In a nuclear age, the concept of a “just war” seems absurd to some. But with scores of nonnuclear, low-level conflicts—like those in Nicaragua and South Africa—dotting today’s political map, many Christians embrace just-war ideas to assess the moral validity of contemporary revolutions.

At a recent conference sponsored by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), public policy experts and representatives from various Christian communities discussed applications of just-war theory to current conflicts. Just-war scholar James Turner Johnson of Rutgers University outlined a criteria of “just revolution”:

• Those who would rebel must have “just cause” and intentions to establish a better socio-political order than the one cast out;

• Fighting must be conducted with moderation, be led by a legitimate authority, and have reasonable hope of success;

• Rebellion should occur only when peaceful avenues for change have been exhausted.

South Africa: Stay The Course?

In applying just-war ideas to the situation in South Africa, Richard John Neuhaus, of the Rockford Center on Religion and Society, and Allan Parrent, of Virginia Theological Seminary, argued that the admittedly depressing conditions do not now justify armed rebellion. Both asserted that South Africa’s apartheid policy unquestionably inflicts great harm on 80 percent of the population. But while the criterion of “just cause” is clearly met, Parrent said hope for success is doubtful given the power of the regime.

In addition, according to Neuhaus, the Marxist-Leninist leanings of the African National Congress (ANC) raise concern about whether the postapartheid society achieved through violence will be better than the present regime. Neuhaus said other recourses for change exist, even though they are “painfully slow.”

On the other hand, Kwasi Thornell, an Episcopal canon at the Washington Cathedral, argued in favor of rebellion in South Africa. Describing the situation there, Thornell called discussion of just-war theory “almost irrelevant.” “What is the ‘last resort’ when the government has killed, tortured, and tyrannized its citizens for 40 years?” he asked.

Nicaragua: Broken Promises

The most vigorous discussion at the conference was centered on Nicaragua. Alberto Coll of the Naval War College said that “churches’ silence on Sandinista abuse of human rights” has been “scandalous.” Coll charged that instead of “calling the Sandinistas to task” for human-rights violations and “nudging the regime to greater pluralism,” some in the church allowed themselves to be manipulated by the Sandinistas.

In response, Andrew Reding of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs accused Coll of unfairly isolating Nicaragua. “Persecution is demonstrably worse in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras,” Reding said.

But Penn Kemble of Freedom House defended the contras’ cause, saying they “were promised democracy” and were betrayed. Kemble said the contras have a civilian political directorate and a democratic agenda for the future, and their use of force has been moderate. “The contras have committed human-rights abuses, but they are addressing that,” he said.

Coll said he hopes the attitude of the church will become one of sober skepticism about violent rebellion. Many Christians have bought the “Marxist myth” that the repression of civil and political freedoms that often follows revolution is justified by the attainment of social justice, he said.

However, Coll said, history has shown that “societies that emphasize civil and political rights also do better in providing material prosperity for their citizens.”

By Amy L. Sherman.

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