Towards a theology of just peace through new conflict management practices

Article (7 pages) published originally in French : Vers une théologie de la paix juste, grâce aux nouvelles pratiques en gestion des conflits, dans Actes du colloque Paix des Églises : paix du monde ?, ISEO, Paris, 2023, p. 205-214.

In German :

Mit neuen Methoden des Konfliktmanagements
auf dem Weg zu einer Theologie des gerechten Friedens

Don’t fall into the trap of the dominant

One Saturday evening, I’m sitting with three friends in a pub. At the counter, some U.S. Navy sailors are heckling each other, enjoying their shore leave. One of them, particularly muscular, is provoking some rough housing. He obviously needs to let off some steam. It’s clear he wants to fight. After half an hour, he comes up to us and insults our Belgian mothers, hoping for a gutsy response to finally start a fight. I’d seen the provocation coming and was well aware that I mustn’t let him draw me into his game, in which he’s the strongest. I rose to my feet, and began leading my friends and the other merrymakers in the pub in a popular local song and an exuberant dance that included all the sailors: a boisterous round dance, in true local fashion! 

Cheers! Let’s drink together,
without letting the aggressor profit from his violence,
by inventing a way out of conflict!

Together to end an injustice

Women from a slum in Medellin, the capital of Colombia, repeatedly asked their mayor to extend the water pipes to their neighborhood. More than once, they received promises, but no action was ever taken.  One day, some of them who had taken a seminar on active non-violence led by Jean and Hildegard Goss called the women to a meeting.  They decided to intensify their struggle but in a non-violent way, that is to say by deciding explicitly, that whatever happens, they will exclude all means of violence which degrade the one who commits them as much as the one who undergoes them.

They formed groups of 10 women, each with her smallest child. The first group went to the central square of the city where a beautiful fountain was pouring out its abundant waters. They began to bathe their babies in the puddles beside the fountain.  When shocked middle-class women intervened, it allowed the group to explain to them the lack of clean water they were suffering from and the indifference of the authorities. The police took them to the station, but they were followed by a second group which did the same. The police had to come back to chase them away, and so it continued. In the fifth group, an angry policeman raised his baton to hit a woman but a well-to-do woman grabbed his arm stopping him, and said, « If your wife lived up there like these women, would you hit her? “

Following this incident, women from the middle and upper classes joined the women from the slums and they returned together to address the administration. A solution was found in which each side took a step towards the other. The many unemployed men from the slums dug the trenches and the municipality financed the water supply.

Extract from my article published on May 13, 2000, available at

article n° 6.

Turning the other cheek – misunderstanding

By understanding that turning the other cheek (Mt 5:38-42) is a call to not resist, to renounce one’s own rights, to bear injustice patiently, the coryphaei of Tradition were obliged to limit evangelical non-violence as best they could:

1) Yes, to the evangelical spirit while still assuring an effective defense, was the idea of Augustine.  As the Church became the official religion of the Empire, he organized an internalizing solution that distinguished actions from intentions: the commandments of Mt 5:38-42, which are addressed to everyone, do not teach a specific behavior, but a « spirit » in which we should defend ourselves. The texts do not say: « Let the wicked do as they wish, » but rather, « Correct the wicked, while loving them entirely with your heart filled with pure intention ».

2) Yes, to turning the other cheek, but not for everyone, was the proclamation of Thomas Aquinas reflecting the spirit of his time. In the medieval era, which clearly marked the differences between clerics and laity, Mt 5:38-42 was applied differently to each: one commandment for those who had left everything behind in order to witness in anticipation of the Kingdom, and on the other hand, for all those who had the responsibility of protecting their family, their business or their country, a counsel of perfection subordinated to the duty of defending one’s neighbor.  Religious can bear witness to that radical love which goes so far as to give one’s life for one’s enemy, while the laity exercise their vocation of love by defending their loved ones. This is the solution of a free and personal vocation.

3) Yes, to this impossible precept, but by grace, and only for Christians in their interpersonal relationships, affirms Luther. The Protestant Reformation centers on the Savior who alone is able to give the grace to accomplish what he asks in Mt 5:38-42. This is the Christological solution.  Mt 5:38-42, sets out commandments for every Christian, whether cleric or layman.  But they are valid only in the relationship of Christian to Christian; honoring the Kingdom of God which comes in Christ. They are not valid, as such, for governors, judges or economic leaders in the organization of the affairs of the society.

