Where have all the anti-war Christians gone?
This week I finished reading The Operators, a new and bold account of America’s war in Afghanistan written by Michael Hastings. It was a fascinating and sobering read, as it unfolded the wild accounts of the men who ran the war, the hardships and disillusionment of soldiers on the ground, and the suffering of Afghanis who wanted nothing more than the US to leave their country. I sat under my mosquito net, flashlight off, after finishing the last page. There in the dark of the African night, the burden and tragedy of war surrounded me. My mind filled with thoughts of armed conflict. The terror, the violence, the pain, the bloodshed, and the unnecessary nature of it all. The thought that kept me up that night wasn’t the horrors of war, but the nagging and difficult questions of why so many self-proclaimed Christians support and endorse war, or in the least, who’s indifference acts as an enabling force. Where are the millions of Christians fighting tooth and nail for peace and justice? Where are the advocates for turning our swords into plowshares?
This is an issue that pricks at my heart and affects me deeper than most. I think part of it comes from my experiences the past several years. If I had continued on the trajectory the first half of my college years was taking me, I would probably be deployed with an airborne infantry unit, kicking down doors somewhere in Afghanistan with a Ranger tab on my shoulder. Myself and my peers saw someone who was ready to defend America’s thirst for conflict and sign up for the most high speed, and consequentially violent missions available. That changed in my third year as a college student and cadet when I terminated my service obligation contract with the Army and dropped out of ROTC in the Spring of 2009.
The more I reflected on what my chosen occupation would entail, and new revelations from scripture, my mind had become transformed on the subject of war and peace. I had to write a letter to the Texas A&M AROTC program and Army Cadet Command detailing the reasons for my contract termination. I was honest and explained my objections to our nation’s foreign policy and the fact that, as a Christian, I could not reconcile what my job required with what I now believed as a Christian. Many of my peers and some ROTC cadre members were supportive of my decision. I was also mocked and derided by some of my military instructors in the ROTC program that had once supported me. Army personnel and other cadets labeled me a hippie, un-American, and a even a traitor. I guess some of that was expected. Since that time, I have heard and seen the effects of war and conflict first hand in the Middle East and Africa, having traveled and currently living in a post-conflict zone. The consequences become real. However, when it comes to America’s wars, the group of people I would expect the most support and partnership from, often seems to be where my convictions are questioned most and commonly unpopular. This is what I didn’t expect.
Surprisingly, among Christians, my views on war and peace are not received well by many Christians I have met. At times, my beliefs are instantly met with offense or my theology questioned. It is implied that there is something wrong with the conclusions I have drawn. I am at times not able to be honest, without fear of bringing on aggression from fellow Christians. So, whenever often times to be diplomatic, I keep my mouth shut. On the stance of being anti-war, I frequently find greater solidarity among non-Christians than I do with fellow disciples of Christ. And I cannot name one prominent anti-war movement led by Christians in the past decade. This bothers me greatly.
During the lead up to the Iraq war, one public opinion poll found that “69 percent of conservative Christians favored military action against Baghdad; 10 percentage points more than the US adult population as a whole.” That is an overwhelming majority of Christians ready to stand behind state sponsored violence. If this doesn’t bother you, it should. This is the toll of America’s eight years in Iraq: 4,484 US military deaths, over 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths, 1.5 million Iraqi refugees, not to mention the countless wounded and maimed veterans and Iraqis. In the end, we aren’t even sure what was accomplished or why we began in the first place. The Christian community and its leaders in this country should be the loudest and most vigilant group fighting to prevent this kind of atrocity. It is also a well established fact that Christians vote overwhelmingly Republican. Pastors even go as far to endorse candidates like Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, because of their “Christian values”. These are the same men that week after week in debates, stand on a stage and try to out do each other with war mongering rhetoric towards Iran. The solution of violence is even touted as noble. The loudest objection to this thirst for destruction comes not from the Christian sphere, but from the secular, which also asks why Christians predominantly lean towards war rather than non-violence.
So, what does “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be sons of God” (Matt 5:9) mean? I have heard this verse about peacemaking used to justify violence as a means of peacemaking. However, the life and teachings of Jesus point in the opposite direction. Christ talked of love for enemies. In verses of 43-48 in the gospel of Matthew Jesus urged his followers to “…Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In Luke chapter 7, He goes further saying, “if someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also” and asks the question “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ do that.” Christ told the pharisees that the second greatest command in the scripture is to “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31) When asked who their neighbors were, Jesus’ response was essentially that if you have to ask that question, you are missing the point.
In Romans, the apostle Paul writes on the subject of love for enemies in chapter 12. In this chapter, the scriptures’ objection to retributive justice is clear. “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” (Rom. 12:17) “On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Rom. 12:20-21) Perhaps the greatest example of all comes from the gospel. Christ died at the hands of His enemies to give us life. He was beaten, scorned, and led to a cross to die. He did not fight, or seek revenge on those who sent Him there and sentenced Him to death. Rather, he was obedient to death in order to attain their salvation. His example of suffering and humility as a peacemaker is one we should live out.
When we support state sponsored warfare and violent solutions to the world’s problems, we ignore these teachings and miss an opportunity to throw the wisdom of Christ in the face of worldly convention and justice. I focus on the New Testament, because Christ radically changed everything when He came to earth. Passages related to war in the Old Testament refer to the nation of Israel when the Jewish people were God’s children, not to today when we live under grace that is extended to all people. Those who accept Christ are called sons and daughters of God. Laurence Vance writes that, “This fact is extremely important, because the president of the United States is not God, America is not the nation of Israel, the U.S. military is not the Lord’s army, the Christian’s sword is the word of God, and the only warfare the New Testament encourages the Christian to wage is against the world, the flesh, and the devil.” It reminds me of something Rich Mullins once said about proof-texting the Bible, “I guess that’s why God invented highlighters, so we can highlight the parts we like and ignore the rest.”
I cannot find any justification for retributive justice or taking up a sword against our enemies. Just the opposite, we are called to set an example that runs contrary to the world’s concept of justice, not become swept up by it. Before Constantine, Christians were largely absent from the military and those who were had been members at the time of conversion. Participation in war was rejected by disciples of the early church. Now, in America, we talk of being staunchly pro-life in our politics, but fail to apply that commitment of advocacy beyond the womb.
My challenge is this, it is the motto of the Christian Peacemaker Teams: “What would happen if Christians devoted the same self discipline and self-sacrifice to non-violent peacemaking that armies devote to war?” My desire is for Christians to re-examine the scriptures and forge a new path of advocacy for peace and justice. We must shed our apathy, and take up the cause of loving our neighbor and our enemies with a new and radical fervor, even at great personal sacrifice. The American Church must remove itself as one of the major supporters of armed conflict. I don’t think that anyone enjoys war or would consider themselves pro-war, but somehow non-Christians I have talked to hold that perception of Christians. My hope is that Christians would not enable or further unnecessary and unjust suffering, but be the driving force that leads to more peaceful solutions. I want Christians to be known as radical advocates for peace and non-violence, true imitators of Christ, and people willing to enter the war zone without a weapon seeking to disarm conflict with love in the example of our Savior.
Laurence Vance’s book Christianity and War
Centurion’s Purse, a charity working to make military service a choice and not a financial necessity.
Check out Another World is Possible! and Shane Claiborne’s Iraq war journal from his peacemaking trip in 2003.