In last week’s blog post, I wrote about abortion. I talked about the need for the church to be unified in opposition to abortion, while also showing love and compassion to those caught in situations where it seems necessary. Today I want to talk about war, and why those who consider themselves pro-life should oppose it.
It never ceases to amaze me how people can call themselves “pro-life” while supporting war! Do they not realize that the majority of those killed in modern war are civilians, many of whom are children? Does the right to life apply only to American children? Or is their opposition to abortion really only a matter of controlling women’s lives?
When we consider how much modern warfare damages the environment and contributes to the worldwide epidemic of poverty, the picture only gets worse.
You would think that even a passing glance at such things would lead people to more restraint; yet the majority of Americans who describe themselves as “pro-life” seem to have no qualms about dropping bombs on helpless children – provided these children live far away and someone else pushes the button!
From a Christian perspective, this seems like it should be simple enough: Jesus taught that “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt 26:52), and that we are to love even our enemies (Matt 5:43-48, Luke 6:27-36).
Based on Scriptures like these, the early church was remarkably unified in her opposition to war. For almost three centuries, Christians were nearly unanimous on this issue, going so far as to say that a soldier must renounce his profession before he could be a member of the church. It wasn’t until the 4th century, when the church joined forces with the Roman Empire, that this consensus started to erode.
Then, in the fifth century, Augustine came up with the idea that a list of conditions could be made for a “just war,” and that if these conditions were met, a man could serve in the military (and even kill people), and still consider himself a good Christian. This has been the default position of most Christians ever since; though most “Christian” nations don’t make much of an effort to meet these conditions.
The bigger problem, however, is that none of these criteria are rooted in the teachings of Jesus. There’s a simple reason for this – Jesus did not support war in any form!
While adherents of just war theory can cite Scriptures to support their cause (most notably the Old Testament wars, and Paul’s statement that governing authorities have been set in place by God and “do not bear the sword in vain” (Rom 13:1-7)), this is almost irrelevant. As Christians, our final authority is Jesus, not the Torah or Paul; and there are many things attributed to God in Scripture (genocide, slavery, etc) that contradict the words of Jesus.
Remember, the early church fathers had all these same Scriptures; yet none of them ever questioned Jesus’ opposition to war until the church was under imperial control!
Truth be told, the real reasons for war have nothing to do with protecting the innocent, preserving freedom, or anything like that. Typically, wars are fought for three reasons: nationalism, fear, and greed.
Nationalism is basically patriotism on steroids: it’s the idea that not only is our nation good, but it is specially chosen by God and thus has the right to do whatever is necessary to get power, resources, and land. This is the driving force behind slogans such as “God bless America,” “these colors don’t run,” and “my country, right or wrong.”
What many people don’t realize is that nationalism is a religion. It is putting one’s nation in the place of God, so that whatever the nation does is justified. As theologian Walter Wink notes, “Only a transcendent cause can induce young men to risk their lives voluntarily in the absence of any conceivable self-interest.” (Engaging the Powers, 94).
The “transcendent cause” behind American nationalism is the idea of “freedom” as a commodity bought with the blood of soldiers; thus we constantly hear about those who have “given their lives for our freedom.”
What is so telling about this phrase is that this is exactly what the New Testament says Jesus has done – He has given His life to free us from sin, death, and oppressive power structures!
In popular American discourse, however, it’s not Jesus but the U.S. military that gives us freedom; only here the “freedom” isn’t freedom from sin and death so much as it is the freedom to indulge ourselves in lust, gluttony, greed and a host of trivial amusements while others are starving to death.To do this, while at the same time claiming America as a “Christian nation” is what the Bible calls blasphemy!
There are many, of course, who don’t buy into all this nationalistic blather, but still feel war is sometimes necessary. Usually, the reason given is protection of the innocent. “What about Hitler?” they say. “What about ISIS?”
If war is ever justified, protecting the helpless might be the most compelling reason. But even here, there are problems. As I have already mentioned, most of the casualties of modern war are civilians. How can we be sure that our intercession in terrorist regimes actually protects more people than it endangers? It may well be that our involvement only makes the problem worse!
Even if we could be sure that we were only taking out the “bad guys,” however, we would still have a major problem: those who witnessed it would likely think that the only way to stop violence is with still further violence.
The truth is that violence is cyclic; it begets further violence. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, the only way to stop violence is to not respond to it violently.
Does this mean that we should stand by and not retaliate while terrorists kill helpless children? What would happen, it is argued, if we did nothing?
I don’t have an answer to this, for the simple reason that it’s never been tried. I have a hunch, however, that if no one responded to it with further violence, the violence would eventually stop.
In any case, one thing seems clear to me as a Christian: I cannot wage war and at the same time be faithful to my Master. There is simply no way I can love my enemies by killing them!
Thus I must be prepared to sacrifice everything, even my own life if necessary, for the cause of peace. If I truly believe in the resurrection of the dead, there is no reason to take up arms!
This might not make sense to most people, but I am convinced it’s the right thing to do. In the words of Ignatius of Antioch, “The greatness of Christianity lies in its being hated by the world (that is, the ruling system), not in being convincing to it.”
None of this should be taken as an attack on soldiers. I have two grandfathers and a cousin who have served in the military. I don’t look at them, or any soldiers, as enemies. In fact, most soldiers display a level of courage and selflessness that is very admirable. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to make the kind of sacrifices many of them have made!
The sad thing is that many of these sacrifices were completely unnecessary, and have only served to continue the cycle of violence which is destroying our planet. So while I respect the courage and self-sacrifice of these men (and women), I can’t support all of the causes they do. I must do what I can to promote peace, even if this means working against the system that these people gave so much for.
In the end, it’s likely most governments will continue to choose violence over nonviolence. I’m not sure much else can be expected of them. At best, government provides a necessary restraint on evil; and I’m not entirely convinced it ever does a good job of this. It would be the height of foolishness to think our government (or any earthly ruler) would act with the love of Christ!
In the church, however, we have a different vocation. We’re not charged with keeping order, so we have no need to enter the massive system of compromises known as politics.
Governments can argue all day long about what makes for a “just” war; but we who follow the crucified Savior will pay no attention to such nonsense. For we serve a different sort of King – one who rules, not by violence or brute force, but by love.
(Coming Next: Consistently Pro-Life, Part Three: Capital Punishment, Police Brutality, and Race in America)