These three theologies, which express the ideal of the society in which they were produced, agree on the following guidelines: yes as much as possible to the evangelical precepts of non-violence in Mt 5:38-42, but it is necessary to limit those to whom it is addressed, and/or the obligatory character and/or the scope of its application, given the need to protect the innocent against violence and to resist injustice. Hence the dilemma that has arisen in all Christian thought over the last two thousand years between the duty to assist and protect one’s neighbor on the one hand, and on the other, to remain faithful to the non-violence advocated by Jesus in his words and actions.  Ambrose of Milan already spoke in the fourth century of this conflict of duties for every Christian, which is taken up again by the Jesuit Joseph Joblin:  one will either observe the precept that he must abstain from all violence, and fail in his obligation to come to the aid of the victim of unjust aggression (because of the risk of becoming an accomplice of the unjust aggressor); or, he will put his strength at the disposal of the victim of injustice and he will fail in the precept of non-violence contained in the gospel

Today, studies in conflict management reveal that this dilemma is very poorly framed.  See the diagram below: departing from the traditional dilemma because the best possible defense is neither in counter-aggression nor in passivity, it is rather in a mobilization of our best forces and an optimization of those ingredients that there will be an effective resolution to the crisis.  And, on the Gospel side, if we understand that the outstretched cheek is a call to resist, to fight against injustice by taking a disconcerting initiative which does not fall into the trap of counter-violence, but which effectively stops the dominance, then a theology of a just peace becomes possible, integrating both the treasures of the Gospel and the know-how of constructive conflict management.  See my book « La non-violence évangélique et le défi de la sortie de la violence ».

« You have heard it said… but I say to you… »

« You have heard that it was said to the elders… But I say to you… » is the refrain that provides the cadence of the verses in Matthew 5: 21 – 48.  The refrain is repeated six times, ending in the crescendo: the law says no to all forms of violence; from the nearest to the farthest away; to that which we inflict on others (murder, lies, concupiscence) to that which is inflicted on us (5th and 6th antitheses*).  Jesus fulfills the law; he holds it upright from its very root; he establishes it definitively in accordance with his own intention: « It has been said… but I, I give the fundamental meaning » in accordance with the justice of the Kingdom of Heaven (these are the 3 words that come up most in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Matthew 5, 6 and 7). That we are all his daughters and sons, and therefore brothers and sisters, radically changes the relationship between human beings…

These six antitheses, these six roots, all maintain the same dynamic: « Not just murder…  but also the judgments that demonize the other, and the words of hate that lead to the judgments. Not just the finality of justice: an eye for eye – but also the importance of choosing other ways than violence; not only a just struggle, but also the means for a just peace; not only the truth about the warlike ideology of the neighbor who attacks us, but already regarding the enemy with a look filled with love.

Unfortunately, until the 20th century, theologians understood that the outstretched cheek was a call to not resist, to renounce one’s own rights, to bear injustice patiently.  Since this non-violence is socially and politically impracticable, it is logical and wise to limit its scope and to deny its obligatory and collective character. This continuing interpretation has thus set up the proposition: « Yes to evangelical non-violence, but not in certain cases », which is a dynamic very different from « not only… but already, and again… »; hence, the difficulties in reconciling such an altruistic, self-sacrificing love and a realistic political stance in the world.

Everything changes if the Gospel of turning the cheek invites us to resist with realism, lucidity and love! It can then inspire a responsible political response. This was the subject of my doctorate in theology. Laissez-faire is toxic and passivity is the breeding ground for the abuse of power by the unscrupulous, but resistance to oppression has an interest in inventing alternatives to violence…

* Antitheses is a term in biblical scholarship used to characterise the repeated refrain, “You have heard it said… but I say to you…”

« Violence » and « non-violence »: two operative concepts

Here are the first lines of my book: The New Paradigm of Non-Violence:

Is it possible to effectively counteract violence by means other than violence?  How can one exercise the « right » of legitimate self-defence without being drawn into the terrible trap of becoming part of the conflict – without becoming an accomplice to the violence of the aggressor? Is this question different for individuals in their interpersonal relationships than it is for human societies in their international relations?

Certainly, taking responsibility in the midst of this violent world is to assume a part in the battle that will require a certain power. Love without power is powerlessness. Authority without sanction is laissez-faire. Passivity produces the worst conflict scenarios.  Impunity is the breeding ground for the worst abuses of power. To love someone is not to let them do harm. However, at the other end of the spectrum, how much anger and how many ‘holy’ wars are gangrenous with the evil they claim to be fighting? Where is the dividing line between the power of domination, which contains the seed of destructive violence, and legitimate forces based on law, which are respectful of people and capable of building justice in a context of love?

