Books That Have Shaped Me – Part Twelve
July 2, 2012
“The Benediction Project”
During the fall of 1982 I was serving as a T.A. (teaching assistant) for the dean of Drew Theological Seminary, Dr. Thomas Ogletree. I was a doctoral student in the graduate school of Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, and I appreciated the opportunity to work with this highly regarded Christian ethicist.
Part of my service as one of the dean’s two T.A.’s during that fall semester was to attend his lectures on Christian Ethics and then meet with the seminary students (half of the class of 50 or so) twice a week to lead them in discussion and cooperative work on a project concerning disarmament. This was during the “cold war,” and the politics of deterrence, arms control and disarmament (especially nuclear disarmament) was all the rage—among the intellectuals at least. With these issues in mind I bought a copy of Nuclear Holocaust and Christian Hope for my personal study.
There are 4 sections in the book. First: “The Threat of Nuclear War.” Second: “Biblical-Theological Perspectives.” Third: “What to Do: Concrete Steps Toward Peace.” Fourth: “Biblical Faith and National Defense.”
While I had some familiarity with issues of war and peace from a Christian perspective, I accepted the “just war” tradition because I grew up with it and never considered any other approach to war. This view holds that war, while always tragic, is justifiable and even necessary when an enemy nation sets out to harm and/or conquer our nation or some other nation/nations our country decides to protect. Our military, however, should follow certain criteria concerning when to go to war, as well as how to conduct the war once it has begun. In both respects the war must be “just.”
One very prominent advocate of the just war position is Arthur F. Holmes. He writes, “War is evil. … To call war anything less than evil would be self-deception. … [However], could participation in war perhaps be a lesser evil than allowing aggression and terror to go unchecked and unpunished?” Holmes continues, “not all evil can be avoided” (italics his). “We are trapped in moral dilemmas…such that whatever we do involves us in evil of some sort.” The early church father Augustine “advises the Christian who goes to war to repent in advance, because the ambiguities of the situation confuse moral issues and because passions confuse the moral intention.” (War: Four Christian Views, edited by Robert G. Clouse, 1981, pp. 117-118, 128.)
In opposition to the just war position, Sider and Taylor advocate a pacifist view. This is not the only pacifist position, however. The highly esteemed Mennonite scholar John Howard Yoder presents 29 (that’s right) varieties of religious pacifism in his book, Nevertheless (1992). The just war approach, while not monolithic, is a much more unified position than pacifism.
For the purposes of this brief article we may define Christian pacifism as the view that it is always morally wrong for a follower of Christ to participate in war in any way. Such Bible believing pacifists do not deny the ugly realities of evil (including the cruelty of violent and sadistic rulers), but they believe they are morally bound to follow the nonviolent life and teachings of Jesus Christ. Actually, Christ’s life is every bit as important for Christian pacifists as are his teachings (see 1 Peter 2:21-23).
Some pacifists call their position “nonviolent resistance,” meaning that they seek to actively resist evil in this world, but without the use of violence. They are not afraid to fight for truth and righteousness. In fact, they consider themselves obligated to do so. But, even if they and other innocent people will be killed, they—like the thousands of early Christian martyrs—will fight not by the sword but by prayer, praise, trust in the blood of the Lamb, the word of their testimony, and not loving their lives so much as to shrink from death” (Revelation 12:11). In addition, those who hold to nonviolent resistance often participate in large demonstrations, strikes and boycotts that sometimes, largely or totally without weapons, lead to the downfall of entire corrupt regimes. The fall of communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe is the most striking example in my lifetime, and there are numerous other accounts of similar nonviolent triumphs in Non Violence: The Invincible Weapon? by Sider, 1989.
There are many arguments against Christian pacifism, two of the most common being that God used warfare in the Old Testament and Jesus used a whip to cleanse the temple. Sider and Taylor address these and other objections, especially in section two.
I had never read anything like the material in this book. I had never considered other perspectives than my own. But this book profoundly shaped my life (not only my intellectual arguments) and my whole attitude about how, in my view, Christ desires to advance his kingdom of peace and righteousness in this world today.
I realize that this is an extremely sensitive topic and book. My purpose here is not to push a certain view but to show briefly how the arguments (and facts) affected me. I would like, however, all Bible-believing Christians, the great majority of whom (I assume) probably accept the prevailing just war view, to read, think and pray about the serious biblical and historical case for nonviolence made by devout people of God over the centuries. Thousands of early Christians martyrs understood clearly why they held firmly to their views, and knew very well where their convictions might lead. It would be good for all of us and our children to understand the minds and hearts of these early nonviolent believers.
I have chosen the way of the cross which, in my (admittedly fallible) view, includes a life of nonviolence. Many other servants of Christ have chosen the way of the cross also, and to them this may mean serving actively in the military and following orders to participate in warfare as their leaders direct. In either case, neither should in any way look down upon their brothers and sisters in Christ for their choice, or consider themselves more “spiritual” than those with whom they disagree. The arguments pro and con are far more complex than most Christians realize, and total objectivity on the part of either side is simply not possible in this fallen world.
Let us love our God completely, love our neighbors as ourselves, and love our enemies sincerely no matter how we think on these issues. And may each of us, whatever our views at present, be open to further illumination from the Spirit. We may change from one view to another, stay the same, or simply declare, “I don’t know.”
God, however, does know. He knows our hearts and understands us better than we know ourselves (1 John 3:18-24).