“Blessed are the peacemakers,” said Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, “for they will be called children of God.”
But our world is wracked by war. Russia invades Ukraine. Rebels capture children and burn villages in Nigeria and Congo. Syria is a battleground among many factions, and the self-proclaimed Islamic State strikes out wherever it can. How can we be peacemakers today?
Some say the answer is “peace through strength”: when violence breaks out, fight fire with fire. Send in the Marines, destroy the enemies’ weapons, and bring them to their knees. That, they say, is the road to peace.
That strategy hasn’t worked very well. When American forces overwhelmed Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein’s army, they scored a quick victory. But 13 years later, internal conflicts simmer, Christians have been driven into exile, and spreading circles of chaos help Islamic extremists dominate the region.
In Libya, America and its allies struck from the air to defeat another dictator. But the civil war that ensued has spread to Libya’s neighbors on each side and exported rebel forces to Mali. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, decades of military action and billions in military aid have left most people in desperate poverty and fueled the flames of terrorism.
Others take a different view: they say being a peacemaker means rejecting violence. Didn’t Christ call us to love our enemies? We do that when we seek reconciliation and resolve conflicts. Fighting violence with violence only breeds yet more violence.
Each of these positions has been defended by leading Christian thinkers. Tertullian, a key architect of early Christian theology, pronounced that “in disarming Peter, our Lord disarmed every soldier,” and no Christian should bear arms or wage war. Two centuries later, Augustine took a different view: “It is the wrongdoing of the opposing party which compels the wise man to wage just wars”—if a legitimate ruler orders it, and if the goal is not conquest but the restoration of peace.
Most of the Reformers in early modern Europe agreed with Augustine that under some conditions, Christians are permitted to seek peace by waging war. But some Reformed, Lutheran, and Catholic Christians continue to insist, along with pacifists of the Anabaptist tradition, that the way of the cross is the way of nonviolence.
Almost 11 years ago, the annual synod of the Christian Reformed Church took up a study committee report on the question of how to be peacemakers. The report reaffirmed the duty of all Christians to act out of love for neighbor, avoiding needless violence while seeking to protect the vulnerable. Citing a 1977 synodical report, it reiterated traditional rules for resorting to military action. First, there must be just cause for war: a grave injustice that demands redress when all peaceful means of resolution have failed. Second, the war must be waged justly, using the minimum necessary force, sparing noncombatants from direct harm, and seeking peace rather than victory. The 2006 report also reiterated synod’s 1982 declaration that nuclear weapons cannot be a legitimate weapon in war and should be destroyed as soon as possible.
Three changes in the nature of conflict were highlighted in the report’s introduction: increasing interdependence of states and their people; the emergence of “failed states” with no effective government; and the rise of nonstate actors that can facilitate or frustrate the quest for peace.
Of special concern to the committee (of which I was a member) was the claim by the U.S. government that, in cases such as Iraq, a preventive warcould be a just war. The 2006 report challenged this claim. A preemptive strike at an enemy about to invade one’s territory may be just; but a war to block possible future threats is nothing less than military aggression.
In the last decade, what has changed? Has the CRC become “one of the peace churches,” as the report urged? Not really. In the pews and in our colleges and agencies, the importance of military strength and the legitimacy of some wars is taken for granted. Pacifists who dissent from this position are often dismissed as naïve and idealistic.
Yet war has changed dramatically in 10 years. Armies mass on the battlefield only in history films. Today rebel bands conduct lightning raids and then go into hiding. Islamic extremists target shopping malls and airports and city streets around the globe. Western powers fight an undefined “war on terror” with cruise missiles dropped on targets from above—a war waged by commanders and technicians thousands of miles away.
Recently the world’s major nuclear powers have reduced their arsenals as required by international treaties while at the same time hastening to modernize the ones they retain. As a condition of approving already negotiated reductions, for example, the U.S. Senate demanded accelerated development of more sophisticated warheads and delivery systems. And so a president who came to office with hopes of achieving a nuclear-free world has stepped down after budgeting $350 billion to build new and better nuclear arms.
When Martin Luther and John Calvin pronounced their blessing on certain wars, provided key conditions had been met, they were following faithfully the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church—in sharp contrast to their radical dissent on issues such as the authority of the church and the nature of salvation. They in turn passed down to the Protestant churches a loosely defined “just war doctrine” that adheres closely to Catholic teaching today. Most Protestants would endorse the statement of the Second Vatican Council in 1965 that “governments cannot be denied the right to legitimate defense once every means of peaceful settlement has been exhausted.”
Perhaps it’s time for Protestant Christians to listen closely to Catholic voices once again. In April 2016, a report was issued by a conference on “Nonviolence and Just Peace” convened by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace and the international Catholic peace group Pax Christi.
The conference highlighted the suffering caused by wars large and small, including the costs of militarization and pervasive economic injustice. Participants questioned the validity of just war thinking and affirmed the healing and reconciliation that lie at the very heart of the gospel message.
“In this context of normalized and systemic violence,” the report urged, “those of us who stand in the Christian tradition are called to recognize the centrality of active nonviolence to the vision and message of Jesus and to our long-term vocation of healing and reconciling both people and the planet.”
For two thousand years, Catholic teaching has upheld the notion of just wars. That was then, and this is now, the report insisted. It is time to “consider shifting to a Just Peace approach based on Gospel nonviolence,” whose aim is “to build peace as well as to prevent, defuse, and to heal the damage of violent conflict.” The report stated bluntly, “We believe there is no just war.”
Whether the church’s stringent requirements for just war have ever stopped an advancing army is debatable. Perhaps these rules have induced some politicians and generals to proceed with restraint. But war is more dangerous than ever, while nonviolence has proven more potent than anyone ever imagined. Consider the remarkable success of nonviolent action against repressive regimes in the Philippines, Burma, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Liberia.
Can we envision a coalition of Christians from many traditions—the traditionally pacifist Anabaptist movement, the Catholic tradition, and the Reformed family too—who would speak with one voice of the transformative power of active nonviolence as a remedy for injustice? This would be a very different church—and in time, by God’s grace, a very different world.
CRC report on peace and war: Acts of Synod 2006, pp. 381-452, 670-77 (www.crcna.org/sites/default/files/2006_warandpeace.pdf
Roland Bainton, Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace (1960/1979)
James Turner Johnson, Morality and Contemporary Warfare (1999)
Lisa Sowle Cahill, Love Your Enemies (1994)
Glenn Stassen, Just Peacemaking: Transforming Initiatives for Justice and Peace (1992)
Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence (2003)
Stanley Hauerwas, War and the American Difference (2011)