Unjust Wars and ‘Innocent’ Bodies by Kelly Brown Douglas

According to a recent online CNN report (15 September 2013) an 8 year old girl in Yemani died from internal injuries after her wedding night. Apparently this was not the first time a young Yemeni girl died under these circumstances.  Despite the fact that there have been various attempts to outlaw child marriage in Yemani, it remains legal.  For some families steeped in poverty, the “innocent” bodies of  young girls becomes a way to make money as these girls are sold for marriage to older men. One Yemeni woman lamented, “this is what poverty can do to people” (CNN online 15 September).

All around the world there are stories of young girls and women whose bodies are being “legitimately” violated.  Even in those places where the violence against women’s bodies is considered a crime, the redress for these crimes fall short of justice.  The story of the Yemeni girls and others like it have raised many theological questions in my mind concerning  notions of innocence,  the meaning of violence, and the implications of just war.  In this blog, I will share my rather fragmented thoughts on these issues as an invitation to conversation.

It is a rather “commonly” held belief that the innocent should always be protected. Who the innocent are, however, is not always a matter of common judgment. The meaning of innocence is a complex matter. To be sure, in the time of “war” innocence becomes a  contested notion.  Distinguishing the innocent ones from combatants or even potential combatants is oftentimes a point of intense debate.  But it is not only wartimes that complicate the meaning of  “the innocent,” for even when wars have not been declared not all bodies are afforded the privilege of innocence.  Gender, color, sexual orientation, class are markers that make it virtually impossible for some bodies to claim this privilege. Hence, particular bodies are more vulnerable to violent attack and are virtually lightening rods for attack. These are the bodies seen not as reasonable, measured, tranquil, hard-working, but as irrational, passionate, indolent and volatile.  Consequently, they are regularly held responsible for the violence inflicted upon them. By virtue of who they are the violence against their bodies is seen as justified, if not warranted. Essentially, their innocence is not assumed, it is rather something they must prove–even if they are a raped or dead body.

Just as the notion of innocence is more complicated than we often recognize, so too is the concept of violence. While we readily acknowledge physical and catastrophic forms violence, we are not as attune to insidious and pernicious forms. Structures and systems that deny or jeopardize basic human rights and endanger the health and well-being of particular bodies are violent.  Yet, the social-cultural and economic violence created and maintained by racialized hetero-patriarchal privilege is rarely identified as such. Consequently, calls for non-violent behavior are rarely directed toward the gatekeepers and perpetuators of these forms of violence. Instead, these calls are directed toward the victims as they protest their violent treatment.  In this regard, certain people are not only seen as responsible for the violence they must endure, but justifiable use of violence is rarely an option given to them for combating their violent predicament.  This brings us to the notion of a “just” war.  What is the meaning of just war in response to the seething and lethal violence inflicted everyday upon various bodies?

As just war theory began to emerge, particularly during the middle ages, it provided a way not only to place restraints upon war, but also a way for the  church to legitimate its use of violence.  The legacy of just war thought is thus a  very complex one. For even as it perhaps provides a safeguard to prevent indiscriminate and incessant war,  it also  provides a sacred canopy for war–hence providing justification for crusades, Holy Wars etc.  What it doesn’t provide for, however, is the elimination of violence.  For

what strikes me most about  just war theory, is that it is concerned with the justice of war, not with the injustice of violence, at the same time that it has a limited understanding of  what constitutes war.  Even just peacemaking proposals and movements are vulnerable to the same limitations.  They seem to be focused more on avoiding war, as opposed to eliminating violence.  In the least they are more concerned with the wars carried out by military forces, than the systemic and structural wars carried out everyday.  The point of the matter is that just war and just peacemaking theories don’t recognize the unjust wars that have been declared on  the “non-innocent” “innocent” everyday. They don’t recognize the bodies that have become war zones.  They fail to address the systemic/structural wars that have become a regular part of our world and society. These are unjust wars.  They are the wars that are fought on the bodies of the girls of Yemani everyday. And these are the wars that our sacred traditions compel us to fight. And so what might that fight look like?

For me, this fight begins with at least two theological assumptions. First, that all which God has created is sacred, and that includes all human being. The implication of this assumption is that no sacred being deserves to be subjected to violence. Sacredness therefore assumes a certain “innocence,” an innocence from violence. It is a sacred innocence. This leads to a second assumption concerning divine peace. The meaning of God’s peace is found in shalom, that is justice. It is in this regard that God is a non-violent God, for God is a God of justice, a God of peace. Of course this leaves open for consideration the notion of peaceful resistance, what form might that take? What kind of force is necessary to combat violence, that is injustice? What is the meaning of divine force? The bottom-line is that injustice is nothing less than violence. A just society, therefore, is a non-violent society. To be committed to a non-violent society and world is to be committed to justice. And so a “just war is one that demystifies, deconstructs and dismantles the instruments of social-cultural economic wars fought on the bodies of the innocent. It is this kind of war that I believe a God who is peace calls us to. The force needed to wage such a war is a matter for further theological conversation.

