War, Pacifism, and Christianity

September 8th, 2007 / 14 Comments

I can probably count on my hands the number of Christian’s I know who are opposed to war.

Which means that most Christians I know aren’t very good Christians, except that ‘good’ is a very poor way of evalutating Christians. Maybe a better way of phrasing it is that most Christians I know do not have a very good understanding of Scripture or theology.

The Hitler argument seems to be very popular with Christian advocates of war. The Hitler argument claims that Hitler was so powerful, and so evil, that war was the only solution to stopping Hitler. Therefore, any kind of pacifist response is automatically disqualified because it is unable to provide a viable alternative solution to stopping war.

The irony in the Hitler illustration is that the problem war proponents have with pacifism is the very same problem I have with war. Namely that Christians have the obligation, let alone the capacity, to determine when any act of violence, or any other carefully crafted ‘strategery’ can be a solution to the problem of evil.

There are a number of reasons why Christians are incapable of creating a solution to the problem of evil. Here are two:

  1. Christians are sinners.
  2. God already has a solution to the problem of evil.

The fact that Christians are sinners (and by sinners I mean those with both the history and the propensity to sin) does not mean that Christians are incapable of recognizing evil; but it does mean that, as sinful cohorts, Christians are incapable of judging evil. This is exactly the point John Howard Yoder makes in his doctoral thesis Karl Barth and the Problem of War, where he criticized Barth’s belief that one could have the moral objectivity to determine when a war may or may not be just.

More importantly, for Christians there is no need to create a solution to the problem of evil because the solution already exists in the death and resurrection of Christ. Therefore, in attempting to create our own solutions to the problem of evil we demonstrate that we believe God’s solution is simply not good enough.

A more faithful response to evil begins with following Christ’s example of death and resurrection.

To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. Revelation 3:21

This is not to suggest that the Christian response to evil involves idly sitting in front of the television waiting to die (even though that seems like a pretty popular option for Christians in America). But what I hope is clear from this post is that the starting point for a Christian discussion of war and evil should not start with the work of Adolf Hitler, but start with the work of Jesus Christ.

Comments (14)

  1. I strongly agree, though lack the education, reading breadth, and experience with the subject to comment much more intelligently than a thick “grunt”.

    I am very interested in this topic, though I wonder what your opinion of a war carried out by a secular state (yes, even in 1941, the US was a secular state) against an invading army, which it could be argued that the Japanese and even maybe the Germans were. Are wars of defense (not that WWII was a war of defense, strictly speaking) considered justifiable when conducted by governments? Do we as Christians have an obligation to have an opinion on this? What about revolutions? The American revolution, the French Revolution, the Bolshevic Revolution, the Nicaraguan revoltion?

    The point is, and this is the hard part for most Christians to get past, is that these wars affected us, whether we support war or not. The failure to win the wars we have fought in changes the whole world, especially for American Christians, most likely in a temporally negative way. Theologically, you can debate this concept till kingdom come, but practically, the arguments lose their effectiveness when you start threatening the typical American Christian’s way of life. Thats why you can count the number of truly pacifist Christians you know on your hands. Count me in, by the way. Even though I can’t argue it out to its ultimate conclusions, I still believe in it, because it is the behavior and attitude most closely resemblings Christ’s walk on this earth.

  2. Scott Lenger / December 6, 2007 / http://scottlenger.com

    Hey Isaac, I think you hit it with your last sentence.

    Regarding whether war as defense can be justifiable I think it all depends on how you view justice. Historically the Church has had a set of criteria through which to evaluate Just War since the time of Augustine. Certainly there is some merit to defending the victimized. The problem comes after you assume that you represent the “Good Guys” and therefore your goals (and the means by which you reach your goals) must ultimately be good and presto, you’ve just justified carpet bombing.

    The problem I see is that war seems to assume that the practices of the Church (loving one’s enemies, praying for those who persecute you) aren’t really practical in the real world so we need to take matters into our own hands.

    To me that attitude disregards the significance of the cross.

  3. Isaac / December 19, 2007

    And so here we come to the great duality of living as a Christian and a Citizen. Reconciling living in the spirit and living in the world is the hardest thing to argue, however I believe that as we are primariliy spiritual beings and that our physical lives are merely a short term representation of the spiritual world that we are destined to (man, if you read that out loud, it sounds really “new-agey”). Therefore, our priority should be to live as spiritual beings, meaning following the example of Christ as he lived on this earth. Living as a human citizen of the good’ol US of A should be our second priority, as this responsibility is still important and morality calls us to also lives as creatures of principle. In short, if you are Christian, you are called to non-violence first, active citizenship second.

