Why is War So Easy for American Christians?

Why is War So Easy for American Christians? May 24, 2012

This post is by Patrick Mitchel, an Irish theologian teaching in Dublin at Irish Bible Institute.

Being from Europe and writing a post for Jesus Creed, I thought it would be appropriate and interesting to explore European and American attitudes to nationalism and violence. No more feisty conversation partner than Stanley Hauerwas will be found in this one:

In an article called ‘War and the American Difference’ Hauerwas engages with Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age.

Europeans generally are quite reticent about national identity. That they are so Taylor attributes to the experience and memory of the First and Second World Wars that devastated Europe. He observes that war, even wars that seem “righteous,” now make most Europeans uneasy. But that is not the case with Americans. Americans’ lack of unease with war may be, Taylor suggests, because they wrongly think there are fewer skeletons in the American closet when compared to the European closet. Yet Taylor thinks the reason for the American support of war is simpler. “It is easier,” Taylor observes, “to be unreservedly confident in your own righteousness when you are the hegemonic power.”

What do you make of Hauerwas’ call for all Christians to active non-violence?  And his case that America, and many Christians within America, have a troubling lack of unease about going to war?

To Taylor Hauerwas adds this,

I think Taylor does not make articulate — to use one of Taylor’s favorite words — the relationship between American civil religion, our assumption that we are a “religious nation,” and why war for most Americans is unproblematic. War is a moral necessity for America because it provides the experience of the “Unum” that makes the “pluribus” possible. War is America’s central liturgical act necessary to renew our sense that we are a nation unlike other nations.

In other words, ‘the war on terror’ means that Americans have a common enemy that unites them nationally. War is a moral good. It is the pursuit and defence of ‘freedom’.

And further down Hauerwas says

If I am close to being right about the place of war for sustaining the American difference I find that as a Christian I wish America as a nation was more “secular” and the Christianity of America was less American. Put differently I wish America was more like Europe. For I fear the Christianity of America, a Christianity that from a European perspective seems vital, is not capable of being a political challenge to what is done in the name of the American difference. In short, the great difficulty is how to keep America, in the proper sense, secular. (my emphasis)

His point here is that Christianity in America (as I was arguing in my first post has been the case in Ireland) has been co-opted as a support act for the state. He concludes that in America, a central task for the church therefore is offer that prophetic critique to nationalism, war and violence.  For the church to offer an authentic Christian political theology will require

a recovery of the church as a polity capable of challenging the presumptions that the state is the agency of peace. In short, if the analysis I have tried to develop concerning the American difference is close to being right, it should make clear that a commitment to Christian nonviolence is the presumption necessary for the church to reassert its political significance. (my emphasis)

Such a position is deeply radical within a culture which exalts and celebrates the military power of the nation-state, one nation under God. It calls all Christians to active non-violence as followers of the Prince of Peace who explicitly rejected the sword. It is, I think fair to say, calling on all Christians to view violence as a morally illegitimate option for a disciple of Jesus, the Prince of Peace rather than swallowing the myth that violence can be a redemptive good.

What do you make of Hauerwas’ call for all Christians to active non-violence?  And his case that America, and many Christians within America, have a troubling lack of unease about going to war?

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  • In my experience, Hauerwas is spot on when he says, “War is America’s central liturgical act necessary to renew our sense that we are a nation unlike other nations.” It is a bit disturbing, however, to consider war our “central liturgical act.” Wow. I need to wrestle with that statement for awhile!

    I find that though I agree with Hauerwas, in that it is nearly impossible to actually present the non-violent approach in many churches and among many church people because they are “American-Christians.” We are not simply Christians who happen to live in America – no – we are “American-Christians,” and this is a point of pride. It makes faith in Jesus Christ a sort of nationalistic activity rather than something that trumps and super-cedes all else.

  • Ben Thorp

    I think it extends beyond merely war. My (limited, online) experience of American Christians is that their Christianity and ‘American-ness’ is deeply intertwined. They regard America as a ‘Christian nation’ and thus it’s laws and statues are innately Christian. For instance, when I first began chatting to American Christians online, I was amazed at their vociferous defence of their right to “bear arms” – not just an American right, but almost a Christian imperative – something that would be incredible to most UK Christians.

    There are many similarities, but we are worlds apart….

  • Rick

    Freedom is the meta-narrative. Most would see that as an by-product of Christianity, thus the American-Christian connection. Included in that is the just-war idea of preserving, defending, and even promoting freedom.

