  • What contribution did Vatican II, especially Gaudiam et Spes, make to Catholic thinking about peace?
  • How has the nature of modern warfare changed church teaching about war and peace?
  • Do some research on one Catholic pacifist and tell his or her story.

Respecting Other World Views

Read a summary of the positions and teachings of various other religious traditions on the issues of war and peace. The BBC religion and ethics site also contains outlines of the teachings of the various traditions.


You might compare the BBC explanation of  Jewish teaching with that set out in a Jewish learning module War and Peace:the Ethics and Laws of Combat.


Reading a brief book review which explicitly refers to Muslim attitudes to war would complement the outline of Islamic teaching provided on the BBC site. Al-Khazina is an interactive database for the study of Islamic Culture set up by Princeton University to promote understanding of Islam. A further explanation of the concept of jihad would clear up the many misunderstandings surrounding this key concept of Islam.

Hinduism and Buddhism

Gandhi, the great symbol of non-violent resistance in the twentieth century, was a Hindu. Hinduism and Buddhism have traditionally been regarded as religions of non-violence, though Eastern civilisations have also had their share of war and bloodshed.

Dr Andrew Wilson

A compendium of quotations from the scriptures of the major world religions has been prepared by Dr Andrew Wilson. The section entitled War against Evil shows the diversity of response of the great religions to violence in the face of evil.


  • Imagine a conversation between President Bush and Mohandas Gandhi about the war in Iraq. What would their arguments be and what religious traditions would they be drawing on in their exchange of views about the war?
  • Imagine another conversation, one between Professor Abdullah Saeed of Melbourne University and Pope John Paul II. What points in common would these two men have in relation to the War in Iraq? How might they differ?
  • Prepare a table of quotations from five religious traditions showing how each tradition contains texts which support and oppose war.
  • As we have seen, Catholicism has a rich tradition of reflection and teaching on issues of war and peace. So do other faiths.

Examining Personal Experience

Most present day Anglo Celtic members of Australian society have been protected from the direct experience of war. However, many families have fathers, uncles, grandfathers, great grandfathers, who were involved in the two World Wars of the twentieth century, or in the many smaller conflicts which stalked that century. Furthermore, a great many Australian classrooms contain young people whose families have been disrupted by war, or who have fled violent or repressive societies.

Invite class members to tell the stories of their own family’s involvement in war and/or armed conflict, and to examine the effect this has had on their family’s history.

What scars of the conflict remain?

Did the outcome of that particular war or conflict justify the loss of life and health of those who took part in it?

Do conflicts that our families/religious/cultural group have been involved in lead to long-term suspicion and dislike? Why or why not?

Are there ever any worthwhile outcomes of the experience of war?


Articulate a response.

  • Find out the facts.
  • Broaden your perspectives.
  • Explore the sacred texts.
  • Understand the tradition.
  • Consider other world views.
  • Review your personal experience.

Articulate your own response.

As a conclusion to the study of this issue, you might choose to organise a class discussion on the war in Iraq or any other conflict. A valuable aid in preparing this can be found on a University of Michigan site which makes many suggestions about how the topic of war may be debated in a constructive way in the classroom.