Recently retired Rutgers professor gives lecture on ethics of war
On Tuesday, James T. Johnson, a recently retired Rutgers professor, spoke at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, New York, at a conference about the concept of war and different historical and contemporary positions on military action and nonviolence.
The conference, entitled “To Kill or Not to Kill: Just War or Nonviolence?” explored the historical and modern day context of just war, social justice and the future of peacebuilding, according to a University press release.
The event was free and open to the public and about 200 audience members were in attendance.
In 2001, the late Margaret F. Grace, a Catholic lay leader and philanthropist, began The Margaret F. Grace Lecture series, according to the University press release. In 2016, Mount Saint Vincent began hosting the annual event.
This was the second year that Mount Saint Vincent hosted the conference.
Each Grace Lecture adopts on a different theme — last year’s lecture focused on the life and legacy of American journalist, social activist and Catholic convert Dorothy Day — but they all strive to foster understanding between different Christian churches and to social justice, said Joshua Shmikler, an assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy at The College of Mount Saint Vincent and chair of the committee of faculty who organized the event.
“This lecture explores the relationship between justice, war and peace,” Shmikler said at the event introduction.
Shmikler said the question of whether or not war can be just is a timeless question. He said it is particularly timely, given last April's Vatican conference, where participants recommended that the church reconsiders its teachings on just war and embrace nonviolence.
“Our aim tonight is to better understand the just war tradition, and the nonviolent tradition and learn how we can be participants in peacebuilding in a violent world,” Shmikler said.
The event featured three speakers — Maryann Cusimano Love, a professor in the Department of International Relations at the Catholic University of America, Reverend John Dear, a world-known advocate for peace and nonviolence and Johnson.
Johnson, a faculty member at Rutgers since 1969, retired in 2015. Johnson has written several works on the concept of just war, religion and peacemaking, including "Can Modern War Be Just?" and "Ethics and the Use of Force: Just War in Historical Perspective."
“The just war, as I understand it, isn’t a solely religious idea. It is an idea that’s carried in various contexts," Johnson said.
He felt the event went very nicely, he said.
The presentations were very different, which was by design, Johnson
Johnson spoke next and described the origins and evolution of the idea of just war from Augustine through the medieval canonists and theologians to the modern period, when the main carriers of the just war idea have been international law and military thought and praxis, he said.
In this connection, he responded to Love's assertion that just war has nothing to say about peacebuilding by pointing to the centrality of the end of peace in classic just war tradition, noting that it is true that recent just war thought has generally neglected this — including the 1983 pastoral letter of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, he said.
"I concluded by briefly discussing an effort by Pax Christi USA to have the Catholic Church reject the idea of just war and arguing against this idea on several grounds. John Dear, S.J., was the third speaker," Johson said. "He's had a career as a pacifist activist in the Catholic Church and outside. His presentation was an argument for nonviolent opposition (think of the Civil Rights Movement) as the only Christian way to oppose evil, and that violence itself is always evil, whatever its stated purposes."
The implications of this idea are written into the law of armed conflict and reflected in United States military code and rules of engagement, he said.
“So there are all these different streams. And the specifically religious one is only one of those streams. What I’ve argued is that all these different streams of thought ought to be in conversation with one another, and so I want to bring my idea and their idea of just war into (the) conversation,” he said.
Johnson also said that he is not a Catholic. Shmikler explained that the conference does not examine the topic from a strictly religious point of view.
“The lecture series operates in the spirit of inquiry and investigation, and seeks to gain different perspectives on themes that are of interest to contemporary Catholics,” Shmikler said.
But, he said the speakers do not have to adopt a Catholic mainstream position or be Catholic at all.
“We’re not looking for the universal agreement — we’re looking for what possible positions one could hold on this matter,” Shmikler said.
At the event, Johnson focused his lecture on the historical roots of the idea of just war and its specific relationship to Catholic teaching.
He began his discussion with Saint Augustine of Hippo, who is traditionally believed to be the first Christian just war theorist. Johnson also explained the conditions for just war to occur as developed in ancient times.
Addressing the Catholic voices asserting that the idea of just war should be entirely rejected, which was the sentiment of the statement from the Vatican conference held last April, Johnson said his own view is that if there were no such thing as just war tradition, society would be "much worse off.”
“The power and the importance of this conception of just war was carried over the following centuries in the form of a cultural tradition addressing the endemic violence and political disputes of the age, so as to limit resort to armed force, and to direct it towards political order, justice and peace,” he said.
Christina Gaudino is a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student majoring in public policy. She is a staff writer for The Daily Targum.