Jesus and War

Jesus and War December 11, 2012

In a recent exchange between Tim Dalrymple (here, here, here) and Owen Strachan (here) we observed that each author had a different viewpoint but that each was operating within a similar framework for understanding how the Christian relates to the State. Briefly, Dalrymple wondered aloud if it was time for Christians to spend their public, political efforts on something other than fighting same-sex marriages and civil unions without surrendering his/their adherence to a biblical ethic, while Strachan struck the battle cry for all out culture war, saw Dalrymple as caving in on the battle the Christian must wage because of the biblical ethic. Both are committed to a kind of Niebhurian Type 5 approach to the Christian’s relationship to the State — namely, the Reformed strategy of influencing, politicking, agitating, and striving for a biblical ethic to reach as far as it can. God’s will is God’s will for everything.

These two do not differ, then, on what is right or what is wrong but on how best for the Christian to be Christian in the world and in the State and in culture. Dalrymple surprised me because the culture war approach seems inevitable for Type 5 thinkers, even if James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World proposed a meeker and milder and quieter form of the Reformed approach. I saw Dalrymple taking a more Hunter-ian approach while Strachan was taking the aggressive Moral Majority approach.

Why are so many Christians concerned with justifying war and not so much with reconciliation? What do you think of Stassen’s peacemaking initiatives? Will they work inside the walls of churches with “warring parties”?

Glen Stassen’s A Thicker Jesus might be seen as yet another approach. Yes, Stassen is a social ethicist, a Christian social ethicist, and that means he wants to translate — in true Niebuhrian form — Christian ethics into public ethics and provide a public rationale for a Christian ethic. But he’s more to the left while Dalrymple and Strachan are on the right.

Instead of engaging these three similar-but-different approaches to engaging public ethics, I want here simply to register an observation and then sketch how Stassen takes a “thicker-Jesus” approach from his teachings in the Sermon on the Mount into the discussion about war and just peacemaking. All three of these approaches are to be compared to a more ecclesial (Type 1 in Niebuhr, though his sketch is wildly imbalanced) approach, one in which the church is the focal energies of one’s “public” concerns, one in which political action is indirectly done through forming an alternative politic in the church, and one in which the culture war is 100% avoided. More directly, each of these approaches needs to state more clearly how the church functions in one’s political theology.

Stassen, I suspect, differs dramatically with Dalrymple and Strachan when it comes to war. Stassen thinks Jesus’ words mean business, they mean business for every followers, and they therefore mean business for the Christian’s views about the best kind of public politic. He doesn’t think Jesus’ teachings on peace and non-retaliation are too idealistic but they are kingdom ethics for a this-worldly existence.  His approach seeks to show that Jesus is Lord over all (including the politics of war), realistic (it works), and transcends ideologies.

The bottom line is this: too many Christians want to win; they are not focused enough on peace, justice, love, wisdom, and reconciliation. They want the right way to win. The culture war approach is about winning. It’s a losing strategy.

He finds a politics of just peacemaking, rooted in his “thicker Jesus,”  in ten practices, and you can see how he uses his strategy of “analogical contextualization” — through imaginative recreation of the teachings of Jesus — to work these out:

1. Support nonviolent direction act (Matt 5:38-43)
2. Take independent initiatives (5:38-43): these two combined reduce threats to both sides.
3. Use cooperative conflict resolution (5:21-26)
4. Acknowledge responsibility for conflict and injustice and seek repentance and forgiveness (7:1-5)

Justice (6:19-33)
5. Advance human rights, religious liberty, and democracy.
6. Support economic development that is sustainable and just.

Include enemies in the community of neighbors (5:38-43)
7. Work with emerging cooperative networks in the international system.
8. Strengthen the United Nations and international efforts for human rights.
9. Reduce offensive weapons and weapons trade (26:52)
10. Participate in grassroots peacemaking groups (as Jesus and the disciples formed groups, and so spread the gospel)

In #10 I believe Stassen gets to the heart of the approach of Jesus; he did not seek to win Rome or Judea’s leaders. Instead, he formed alternative kingdom communities, in which communities reconciliation, forgiveness, etc, were practiced, and offered to others an alternative, real kingdom approach to politics.

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  • T

    “The bottom line is this: too many Christians want to win; they are not focused enough on peace, justice, love, wisdom, and reconciliation. They want the right way to win.”

    There is something deeply true here. It also reminds me of what the various groups within Judaism had in common and why the cross and the love of enemies offended them all. “Is now the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Even the 11 wanted this kind of victory, even after the resurrection, and needed to be refocused.

