A ‘just war theory’ or a ‘theory of peace’? St Augustine’s real contribution to the debate

Filed in Ethics by on October 30, 2013 3 Comments
The consecration of St Augustine

The consecration of St Augustine

Most books will tell you that Augustine was the first Christian just war theorist. This is misleading, for two reasons. Firstly, he was far from the first Christian to accept that a war might be fought justly. Secondly, he didn’t have a developed theory of when and how this might be true. He was, however, the first peace theorist – a very important and little known fact. He was the first thinker in the Western tradition to develop a comprehensive account of peace, which powerfully integrated several strands, Christian and non-Christian, including original thoughts of his own.

Augustine agreed that everything wants peace. Wild animals – tigers and eagles – want peace with their mates. Human beings chase after other things – wealth, health, fame, power – only because they ultimately want peace.  Even gangs of robbers want peace among themselves; even warmongers want peace with their victory.

The only peace that will fully satisfy us, Augustine argued, will be the peace of heaven. Peace in this world is always partial, fragile and temporary. Still, it is worth achieving. How do we achieve it?

One of Augustine’s major insights is the connection between inner and outer peace. Inner peace comes when our minds and hearts, our ideals and our desires, are in ordered harmony. But sin distorts and destroys that harmony. We achieve inner peace, then, by confessing our sins to Christ, for “he is our peace” (Ephesians 2.14). He is the arch-reconciler, who reconciles the conflicts within us so that we are at peace and so can bring peace to others.

What causes the conflicts in the outer world? Here Augustine discovers an idea that has been developed by modern economists, which they call a ‘zero-sum game’.

Peace, he said, is “not like bread – if you share that with your friends, the more of them there are, the less you each get. But peace is like the bread in the hands of the Lord’s disciples, which grew while they broke it and gave it out.”

Again, you might share a house with a friend. “You can share it with one person and welcome him in, and enjoy it with him. Then perhaps you think you’ll let a third person in, or a fourth. You’re already asking yourself how much room there is, how many it can take … Now you say, ‘It won’t take a fifth person, it’s impossible for a sixth person to live with us – how could such a small place cope with seven?’ So the others are excluded, not by you, but by limited space. But love peace, have peace, possess peace – and you can welcome in as many others as you can to share the peace with you. The more people have it, the bigger it will be. A physical house hasn’t got room for many, but the possession called peace grows bigger the more people live in it.” (Sermon 357.1)

Because peace grows when it is shared, there is never any need to fight over it. But we do fight over the ‘bread-like’ goods – houses, jobs, money, oil, territory, status – precisely because we can’t all have them all at the same time. Only if we set our sights on higher goods, which can be shared without loss, will we be at peace.

Augustine was no armchair theorist. The Roman empire was frequently at war; North African society was violent; and as a pastor he often had to reconcile quarreling families. His own father was so hot-tempered that Monika’s friends were amazed that he did not batter her. But she had developed her peace-making skills to a high level, and passed on the tips to her pals.

Augustine inherited her skills: as a bishop he once journeyed to another city to persuade its inhabitants to abandon an age-old annual festival. This involved the men dividing into two teams and pelting each other with stones for several days: fatalities were normal. Augustine’s sermon converted them, and they abandoned the custom for good.

On another occasion, he preached to his congregation before a big ecumenical conference, aimed at making peace with a rival denomination. Some members of the other church were given to violence, and Augustine feared that the Catholics might retaliate. His words are worth quoting in full:

So I beg you, my beloved people, to show them Catholic and Christian gentleness. Their eyes are sore and itchy, and need to be treated very carefully, very gently. None of you, please, get involved with quarreling with them, don’t even think of defending your faith by an argument, in case sparks fly, in case you give an excuse to people who are looking for one. I’m sure you’ll get some abuse – but put up with it, pretend you didn’t hear it, ignore it. Remember – he needs to be cured.

Think how gently doctors treat people who need curing, even if the medicine stings. They get insulted, but they don’t insult the patient back…

‘But I won’t put up with it, because he’s insulting the Church.’  But the Church is asking you to put up with him insulting the Church. ‘He’s slandering my bishop! He’s making outrageous accusations against him – should I keep quiet?’ Let him make his accusations, and yes, do keep quiet. Not to consent, but to tolerate him. It’s a favour to your bishop if you don’t get involved in a slanging match…

‘Well what should I do then?’ There’s plenty to do! Stop quarreling and start praying. If someone is rude to you, don’t be rude back, but pray for him. You want to speak to him against him, instead speak to God for him. I’m not saying don’t speak, but choose where you speak, who you speak to in your silence, with your lips closed and your heart shouting out. There where he can’t see you, be a good friend to him.

What you can say, as a peacemaker, to someone who doesn’t love peace and wants to quarrel is this: ‘Whatever you want to say, however much you hate me, you are still my brother.’  Say that kind of thing passionately, but say it gently. Say it burning with love not with temper.” (Sermon 351.4)

Augustine’s theory of peace was intimately shaped by his experience of life and society in the North Africa of his age. Yet its value is timeless: for he understood the enduring essentials of the human heart.

Tags: , , , , ,

Sr Margaret Atkins

About the Author ()

Sr Margaret is an Augustinian canoness from the community at Boarbank Hall in Cumbria. She is also a Research Fellow at Blackfriars, Oxford.

Comments (3)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Tonia says:

    Thank goodness St Augustine followed his mother’s example and not his father’s!

  2. Lovely piece – hadn’t thought of categorising Augustine as a ‘peace theorist’, but it works! ‘Peace is a good so great, that even in this earthly and mortal life there is no word we hear with such pleasure, nothing we desire with such zest, or find to be more thoroughly gratifying’.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: