Saturday, June 25, 2016

Why Christians Should Still Refuse To Fight

“As disciples of Christ, we do not prepare for war, or participate in war or military service.”
This succinct statement taken from Article 22 of my church's "Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective"  sets us apart from all but a small fraction of other Christians around the world, although I am heartened by more and more individuals and denominations supporting this position.  

Yet the above was embraced universally by believers in the first and second centuries, and by most Anabaptist-minded (later Mennonite) Christians since the 16th century.

To cite two of many examples, Tertullian, a prominent leader and theologian in the early church expressed this vision when he described the church as a people who “join to beat their swords into plows, and their lances into sickles.”  Origin of Egypt, a contemporary of Tertullian’s said, “Nor do we ‘learn war any more,’ having become children of peace, for the sake of Jesus, our leader.” The best known example of a first century believer who refused to fight is Maxillian, who was martyred for not joining the Roman army and later canonized as a saint.

To early Christians, Jesus represented the final word from God on issues of war and peace.  War was simply over for them, a relic of the past. Menno Simons and other outspoken leaders and martyrs in Anabaptist and other renewal movements simply helped revive this conviction. Menno wrote, "True Christians do not know vengeance... their hearts overflow with peace... The regenerate do not go to war, or engage in strife...  they are the children of peace, who have beaten their swords into plowshares."

Sadly, few followers of Christ over the centuries have maintained such positions, which has resulted in Inquisitions, Crusades, multiple wars among so-called Christian nations in Europe and elsewhere, and Christians defending and participating in every kind of military adventure imaginable, all in the name of God and country, and each case defended as a "just war." 

There has been a gradual erosion of anti-war conviction among Mennonites as well, members of a small “peace church” that has maintained for most of 500 years that military membership and church membership are incompatible.

To me, a weakening of any church’s position on this kind of witness represents a crying shame.  Surely there is a need for at least a remnant of people in our blood-stained world who consistently teach and demonstrate that Christians, by definition, are people who will not harm or kill under any circumstances. Not even in a time of war, not even their enemies (and certainly not their fellow believers), anywhere in the world.

I see this as not about some sectarian “peace position,” but about an “agape position,” about Jesus's followers being a people defined by their passionate love for God above every other love or allegiance, and by a compassionate love for neighbor--friend, foe and foreigner alike.  

And lest we reduce agape to being a mere sentiment, an attitude of niceness, or as simply a benevolent feeling toward others, the New Testament makes clear that God's kind of unconditional love is defined by its actions, not merely its motives or emotions.  Thus Jesus, in explaining what loving ones neighbor actually means, tells the story of a Samaritan binding up the wounds of his mortal enemy, a Jew.  And Paul, in Romans 13 (the very passage that urges respect, rather than armed resistance, toward even the occupying, crucifying, terrorist Caesars) makes it clear that love will "do no harm to a neighbor." Period. 

As Ghandi once observed, Christians seem to be the only ones who believe Jesus and the New Testament are not absolutely clear on these points: Do no harm.  Return good for evil.  Take up the cross, not the sword.  Follow Jesus’s personal example of a completely nonresistant life, who taught, "My kingdom (government) is not like those of this world. If that were so my servants would fight."

If in our baptism we receive a missionary commission to evangelize and reconcile God’s enemies to God and to each other, how can we accept a military commission to harm them?  And if we are convinced that in Jesus God’s future kingdom has already been inaugurated, how can we also pledge, under oath, to become a part of an enterprise committed to harming or coercing others “in the national interest”?

Clearly, most decent people, Christian or not, would renounce the following as immoral and unacceptable:

breaking and entering
lying and other forms of deception
physical, psychological, or other forms of torture and abuse
armed robbery
malicious wounding
organized acts of terrorism
using racial or other demeaning slurs 
using explosives to destroy people or property
destroying land or other natural resources
stabbing or strangling 
forcing people from their homes or communities
committing mass murder

Without question, most believers would speak out against members of churches engaging in such behaviors--and would disapprove of their supporting or belonging to any groups or organizations that do so. Yet we tend to raise no objections when military forces routinely encourage, train and/or command people to do all of the above and more.  

Thus we are in danger of accepting, on a mass and organized scale, what we could not accept or allow on any other basis. Unlike legitimate police force, necessary in human societies to maintain order within national boundaries (and intended to preserve life and bring individuals to justice under laws designed to protect individual rights), military forces have a long history of plundering and destroying without benefit of such civilized restraints.

True, we pacifist Christians must repent of the many "beams" of self righteousness, materialism, and cowardly indifference that are inconsistent with our moral vision. Because of these we may not always “see clearly” to lovingly help remove any specks of militarism from another’s eye. 

But remove them we must, all of us, lest history write off the church as having been irrelevant and mute in one of the most pressing moral issues of all time.

This is an edited repost from January 21, 2011.
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