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Wisdom on War for Evangelicals

A historian examines pacifism and just war thinking in Church history, Scripture and recent Canadian history.

Would Jesus want His disciples to stand aside while others pillage, rape and kill innocent women and children? Is there ever a time when it is okay for Christians to "take up arms" and defend others—even if it means killing to do so?

Despite serious opposition, Anabaptist pacifism continued…

In order for Canadian Evangelicals to begin to answer these questions it is important to look at what earlier Christians thought about committing acts of violence. Scholars generally call the early Church "pacifist" but use the term "just war" to describe the Church's position from the fourth century on, after the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine.

The widespread and absolute pacifism of the early Church has been debated. But it is clear that, as the early Church's view of the Christian relationship to culture changed, its view of the rightness of serving in the Roman army also changed. Since the late fourth century, after the development of the idea of the just war by church leaders such as Ambrose (c. 339-397) and Augustine (354-430), the Church's view was almost universally that of some form of the just war position.

The Protestant Reformation in the 16th century led to the rethinking of many aspects of western medieval theology. Anabaptist Reformers such as Menno Simons advocated a return to what they saw as the early Church's pacifism. However, Martin Luther, John Calvin and other reformers rejected Anabaptist pacifism. Despite serious opposition, Anabaptist pacifism continued and has influenced a significant number of evangelical churches today. Canadian Evangelicals have also been influenced by the other reformers who rejected pacifism and embraced some form of the just war model.

Texts to consider

The key texts for Christian pacifists today are the same as they have always been: sayings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Jesus' statements to "turn the other cheek" and "love your enemy" are understood to be for all Christians at all times. Jesus' willingness to go to the cross without using violence to defend Himself is also seen to be a model for Christians when they face injustice. His commands and example are considered to be binding on all who identify with Christ's kingdom—kingdom living requires a kingdom ethic of non-violence. The state may be mandated by God to enact justice and restrain sin as described in Romans 13, but the inherent violence of such actions is something in which Christians should not participate.

… God was not totally opposed to using violence to achieve His ends.

But what about Christians who sport using violence in specific instances? In the just war view, Matthew 5-7 applies to personal ethics (for example, no personal revenge) not to whether or not Christians can be involved in legitimate violent activities of the state. Those in the just war camp point to texts such as Romans 13 ("the authorities that exist have been established by God") as justification for participating in the affairs of civil government. If God has ordained the state to use the sword for justice, the argument goes, why cannot Christians participate in something that is God ordained?

In other words, Christians live in a state of eschatological tension that will continue to exist until Christ returns—members of the kingdom of God but also citizens in earthly kingdoms—and they have responsibilities in both kingdoms. Old Testament passages are also used to show how God was not totally opposed to using violence to achieve His ends. Jesus' praise for the centurion (Matthew 8) and Peter's baptism of Cornelius (Acts 10) also indicate that the profession of a soldier was not a necessarily evil thing. Consequently it is okay for Christians to go to war under certain circumstances ("just cause") and in a certain way ("just means").

Over time various criteria were developed to guide Christians in their decision-making process regarding war. With regard to a just cause (jus ad bellum—justice for war) the war must be fought to correct a grave injustice (for example, invasion of homeland) declared by a legitimate authority and considered a last resort. With regard to just means (jus in bello—justice in war) there must be no targeting of civilians, no harming of prisoners and no damage greater than if the war had not been declared—in other words, you do not kill a million people to save a thousand. A relatively recent development in just war thinking is a third category of post-war justice (jus post bellum—justice after war). This category is concerned with ensuring that a fair, non-punitive peace is established. As the root of these three criteria is the desire to restrain—not completely eliminate—the evil that comes as a result of war.

Canadian Evangelicals today

At the beginning of the 20th century Canada was young, vibrant and, as far as nations go, a new kid on the block. Canadian Evangelicals were deeply committed to the task of nation-building. More specifically they took it upon themselves to ensure that the churches played a key role in the formation of a distinctly Christian Canada. Intimately tied to this nation-building ethos was a commitment to support the nation in its wars.

… most Canadian Evangelicals today belong in the just war camp.