    In my opinion, the Church is absolutely not equipped to be “practical in the real world”, nor should it be. The Church is not called to govern, it is called to bring the lost to Christ. It operates in whatever capacity it is empowered to by the Spirit, not in whatever way it can make for itself to succeed in the world. In my opinion, the Church should stay completely out of debates about war, and governance for that matter, and focus their efforts at helping disciples form a Godly character, and at bringing people to Christ. If the Church put as much effort here as they do trying to influence legislation and justify wars against Muslims, we might have the nation of Christians that the “Church Leaders” claim they are working towards. We may still have war, but we may also have a nation after God’s own heart. Just my opion, like I said, I’m an idealist.

  4. Aaron / December 20, 2007 / http://www.519music.com

    Scott and Isaac,

    You’re never going to get me to defend war. . . war is hell. . simbolicly and spiritually.

    But, I want to respond to to a few of these things. Again, I’m anti-war, and I don’t think we should engage in it nearly as often as we do.

    Scott, you seem to be coming against Christians and the church as being “pro-war” without the moral authority to be so. I would agree that we should look in the mirror first when looking for evil.

    But, I think that God has ordained governments who are not (necessarily) run by Christians. And, said government will make decisions from time to time in their best interest (one could argue, all the time) Romans 13 tells us that the human governments “do not bear the sword for nothing” and so there seems to be at least a tacit approval or allowance of governments inflicting justice by their own definitions. Now, if we feel there is injustice there, or a wrong cause, we have the right and the obligation to say so.

    I don’t think this makes us (the church) 100% pacifists. And, I don’t think it means “we’re taking matters into our own hands” as you said. Because,. . .”we”, the church,. . .aren’t doing it. Our government is. We can stand with them or against them in any endeavor. Hopefully our faith will inform us there. There are times when we have helped the helpless via a war. Some would argue that Iraq has achieved that goal partially, with the Iraquis. But, that’s probably the worst example. . there have been many.

    As you say,. . in our goal to help the helpless, civilians have died, and unintended consequences have happened. Does that mean, because of the harmful effects. . that there never should be war? I say no. In the World Wars, the effects had war not happened would have been much worse than the consequences when it did happen.

    This, again, puts us in the judges chair as far as “was it worth it”. . . I don’t like that chair either. . but I think it’s a chair that God has given,. . .to governments.

    Aaron

  5. Aaron / December 20, 2007 / http://www.519music.com

    Isaac,

    I read some more of your stuff.

    I want to be a pacifist too. But, I think that God also calls us to be good citizens. I think that it’s not a shirking of our responsibilities as Christians, or a “passing of the buck” to be a part of a country and support/criticize a government. To be anti anything all the time (as I am with war) is admittedly an easy out so that we don’t have to deal with larger issues.
    Jesus did not bring war because he would’ve been worshipped as the new physically present/rescuer/dictator of Israel, and he had spiritual things in mind. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about governments or that we should just shut up and take it.

    But, I’m just saying that God knew we would be a part of a system while here on earth.

    If all of us lived in Sweden and never did anything, I bet you we would still feel a twinge of guilt when we saw the Sudan or Israel/Palestine etc. . . A purely pacificist society would not solve your or my problem. We would want to help those people. No system is perfect or the “christian” one.

    Aaron

  6. Danny / December 20, 2007 / http://dannydebelius.com

    I feel compelled to point out that at some point, “loving one’s enemy” becomes very hateful towards the people your enemy chooses to persecute. A strict pacifistic world-view is not fully cohesive as far as Christian morality is concerned.

    How do we reconcile the biblical concept of turning the other cheek and loving one’s enemy with the equally important concept of loving your neighbor as yourself? If your neighbor is being violently persecuted, wouldn’t the second directive compel you to intervene? How do you decide where the former supercedes the latter, or vice versa?

    I think you could make the argument that loving your neighbor supercedes loving your enemy, with respect to Matthew 22:36-40.

    36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

    37 Jesus replied: ” ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

    I agree with Aaron that war should never be celebrated. It should be mourned, regardless of the circumstances surrounding it. I am not, however, ready to subscribe to the notion that to be a Christian demands that you be a strict pacifist.

