Just War Debate at Kidderminster New Meeting House

24 people gathered at Kidderminster New Meeting House to hear, and vote on, a debate about the question “Can there ever be a just war?” Sandy Ellis (MUA Treasurer) opened the debate for the motion,  His two main arguments were that the leader of any nation has a moral duty to defend its citizens, and that although war is an evil and barbaric thing, it can be justified if it is waged to defeat a greater evil. He went over the standard Just War criteria – that the cause is just, that it has been properly authorised, that there is right intention, that all other means of avoiding conflict have been explored, that it must be winnable, and that the force used is “proportionate”. He also mentioned the internationally accepted guidelines about how a war should be fought, for example obeying international conventions, not injuring or killing non-combatants, and looking after prisoners of war. The decision to use force when all else has failed is a choice of the lesser of two evils. He concluded that the only way that evil can triumph is when the good man decides to do nothing.

Then Martin Layton, of Bewdley Quakers, opposed the motion. The main thrust of his argument was that the motives for war are never just; wars are usually started to protect a country’s political and economic interests and to get more power. He stated that fear, hatred and revenge have powerful propaganda value, and that atrocities are considered in isolation, apart from root causes, in order to encourage over-simplified responses. He stated that authority is always self-legitimising, and commented on the fact that the five permanent members of the UN Security Council also dominate the international arms trade. War is all atrocity and outrage; it is impossible to contain, and only the victors get to dispense justice. He concluded that war is a business and a crime and must be stopped.

Ian Kirby of Kidderminster seconded the motion. He argued that the just war principles places limits on warfare. He acknowledged that Christians struggle with warfare, but also that we shouldn’t be passive in the face of aggression. Civil disobedience only works when there is a framework of law. We can’t just sit by and let genocide happen – we need to intervene. He concluded by reiterating the just war principles mentioned above.

Moira Brown (Bewdley Quakers) seconded the opposition to the motion. She mentioned the Quaker Peace Testimony; that it was about deeds not creeds – a way of living. This is based on integrity, patience and love, not by adopting the ways of an oppressor. Justice is achieved not by war, but by peacemaking. She argued that the refusal to go to war is not surrender, and mentioned the two Quaker offices in Geneva and New York, which exist to facilitate dialogue between potential enemies. She concluded that wars create more problems than they solve.

The debate was then thrown open, and after a vigorous question and answer session, the question was put to the vote. Four people voted in favour, 12 against with two abstensions. Interestingly, two people had changed their minds during the course of the evening. We then adjourned for a peaceful chat over tea and coffee in the Pearsall Room.