  • T

    On a related note: Back when I was newly married, I felt like God asked me a question I’ll never forget. My bride and I had been married just over a year or so and were in the middle of an argument. We had retreated to separate rooms and I was no vigorously telling God how wrong she was on this occasion (as opposed to the other fights that I knew I should lose!). In the middle of my complaint to God, I felt a question come to me rather pointedly:

    “Do you want to win, or be married?”

    I was in law school at the time, so I was becoming more familiar both with the desire and tools to win–and the costs. I immediately cooled off and headed toward my wife to apologize for everything I could, committed to reaching out in tenderness. Winning isn’t the only thing.

  • Chris

    It seems to me what offends my western point of view is that Stassen’s quote about winning means that the results of his 10 point plan are irrelevant since he believes them to be the most Christ-like route. So if one of those 10 points leads to an increase in people being treated unjustly, that’s OK because per Stassen, adopting a strategy that doesn’t comport with his 10 ideas isn’t Christ-like. It’s very difficult for someone like myself that holds results in high esteem to believe that Jesus would continue on in a manner that didn’t deter injustice. I am growing weary of the so-called culture war and since the results of it have been abysmal, I am all for adopting a new way.

  • scotmcknight

    Chris, the statement about winning is my summary not a quotation from Stassen. Further, Chris, I just don’t see Stassen’s approach in your concerns/criticisms. He holds the result of peace and justice to be paramount.

  • That line grabbed me – The bottom line is this: too many Christians want to win – and we have this intense focus on the big things, on moving to that place of the high, and we have lost sight of the truth that it is the day-to-day encounters and practices that speak most loudly. My take on the inability to have any impact on the “culture wars” is the loss of credibility as believers who actually seek to live out what all this means in the mundane of the every day.

  • “The bottom line is this: too many Christians want to win.” I think the culture wars have mostly to do with the anxiety of white middle-upper class people who are nostalgic for a past in which we were in control. There has never been a time in human history that was not filled with debauchery. Stephanie Coontz’s The Way We Never Were is an excellent resource for comparing the actual historical context of the “golden days” in the past with the retrojected nostalgia of the family values movement.

  • “Why are so many Christians concerned with justifying war and not so much with reconciliation?” That’s a very thought provoking and troubling question.

  • jeff stewart

    There is precious little in the New Testament that endorses the use of weaponry and violence as a means of establishing justice and authority. But what is used, is often taken out of context when considering the depth of meaning by the teacher or the writer.
    One particular verse that is cited as an endorsement for militarism is Luke 22:36. When I’ve discussed with people about Jesus’ emphasis on pacifism, a cliché is frequently uttered that has roots only in “conventional wisdom.” “He didn’t intend for us to be doormats.” “But I think he did” is usually my response. A look of stun is provoked, more often than not.
    This solitary verse most war proponents hang their hat on, is the one where Jesus “instructs” the disciples to purchase swords (μάχαιρα): “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.”
    I’ve often wondered (in context to every other use of “sword” in the Gospels) if Jesus wasn’t phrasing this sentence in the form of a rhetorical question. The disciples’ response is once again awkward (like Peter at the Transfiguration) which makes Jesus response appear to be more dismissive.” So 2 ‘machetes’ among 12 guys works… it is a sufficient number.”

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    Thanks Scot for sharing this. I also like Stassen’s approach. The politicalization of the church, the culture war which Christians are losing reveals a call for a new strategy. I loved T’s comment about his wife and I think the church is going to be as irrelevent as Constantinism if it does not untie the knot it has with the State it calling so many shots on what we believe and how we should act rather than God. I think a must read book for many Chrisstians in Stanley Hauerwas AFTER CHRISTENDOM: WHY DEMOCRACY, JUSTICE AND FREEDOM ARE BAD IDEAS. HIs book will sound ludicrous because its our national valures that have loaded these ideas on what they actually mean for most Christians when many are fooled into thinking their views come from the Bible. We have got to more challenge our western American reading glasses!

  • Jim

    “…kingdom ethics for a this-world existence.” Brilliant!

  • Gary Lyn

    I think I understand your response of “But I think he did” to the statement “He didn’t intend for us to be doormats.” But I’d like to add a little more.
    Often the stance being discussed here is called pacifism and/or nonviolence. But it is more than nonviolence. It is nonviolent resistance. To turn the other cheek, is not to fold up and be a doormat. It means when struck, with purpose and intent, to offer the other cheek to the offender. If the offender chooses to see me as a doormat, so be it. But in my own eyes, no, I am not a doormat all in the name of being a pacifist or nonviolent. I am resisting the power of evil in a nonviolent way.
    A good example of this for me is Dr. King and the civil rights movement. Those people were out there. They were speaking out with their actions. They were claiming their rights and dignity as human being with their marches. When the dogs and water cannons were turned loosed, they resisted…in a nonviolent way. Because of that, it was clear who was on the side of good and evil in those moments.
    For me perhaps the greatest example of nonviolent resistance vs. nonviolence/pacifism is the cross.

