This evening we will deal with a topic that is presumably a matter of concern for all of us – sometimes on a daily basis. And it is good that we do not become numb in view of the repeated images of cities and villages destroyed by Russian missiles and of the people who fall victim to this destruction.

It is always important to realise that war is also being waged in many other places in the world. And that the suffering elsewhere also deserves our attention. But the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine has shaken our decades-old sense of security so deeply, and the suffering caused by the war is being given a very concrete face in the many refugees from Ukraine, which is why it is understandable that this war has received very special attention from us.

This war has been going on for well over a year now. And it is claiming more and more victims. The consequences for the world as a whole cannot be estimated. In any case, the number of deaths from starvation is rising worldwide due to the shortage of essential goods caused by the war.

There are figures for Ukraine and Russia, however unreliable they may be. A leaked Pentagon report documents casualty figures up to 1 March 2023. According to it, there were 15,500 to 17,500 dead and 109,000 to 113,500 wounded Ukrainian soldiers. The number of dead Russian soldiers is reported as being between 35,500 to 43,000, and the number of wounded between 154,000 to 180,000. Data on civilian casualties are also uncertain. Information from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) suggests that there have been around 8,000 Ukrainian civilian deaths as of early April 2023. These are said to include some 500 children. More than 13,000 civilians are said to have been injured.[i]

In view of the ever-increasing number of victims, in view of the vast sums that are being poured into destruction by financing this war, whether in reprehensible acts of aggression or in legitimate defence efforts, it worries me greatly that for the most part, only possible military solutions are being discussed. Those who speak clearly about possible solutions that go beyond military options must often even justify their reflections. Yet reflectiveness is the most important attitude behind the concrete decisions that have to be made afterwards.

Such reflectiveness is currently also prevalent in Protestant peace ethics. And that is a good thing. There is a great awareness that a mere invocation of Jesus’ non-violence is not sufficient, especially if one demands – from one’s own position of safety – serious sacrifices from others, perhaps even the sacrifice of one’s own life. The common desire to finally put an end to suffering unites all positions. No one advocates enthusiasm for war or even militarism. There is a clear understanding that violence never creates peace, but can at best reopen spaces where it can develop.

Can the world – as the very urgent question has it – allow an autocrat who lives in his own world, misleads his people with all available propagandistic means, and on this basis wages an unscrupulous war of aggression in violation of international law, to get what he wants in the end? The likelihood – which presumably no one disputes at present – that a man who has deceived the world for years can be stopped by nonviolent resistance alone is close to zero. This immediate question does not absolve us from the necessity of analysing the failures that led to such a situation arising in the first place, and of drawing conclusions for preventing violence in the future. Nevertheless, the question about urgently needed ethically responsible options must be asked.

The questions now facing Christian peace ethics are not new. But they are now facing it with a new urgency. The orientation toward “just peace” remains correct even now. What also remains correct is that we have therefore said goodbye to the “doctrine of just war.” For war is always a defeat. And military force is never “just,” but terrible. But there can also be situations where the renunciation of such force is even more terrible.

Before I examine the current situation, I would like to draw a kind of map of the discussion on peace ethics. What positions are there in peace ethics? Based on this, I would then like to outline the learning path of the peace ethics discussion since the fall of the Berlin Wall, with special emphasis on the formation of the judgments of churches.

1. A map of the discussion on peace ethics

In the debates within peace ethics over current cases of the use of military force, opponents and proponents of the military operation in question usually confront each other. That the substance of the debate is only described to a limited extent by such a rough juxtaposition becomes apparent if we look a little more closely at the types of argumentation that have been raised.

At one end of the spectrum is a form of principled pacifism which I call unconditional or deontological pacifism. To deon means “that which is necessary, that which ought to be, that which is obligatory.” Deontological thought assumes that there are unconditional laws which cannot be overridden by anything, whereas teleological argumentation is oriented toward a telos, a goal, the achievement of which requires the use of appropriate means. For deontological pacifism, the use of military force is ruled out from the outset since the unconditional duty of non-violence precludes it. The crucial aspect of the solution it proposes is therefore not the result which is produced by an analysis of the history and course of the conflict in question, and of the conflict of objectives associated with them, but only the requirement that all active steps in dealing with a conflict must be characterised by nonviolence. If deontological pacifism is based on Christian motivation, it often refers to biblical texts from which nonviolence is regarded as an obligatory orientation for life. In particular, the commandments of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are often cited here.

