Jacksonville, AL. Just as professing Christians cannot follow Christ while serving Mammon, they are not being faithful to the Prince of Peace while glorifying Mars. It’s nothing new. The worldly principles of violence and war entered the church within its first three centuries of existence.
The invasion was largely triggered by Constantine’s supposed vision of a Chi-Rho cross in the sky encouraging him, in Greek, with the words “In this Sign, Conquer.” (ἐν τούτῳ νίκα or, translated into Latin, In hoc signo vinces.) He then proceeded to win the Battle of Milvian Bridge (312). Emperor Constantine may have been a sincere believer, but the vision sounds apocryphal. The accounts of the vision or dream by church fathers Lactantius and Eusebius are contradictory. In addition to being church leaders, the two were court historians who had a tendency to flatter Constantine.
If the story is not apocryphal, it was either wishful thinking or satanic deception. To borrow an analogy from an earlier Greek tale, Constantine went on to serve as a Trojan Horse inside Christianity. The linking of Christ and Caesar brought some short-term benefits but the long-term harm has been immense. The facilitation of war by the chaplains of power has been one sad effect.
Turning to the U.S.A.: With all of the clerical and pewful cheering on behalf of recent wars, the intertwining of cross and flag, and the blessings bestowed on every Commander in Chief by the leading evangelists of the day, it can be difficult to discern the testimony for peace by theologically conservative Christianity. This testimony can be found primarily, but not only, among the historic peace churches: the Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, Schwenkfelders, Quakers, Moravians, and German Baptist Brethren. Roman Catholicism places some limits on the martial spirit with its doctrine of just war, derived from Augustine and Aquinas. Dispensationalism—one of two main sources for fundamentalism—was traditionally apolitical and encouraged neutrality in fallen, worldly activities such as warfare. This influence can be seen in figures from A.C. Gaebelein to Watchman Nee. As a young man, evangelist D.L. Moody refused to enlist in the Civil War because he was a conscientious objector. He recalled, “There has never been a time in my life when I felt I could take a gun and shoot down a fellow human being. In this respect I am a Quaker.”
Faced with the prospect of war between England and Russia, in 1885, William Booth publicly declared that every true soldier of the Salvation Army should “shut his ears to all the worldly, unscriptural, unchristian talk about war being a necessity.” He warned, “Oh, what vice, what blasphemies, what cursing, what devilries of every kind accompany and follow in the train of war.” In a subsequent War Cry editorial, Booth looked forward to the day when the Prince of Peace would abolish “this inhuman and fiendish system of wholesale murder.” The focus of the conflict between the English and Russian empires? Afghanistan. Some things never change.
The Christian statesman William Jennings Bryan was directly influenced by the great writer Leo Tolstoy. The two talked for twelve straight hours at Tolstoy’s home during Bryan’s international trip in 1903. As a result of this visit, and earlier writings, Tolstoy’s nonviolent views were spread to American Christians who were far more culturally provincial, theologically conservative, and politically mainstream than the Russian anarcho-pacifist himself. A decade later, when Secretary of State Bryan broke with Woodrow Wilson because the president was pushing the nation into World War I, he became the first holder of that high position to resign over a matter of political principle. He was also the last. In accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in 1900, Bryan said, “If true Christianity consists in carrying out in our daily lives the teachings of Christ, who will say that we are commanded to civilize with dynamite and proselyte with the sword? Imperialism finds no warrant in the Bible. The command, ‘Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature,’ has no Gatling gun attachment. . . . Compare, if you will, the swaggering, bullying, brutal doctrine of imperialism with the golden rule and the commandment, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.’”
On the eve of U.S. entry into World War II, in 1940, the Southern Baptist Convention issued a resolution expressing its “utter abhorrence of war as an instrument of International policy.” The nine-point statement concluded, “Because war is contrary to the mind and spirit of Christ, we believe that no war should be identified with the will of Christ. Our churches should not be made agents of war propaganda or recruiting stations. War thrives on and is perpetuated by hysteria, falsehood, and hate and the church has a solemn responsibility to make sure there is no black out of love in time of war.” There was not a single resolution issued by the Southern Baptists during World War II or Vietnam expressing support for the president or the troops, but there were resolutions in support of conscientious objectors. The bold 1940 resolution can be found even today on the SBC website but the Southern Baptists have changed their tune . . . and their lyrics . . . perhaps even their hymnal.
As late as 1970, Francis Schaeffer, an orthodox Presbyterian, was warning, “In the United States many churches display the American flag. The Christian flag is usually put on one side and the American flag on the other. Does having two flags in your church mean that Christianity and the American Establishment are equal? If it does, you are really in trouble. . . . Equating of any other loyalty with our loyalty to God is sin.” Ironically, Schaeffer’s later writings helped give rise to the Moral Majority, with its endorsement of Constantinianism and the Mush God of American civil religion.