  • T


    I hear you about results. On that very point, though, I think we need to look at the ethic that Jesus taught and lived (turn the other cheek, give more to those that take, etc.) and realize how it was open to the same objections by Jews of Jesus’ day of ineffectiveness and that it would only increase injustice. Surely the cross had to seem like an ineffective way to accomplish anything, let alone rise to the place of power reserved for Israel’s Messiah. Surely walking the second mile had to seem like it would only encourage Roman domination and entitlement. Surely offering the other side of our face to those who slap us only increases the amount of injustice. All this just looks like losing bigger instead of starting to win the fight against injustice. It certainly does *look* that way, and I suggest it looked that way as much for Jesus’ contemporaries as it does for us, maybe more. It looks like losing.

    But the issue is not that the ethic of Jesus doesn’t prioritize effectiveness when it comes to overcoming injustice. Rather, the ethic of Jesus takes the longer, truer view of what’s “effective” and where injustice is vulnerable. Further, the goal of Jesus’ ethic is far more ambitious than our typical preference for merely containing or restraining or punishing injustice. His goal is to pull injustice up by the root causes that work within those who perpetuate it (fear of death, scarcity, pride, fear of the other, etc.). The goal is not to restrain or imprison or dominate such folks, but win them over–and that by returning kindness for injustice. “If your enemy is hungry, feed him.” “Do not resist an evil person.” etc., etc. This is how Jesus began converting a small group of people that were unjust and hostile to his rule into bands of intensely loyal, and increasingly just subjects, and how he expects us to do the same.

    This is also where our faith is put to the test. How much are we really invested in the resurrection versus the concerns of this life? Where do our hopes really lie? Do we, contra Jesus and his teaching and example, still fear those who can kill the body? Don’t we easily fall into worry about tomorrow and our basic needs? Doesn’t that fear make it impossible to love the way Jesus teaches? And if we can’t follow that most central command and example, are we his disciples at all? At the end of the day, it’s not that Jesus isn’t squarely aimed at overcoming evil in the world, its that we haven’t put 2 and 2 together with his example, ethic and intention for overcoming evil, or that we have, and it scares us. We just don’t know if we want to trust our money, our bodies–everything–to this plan of dealing with evil the way he did and taught. We don’t know if we want to walk the way he walked. It’s a lot to risk. But ultimately, I think that’s what Jesus was getting at when he said that no one who is unwilling to pick up a cross (like he eventually did) and follow him can be his disciple. It’s not that he was keeping us out, it’s that it just can’t be done because picking up a cross (being willing to die–undeservedly perhaps–for others) is central to being his disciple.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    I wondered about this several years ago when I was ministering to university students. Regarding our American tendency to want to get things done, one of them being winning — I wonder how much this is our tendency because as Americans, we are used to being able to win, or to do exactly what we want to. In the words of He-Man from the 1970s “I[We] Have the Power!” Is this different among Canadians, the British or French, or nations or churches in Africa, Asia or Latin America? That is, does Christian politics regarding war play differently among peoples who have not had the power to accomplish their will?

    Randy Gabrielse

  • Percival

    Mt. 5:39 was quoted for point #1. The verse tells us to not resist the evil man. After this quote we usually get a parade of “pacifists” telling us that pacifism doesn’t mean that we should not resist evil people. I don’t get it. Non-pacifists are often chastised for ignoring or explaining away these so-called clear instructions, but then they contort themselves to explain that not resisting means resisting but in non-violent ways. I think we must be missing something.

    These verses have a lot to do with allowing God to be our advocate, not taking personal revenge, controlling our anger, embracing persecution for righteousness, and realizing God will have the final word in protecting our honor. They have little to do with military matters or defending the weak from oppressors and murderers.

  • Darryl Willis

    I think the 10th item is worth exploring. It seems to me this is the one area we rarely focus on. Do we believe that the best way to influence the world is to do so through political power and might? Through legislation, political process, and acts of protest? Rome is not America to be certain, but Jesus had the tools at his fingertips to protest, to agitate, and to enter into the political arena. Yet he did not. He formed small communities that changed the world through a very different process. Am I being too simplistic here? Am I just ignoring the obvious differences between 1st century Rome and 21st Century America and the West?