I distinguish argumentative pacifism from this deontological pacifism. It too contains a strong deontological element. It too ultimately leads to the position of principled nonviolence. However, its justification is quite different. In addition to biblical norms, it deliberately includes political analyses for its ethical justifications. Violence – as the summaries of such analyses show – has never led to peace, because it always sows new violence. The biblical position of nonviolence is therefore the only reasonable one. The position of argumentative pacifism, however, leaves open the possibility of allowing exceptions to the prohibition of the use of force based on recent historical experience and convincing arguments.

A third position is responsibility pacifism. This designation already shows that it, too, claims to bring about peace. For this reason, it advocates a clear priority of nonviolence. However, it assumes that the nonviolence of one’s own actions is not the only ethically obligatory principle. However, since it is such a special case, the use of force is an “impossible possibility,” that is, something which should not exist at all but which cannot be ruled out in certain situations of extreme necessity. According to this position, the use of force is never just force, but always connected with guilt, and can therefore be ethically permissible only in exceptional cases.

I call the fourth position the justice-ethical approach. The aim of nonviolence does not occupy a prominent place in this approach. Equally obligatory for it are, for example, defending the weak, standing up for human dignity, and protecting others from violence. If conflicts arise between these principles, an analysis of the situation must reveal whether the use of force is permissible or even required. This position differs from what I have called responsibility pacifism primarily in that it is, under certain circumstances, not afraid to justify the use of force. According to it, even those and especially those who refrain from providing assistance by military means can be guilty under certain conditions.

The four positions mentioned above form the framework of the debate on peace ethics. The last of these positions, which is oriented toward justice, must be seen as the limit of what can be viewed as legitimate from the perspective of the Christian faith. Behind it stands a long Christian ethical tradition which has had an effect far beyond the sphere of the church: the “doctrine of just war.” Just how narrow this boundary is becomes clear when we take a closer look at the criteria of the doctrine of just war. First, however, here is a brief review:

2. Peace ethics since the fall of the Berlin Wall

In the conflicts after the fall of the Berlin Wall, an insight increasingly gained traction which was clearly expressed when the concentration camps were liberated by soldiers in 1945: wars are always terrible. Weapons cause endless suffering. But weapons can also directly save lives.

In 1994, almost one million people were murdered with machetes within one hundred days in Rwanda. UN blue helmets stood by with weapons in their hands and failed to save all those people because, as blue helmets, they were forbidden from using their weapons.

In the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in which 8,000 Bosnian boys and men were killed, the UN peacekeepers who were present looked on idly, just as they did earlier in Rwanda, because they were not permitted to use their weapons.

In 2014, things were different. By pushing back the IS militias in Syria and Iraq, Kurdish Peshmerga – also equipped with German rifles – probably saved tens of thousands of otherwise defenceless people from brutal murder. For these reasons, I was unable at the time – despite all my inner doubts – to oppose the arms deliveries which made this possible.

All of this was of course reflected in the further development of positions in church peace ethics. The earlier discussions about nuclear deterrence were replaced by discussions on how to deal with “privatized violence,” as it confronted us in increasing numbers and with increasing brutality in terrorist attacks by Islamist fundamentalists. September 11 became a symbol of this. The unimaginable atrocities of the so-called Islamic State highlighted this change in the discussion of peace ethics. While criticism of the use of military force used to be the established baseline for church peace ethics, the question increasingly arose whether it is morally responsible not to effectively protect people threatened by genocide or, more generally, the most brutal forms of violence. This question moved to the centre of discussions on how the “responsibility to protect,” affirmed by the UN, could be guaranteed and what role military means played in it.

