What is it about evangelicals and war? Many United States evangelicals have the reputation of supporting American war efforts around the world. Evangelicals are not exactly known for "making love not war," intimate implications aside.
I'm an ordained minister in an Evangelical denomination and my work frequently requires that I think about and engage in the lives of people who are living amidst violent conflict. My work the past decade has focused on evangelical engagement in what the gospel of Christ teaches us about biblical justice. Biblical justice is the manifestation of the kingdom of God and its principles in the world as an expression of the way God originally intended His creation to be.
In the broad scope of understanding how we as humans in general, and Christians specifically, are called to live in a world with violence, there are a few big ideas. The first is Just War, the second is Pacifism, and the third is Just Peacemaking.
Pacifism, which has been wholeheartedly endorsed by Christian communities such as the Quakers and the Mennonites, is the belief that all wars and state violence are unjustifiable, regardless of the circumstances. For pacifists, the only morally acceptable response to violence and disputes is through peaceful, nonviolent means. To some degree, the strengths of a pacifist perspective are obvious. Pacifism employs a response to human violence and evil which transcends the natural emotional and physiological inclination to respond with force, or to retaliate and seek revenge.
One of the main criticisms of pacifism asks the question of how one might righteously respond in the face of global tyrants and despots such as Hitler, Stalin, Mao and others. Pacifists cannot sit idly by and watch murder, mayhem, ethnic cleansing and genocide, without being willing to risk pain, suffering, and even death as a means of combating violence and injustice. Ron Sider issues a loud and compelling challenge to the pacifist community:
Only pacifists ready to risk death by the thousands will have credibility after a century that has witnessed the greatest bloodshed in human history. Costly pacifist involvement in successful nonviolent campaigns is perhaps the most effective way to convince doubting contemporaries that there is an alternative to war. (Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands but Most Christians have Never Really Tried, p. 167)
Is the call to pacifists to be willing to "face the cost" enough? If the pacifist community were to be mobilized as Sider describes, and to carry the burden of self-sacrifice, and even death, would evil be deterred? Certainly all of us desire the utopic ideal of a world without war and violence. But, how do we embrace the core tenets of pacifism in a less than ideal world?
When one studies the New Testament in light of passages regarding peace, it soon becomes very clear that a mere pacifist reading isn't enough; the teachings of Jesus regarding violence and war and the relationship between disciples, the community of believers and the state are more complex and deserve more in depth attention than a mere passing glance.
Just War Theory, which employs the use of violence under a criteria of certain circumstances as a necessity to restore world order, rests on the merit in the tomes of Christian history which have provided moral justification of the use of state violence in protection of society. It is important to note, however, that the argument of "history being on our side" doesn't quite hold water when in hindsight, the strict criteria necessitated by Just War theory have been insufficiently applied. One could argue that over the course of history, the politicization of Christianity has arguably justified gross violations of human rights and grotesque violence against various segments of human society. Some segments of contemporary Christian society continue to justify unnecessary violence by weak application of just war theory. Historically, there are numerous examples of abusive use of force seeking to justify the moral legitimacy of violence by an abuse of just war theory.
It is clear that misapplied praxis of both pacifist ideologies and just war theory neglect to holistically address the desperate need for peacemaking measures in a war-torn world. As scholars such as Sider and other have noted, pacifists often fail to diligently apply nonviolent activism and frequently are unwilling to pay the price of injury or even death when such sacrifice may be necessary and even required for effective peacemaking to occur. Just War adherents may, in principle, have moral virtue on their side justifying interventions to prevent abuse and oppression; but can it truly be argued that all attempts are made to avoid war at all costs? Or have the modern economic engines of militarization and other political motivations caused a biased leaning in favor of war instead of a desperate pursuit of all other possible interventions? It would seem there are significant weaknesses with both a pacifist and a just war perspective.
Enter: Just Peacemaking. A Third Way approach that takes the best of just war theory, including its historical legitimacy and moral justification for military action when certain conditions are met; but demands that war not be pursued unless rigorous application of pacifist ideology and goals are first pursued and applied. Just Peacemaking is a pursuit of kingdom justice and Biblical shalom. Just Peacemaking, including Nonviolent Direct Action, provides the opportunity for Christians to live into the Kingdom of God. Perhaps more time, attention, and energy should be applied to this alternative approach?
May we each, when presented with the opportunities to diligently pursue peace and advocate for justice, be willing to pay the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel of Christ.