If We Want Peace, We Must Work for Justice

By Kay Augustine

When I shut down my computer after our April 24th virtual worship sharing on the Peace Testimony, an often-quoted maxim came to mind:  “If you want peace, work for justice.” Who first said that, I wondered. Turns out it was Pope Paul VI, on the fifth celebration of an annual Day of Peace which he had begun on January 1, 1967. His address in 1972 was titled “If You Want Peace, Work for Justice.”

From their beginnings centuries ago, Friends have worked for justice. In an ideal world, we would all be working for justice because there can be no true and lasting peace without justice. But we do not live in an ideal world. Some people and some governments have been so warped by their life experiences that they are willing to use violence to achieve their ends, whether those ends be power, prestige, greed, vengeance, or other motives. However, as Dr. King reminded us, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

When it comes to my own and our country’s attitudes toward war, how has that arc bent toward justice in terms of recognizing the horrors of war during my lifetime? As a child in the early forties, I mindlessly sang, “You’re a sap, Mister Jap, Uncle Sammy’s gonna spanky.” The song made the top ten charts. When I turned 21 and had to decide on my first vote for president, being a lifelong Democrat, I at first favored Adlai Stevenson. But with the Korean conflict a recent memory, I decided I felt safer with an experienced military man and voted for Eisenhower. But later, as a mother, I would not allow our four sons to have toy soldiers or guns. I could not understand why parents would encourage their children to play at war or even at cops and robbers. War, it seemed to me, must be engaged in for self-defense, but only sadly, regrettably. And in my thirties, Vietnam made me an anti-war activist.

Societal attitudes toward war have also changed during my lifetime. The publication history of Mark Twain’s War Prayer provides one illustration. At the time he wrote it in 1905, possibly in reaction to either the Spanish-American or Phillopine-American war, his family cautioned against publication and he agreed, saying to his friend Albert Bigelow Paine, who tried to change his mind, “No, I have told the whole truth in that, and only dead men can tell the truth in this world.” It was finally published in Harper’s Magazine in 1916, six years after his death and during WWI; subsequently, it appeared in a collection of Twain’s stories and essays edited by Paine in 1923. Then it fell out of print, not even being included in other collected works until, during the Vietnam war, a picture book edition was published in 1968, movingly illustrated by John Groth.

As powerfully as Twain portrays the horrors of war, the question, for me, remains: When one country unjustly attacks another, can we justify choosing to remain neutral?

Yes, war is hell. The measures urged by passivists and peace advocates to avoid war or bring warring parties to peace negotiations are good; I’m grateful for their work. It is also true that engaging in war may prolong it, but so may failing to engage. Think Munich in September 1938, Kristallnacht the following December, and the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. Had we stopped Hitler sooner, might we have prevented a wider war?

The great number of democratic nations uniting to oppose the invasion of Ukraine is encouraging to me. I would also like to see the United States join the World Criminal Court; even if joining causes us to be tried for past war crimes, it would be one way for us to submit to the demands of justice ourselves and to secure it for others. But when justice fails and a country suffers the injustice of a bloody invasion, I cannot believe it is wrong for us to help those people defend themselves.