Over the last 30 years, my own thinking on peace ethics has been based on the integration of the ethical insights and orientation of the doctrine of just war, which was abandoned for good reasons, with the developing “doctrine of just peace.” Five criteria in particular can be identified in the various elaborations of the doctrine of just war in Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Francisco de Vitoria, Martin Luther, and Francisco Suarez:

  • Legitima potestas (legitimate power): war must be declared by a legitimate authority (formerly the prince or sovereign of a state).
  • Causa iusta (just cause): there must be a just and grave cause, e.g. disturbance of the peace through an external breach of law and foreign violence.
  • Ultima ratio (last resort): war may be resorted to only as a last resort. No war can be just while there is still any realistic chance of resolving a conflict through negotiations or other non-military means.
  • Recta intentio (right intention): war must be waged with a just intention. Its honest purpose must be to restore peace and justice. Thus, this is where the real motivation for a war comes into play.
  • Debitus modus (proper manner): war must be waged according to the principle of proportionality. The good to be achieved must clearly outweigh the evil that must be done to bring about the good.

In some of my essays, I applied the just war criteria to the first Gulf War in 1990,[ii] the Balkan War,[iii] and the war in Afghanistan,[iv] and in each case concluded that the use of military force in those wars did not meet the criteria. This meant, however, that the position of unconditional pacifism, for which the use of military force is ruled out from the very beginning, and that of responsibility pacifism, which advocates a clear priority of nonviolence but assumes that nonviolence in one’s own actions is not the only ethically obligatory principle and therefore the use of force as an “impossible possibility” cannot be ruled out in certain situations of acute necessity, were close to each other in the end. Both take an extremely restrictive approach to the possibility of using military force, albeit to varying degrees.

At the same time, it also became clear that the new forms of conflict, in which the protection of people from directly exercised brutal violence is marked by high ethical standards, made a strictly pacifist position appear increasingly problematic, or at any rate raised weighty questions about it.

It was remarkable that even the World Council of Churches, in which traditionally pacifist positions carry great weight, increasingly took into account situations in which military means can be legitimate or even morally required in order to protect threatened people.

I have experienced these discussions myself at various conferences. At a conference in Kigali, Rwanda in 2004, for example, I was responsible at the end for the wording of a part of the final document, which dealt with military intervention necessary to protect people from genocide, under the aegis of the UN. I encountered great skepticism about any form of military coercion. The Uruguayan pastor in my group opposed all militarism in light of her experience with the military dictatorship in her country; the Quaker from the US acknowledged the dilemma but could not bring herself to sign something that included military coercion if necessary. The representative from Rwanda himself did not want the UN to play any leading role, because he had seen how UN blue helmets had escorted the genocidaires out of his country in 1994.

It was thus not to be taken for granted that two years later, in the declaration on “Vulnerable populations at risk. Statement on the responsibility to protect” of the 9th WCC Assembly in Porto Alegre in 2006, the possibility of humanitarian intervention was expressly declared to be ethically legitimate.

When the duty to protect the population "is seriously violated whether by neglect, lack of capacity, or direct assaults on the population, the international community has the duty to assist peoples and states, and in extreme situations, to intervene in the internal affairs of the state in the interests and safety of the people.” [v]

These statements are remarkable for their ethical appreciation of the need to come to the aid of people in distress, even militarily. However, these words certainly cannot serve as a general legitimisation of military approaches.

The same can be said of the EKD’s peace memorandum.[vi] It advocates a just peace between states characterised by the rule of law. The memorandum also takes a stand on the significance of the doctrine of just war:

“Modern international law has abolished the concept of just war. Within the framework of the concept of just peace, the doctrine of bellum iustum no longer has a place. However, it does not follow from this that the moral test criteria contained in the bellum iustum doctrines must or may be abandoned. For they are based on standards which are not only valid in cases of war, but which (based on the fundamental idea of individual self-defence or emergency aid) can also be applied to police law, the domestic exercise of the right of resistance, and legitimate struggles for liberation. They are based on general criteria of an ethics of law-preserving force, which – irrespective of the context in which they are applied – can be formulated as follows…" (102).

This is followed by criteria which correspond exactly to those of the just war doctrine: just cause, authorisation, right intent, last resort, proportionality of consequences, proportionality of means, and the principle of distinction (i.e. persons and institutions not directly involved are to be spared in the use of force).

