A Review of
A Just Peace Ethic Primer – Building Sustainable Peace and Breaking Cycles of Violence
Eli S. McCarthy, Editor
Paperback: Georgetown University Press, 2020.
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Reviewed by Leroy Seat
Eli S. McCarthy, the editor and author of one of the fourteen chapters of this informative new book, teaches justice and peace studies at Georgetown University and coordinates the DC Peace Team . He is also the author of Becoming Nonviolent Peacemakers: A Virtue Ethic for Catholic Social Teaching and U.S. Policy (2012).
Although the editor and the publisher are Catholic, this book is quite ecumenical. It is based on the Catholic social teaching of especially the last 130 years (since Rerum novarum in 1891) as well as on the work of the United Church of Christ and especially on the work of the Baptist ethicist Glen Stassen, who died in 2014 at the age of 78. (Stassen was a personal friend of mine about whom I posted a blog article near his 77th birthday.)
Stassen was the author of Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace (1992) as well as the editor of Just Peacemaking: Ten Practices for Abolishing War (1998) and Just Peacemaking: The New Paradigm for the Ethics of Peace and War (2008). Throughout McCarthy’s new book, there are copious references to Stassen and his books.
After teaching Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for 20 years, Stassen served as Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary from 1997 until his death and was the executive director of Fuller’s Just Peacemaking Initiative.
Editor McCarthy introduces Stassen and his “just peacemaking theory” on the third page of his book. Then, the three authors of the “framing essays” that comprise Part I of the book make reference to Stassen, especially Gerald W. Schlabach, a Catholic professor who wrote the first chapter, entitled “A ‘Manual’ for Escaping Our Vicious Cycles: Practical Guidance from the Sermon on the Mount for a Just Peace Ethic.” There is much that is of an Anabaptist flavor in that chapter, which is understandable as the author was a Mennonite before becoming a Catholic in 2004.
Half of the fourteen chapters of McCarthy’s book are written by women, including the helpful second chapter whose author is the eminent Lisa Sowle Cahill, a past president of the Society of Christian Ethics. Her chapter is titled “Catholic Tradition on Peace, War, and Just Peace,” and is a brief summary of the just war tradition and then recent Catholic social teaching, especially since the Second Vatican Council.
In “US Domestic Cases,” Part II of McCarthy’s book, the authors describe how just peace theory has been beneficially used in the cases of “illegal” immigration and sanctuary for immigrants, environmental issues, the problem of racism, and in opposition to the death penalty. Daniel Cosacchi, a Catholic university professor who is the author of the latter chapter, writes, “I propose that the church use a just peace ethic to eradicate the death penalty” (132). Cosacchi ends his chapter, “No longer can American Catholics support the death penalty as a measure of justice. . . . To paraphrase a famous lyric, ‘They will know we are Christians by our mercy’” (136). This is in harmony with “Just Mercy,” the notable 2019 movie about lawyer Bryan Stevenson who has been working against the death penalty for the last 30+ years.
Part III is titled “International Cases” and contains half of the book’s fourteen chapters. Practical just peace activities in the countries of South Sudan, El Salvador, Iraq, Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Philippines are considered. But the first chapter of this section is by Maria J. Stephan. Although Catholic, she is one of the few authors who is not affiliated with a Catholic institution: she directs the Program on Nonviolent Action at the U.S. Institute of Peace. The title of her helpful chapter is “Making Just Peace Possible: How the Church Can Bridge People Power and Peacebuilding.” She insists that nonviolent civil resistance “is a functional alternative to violence with both short- and longer-term positive effects” (145). Her concluding paragraph begins, “Overall, perhaps one of the best investments the church at all levels can make in advancing the just peace norms is building up the nonviolent resistance and peacebuilding skills and capacities of people in schools, universities, parishes, and communities around the world” (154).
With perhaps only one other exception, McCarthy and the authors of the fourteen chapters he edited are all Catholic except for Peggy Faw Gish, author of the eleventh chapter. The indomitable Peggy Gish (b. 1942) is a lifelong Anabaptist. She volunteered in Iraq with Christian Peacemaker Teams before, during, and after the March 2003 US invasion. As a non-Catholic writing for what is basically a Catholic book, Gish says in her conclusion of just peace activities in Iraq, “I recommend that the Catholic Church support the kinds of policy actions suggested here as well as put more effort and resources into just peace education, training, and creative imagining” (207).
As an Anabaptist Christian myself, I was happy to see that Gish’s chapter was included in the book—and that other Anabaptists, especially Mennonite John Paul Lederach are cited throughout it. In his brief “Conclusions and Next Steps,” a non-numbered chapter at the end of the book, editor McCarthy cites Lederach twice.
Perhaps in some ways, McCarthy’s book is too (traditional) Mennonite, for there is very little about politics or the importance of political leaders working for peaceful changes in society. The book is almost entirely about grassroots activities/movements seeking a just peace solution to societal violence—but that is where most of us are. Consequently, this book is a valuable resource for serious readers who want to learn how people in the past decade have been using just peace theory in their efforts to build sustainable peace and break cycles of violence.
Since the book is rather pricey, perhaps it is best suited for college, or church, libraries. But it is a book that deserves to be read, and when and where possible discussed by peacemaking groups here in the U.S. and around the world.
Leroy Seat, Ph.D., was a Baptist missionary to Japan and a full-time professor of Christian Studies and theology at Seinan Gakuin University from 1968 to 2004. He is now retired in his home state of Missouri. After 65 years as a Baptist church member, he joined a progressive Mennonite church in 2012. Find him online at: https://theviewfromthisseat.blogspot.com/