We who used to murder one another now refrain from even making war upon our enemies.
– The First Apology of Justin Martyr
We all know the story. Adam and Eve disobeyed God in eating the forbidden fruit, and attempted to hide from Him. Their eyes were opened to their nakedness and, I believe, to the ramifications of what they’d just done. In that second, everything about them and the world around them changed. They were banished from Eden, after God clothed them.
Did you catch that?
The first instance of bloodshed recorded in the Bible was directly linked to shame and fear. The parallels between this moment and the one in which Christ sacrificed Himself for us are obvious. Sin and death entered the world through the disobedience of our ancestors, and bloodshed was necessary to cover over the anguish of separation.
Did you catch that?
God was the one doing the shedding of blood.
I realize that what I am about to discuss seems odd with the 4th of July right around the corner. I’m about to sound completely unpatriotic. Before we go any further, please no that I would never stand on a street corner and spit at or yell derogatory names at anyone in the military. I have family members I love dearly who serve in the armed forces, and so such an idea is completely foreign to me.
All right, now that that’s out of the way….
As a Christian person, is it appropriate to be in support of any form of violence? My position is that, in fact, it is incongruous and illogical to claim the peace of Christ and yet not bat an eyelash when the government calls the nation to war. Yes, I am a pacifist. Does Jesus command us to “render unto Caesar?” Yes, He does. Does that include military service?
The answer the early church gave to that question was a resounding “no.” In fact, if a believer refused to leave the military, they were barred from fellowship. (I am not endorsing such a position. I am simply sharing historical fact.) They believed that the Lord, in rebuking Peter for taking up his sword in the Garden of Gethsemane, disarmed all Christians. An overwhelming majority of the time, military service is not compulsory (disregarding the draft, and even then it is possible to serve in non-combative positions.) It is not something that the government requires of us, and so should we give it?
Many point to the Old Testament passages where God calls the Israelites to conquer the Promised Land. “God is okay with war,” many claim. Is He, really? Is it appropriate to take what He commanded to one people group in one time and one geographical location and apply it down through time? (Also, if one reads further along in the narrative, one notices that God’s command to go to war became markedly absent.) Has America somehow replaced Israel and is this nation “conquering the Promised Land” each time they march out to war?
This is where we can begin to untangle the issue. There is a popular idea that America is a Christian nation. But what is a Christian nation? The Bible tells us to submit to governmental authority; we were founded on rebellion. It was during the time of the Revolution that being an American became synonymous with being a Christian. Ministers believed the enterprise to be blessed by God, and so inspired feelings of great patriotism from their pulpits. Was this appropriate?
Again, what is a Christian nation? Were many of the Founding Fathers believers? Yes, they were. Many others were not. I believe it is time to drop this notion of “Christian nation.” We are no more a “Christian nation” than England, France or the Roman Empire of old. We are Christians living in a nation where we enjoy remarkable freedoms, yes, but that hardly qualifies us for a “Christian nation.” How can this be so when so many either outright deny the existence of God or, worse, claim to know Him, and yet live nothing like it? Having a certain set of laws does not a “Christian nation” make, anymore than having a certain set of laws makes a Muslim nation.
No such “Christian nation” has ever existed. It won’t this side of Heaven, because it is impossible to force something into the hearts and minds of people. And, really, that’s okay. If we let go of this notion, we can stop being so shocked when things that are antithetical to our faith happen. “How can this happen in a Christian nation?” Because it’s a nation full of a bunch of sinners, some who follow God and some who don’t, that’s how.
So, if being a Christian and being an American don’t go hand in hand, then where does our allegiance go? Are we left in a constant conundrum?
I am a Christian first, an American second. I am loyal to my country and seek to obey its laws to the best of my abilities. I take part in the political dialogue and process. I deeply appreciate and am thankful for the freedoms I do have. But if my country calls me to do something that is incompatible with my faith, such as going to war, then I will refuse to honor that call. This then means that I must accept the consequences that follow.
This is exactly what the early Christians did. They were told to worship Caesar as a god. They could have rationalized that this was acceptable as loyal Roman citizens. Yet they recognized that this wasn’t something they could do, and so suffered for their disobedience of the law. They didn’t raise rebellion. They simply sought to follow Christ above all.
Would Jesus march to war if His government asked Him to? Absolutely not. He didn’t come to take life, but to give it abundantly. How can we be a conduit of that light on this earth if we are ourselves are taking life? I suppose we could debate the difference between killing and murder, but that’s not the point in my mind. To me, it doesn’t make sense to say that I hold life sacred and precious when it comes to abortion, but not when it comes to war.
Now, what about children? If you’re walking along and see someone beating on that child, should you do nothing? Certainly not! Pacifism does not equal passivity. I believe that when we see anyone being hurt, that we must step in…but hurting them back does nothing. It doesn’t change the fact that someone else was hurt. It doesn’t show the truth and love of Christ to punch and kick. Are we brave enough, as Christians, to take the beating, the stabbing, or the shooting meant for another person without raising a fist?
Do we take seriously the words, “there is no greater love than that a man lay down his life for a friend?” Do we gloss over the call to love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us? To turn the other cheek? To live in peace as much as it depends on us? And what depends on us – our reaction. It’s always down to our reaction. We can either respond with truth, or we can hit back.
Violence is always motivated by fear, because from fear flows a desire to control, and from a desire to control comes the impetus to attack. Consider Hitler. Yes, I do believe that he was an evil man. Why did he want to take over the world, though? He wanted to control it. Violence always comes out of the baser emotions of the “old man.” We are made new creations in Christ, and violence has no place.
How far does this go? Is it enough to say that you don’t support war, capital punishment, abortion, etc? I say no. Pacifism is meant to go to the very core of a person. Jesus said that it all starts with your thoughts. If I’m entertaining violent thoughts, then I’m a violent person, even if I don’t act on them. Quite literally, pacifism begins with forgiveness. If we are striving to forgive others, then we are able to turn over the urge to strike out at them, whether with fists or with words.
I think the questions we must all ask ourselves are these: do I trust God? do I believe that He knows when, where and how I will pass from this part of life into the next? Do I believe that He has a plan for me? Or will I live in fear, amassing guns and knives and war strategies, determining to defend myself before I even give God the chance?
That, my friends, is to live in fear and be a slave to control. I know what it’s like to live like that, and it’s not pretty or fun. I say let us Christians stay out of wars and all forms of violence. Let us be active in our opposition to evil, absolutely, but let us determine to never allow that opposition to take the form of a fist. I, personally, want to escape the chains of fear and control and trust fully in the Lord.
In closing, I want to draw attention to the fact that the wars of this corporeal realm distract us from the things that really matter. What are wars all about? Defending our “home.” Yet doesn’t the Bible, which we claim to be truth, say that this world is not our home? What are we defending? We can’t take any of this with us, nor should we want to. Again, do we miss the words of Jesus when He tells us to give our shirts if someone takes our cloaks?
What is so amazing to me about everything that Jesus did while here on this earth is that He never defended Himself. He simply spoke and lived with authority, compassion, love and truth. Anyone who does life that way doesn’t have to defend him or herself. The proof is in the pudding, and the lack of fear is more thunderous than the loudest of tanks.
Let real freedom ring this 4th of July!
Love without courage and wisdom is sentimentality, as with the ordinary church member. Courage without love and wisdom is foolhardiness, as with the ordinary soldier. Wisdom without love and courage is cowardice, as with the ordinary intellectual. But the one who has love, courage and wisdom moves the world.
– Ammon Hennacy