And so I end where I began, with the death of an innocent 8 year old Yemeni girl. It is her death and the death of others like her that compel my random thoughts today. Far too many bodies, especially female bodies, have become war zones.  They have become the site for unjust wars. While I am not sure of all that is needed to fight these wars, one thing I do know is that until these unjust wars have ended there will be no peace in our world—my food for thought today.

Kelly Brown Douglas is Professor and Director of the Religion Program at Goucher College where she has held the Elizabeth Conolly Todd Distinguished Professorship. She was recently awarded The Goucher College Caroline Doebler Bruckerl Award for outstanding faculty achievement. Kelly is a leading voice in the development of a womanist theology, Essence magazine counts Douglas “among this country’s most distinguished religious thinkers, teachers, ministers, and counselors.”  She has published numerous essays and articles in national publications, and her books include The Black ChristSexuality and the Black ChurchWhat’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Soul.  Black Bodies and the Black Church: A Blues Slant is her most recently released book (Palgrave Macmillan, Fall 2012). Kelly is also a priest in the Episcopal Church and has served as Associate Priest at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. for over 20 years.

Categories: Activism, Body, Community, Ethics, General, Justice, Military, Sexual Violence, Violence, Womanist Theology

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8 replies

  1. Hi Kelly,

    Glad to see your blog relating to mine of yesterday–or mine to yours of today. My blog too felt fragmented as I wrote it and reread it. I knew this is because I was really angry and upset–too sad even to write it while the drums of US war were being sounded so loudly by the “screeching liberal hawks” (phrase from Bob Dreyfuss).

    And the Yemeni girl. I know “victims” of arranged marriages here in Greece, but none so young. On one of the Facebook posts there was a link to a human rights group that stated something like: given the poverty in Yemen, it is hard for parents to resist bride prices. This from a group trying to protect the girls. I am sorry, I responded, no matter how poor you are you do not sell your daughter to an adult pederast and call it marriage. The idea that whole communities condone pederasty and that girls are viewed as nothing more than property to be sold is more than the body-mind can comprehend. It is making me sick to my stomach (literally) even to write this.

    And yes, you are right, that we are more likely to tell the victimized not to resist violently than to criticize the perpetrators of massive institutionalized violence (the US State Dept–whether under a black male president or a white female secretary of state or a one time white male anti-war protester turned screeching liberal hawk). No, it is much easier to call Barbara Lee, Michelle Obama, and CodePink unrealistic or crazy or simply female (which in some circles implies the other two). And perhaps it is easier to criticize the Yemenis than our own government.



  2. Kelly,
    Your post brought tears to my eyes. I lived in a Muslim country during my Peace Corps years, and heard the screams of young girls as they were mutilated. It continues today. The answer lies not in “protecting” these girls, for that is an impossibility. The answer lies in bringing a sense of life, of non-poverty, to vast regions of the world. And this is do-able. Not easy, but do-able. Simply put, our focus as a nation needs to shift to one of spreading peace, not war; of creating food, not weapons; of preaching tolerance, not even democracy.

    I have long believed that it is the Goddess spirit of the world that can lead us in this direction, and I believe it still. The momentum is building, so very very slowly, to change the military industrial mentality of our economy to one of peaceful existence, creating jobs in environmental protection and food creation. When we can give food and shelter, instead of gguns, to third world countries, we can protect those girls, and millions upon millions more. Let us all pray for that momentum to grow.


  3. This is a great post, Kelly! I’ve always believed that peace was impossible without justice, but I think you really hit the nail on the head when you showed in this post that “injustice is violence.” This adds to my understanding of another statement here in the last few months that “defining someone else’s reality is abuse.” However, I’m not really sure that I understand how bodies can be anything more than metaphorically “war zones” (except, of course, in your example of the violated 8-year-old). Help me with that, will you please.


    • When we begin to think of violence beyond the discreet physical assaults on ones body, and begin to understand structural, systemic and cultural violence then we can begin to appreciate how some bodies are virtual war zones. These are bodies that are so dehumanized, criminalized, demonized and/or sexualized that they are most vulnerable to not only assault but seen as responsible for the abuse, injustice and neglect perpetrated upon them by violent systems and structures. It is in this way that certain bodies become virtual war zones.


  4. Thank you for your moving post, and for sharing those poor girls’ horrific fates. As a pantheist, I have so far avoided linking my ethics to my spirituality, but this post makes me think that perhaps it is time for me to consider how my worldview ties together.


  5. Great post and I enjoyed meeting you at GMU after the Keith Clark – Liz Petry presentation.



  1. Must Reads!

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