« Violence » and « non-violence » are two operative concepts that crystallise a paradigm shift. One use of the term « violence » is to push back the line of the « lesser evil » that is tolerated. At the end of the 20th century, « violence » became an operative concept that was used within some human groups to stigmatise practices in order to better ostracize those that had lost their integrity, legitimacy or necessity. For example, in ‘countries embracing human rights’, it was tolerated – not so long ago – that, to curb a child’s indiscipline, a parent could use a whip, or lock the child in a dark cellar for a whole night. As these practices have crossed the threshold of unacceptability, today, in the name of children’s rights, countries are saying no to corporal punishment as a means of education. The value of the operative concept is to mobilise the group: behaviour that shocks people’s consciences because it has become humanly contemptible will only be outlawed through changes in awareness, and a long maturation on the moral, cultural and psychological levels.  Each member of the group will be effectively confronted with his or her responsibilities when on the political level legislation outlaws the act described as ‘violent’, and the law is accompanied by sanctions.

A teacher who hits a child today, is disapproved of and sanctioned, however well-meaning his intention, however just his cause. In fact, his action is the expression of a tragic powerlessness.  If he were sufficiently trained in conflict management, he would find resources other than physical violence in order to exercise his authority and obtain effective respect for the rules. The objective of the principle of non-violence is to formalise a clear and precise limit for all:

« Whatever the end pursued or the extenuating circumstances, physical violence towards a child is a mistake and a counterproductive action. It is unjustifiable, it is prohibited.”

Once the action is recognised as intrinsically wrong, the so-called ‘non-violent’ alternatives that have existed all along, become obligatory. The « non » of « non-violence » means STOP to violence. It is much more than a negation.  It is a « no » to rupture and to combat; it is a mobilising « no » in refusing the fatality of violence. Thus, this dynamic is of great practical fertility in pushing back against customs that have been tolerated until now, as lesser evils.

This dynamic also affects international relations, even if it is less easily apprehended there.  The violence of states, linked to their sacrosanct sovereignty and “raison d’Etat”, is diminishing as human groups manage to eliminate their various forms of honour, of ideological justification and the idea of inescapable necessity. Are there still just wars? In any case, consciences are becoming increasingly aware of the role of lies and propaganda in justified wars!

The hypothesis at the beginning of this essay is that the capacity of men to progressively outlaw violence gives rise to a new paradigm of thought, which can be summed up in a formula: the challenge of our time is to learn how to exercise force without violence. In understanding this new paradigm, the activist philosopher Jean-Marie Muller, born in 1939, was the first in the French-speaking world to state: « The ‘non’ that non-violence opposes to violence is a ‘no’ of resistance. Non-violence is certainly abstention, but this abstention itself requires action. […] It is a question of creating a dynamic that aims to limit, reduce and, as far as possible, eliminate violence, starting with the reality of violence that we are used to considering as necessary and legitimate. There is a chain reaction of economic, social, political and police violence that cannot be interrupted if at any point in the process violence is legitimised. To break the logic of violence, a political dynamic must be created that reverses the process of the violent development of conflicts. It is this dynamic that the political philosophy of non-violence invites us to implement.

Below is the conceptual framework I have invented to mark out the path: leave the horizontal line of the ill-posed dilemma to pose a double vertical: where do the lines pass that separate, on the one hand, violence (column 1) and passivity, its accomplice (column 4) and, on the other hand, the non-violent forces of law (column 2) and love (column 3)? Then, how can columns 2 and 3 be increased, while continually reducing 1 and 4?

Mobilising the group when violence occurs

Imagine that you live in a working-class neighbourhood in Kinshasa (capital of the Congo, former Zaire).  You are attending a seminar that is teaching you how to resolve situations of injustice, without falling into the trap of violence yourself (which is radical injustice).  You are asked to precisely describe an example of injustice.  You choose this example:  the women in a neighbourhood are regularly beaten by their husbands, under the guise of socially accepted customs.

With your working group, you think about how, in this case, to turn the other cheek.

You decide on the initiative of creating, in concentric circles, the most general mobilisation possible of people of good will in the neighbourhood; those that are convinced that it is time to end, and declare unlawful, these practices of patriarchal domination.  From now on, whenever a woman is beaten, all the people in this network will relay a special rallying cry, prompting all of them to converge on the home concerned, where the group will stand together, in silence, occupying the house/yard, for several days.