Tag: Pacifism

Violence and Theology? Just War and Pacifism?—William Cavanaugh Interview—part 1

William T. Cavanaugh
Dr. William T. Cavanaugh

Cavanaugh is Professor of Theology at DePaul University in Chicago. He holds degrees from Notre Dame, Cambridge, and Duke University, and has worked as a lay associate with the Holy Cross order in a poor area of Santiago, Chile, as well as for the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the Notre Dame Law School. His books include:

2016 Richard Johnson Lecture

I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. William Cavanaugh and attending his lecture “The Myth of Religious Violence”. I’ve broken the interview up into 6 short posts:

  1. Violence and Theology? Just War and Pacifism?
  2. Was God Violent To Jesus? Is Jesus Coming Back Mad As Hell?
  3. Did Constantine Make Christianity Violent?
  4. Has God Ever Commanded Genocide? What is Justice?
  5. Is God Violent In Hell? Does That Influence Us Now?
  6. Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved? Four Views on Hell? Origen? Torture? Is Everyone A Child Of God?

I’ve also posted it as a single, combined post.

Violence and Theology?

Thanks very much for agreeing to be interviewed, I really do appreciate that! I’ve always been interested in:

  • theology—particularly how it applies to sort of everyday life.
  • politics—it often seems to be an application of one’s worldview.
  • economics—the way societies function in terms of distributing wealth and resources.
  • social justice—my wife is a social worker.

So is mine! {both laugh}
William Cavanaugh (as are all the quotes below)

So it keeps you thinking about social justice. And so there’s lots of things I could ask about but I just wanted to focus on one particular thing. I’ve listened to your lecture on religion and violence and how “religion” is a constructed term, that’s not very useful as it’s often defined to suit someone’s agenda. So I thought I’d try to narrow it down and ask you about whether some theology promotes, or excuses, or desensitises us to violence?


Yes {both laugh}… Some atheists say that theology pretty much has no impact on what people do at all. Do you think that is an overstatement? Do you think that theology actually does influence the way we act?

Sure it does. I mean it does for some people so I don’t think there’s any question that there are some Islamic terrorists that take inspiration from theological ideas—no matter how distorted that might be—no matter what other kinds of influences there are in their lives. I don’t think there’s any denying that. The Crusaders were inspired by a certain kind of bad theology. And Islamic terrorists are inspired by a certain kind of bad theology. I don’t think it can be reduced to theological causes but I don’t see that there’s any point in denying that’s certainly in the mix of influences.

What I don’t buy is the idea that theology always has a kind of tendency, or a greater tendency than other kinds of ideas, to promote violence. Some people say, “Well, if you believe in God, then you have this kind of divine mandate for kind of extremism—it’s an absolute command that you can’t disobey”. But you can just as easily argue that if you have no God, then there is no kind of power looking over your shoulder and you are God, so you can do whatever you want. And you can make that argument very easily historically, with figures like Stalin and Pol Pot, and so on.

Yeah, totally. If I had more time I’d ask you about that more. But I think—you probably agree—that there’s also some theology that can actually promote peace? I guess, even nonviolence?

Right, yeah, absolutely. That was the subject of the Girard conference last week and I think that’s at the heart of Christianity—it’s certainly what I’d want to claim—this claim of nonviolence. God becomes incarnate, we kill Him, and He doesn’t retaliate.

Yes, I think there is a lot of positive things about Christianity. I think most theology is actually a positive influence.

Just War and Pacifism?

But just focusing on a couple of negative ones: the Just War theory.What do you think about the Just War theory, particularly in light of Pope Francis’ recent criticism or critique of it?

Cardinal Ratzinger, before he was Pope Benedict the sixteenth, in the context of the Iraq war, said we have to ask whether it’s even possible to talk about a Just War anymore. Oftentimes it’s presented as if there are two positions that a Christian can take:

One is pacifism and one is Just War—that these are two separate positions.

But I kind of see them as concentric circles because really at the heart of the Just War idea is the notion of nonviolence and therefore you have to justify any act of violence under very strict criteria. And so the Just War idea kind of draws the circle a little bit wider than a pacifist would. But nonviolence is at the heart of both of them.

I think I’m not sure if I’ve made up my mind whether to call myself a pacifist or not. For one thing there’s nothing at stake, I mean it doesn’t cost me anything and that I think is a really important consideration. But also I think that even if we took the Just War tradition seriously, it would have enormously radical consequences. If we took seriously the idea that we should not simply defer judgment on these matters to the nation state but that the Church itself should make these decisions about what qualifies as a justifiable act of violence or not. It would have enormous consequences, I mean many of the churches, including John Paul the second, the Vatican and so on, had grave reservations about whether the Iraq war would be justifiable.

Yes, I remember that.

So you can imagine how dramatic it would be if large numbers of Christians, or even Catholics, just said, “We’re going to sit this one out.” Not because they’re pacifists but because they simply judge that this is not a just war and so we can’t, in good conscience, fight it. But the Just War theory never seems to work that way. It only seems to work in terms of justifying acts of war once they have already broken out.

Yes, the bar seems very low! “We’re going to save them! That’s justified it.” But do they need saving??

I’d probably answer the same as you. I’m undecided, and again, because I’m not about to go off to war, it really takes the pressure off. So I’d want to be very, very, very sure that it was completely morally justified, and I think a lot of wars haven’t been—particularly in recent history…