The EKD Synod’s 2019 statement on peace ethics also affirms that the 2007 peace memorandum considers the use of military means to be legitimate, provided that strict criteria are fulfilled, as “law-preserving force” which may be considered as a last resort (ultima ratio).[vii]  However, the fact that it did not delve deeper into this aspect of Protestant peace ethics is a shortcoming of this declaration.

Minimising military force was and is the clear goal of Protestant efforts to guide judgments in peace ethics. However, its reflections on how to deal with actual military aggression requires further development.

It is obvious that the keywords of “law-preserving force” from the peace memorandum are of particular importance for the reaction to the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. And the agenda of Christian peace ethics of the past several decades – “just peace” – must naturally be taken very seriously here in both of its parts.

This is because it is clear that the Russian attack is a blatant breach of international law. The fact that there is a comparatively high degree of consensus on this among the states of the world was demonstrated by the eagerly awaited vote on a corresponding resolution at the UN General Assembly on 24 February 2023, one year after the Russian attack. Once again, the assembly overwhelmingly called for a withdrawal of Russian troops. 141 of the 193 member states voted in favour of the resolution. Only seven countries voted against it.

This large worldwide consensus has become particularly evident among the churches, even if the Russian Orthodox Church itself fulfils the role of a damper which is difficult to assess. In my function as moderator of the World Council of Churches, however, I not only hear the voices legitimising the war which we regularly read about in our newspapers, but I clearly sense an increasing degree of reflectiveness. Much of this is not expressed clearly in public.

3. The position of the World Council of Churches

The Russian Orthodox Church is the largest member church of the World Council of Churches. Thus, it is also represented in all bodies and votes on public statements. This is why the statement "War in Ukraine, Peace and Justice in the European Region” of the WCC 11th Assembly, which took place for the first time in history in Germany, in the first week of September 2022 in Karlsruhe, is particularly remarkable. The Russian Orthodox delegates also supported it.

The statement, adopted without dissenting votes, speaks of the prayers focused on the people of Ukraine and the country, and of the tragic consequences they have suffered and are still suffering “since the Russian invasion on 24 February 2022, in addition to the thousands of casualties including many civilians in the East of the country and hundreds of thousands of refugees and displaced people since 2014.”

It describes the extreme suffering experienced by the people there:

“During this six-month period, there have been over 13,000 Ukrainian civilian casualties and cities such as Mariupol have been laid in ruins. At this moment close to 14 million people – almost one-third of the entire population of Ukraine – have been forced to flee their homes…Moreover, there are many reports of atrocities that may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity, including sexual and gender-based violence, as well as greatly heightened vulnerability to human trafficking. and gender-based violence and the greatly increased risk of being trafficked.”

The assembly strongly reiterated the condemnation of the war as “illegal and unjustifiable,” expressed by the WCC central committee at its June 2022 meeting, lamenting the appalling scale of death, destruction, and displacement, destroyed relationships and the enmity between people in the region, entrenched deeper than ever. It also deplored the escalating conflicts worldwide, the increased risk of famine in regions of the world already experiencing food insecurity, economic hardship, and increased social and political instability in many countries.

“As Christians from different parts of the world” – the assembly noted – "we renew the call for an immediate ceasefire to halt the death and destruction, and for dialogue and negotiations to secure a sustainable peace.”

What is also noteworthy in the statement is its explicit criticism of the misuse of religion to justify war:

“We also strongly affirm the central committee’s declaration that war is incompatible with God’s very nature and will for humanity and against our fundamental Christian and ecumenical principles, and accordingly reject any misuse of religious language and authority to justify armed aggression and hatred.”

This clarity of the assembly was important and gave the lie to all those who, in the run-up to the assembly, had stoked fears that Karlsruhe could become a place for spreading Putin’s propaganda. None of that happened.

In the meantime, there have been many unofficial discussions between the churches. We do not only want to pray, but also to do our part to overcome the violence. This is why the general secretary of the World Council of Churches, Jerry Pillay, and I as moderator have undertaken an initiative which is now taking on more concrete form.