  7. You guys are too smart.

    Ok, as far as the loving your neighbor vs your enemy, is not your enemy also your neighbor? We define “your neighbor” as anyone you come in contact with, so do are we not neighbors to our enemy? So what if your neighbor is being persecuted by your enemy? Are you not to love both of them? Loving your enemy does not mean you pacify them, even if you are a pacifist. Do you not exercise discipline when your child misbehaves? Why do you do this, because you teach them that there are natural consequences when they chose to go outside the rules. Well, as an adult, often times a loving and appropriate response to an enemy is to enforce boundaries, show respect for yourself as well as your enemy and show them in whatever way that their actions are not acceptable to you, yet you do not respond in kind to their actions by violating them in some way. So if they are persecuting someone? Comfort and aid the weak, while loving the enemy and showing him why his actions are wrong? I don’t know, that is a hard one.
    My argument about the Christian vs. the Citizen is complex. In my view, a Christian is called to to walk with Christ first, then live as a citizen. Forgive me for not having the scripture, but we are called to give God what is God’s and Caesar what is Caesar’s, we are called to live as a Citizen until it interfere’s with our walk with God. God trumps Man. If you believe Christians are called to a live of pacifism, then pacifism always trumps war. This sounds like the easy way out, but it is not because there is no option for the Christian to resort to violence to defend his nation. Every other method must be used. Aaron, you used the exmple of Sweden, though I think you meant Switzerland, but that’s not really important. If I lived in Switzerland, I would feel the same feelings about the injustice in the world, and I would have the same options I have now, which is to cast myself into the situation and try to do what I could to solve the problem with the tools that God has given me. I don’t have to support war to want to do something about injustice.
    And I don’t have to support war to know that it is an inevitable part of society. I have studied history and if there is one thing that I understand, it is that war is what makes the world go ’round. As a Christian though, I choose to refuse to take part in that dynamic of the world, just as I refuse to do other things that conflict with my walk with Christ.(please keep in mind, this is an idealistic argument, I sin and go against my beliefs much more than anyone would like to admit. The point is that this is the walk I strive for) I think that Christians can be good active citizens and not violate their beliefs. I do think that Christians should be against war, especially when they are counting on governments to explain to them why we are going to war. There has not be a true “Just War” in this nation’s history. Every single American war had a either a financial or land grabbing reason with the possible exception of the war of 1812, the only time we have been invaded by a foreign power. How can a Christian defend these wars as moral acts? Granted, I understand the needs of the country to justify war, and I think in some cases these wars are forgivable. However as a Christian first, I refuse to condone it. This is why this issue is so complex, and so difficult to defend.

    This position is something I believe in, yet I am prone to the same hypocrisy as everyone else. For example, I am teaching my son how to fight, so that he can defend himself should the time come that we would have to make the decision on whether or not to do that.

  8. Scott Lenger / December 21, 2007 / http://scottlenger.com

    I think reading Romans 13 correctly is impossible without reading it in the context of Romans 12:

    Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

    Also how can we be sure the beginning of Romans 13 (bearing the sword) is a reference to waging war when the passage ends with a commandment to pay taxes? Likewise note that the following paragraph of Romans 13 reaffirms the loving our enemies theme of Romans 12.

    Understood within those contexts, reading the beginning of Romans 13 as approval for nations waging war requires a degree of possibility which I’ not willing to concede.

  9. Scott Lenger / December 21, 2007 / http://scottlenger.com

    Aaron and Danny:

    Thanks so much for your well articulated thoughts. Your views are certainly in line with the Just War tradition which is a view steeped in church tradition.

    In discussing pacifism, however, I’m not sure we’re talking about the same thing?

    Christian pacifism is not to be equated with being passive, doing nothing, or even non-violent resistance (like economic sanctions).

    I think a more appropriate term is “Christian non-violence,” the greatest example of which is the cross, where Christ demonstrates that God’s Kingdom is not built on political power, military strength, or other pragmatic means, but by death and resurrection.

    And our attempts to further the Kingdom of God based on our own means (irreguardless of whether the ends are just) effectively negates the meaning and power of the cross.

  10. Aaron / December 21, 2007

    Thanks Scott and Isaac,

    I think Danny and I may indeed be misunderstanding you. . . . but let me reply to a few things.

    Isaac, . . yes my Christianity trumps my citizenship. . . no argument. I was just saying that in Romans 13 Paul is giving government the right to exercise some kind of limited authority, and thus, Paul was giving us the right to be “under” a government without feeling like we’re compromising everything we stand for. Part of being under any government nowadays (save Sweden, or Switzerland,. . I think they’re both neutral) is having a position on that government’s war, and perhaps even being supportive of a war if we feel as though our “neighbor” is being helped (thanks for that Danny).

    Scott, I see the context and appreciate it. I wasn’t using Romans 13 as the approval DE FACTO for nations to wage war. In my view, though,. . .it is giving governments authority. Over our taxes, yes. . and over other things that involve government. I’m not saying we just gave tacit approval to everything, but I’m just saying that it’s within a government’s given power (by God. . .even Hitler’s authority was given by God) to wage war. If you couple that with Jesus’ assurance that there will be wars and rumors of wars, I see some parallels there. . that war is a reality we have to deal with, because governments will do that.

