Monday, May 09, 2011

Christian Responses to War

This article was first published when the U.S. had just invaded Iraq.  Eight years later we are embroiled in three wars in the Middle East and Northern Africa - in Afghanistan and Iraq, and most recently in Libya.  While the loudest Christian voices in our media tend to advocate for either Just War or Crusade, it is important to remember that there are other Christian responses to war.

Despite the vigorous efforts of religious leaders and millions of their followers worldwide to advocate alternative solutions, war began in Iraq about two weeks ago [March 2003].  In the early days of the conflict there was some discussion on our Unitas (Moravian) email list about Christian approaches to armed conflict.  The Rev. Sam Gray, a Moravian minister who serves New Hope Moravian Congregation in Miami, Florida, posted a brief description of five general categories of thought on war which are current in various segments of the Christian community.  This column will expand on the outline that Pastor Sam provided as a way of focusing discussion. 
The first category is that of Pacifist.  This school of thought is represented by the historic Peace Churches – Mennonite, Brethren, and Quaker – as well as by segments of the Roman Catholic Church such as Pax Christi and the Catholic Worker movement.  They are joined by significant numbers of individual members in both mainline and evangelical denominations.  The strict Pacifist refuses to bear arms under any circumstances.  Many devote their energies to humanitarian work with the victims of war, and to direct non-violent action to stop armed conflict and to resist oppression.  The relief work of Mennonite Central Committee is an excellent example of the former, while the massive marches, sit-ins, and demonstrations of the Civil Rights struggle and anti-war protests exemplify the latter.  On the international scene, Witness for Peace has worked for several decades to bring a Christian pacifist presence to the struggles for justice in Latin America, while Christian Peacemakers Teams serve a similar purpose in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. 
The second school of thought can be denoted the Christian Realist.  Convinced that war is always a tragedy and contrary to Christian ideals, the Christian Realist still acknowledges that humanity’s state of brokenness sometimes makes armed conflict an unavoidable solution to counter great wrong.  A prime example of this position is the number of faithful Christians who became convinced that the only way to stop the extreme violence of the Holocaust was to crush Germany’s army by military means.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s decision to participate in the plan to assassinate Hitler was influenced by Realist arguments.  Pastor Sam observed that the Christian Realist’s ethical dilemma can be summarized thus, “I will not take up arms to protect myself, but what do I do when my child is attacked?”
A third approach is held by those who subscribe to the Just War theory.  This is an ethical formula that sets forth specific criteria by which any armed conflict can be judged to be just or not.  Though the theory has its roots in ancient Greek thought, it has been refined over the centuries by some of the greatest Christian ethicists and philosophers, including St. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.  Because the development of this theory was the subject of another column, I will not go into more detail here.  Through seventeen centuries Just War theory has been the primary foundation for permitting faithful Christians to serve with clear conscience in their country’s military.
Fourth to be considered is the Crusade justification.  This view sees some wars as part of the cosmic struggle between Good and Evil.  God is understood to require the faithful to oppose non-believers by whatever means are necessary.  Crusader language tends to demonize the enemy, speaking of them in such terms as “heathen” and “infidel.”  Convinced that God approves the enterprise and is fighting on their side, Christian Crusaders regard armed conflict with a non-Christian opponent as a sacred duty.  President Bush’s designation of Iraq as part of an “Axis of Evil” clearly fits into the language of the Crusader.  Indeed, in the early days of the military build-up in the Middle East last autumn, he spoke of the impending war as a crusade.  This terminology was quickly changed when U. S. allies among the Arab nations reacted extremely negatively, remembering the devastation wreaked on the Muslim world by earlier Crusades.
The fifth approach on Pastor Sam’s outline is that of Liberation Theology.  This is a relatively recent theological movement which grew out of the reforms in the Roman Catholic Church brought about by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s.  Primary to Liberation Theology is the belief that the Gospel of Jesus requires the church to make a preferential option for the poor.  In Latin America, focus on the church of the poor gave rise to the Base Christian Community movement, where lay people for the first time were encouraged by their priests to study the Bible on their own, and to reflect on their situation in light of gospel teaching. 
The method of doing Liberation Theology is termed “praxis” – a cycle of study and prayer, reflection on how what is studied can impact daily life, and then action based on the reflection.  Action should then lead to more study and prayer, reflection and discernment, so that community life proceeds from a basis of theological understanding.  Ideally the external struggle to improve the lot of the poor is paralleled by the internal struggle of the participants to lead a more God-centered life.
I am not certain that Liberation Theology is exactly comparable to the other approaches to war described in this column.  As the practice has worked itself out in Latin America, some involved in Base Christian Communities determined that they were justified in taking up arms to resist oppressive governments, while others became committed to non-violent struggle.  In its armed version, Liberation Theology insists that justice lies on the side of the poor and oppressed.  Thus it can be used to support armed revolution from within against a dictatorial regime, whereas Just War theory maintains that only war fought under the leadership of a legitimate national government is just.  While most Liberationists would argue with at least some of the criteria of Just War theory, they can be found subscribing to any one of the four previously described designations.  It appears to me that Liberation Theology is primarily a method of arriving at one of those positions rather than a separate category of thought. 
From this brief survey of Christian approaches to war, I hope to have demonstrated that there is no single “Christian” way to regard the current conflict in Iraq.  People of faith can and do study scripture, pray fervently, and then come to widely divergent conclusions about the justice and appropriateness of the war.  For myself, I remain unpersuaded by the arguments that I have heard thus far supporting our military adventure.  I regard the war as a tragedy which could with greater diplomatic effort have been averted, and I continue to pray daily for its rapid end.

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