During the South Africa War (1899-1902), the First World War (1914-1918) and the Second World War (1939-1945) Canadian Evangelicals rallied behind the nation and empire and supported the war efforts. Whether it was defending the various causes of the war in their extensive and influential publications, recruiting soldiers from the pulpit (primarily in the First World War), sending chaplains overseas or enlisting in the Armed Forces, the vast majority of Evangelicals supported the war efforts, rejected pacifism and generally fit the conflicts into the traditional just war paradigm. Throughout the Cold War evangelical churches continued to support the nation's stance against the communist threat. The only significant evangelical departure from the support for these conflicts came from churches such as the Mennonites (often called the "historic peace churches").

Just where do Canadian Evangelicals stand today with regard to Christians and violence? A 1991 study in Faith Today indicated most Canadian Evangelicals today belong in the just war camp. However, there is no uniform "Canadian evangelical" position on war.

The fact that Evangelicals come from a wide and diverse number of denominations is one of the significant contributing factors to this diversity of opinion. Those denominations with Anabaptist roots such as the Mennonites are, not surprisingly, within the pacifist camp. Other denominations such as Baptists or Christian Reformed that trace their roots back to Calvin or other just war Reformers not surprisingly tend to be within the just war camp.

That said, the divisions are not that clean. First, most Evangelicals—whether in the pacifist or just war camp—would agree on the following: the state may use violence to suppress injustice or defend the nation, war is a result of sin, war is a heinous evil that brings immense suffering and war should be avoided as much as possible. In these areas there is unanimity among most Evangelicals.

Second, there is no one type of pacifism and no one type of just war perspective. With regard to pacifism there is a range of responses to violence and war within Canadian evangelical pacifism. For instance, some pacifists would never participate in conflict in any manner whatsoever whereas others would take on non-combatant duties such as providing medical assistance. Some pacifists would not lift a finger to defend their own infant from attack whereas others would try to intervene physically by getting between the assailant and the child. Some pacifists would serve as police officers (considered a less violent form of coercion than soldiering) whereas others would see this as a compromise of a non-violent ethic. Some pacifists would eschew political involvement whereas others would engage in the public square. Increasingly pacifists have also been involved in the promotion of justice as a way of alleviating injustice that so often is a precursor to violence.

Within just war thinking there are also different categories. Traditional just war thinking is usually differentiated from the religiously inspired "crusade" or "holy war." There are also personal variations on the application of just war thinking. For instance, some would defend themselves whereas others would not defend themselves but would defend others. Of course there is also disagreement among Canadian evangelical just war thinkers as to the rightness or wrongness of various wars such as those in Afghanistan or Iraq—in other words, applying just war criteria is not always easy.

Third, the growing lack of personal commitment to a particular denomination means pacifists now attend churches that historically have been in the just war camp, and vice versa. Increasingly it is hard to say a particular denomination is this or that.

The future?

What does the future hold? There are some contemporary developments that will have an impact on the continued formation of Canadian evangelical views of war and violence.

The changing social, political and religious environment in Canada and the West since the 1960s has led to a reconsideration of the Church's relationship with culture and a rethinking of the traditional just war paradigm. Canada is no longer self-identified as a Christian nation, and church attendance and influence has dramatically declined.

Tyndale University professor Craig Carter has recently written a book entitled Rethinking Christ and Culture that reconsiders the Christian's relationship with culture in light of these changes. For many such as Carter, Christendom has been abandoned (good riddance, says Carter) and a return to the early Church's relationship to culture and the state is hoped for. Of course this return to the early Church coincides with a return to a form of early Church pacifism. In other words, the just war position (with its close association with Christendom) is increasingly seen by some to be a fourth century corruption that has become untenable.

Whatever the 21st century brings, it is clear the question of a Christian's attitude to violence will not go away. Along with the dismantling of western Christendom, the War on Terror, the continued role of the United States as the global "police force," the decline of the effectiveness of the United Nations and Canada's aggressive overseas military commitment in Afghanistan—all these will continue to press Canadian Evangelicals to grapple with our attitudes to warfare. We will also have to struggle with new technology that either can obliterate millions in one stroke or allow for precision strikes that contribute to non-combatant immunity.

It is also clear Canadian Evangelicals need to learn from the past and study the Scriptures for a way forward in these unsettling times.

Gordon L. Heath is assistant professor of Christian history at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario.

Originally published in Faith Today, January/February, 2007.




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