To their credit, Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI) condemned the Iraq War as unjust in 2002-03. Unfortunately, there was no teeth to their pronouncements. I am not a Roman Catholic, but if I were, I would want my pope armed with anathemas and bulls of excommunication. What is the point of having an episcopal form of government headed by the vicar of Christ if he does not wield at least one of the two swords of Gelasius?
The supreme pontiff ought to have disciplined disobedient children like Senators Tom Daschle, Joe Biden, John Kerry, Pete Dominici, Susan Collins, and Sam Brownback. When it comes to peace, the Catholic hierarchy if often politely correct, but it is no Erasmus of Rotterdam, Dorothy Day, or Thomas Merton in denouncing militarism and the perfidy of its practitioners. Too much diffidence and compromise. That’s one of the fruit of the spirit of Constantine and a corollary of cultural synthesis. A huge bureaucracy enmeshed with worldly wealth and power is not in a position to be too radical in its opposition to the world, even when the opposition is sincere.
Without jargon or hedging, the French Catholic mathematician-scientist-philosopher-mystic Blaise Pascal put it simply centuries ago: “[Q:] Why do you kill me? [A:] What! Do you not live on the other side of the water? If you lived on this side, my friend, I should be an assassin, and it would be unjust to slay you in this manner. But since you live on the other side, I am a hero, and it is just. . . . Can anything be more ridiculous than that a man should have the right to kill me because he lives on the other side of the water, and because his ruler has a quarrel with mine, though I have none with him?” (Pensées, V: 293-94)
Still, the peace rhetoric of the papacy is much to be preferred to the refined war mongering of Richard Land, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. As Congress was preparing to give President Bush a blank check to wage war against Iraq, in October 2002, Land organized an open letter to Bush, signed by prominent evangelical Protestants, that began, “In this decisive hour of our nation’s history we are writing to express our deep appreciation for your bold, courageous, and visionary leadership. Americans everywhere have been inspired by your eloquent and clear articulation of our nation’s highest ideals of freedom and of our resolve to defend that freedom both here and across the globe. We believe that your policies concerning the ongoing international terrorist campaign against America are both right and just.” Specifically, the planned attack on Iraq was sanctified as a just war. After the bombing and invasion, Land remained confident of God’s blessing on the undertaking, writing, “I believe we are seeing in Iraq an illustration of waging a war of defense and liberation according to the criteria of just war.”
Recently, I wrote about Christmas presents for children. The fine book by Laurence M. Vance entitled Christianity and War, and Other Essays Against the Warfare State (Vance Publications, 2nd ed., 2008) would be a good Christmas present for adults. Vance writes regularly for LewRockwell.com. You may be a Christian—or non-Christian—who does not embrace pacifism. That’s okay. The perfect need not be the enemy of the good. Most of us can agree that most of the wars in which we have been involved during the past century have been unjustified wars of aggression and greed, having more to do with empire and monopoly than with national defense or humanitarian crusades.
In 1761, William Law, the Anglican divine who helped lead John Wesley to evangelicalism and eventually flowered as a Christian mystic, wrote about war in his final book, An Address to the Clergy. He did so with truth and eloquence. Sadly, but predictably, his condemnation of Christian war was deleted when the book was reprinted by evangelical publishers in the 1890s and 1970s. Not uplifting, too discomforting, I suppose. Law wrote,
“Look now at warring Christendom, what smallest drop of pity towards sinners is to be found in it? Or how could a spirit all hellish more fully contrive and hasten their destruction? It stirs up and kindles every passion of fallen nature that is contrary to the all-humble, all-meek, all-loving, all-forgiving, all-saving Spirit of Christ. It unites, it drives and compels nameless numbers of unconverted sinners to fall, murdering and murdered among flashes of fire with the wrath and swiftness of lightning, into a fire infinitely worse than that in which they died. . . . Here, my pen trembles in my hand. But when, O when, will one single Christian Church, people, or language, tremble at the share they have in this death of sinners?”
“. . . Again, would you further see the fall of the universal Church, from being led by the Spirit of Christ to be guided by the inspiration of the great fiery Dragon, look at all European Christendom sailing round the globe with fire and sword and every murdering art of war, to seize the possessions and kill the inhabitants of both the Indies. . . . To this day what wars of Christians against Christians, blended with scalping heathens, still keep staining the earth and the seas with human blood, for a miserable share in the spoils of a plundered heathen world! — a world, which should have heard or seen or felt nothing from the followers of Christ, but a divine love, that had forced them from distant lands and through the perils of long seas to visit strangers with those glad tidings of peace and salvation to all the world, which angels from heaven and shepherds on earth proclaimed at the birth of Christ.”
The Christmas story of incarnation and rejoicing is not only about personal salvation, about God and sinners reconciled. It is also about social reconciliation, about temporal peace and justice. As Mary said to her cousin Elizabeth “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.” As the angels sang after the birth of the Babe in Bethlehem, “Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men!”