Friday, January 21, 2011

Saying No to War

“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, notably Quakers and the Church of the Brethren, 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 leader and theologian in the early church expressed this vision when he spoke of 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.”  

To them, Jesus spoke the final word from God on issues of war and peace.  War was simply over for Christians, a thing of the past. Menno Simons and other outspoken leaders and martyrs in Anabaptist and other renewal movements simply helped revive this conviction. Menno himself 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." And 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 somewhere 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 (one that still allows us to engage in their destruction under certain circumstances), 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--yet 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 interfere 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.

I like this piece by Edna St. Vincent Millay:


I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall; I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba, business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle while he cinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself; I will not give him a leg up.
Though he flick my shoulders with his whip, I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on his payroll.
I will not tell him the whereabouts of my friends nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much, I will not map him the route to any man's door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city are safe with me; never through me
Shall you be overcome.
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