    However, with freedom as the key, love becomes secondary, or at least lives in tension with that idea of freedom.

  • The difficulty of bringing such issues to the forefront of the church’s thinking is not lost on me. I preached a sermon on greed and talked of how the American dream had become a nightmare of sorts. That comment elicited some intense pushback, most notably in the form of comments like: “You have dishonored and disrespected every soldier who’s ever died for our country.” Really? I only share that to illustrate just how entrenched American-Christians have become with the notion that God is somehow more American than anything. And for the majority of Christians I’ve come in contact with, war is a necessary evil that we’ll unite around so long as the “enemy” is evil enough in our estimation.

    Though it may seem like simple word play, there is a major difference between viewing oneself as an American Christian and a Christian in America. Certainly the circumstances from nation to nation will vary and we’ll face various challenges, but how different would my being a Christian in America look from being a Christian in England?

  • In many ways, protecting certain rights has become more important for American Christians than submissive obedience. So much so, that we no longer sense any tension between the sermon on the mount and launching military campaigns. We don’t even really think hard about it anymore. Same goes for (as Ben Thorp said) the “right to bear arms.” I live in South Dakota. I’ve heard Christians here say that they would rather be dead than give up their stockpiles of guns (and believe me, they’re not just hunting rifles or shotguns). Their 2nd amendment right has become God-ordained. Whatever one thinks about the place of violence in the life of a Jesus follower, it’s hard to deny that we have given up feeling any sort of tension between Jesus’ teachings on kingdom and our desire to protect our way of life at all costs.

  • Bill

    Nationalism hijacked, neutered and then co-opted adulterated ‘Christianity’. The voice of the Almighty has ever since been drowned out by the perennial sounds of war and money-making.

  • Great post and comments. I really struggle with this, being in an area in which there is little or no Christian pacifist witness I’m aware of, not being in fellowship here with anyone who holds to that stance. And so I’m assuming that most Christians here hold to some view that somehow makes America Christian in some kind of way. And a vehicle in God’s special providential working for the world.

    Want to say a bit more, but must get back to work.

  • Rick

    “…but how different would my being a Christian in America look from being a Christian in England?”

    I would need to know what underlying issue or theme is threaded into the culture in, and around, the church in England.

    From your post the other day, the theme for the Irish is the scars and tension of violence and war. For Americans, as I and Phil W (#5) indicated, there is the issue of freedom and liberty. Those contextual issues impact the church (unfortunately, not enough church impacting the culture).

    What does it look like in England?

  • Bill

    “But now faith, hope, love, freedom, abide these four; but the greatest of these is freedom.” Huh?

  • Rick

    Bill #9-

    I think that is a good way to describe it.

  • T

    I don’t think the “moral necessity” and “liturgical act” is helpful to the conversation, no matter how true it may be. I fear it will have a tendency to harden folks who are patriotic and keep them from hearing a helpful critique.

    It is more helpful, IMO, to think about and discuss, for example, the Irish example that Patrick raised in which both sides killed and made war “with God on our side.” The reasons that made that conflict “necessary” are great for Americans to hear and think about precisely because most Americans not only share a similar blending of faith and country, but also because many don’t have a dog in the Irish fight, so to speak. The impartiality, the personal distance, makes it easier to see through the justifications given for the violence. Then, hopefully, one can begin to look at our American justifications and religious ordaining of American war in a new light.

  • Just Wonderin’

    To borrow one from Newbigin, the church in America suffers from an advanced form of syncretism; an untenable mixture of American nationalism with God’s blessing in Jesus’ name. All of this adds up to a rationale for American exceptionalism. This, in turn, leads to thinking such as, “It can’t be torture because we (America) doesn’t torture.” In addition to providing swift justification for violence in war it justifies violence in our (American) exploitation of the economies of other nations and of creation itself. If you were to question this in the vast majority of churches you will quickly be branded socialist, communist, apostate. It’s real, it’s serious. It seems to me that evangelical pastors and leaders live in denial or fear of touching this. Or, they buy into it.

  • Re: T’s suggestion
    Another example to look at is WWI and the ‘Christian” nations. There is a succinct overview as it relates to Christian faithfulness in Oh Holy Night: The Peace of 1914 [on amazon].