First, we intend to travel together to Ukraine to engage in dialogue with the churches there which are in a difficult situation marked by internal tensions. The general secretary will then travel to Russia to speak with the church leadership there. The aim is then to hold – at a later date – a three-day roundtable on neutral ground, preferably in Geneva, with the participation of both the Ukrainian churches and the Russian church. On the first day we wish to speak with the Ukrainian churches, on the second day with the Russian church, and on the third day we wish to bring both into conversation with each other. Whether we will succeed in bringing at least the churches of the warring countries to a shared position which can open doors to peace, is in God’s hands. We must try. We must never resign ourselves to a continuation of this terrible war!

4. The further development of peace ethics after the Russian attack on Ukraine

Three insights emerge from my reflections as tasks for the future. They involve continuity and further development.

Firstly, there is hardly anyone who would ask a people under attack to accept military aggression without an effective defence, and thus to live under the occupation of the aggressor. In the face of a brutal attack, it is morally legitimate to defend oneself. And to do so even with weapons, if this is the only effective option. But then – despite the fact that this involves a moral dilemma – it is also legitimate to assist an attacked people in their defence, taking into account to the principle of proportionality, if there is no other effective option, including by supplying appropriate weapons. If force used to enforce the law is ethically legitimate and peace is to be truly a just peace, then any possible peace cannot be based on the acceptance of Russian territorial gains, thereby ultimately rewarding the violation of international law.

The Council of the EKD also paved the way for the acceptance of military support for Ukraine’s defence when it stated the following in a declaration of all leading clergy and legal experts of its 20 regional churches on 24 March 2022:

We see “the dilemma of different options between the fundamental desire for a non-violent solution to the conflict and the impulse to support Ukraine with weapons in the face of an aggressor who brutally disregards current international law and commits war crimes. There is no dispute about Ukraine’s right to self-defence in view of the aggression directed against it.” [viii]

While the criteria for the use of military force were developed in Protestant peace ethics a long time ago, the future consequences of the Russian attack on Ukraine must be reconsidered. The shaken confidence in a Russian leadership which, as has now become apparent, has made the instrument of lies part of its foreign policy strategy, must not be allowed to irreparably discredit diplomacy as a means of non-violent conflict resolution, but it does require that diplomatic activities be backed up by convincing security policy options for action. From an ethical standpoint, it is understandable that the security needs – including through military defence capabilities – of states such as those in the Baltic region must be acknowledged. The “responsibility to prevent,” which has been strongly advocated particularly in ecumenical peace ethics and which gives special priority to nonviolence with good reason, must be supplemented by elements of security policy.

Secondly, the recent attention paid to the military policy elements of peacekeeping does not in any way lessen the importance of disarmament policy strategies. Right now, there is a great danger that the events in Ukraine will set in motion an arms race which would have no ethical justification whatsoever. This is certainly true for nuclear weapons. With some 6,000 nuclear warheads on the sides of both the western alliance and Russia, there are no convincing arguments against significant steps toward disarmament, including appropriate unilateral steps, even after the attack on Ukraine.

This need and opportunity for disarmament also applies to the military budgets of the countries that are members of NATO. To illustrate this, it is sufficient to look at the corresponding expenditures of the various sides. In its new report on military spending, SIPRI estimated this to be at $1.232 trillion, or 55 percent of global spending, for all NATO member states combined in 2022. The US accounted for the lion’s share with $877 billion. Russia’s spending grew by $86.4 billion. Even if this figure is estimated to be several times higher than it actually is, Russia’s spending is far below the budgets of the countries joined together in NATO.

This suggests that the West’s response to the attack on Ukraine must not be about more money for arms, but about more intelligence for peace and security policy.

The questionable nature of the large sums for military spending is further underscored by my third conclusion: even after the Russian attack on Ukraine, the drastic underfunding of civilian options for saving human life remains a moral scandal. Around 20,000 people around the world still die every day because they do not have enough food or medicine. It can be observed that this number is already growing again after the pandemic and the beginning of the war in Ukraine.

