In Niagara Falls on October 26 Ploughshares Executive Director John Siebert and Intern Charmila Ireland facilitated a workshop on the question “Is war ever justified?” The event was organized by the Presbytery of Niagara of the Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC) and the Norma Goldsmith Lay School of Theology. More than a dozen people with a wide range of knowledge, background, and experience participated.
Siebert introduced Project Ploughshares to the group. Then he stated the objectives for the workshop: to increase participants’ knowledge of contemporary conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Mali, Syria, and Libya; and to give them some analytical tools and frameworks to think critically about the ‘justness’ of contemporary and future conflicts.
The attendees divided into groups. Each group received a folder with conflict summaries, newspaper articles, Ploughshares conflict briefs, and discussion questions for one country. Debate erupted over such questions as “Why are they fighting?” and “Is Canada’s role in the conflict justified?” After 45 minutes, each group presented their conflict to the other participants.
Ireland gave a short history of the concept of Just War from St. Augustine to the Second World War. She described the changing face of war and the spread of pacifism. Siebert discussed the United Nations Charter and pointed out some difficulties. For example, the preamble says that the UN aims to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” But Article 2 states that “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.” What if the “scourge of war” is contained within a state, as in Rwanda or Syria?
Ireland examined the views of the Presbyterian Church in Canada on war and peace. The PCC believes that there is no such thing as a “good” or “holy” war, but that war is sometimes necessary, when all other efforts to establish peace fail. They endorse the Responsibility to Protect, which draws significantly on Just War theory.
After a brainstorming session on criteria that justify war, the consensus of the workshop was that a just war must save more lives than would otherwise have been lost or destroyed and must be the last resort. The participants reconsidered the conflicts they had researched earlier, armed with the responses of various Canadian churches, the Canadian government, and ecumenical organizations. The question of whether Canada’s response was just, legitimate, and legal provoked intense discussion and diverging opinions.
Workshop participants received insight into the complexity of conflict situations and the factors that must be weighed before going to war. The need for relevant, accurate information and access to thoughtful, careful analysis was clear. This is one of the functions that Project Ploughshares performs for bodies such as the Presbyterian Church in Canada and many other institutions and individuals.
A compendium of PCC opinions on such issues as war, peace, nuclear disarmament, and the situation in the Middle East can be found in the Social Action Handbook.