    Relating to Hauerwas’ theme, my own struggle with that as a young Marine can be read with the free “Look Inside” feature here:

  • Matt T

    The truth is that we are “a nation unlike any other nation.” Our position of wealth and power puts us in a unique spot of being able to do something about the moral injustices of our world. I generally don’t believe that the wars we have been involved in as a nation is us imprinting our morality on them as much as there truly being immoral behavior that necessitates war in order to end it. I find complete pacificism to be an idealism that doesn’t work in a world marred by sin and evil. To defend pacifism as true Christianity is short sighted because it does not take into account the holistic view of war and violence in Scripture.

    I also find that imposing all individual directives in Scripture onto how governments are to function is unhelpful and misguided.

  • John W Frye

    Michael Snow #12,
    I just read the “Look Inside” of *Christian Pacifism* on amazon. I deeply appreciate your call to serious conversation while at the same time respecting all the voices at the table. I think this issue will become predominant in the USAmerican evangelical church as the myths of “glorious war” fade in the stark realities of gratuitous violence by ununiformed terrorists.

  • Cal

    The sad thing is that the directives of Christ for His own are being met by a gaggle of false prophets who preach “just war”, American exceptionalism and syncretism. God will judge rightly.

    Matt T:
    I don’t understand your comment on taking a more holistic view of Scripture. How can a Christian ever wield a sword when Christ disarmed Peter? I agree with your last comment, governments cannot be expected to act “christian”, but that begs the question how ought Christians to interact with said governments.

  • #4 What, another Patrick Mitchel ! (but with two L’s I see). Rick # 8 – I’m in Ireland, my nearly namesake is in England 🙂

  • my standard cringe inducing joke here is it makes one L of a difference

    Matt # 14 – it is not that pacifism can be imposed on govts – it is that Christian support of violence and war is incompatible with following Jesus who rejected violence.

  • Jim

    This is an incredible post and one that should be seriously pondered by all. Unlike many European countries, America had never had to answer for her war crimes. From the genocide of the Indians to the present day, we have continued to blame “one bad apple” for war crimes and never answered collectively for what we continue to do in service to our god.

    Followers of Jesus should be in sackcloth and covered with ashes.

  • Patrick one-L Mitchel, thank you for asking uncomfortably & disquieting questions. I agree that Americans, in general, are syncretistic in their expressions of Christianity-cum-patriotism. We see it in sporting events, political rallies, and war-making. There were some particularly horrendous conflations of scripture verses with post 9/11 Dept of Defense memoranda. I sincerely don’t understand how any Christian can read about how our gov’t’s self-justification masked in religious verbiage (http://www.gq.com/news-politics/newsmakers/200905/donald-rumsfeld-administration-peers-detractors ), or view the slide show ( http://www.gq.com/news-politics/newsmakers/donald-rumsfeld-pentagon-papers ) and not squirm and feel extremely discomfited by the context-less misappropriation of Scripture. Surely, from my POV, this is tantamount to “taking the LORD’s name in vain”!!

    I agree with Hauerwas that we must be more active in our non-violence, but doesn’t our commitment to non-violence extend from humility and the cross? I’ve found myself questioning whether most American Christians have fully grasped the import of Jesus’ call to die to ourselves and take us our crosses following him. We’re still blending human weaponry with spiritual weaponry, and pretending that the human weaponry can be sanctified by slapping some religious words on the barrels ( http://abcnews.go.com/Blotter/us-military-weapons-inscribed-secret-jesus-bible-codes/story?id=9575794#.T75utFKaKSo ). It’s Christian-transformed-mind-boggling stuff. Such blind ignorance must surely be a product of this country’s place in the ranking of human power! We so resist humbling ourselves and facing our sins against others because to do so feels as if we’re dying, and well it should.

  • Patrick

    Dispensationalism is why American Christians are this way. Once that flawed eschatology is defeated spiritually, we’ll be different. As it stands, tons of Protestants believe the USA is uniquely God’s client nation, which fits with state pr perfectly. I think so many it infects the entire culture and created “American exceptionalism”.

    Jesus was a pacifist? He said He is the incarnated “I AM” of the OT text.

    Not only is He Yahweh, but, as an incarnated human He always obeys the mandates of The Father and often that included warfare for the Jews. When He told them to fight and they did, they won, always.

    When He told them not to fight and they did, they got slaughtered.

    I think Jesus is repeating His ancient warnings to the Jews to avoid warfare and violence when “I AM not with you”. 70 AD replicated the same results they always got when they were apostate in warfare. I think Matthew 5-7 is far MORE than this, but, it is this as well.

    A question is, “Why does Jesus appear so different than OT Yahweh did as relates to warfare and violence”?