  • As my husband is actually in the US military, this is a complicated one – because he recognizing this very question and has often wondered about it “Why are so many Christians concerned with justifying war and not so much with reconciliation?” And sometimes gets frustrated with the military “heroifying” that churches do quite often. While he is glad to do his job, the attitudes of those outside who equate it with being a good Christian duty are rather baffling; there is nothing anymore “Christian” or “Christian at all” about it. It is also strange when people use the military to promote a certain brand of conservatism; while I know quite a few Republicans, I know many more liberals in the military than true conservatives – who are rather rare. The military isn’t political, can’t be categorized as such, but is overall likely much more moderate than people on the outside expect. Yet the fusion of heroification and conservatism remains.

    At this point, many in the military acknowledge – there is no “winning” left to be had. Your list is exactly what we need to do. Here is the thing that people miss in the US right now, that the world over, people are just people, good and bad intermixed. Afghanistan needs something very different than occupation, China and Iran are not our enemies, but there is a much deeper and nuanced situation going on. How will we respond to it? What is the truly Christian way? Not, I fear what we have been doing.

  • Chris

    Scot, I am not saying that Stassen’s 10 points don’t achieve results, but just that from my understanding of how results are achieved they won’t. I’m not saying my understanding is right, I’m pointing out my struggle as well as the common objection from westerner Christians to Stassen’s 10 points. I do find it interesting, however, that he appears to trust the UN to a degree. So he apparently believes in its capacity to deal justly.

    T, thanks for your reply. That is very helpful.

  • Patrick

    The culture wars are no different than our political wars to advance this or that political cause, you name it.

    All signs of our apostasy. Left and right.

    Jeremiah 17:5, Psalm 146:3.

  • SamB

    Darryl at 15. Where are the small communities that changed the world through a different process? Where are the small communities that practice enemy love and radical giving? I know there are some, and I pray that their good works become more visible and known so that God is glorified and God’s love returned. Jesus’ question that causes me to tremble is “What good is salt that has lost its flavor…What good is a light underneath a basket?” Maybe the small communities have always been overshadowed by a type of Christianity that seems to me to have been converted by the culture and is approaching what Bonhoeffer described as an institution that is no longer Christ’s church. I remember that Bonhoeffer is frequently quoted concerning the sin of loving our dream of what church should be verses what it is. But I came to understand recently that he said this after strongly stating at great personal risk that the German church was no longer the church of Christ and started something new called the confessing church that he hoped would be welcomed by the German Christians and the world wide ecumenical movement and grow influential enough to stop the injustices of the Nazi ruling party. So I think his concern about someone loving their dream of the church more than the church itself was directed at the new monastic group he was part of that was trying to live in community with Christ, following him in simple loving obedience. i am afraid the Americn church precisely because it is the American church instead of the church in America has gone some distance down the same road the German church did. I hope I am wrong.

  • Darryl Willis

    Sam B (19) – I hope we are just being too cynical by half. The truth is, I think you may have answered your own question: “Maybe the small communities have always been overshadowed by a type of Christianity that seems to me to have been converted by the culture …”

    I think those small communities are there–but we’re too close. All we see are individual trees and we reason from the particular to the whole. But perhaps we are looking too closely at what we experience and the negative comments we hear from others. I think God always raises up groups–but often they are the mustard seed–too small to notice but all the same sending down the roots and slowly growing.

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    T @ 12,
    Oh, my, how you have moved my heart and mind to follow and obey Jesus in His way by taking up my cross while re-hearing His words in order to do so. I think you have ears to hear, and a mind and mouth to speak. Keep at it!

  • Gary Lyn

    Percival (14)
    “Non-pacifists are often chastised for ignoring or explaining away these so-called clear instructions, but then they contort themselves to explain that not resisting means resisting but in non-violent ways.”

    I don’t see how resisting in non-violent ways is a contortion. I don’t feel like I’ve contorted myself in any way. It seems to be a very clear, albeit, different understanding of Jesus’ words in Matthew, as I was trying to say in my comment (11).

  • Percival

    Gary Lyn,
    The contortion seems to be that “not resisting” means “resisting”. Pacifists claim to just be following the plain sense of the text, but if they were truly consistent, they would say that we should not resist the evil man. Instead, they try to find minimally violent ways to resist. I am all for the lessening violence if at all possible. There is no point in shooting an aggressor if you can taser him and there’s no point in tasering an aggressor if you can talk him out of it. However, I don’t think the text is about any of that. The language is directed toward what to do when people try to humiliate you; striking your cheek, making you carry a load, taking your cloak. These are not military matters or even police matters.