    I have to say that I think always being against every war, because war is complicated and/or hard, would be an easy way out. And, yes, I struggle with wanting to be against every war, and I’m not chiding anyone else for being so. I’m just saying that when I make that decision (to be against every war) I’m ignoring larger issues and consequences that can’t be seen in the immediate 10 years or whatever. I’m ignoring those issues when I do that. And, to go with Danny, . . .I belive I’m sometimes ignoring my neighbor when i do that. To be honest, I think it’s lazy for me to do that. Danny is right that we start to ignore some of Jesus’ commands when we’re always against every war. We ignore some others when we wage war. . . welcome to life “under the sun”.

    My previous posts opinions on war stand, however,

    Aaron

    ps.
    Scott, I think we all agree with you that a Christian war, or Christian approval of a war because “God would want me to do this”, etc. . . .are all wrong. But, that’s not ALL wars. There have been wars fought for other reasons, some could be argued. . .good reasons. But, you’re right, that’s not how the kingdom is advanced, and that’s not how we should try to go about that (regardless of what some of our Alabamian brothers and sisters say, (I am one))

  11. Aaron

    First off, my bad on Sweden, I am ignorant of their military postition.

    I must reiterate that I believe that Pacifism is not the easy way out. To take such an option as use of force off the table, it becomes much more complex to solve conflicts. Especially when you are sitting behind the most advanced military on the planet. To force yourself to consider ever option except for war, you make some incredibly difficult decisions. Decisions that are even harder than deciding how much collateral damage is acceptable in an airstrike, in my opinion. In my opinion, Just War theory is the easy way out, because the qualifications for fighting such a war are open to the vast interpretation of man. And the short term is the hard part of a pacifist point of view, the long term is supposed to reveal solutions to conflict. The opposite is true of Just War, we feel good in the short term as we bomb evil-doers out of their caves. The consequences are the hard parts to deal with, as we see later down the road that our reasons for going to war were ill advised and we deal with things like insurgencies, destroyed infrastructures, families without fathers and husbands, the dejection of the “Liberated”, and so on.

    I am not saying that citizens should not have an opinion, I am saying Christian citizens should oppose war personally, and the Church should never endorse war. No doubt nations are given the authority to declare war, nations are pretty much given license to do whatever they want, in my opinion. This is proven not just by Hitler, but by following the actions of every government in the history of man and witnessing the capacity for so much evil, far beyond the ammount of benevolence that could be considered over the centuries. (This also supports my view that a government, even the US government, should never be trusted). I am not saying we can’t live in a society that practices war, I am saying that Christians should counter to move to war with plans and actions that promote justice without violence. It is not really enough to just oppose war, you must also work for justice, practicing your beliefs actively. I hate to be cliche, but look what Ghandi accomplished. You’ll have a hard time convincing me that he could accomplish what he did by fighting a war.

    Aaron, I appreciate where you are coming from, I just believe that it is possible to be a true pacifist and still struggle against injustice, and be successful.

  12. Aaron / December 21, 2007

    Isaac,

    I really like where you’re coming from too. I think in the case of Ghandi, MLK, ect. . .they didn’t need to fight a war, so they didn’t. I don’t think that can ALWAYS be the reaction, that’s all I’m saying.

    I just think that idealism, yours and mine, in this case doesn’t solve every problem. For instance, good old Adolf would not have been stopped with diplomacy, (they tried) or sanctions (also tried). So, that’s all I’m saying. Ecclesiastes says there will be “a time for war”.

    So, you’ve convinced me to stop calling pacifism the easy way out. . . . maybe I”ll just start calling it the “hopefully common but not ALWAYS best or biblical solution”

    Good argument,
    Aaron

  13. The Charismanglican / April 9, 2009 / http://www.charismanglican.com

    Yoder and Hauerwas saved my life.

    I really like the way you put this:

    “More importantly, for Christians there is no need to create a solution to the problem of evil…begins with following Christ’s example of death and resurrection.”

    I am going to quote you on my facebook because of that one.

    Peace.

  14. John / July 21, 2010

    Wow, a thoughtful and intelligent discussion among two opposing lines of reason that didn’t contain any anger, ridicule, or claims of superiority. Hard to find that in the world…

    Anyway, I’m learning more about Christian pacifism and I appreciate the explanations from both sides here. It’s a hard choice to make. On one hand, war makes me sick and so many precious lives are lost; civilian and military. On the other, I could no way stand idle and not do everything in my physical power to stop an attack on someone. I think of the school hijack conducted by Chechen terrorists a few years ago where over 300 people (mostly children) were brutally killed. I believe using force to protect the lives of those children was an absolute necessity.

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