On the occasion of the UN Food Systems Summit two years ago, the agricultural scientist and vice president of Welthungerhilfe Prof. Dr Joachim von Braun, who also chaired the scientific advisory board of the UN Summit, quantified the global expenditures which would make it possible to largely overcome hunger by 2030. He noted that over the next decade, this would cost about $39 billion to $50 billion a year in additional investments. This would not just be for acute hunger relief, but for overcoming hunger in the long term. This would require innovation in production systems, sustainable agriculture, advisory services, education – especially for women, and better social protection measures, i.e. cash or food transfer programs. He also added, “No finance minister can avoid responsibility and say that fighting hunger is unaffordable. No, it isn’t.” [ix]

If only to prevent future violent conflicts, the churches must repeatedly address the absurdity of the distribution of resources between expenditures for armaments and expenditures for human development. Only in this way can they do justice to the fundamental conviction which guides the biblical view of the person: every human being is created in the image of God. Therefore, every human being deserves protection from brutal military force. But no less reliably, each person deserves the protection of their life by the means necessary to meet their basic needs, such as food and medicine, so that they can live a life in dignity.

5. The role of the churches

The first task of the churches which I wish to describe is prayer for peace. Churches are the place where horror at the suffering which people inflict on each other, helplessness regarding solutions, and hope for the victory of life can be expressed. Those who confess God as the creator and sustainer of the world will also understand prayer for peace as active work for peace. Even people who do not see themselves through the prism of the Christian faith can understand the significance that such solidarity with, and compassion for, the victims of war and violence, which touch the depths of human existence, can have despite temporal and geographical distance. Thus, prayer can also be understood as living resistance against desensitisation in the face of the images of war and violence which are a part of everyday life in the age of mass media.

One of the most significant contributions of the Christian faith to the political debate – and this is the second task – is raising awareness of guilt and forgiveness. All enthusiasm for war is contrary to the confession of Jesus Christ. The infliction of suffering, even if it is done to protect the rights of the weak, means guilt. The contribution of the churches to the public debate is indispensable precisely in this regard.

The church – and this is the third task – must strengthen within itself the institutions which foster communication and exchange among its members from different nations and ethnic groups. Taking seriously the fact that the Church of Jesus Christ is, by its very nature, an ecumenical church is one of the most important contributions which the churches can make to a culture of global reconciliation and conflict prevention. The ecumenical dimension of the church must therefore come out of the shadows in the consciousness of congregations and be understood as a key dimension of the church. Then ecumenical attempts at mediation in interstate conflicts can also gain strength which can contribute to the political resolution of these conflicts.

The fourth task of the church lies in its efforts as a global actor in civil society. Among the many actors working on peace policy tasks worldwide, the church is a unique resource. The necessary processes of rethinking and developing appropriate institutional instruments to minimise violence depend on actors who transcend national boundaries. The church is a global network with a universal perspective and local roots.

It is the born public advocate of an international law capable of promoting peace, because in its various national expressions it lives together from the power of Christ, of whom the Epistle to the Ephesians says: "For he is our peace” (Eph. 2:14).

Precisely with regard to its witness to peace, Jesus’ promise holds true: “You are the salt of the earth, you are the light of the world.” Listening to this promise and living from it means understanding that "the peace which surpasses all understanding” also has clear worldly consequences.



[ii] ‚Die Lehre vom gerechten Krieg und der Krieg am Golf,‘ in: Junge Kirche 52 (1991), 75-80.

[iii] ‚Gottes Versöhnung und militärische Gewalt. Zur Friedensethik nach dem Kosovo-Krieg,‘ in: Rudolf Weth (Ed.), Das Kreuz Jesu. Gewalt – Opfer – Sühne, Neukirchen 2001, 209-227.

[iv] ‚Gerechter Krieg in Afghanistan? Zur aktuellen Diskussion um die Friedensethik,‘ in: evangelische aspekte 3/2002, 23-26.


[vi] Aus Gottes Frieden leben – für gerechten Frieden sorgen. Eine Denkschrift des Rates der Evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland, Gütersloh 2007.

[vii]… (accessed on 3.4. 2022).

[viii] (accessed on 3.4. 2022).

[ix] (accessed on 3.4.2022)