    If Jesus is the OT Yahweh in flesh, how is this?

    (A) Was Marcion accurate? (B) did Yahweh change and become a pacifist? (C) did Messiah have a prophesied role as a pacifist prophet, priest and king on David’s throne or are some of the prophesies about Him using force in His status as Messiah?

    (D) did the Gentiles change and now Yahweh was free to be everyone’s self sacrificial savior W/O having to physically kill Gentiles to prevent them massacring the Jews and thus cancelling out His ability to fulfill Genesis 3:15?

    My view is (D) is accurate.

    Did Jesus teach us to avoid physical violence in all cases? No. He explained to the 12 in Luke 22 that so long as He was physically with them on earth, they lacked nothing, but now they were to get back to normal life since the cross loomed and He was leaving to be with The Father, so carrying cash, protection( go buy a sword) was proper now.

  • AHH

    Patrick @21,
    I am no fan of dispensationalism at all, but I don’t think it gets more than a little of the blame for the idolatry of American civil religion. This idolatry was pretty strong already before dispensationalism came to the US in the mid/late 1800s.
    Dispensationalism may reinforce and exacerbate American exceptionalism and all the associated ills, and I’d love to see its defeat for multiple reasons, but I think fingering it as the main reason for this particular problem is misplaced.

  • The myth of redemptive violence is, in short, nationalism become absolute. This myth speaks for God; it does not listen for God to speak. It invokes the sovereignty of God as its own; it does not entertain the prophetic possibility of radical judgment by God. It misappropriates the language, symbols, and scriptures of Christianity. It does not seek God in order to change; it embraces God in order to prevent change. Its God is not the impartial ruler of all nations but a tribal god worshiped as an idol. Its metaphor is not the journey but the fortress. Its symbol is not the cross but the cross hairs of a gun. Its offer is not forgiveness but victory. Its good news is not the unconditional love of enemies but their final elimination. Its salvation not a new heart but a successful foreign policy. It usurps the revelation of God’s purposes for humanity in Jesus. It is blasphemous. It is idolatrous. And it is immensely popular. ~Walter Wink

  • Patrick


    Good point.

    Probably the pilgrims began this idea. I think it was John Winthrop who claimed for the new world the “shining city on a hill” aura that Jesus assigned to The Body of Christ.

  • Cal


    Your right on two counts:
    1) the error of dispensationalism causing problems
    2)The reason violence has stopped was that the Gentiles changed

    Yet, the end goal is peace, life and love. It is not that Marcion was right, rather it is that the Jews were custodially guided on until the time of fulfillment. Pacifism does not mean there is no longer a war. Indeed, the true war is waged by peace, by the blood of the lamb and the testimony carried by faithful witnesses. The true enemy was never the gentiles nor the plethora of their (our) lords. It was the shadowy Powers-That-Be, principalities, thrones, authorities that are bigger than just Caesar. And we fight this enemy with good and love. The wars of the OT were a shadow of this true war, not to be fully consummated until our Lord returns.

  • JamesT

    I was born a couple of years after WWII. In all my life, belonging to several evangelical churches, I have never heard one sermon when America was about to enter a military conflict–I was too young to remember Korea, but do remember Viet Nam, through the Gulf Wars and Iraq and Afghanistan–I have never heard a sermon asking “Is this war justified? Does it meet any kind of Just War justification.” Never. Have our pastors become brain washed? Or cowards? We’ve synthesized our Christianity with our government. We have crawled in bed with Caesar.

  • That’s interesting, JamesT 26. I was raised in a Society of Friends church and most of what I heard growing up in the 60’s was how wrong the Vietnam war was! 🙂

    Patrick 21, I agree w/ AHH & your readjustment. Americans were “this way” (and so were other peoples throughout history) long before Dispensationalism. The doctrine of Manifest Destiny which prevailed in the early to mid 19th century was prevalent concurrently, if not predating the rise of Dispensationalism in the US, and American Exceptionalism seemed rooted in or twisted from the tree of Puritanism (ergo, John Winthrop’s 1630 sermon, “A Model of Christian Charity” which mentioned the “city on a hill” idea you referenced). In fact, I think it’s safe to say that it’s been a longstanding religious heresy, because as Naum’s quote of Walter Wink’s points out, it makes God into a tribal, regional god, and that’s exactly the danger – that we mistake our self/nation-centered syncretism for the One God who created all things. Paul was blasted out of that mindset, ISTM, on the road to Damascus.

