King, Augustine, and the Christian Tradition

Augustine has defined peace as an end state, whereas Martin Luther King, Jr. (also in the Christian ethical tradition) has emphasized peaceful means by saying that the means should always be as pure as the ends. (Letter from Birmingham Jail)   

King hardly denied the relevance of peace as an end state, for his overarching concern was the attainment of social justice as the foundation of true peace. Nonetheless, he was constrained in his efforts and methods by his faith that peaceful means must always be used in promoting the final end state of perfect peace and social justice.  Indeed, it is surely not too strong to say that King did not believe that violent means could ever promote true peace, as he just as surely believed that a final and lasting peace without justice was likewise impossible.

The discussion over ends and means is always of relevance as a starting point in the discussion of peace.  One who emphasizes peace as an end to the exclusion of peace as the means to be employed while promoting justice is basically saying that “the end justifies the means.”  (Modern utilitarianism, with its ultimate emphasis on consequences, falls into this morass–but more about that elsewhere.)

Even Augustine himself, writing in the fifth century, did not escape this tendency to deemphasize peaceful means: “For what else is victory than the conquest of those who resist us?  and when this is done there is peace?” (Augustine, Civitas Dei [The City of God], the first sentence of Chapter Twelve, Book XIX)

In this writer’s opinion, the Augustinian preoccupation with peace as an end state is actually part of a philosophy of domination rather than of true peace.  “Perhaps it is not too strong to say that Augustine’s defense of the ‘just war’ is flawed precisely because his conception of peace is flawed.” (Kelly, Conscientious Objections, p. 409)  In any case, Christianity went awry at the theoretical level early on with Augustine’s pronouncements on peace and his early formulation of the so-called “just war” doctrine.  This doctrine of the so-called “just war” was given further elaboration in the magnum opus of Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, written in the thirteenth century.

Both Augustine and Aquinas have been given the official status of “saints” (“holy ones”) by the Roman Catholic Church, and the works of Aquinas (St. Thomas) have gone on to become the core of the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church.  

  • When these two medieval theorists were writing, however, the distinction between “Catholicism” and “Protestantism” did not yet exist.
  •  With the coming of the Protestant Reformation, the tradition of the so-called “just war” was carried over into many currents of Protestantism as well.
  • One may speculate that Christianity’s historical capacity to rationalize violence and domination in the name of “peace” has been derived in large part from the failure to differentiate between peace as a means and peace as an end. 
  •  As a corresponding result of this deemphasis of peaceful means, orthodox Christianity has also tended many times to support cultures of domination, including colonialism and racism.

The contribution of Martin Luther King, Jr. to the field of philosophy has not been
recognized sufficiently by the professional philosophical community, to the extent that one is hard-pressed to find an anthology of philosophy that even contains a significant portion of the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., if indeed he is mentioned at all.  Many who consider themselves “liberal” likewise fail to recognize that the key to King’s success as a social activist derives from his authentically Christian emphasis on an ethic of peaceful means.

May it suffice for the moment to say that, where peace and justice are promoted
through violent means, the ultimate attainments of both peace and justice as end states are deferred indefinitely.

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