    But, Patrick 21, I still must ask what in the world you mean by God needing to “fulfill Genesis 3:15”? Have you not noticed the enmity between men and women has been being fulfilled every day, throughout history and myth, in every part of the world? Jesus’ triumph over that broken reality is what we’re longing and working to see fulfilled within our churches and families!

  • Maybe it’s just me, but when I voice something like this, it falls on deaf ears, or should I say it tends to boomerang so that what I say no longer matters. It is engrained and so much a part of our culture, the notion that America has some special place in God’s working, and therefore a special place in our lives even as followers of Jesus. Of course following Jesus is about all of life, and somehow the idea of being a Christian, what that means, is taken up and incorporated into being a good citizen of the state. In ways that conform to the ideals of the nation state, in this case, America.

  • 21. Patrick “… normal life since the cross loomed and He was leaving to be with The Father, so carrying cash, protection( go buy a sword) was proper now.”

    This is one of the most mis-used Scriptures when it comes to defending the ‘sword.’

    In “that puzzling and obscure passage where Jesus instructs his disciples, if not already possessing one, to buy a sword (Luke 22:36). …one thing stands out. The command to buy a sword leads directly into Jesus’ concern with the fulfillment of the Scripture saying that he would be considered a dangerous criminal – the charge brought against him which led to the Roman crucifixion. This “pro-sword” argument’s absurdity displays itself in the incident’s conclusion. The disciples produce two swords and Jesus replies, “it is enough!” This reply’s wording, especially in the New English Bible, implies this “enough” may have been wholly or partially a rebuke to his disciples for again not understanding his meaning. [So I. Howard Marshall in Luke, NIGTC] Obviously they did not understand when later in the garden the probability arises that it was one of these swords which was defensively raised. This instrument draws blood. The wielder incurs Jesus’ rebuke. Looking at the life of this swordsman, you will never find any indication he ever desired to pick up his weapon again. As for the sufficiency of two swords, this makes it obvious that Jesus really did not mean that all who had no sword should purchase one. From whichever angle we approach this passage, no support for a militaristic position hobbles forth.”
    –from http://www.amazon.com/Christian-Pacifism-Fruit-Narrow-ebook/dp/B005RIKH62/ref=pd_rhf_dp_p_t_1

  • I totally agree that Christians, and in this case American Christians, should be non-violent. I have been on a personal journey of discovery with this in the past 4 months. Growing up in a conservative Christian home, My father was a Marine in vietnam, His father was in the army during WWII, we were raised to ‘hail the conquering heroes’ and celebrate war. I thought many times about joining the marines myself (thank you God for having other plans for me!) and have many friends that went to Iraq and Afghanistan, but my views have taken a 180 degree turn. I get sick of churches and christian talk show hosts celebrating war, talking about getting the bad guys, how the trillions of dollars we spent in Iraq was well worth it. This goes directly against Christ’s teaching! “love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you”, “those who live by the sword shall die by the sword” are just a few of his words, but Christians in America so quickly dismiss those words and say things like “well I think God is glad we stopped Hitler”. Let’s be very clear here, God uses war as a means to punish the wicked, but DOES NOT call his true followers to participate in it. His chosen ones, His royal Priesthood, His elect will not support, cheer for, or engage in war (except spiritual warfare). Those who do and say they are following Christ are deceived, Sorry to offend anyone, but its the truth. If you are going to truly follow Christ, than you must live at peace with all men. But that is not all, You must follow ALL Christs teaching, not just the ones you agree with.

    For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.

  • dhatroit

    I agree Ryan… and this distinction about God using war but believers not participating in it is a distinction we need… It seems it’s difficult b/c US Christians are used to having a believers in places of power and we should know it’s our circumstance. God didn’t command us to get all this power right? that’s what we have to deal w/… With all the power, use it for good but separate enough to keep from using it against God’s will hating our enemies) and not hold on to this power by fighting for it to the death… Not east, especially since there hasn’t really been war in our backyard for a

  • dhatroit

    Not easy* instead of not east

  • dhatroit

    And yet, I must say we should thank those who protect and serve including believers, since God uses govt to punish evil and that makes our lives better..
    it doesn’t adress all of my previous post, but Pastor Eugene Cho posted http://eugenecho.com/2010/05/31/freedom-is-not-free/ and http://eugenecho.com/2011/05/10/the-death-osama-bin-laden/ which shows tensions believers have.