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From the Mag: The War on War

From the Mag: The War on War

In Monty Python’s classic send-up of the life of Jesus (The Life of Brian, 1979), the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 are presented with great authenticity and sincerity. The comedy begins when members of the crowd mishear Jesus’ statement, “Blessed are the peacemakers …”

This article originally appeared in issue 19 of RELEVANT

“I think He said, ‘Blessed are the cheese makers,’” someone clarifies. “What’s so special about the cheese makers?” a woman asks. “Well, obviously, this is not meant to be taken literally,” her husband responds. “It refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.”

This contemporary spoof isn’t too far off from the Church’s history on issues of war and peace. Too often religion has added fuel to an already-enflamed debate and intensified already-polarized arguments between extremes. Churches allow the language of “warmongers” and “hawks” or “peaceniks” and “doves” to divide us down the middle, instead of allowing the Gospel to open a path for us in times of crisis.

When Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9, TNIV), what did He mean? Or “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well” (Matthew 5:39-40, TNIV)? Or “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44, TNIV)?

These texts and others, plus the living memory of how Jesus and the disciples acted, caused early generations of Christians to refuse to participate in war. Why? Largely because of idolatry. Military service forced them to put the gods of nationalism ahead of the God of Jesus Christ. Military service also fostered hatred for an enemy, an attitude viewed as antithetical to Christ’s teachings. Until the time of Constantine, no Christian writing allowed for Christians to participate in war. Military valor was not a virtue. True victory was won through love.

By the very nature of Christ’s call on our lives, Christians like myself prioritize peace with justice and reject violence in all its forms. We are the experimenters of a new paradigm. As Roland Bainton, Reformation scholar and professor of church history, wrote in Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace, “Christianity brings to social problems, not a detailed code of ethics or a new political theory, but a new scale of values.” Christians, then, are those who examine inevitable human conflict through the lens of a “new scale of values.” We are called to be courageous innovators who defend the “least of these”—without the benefit of the world’s weapons.

So what are those values?


The first is love. Jesus’ instruction to “love your enemies” is one of the unique aspects of our life in Christ. Other religions care for the poor and promote justice. Few prioritize love of enemies. In some ways, that was why Jesus said, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7, TNIV). It’s not just to reveal the hypocrisy of the judgers or to show mercy to the accused; it’s also to enable the accusers to love the accused. The apostle Paul constantly reminded us of our sinfulness and our salvation as sinners, not because he wanted us to feel bad about ourselves, but because recognition of our own sinfulness creates in us the capacity to see beyond the sins of others.


Another key value is opening up space for dialogue through independent initiatives. In 1997, Catholics in the community of San Jose de Apartado, Colombia, were increasingly threatened by violence from the Colombian military, paramilitaries, drug cartels and insurgents. Sixteen thousand people had been displaced, whole villages abandoned, community leaders assassinated. Finally, the citizens of San Jose de Apartado asked for a meeting with their local Catholic bishop. They proposed to designate an area around their towns as a “neutral zone” in which civilians would be respected and protected.

The bishop brought the proposal to the Intercongregational Commission for Justice and Peace, which agreed to lead workshops through local churches to shape the idea and to train people in nonviolence. In March 1997 the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado was established. Soon other religious peace groups began sending observers to the project. Their presence brought international attention and protection to the peace-community experiment.

This type of independent initiative can reduce violence and promote justice. A “third way” was opened that can break stalemates and create new space for dialogue.


A third value is addressing the roots of a conflict, not just the symptoms. Brendan McAllister, director of The Mediation Network in Belfast, Northern Ireland, has spent years trying to get Protestants and Catholics to stop killing each other. In his conversations with those on both sides, he quickly learned that most of the killing was motivated by revenge. But it went even deeper than retaliation. “They often feel that the only way to honor the dead is by taking another’s life,” McAllister says.

In response to this insight, members of The Mediation Network worked with local churches to establish public candlelight vigils whenever someone was killed. By developing rituals to address the deeper issue of grief and honor the memory of loved ones, they were able to reduce “revenge killings.” Addressing the roots of a conflict requires wisdom, historical perspective, political action and a pastoral gaze to recognize underlying wounds that may contribute to conflict.


A fourth value is supporting nonviolent direct action. In the early 1960s, Geraldine—a working-class white woman from the Northwest—was stationed at Fort McClellan, Ala., home of the Women’s Army Corps. Geraldine’s best friend in the corps was an enlisted black woman called “Westy.” The two women decided to pursue their own strategy for promoting integration. They’d walk in the front door of restaurants throughout Alabama—a black woman and a white woman in full military uniform—and order lunch. They’d sit there until someone kicked them out. “We were in uniform because at that time we were not allowed civilian clothing while in basic training,” Geraldine recalls. “But it really shook them up to see us in uniform. It took them a little longer to ask us to leave.”

A few years later, in the spring of 1965, Geraldine and Westy were among the 25,000 who marched triumphantly into Montgomery on March 25, 1965.


A fifth value: When a nonviolent strategy is not available, support strategies will produce measurable and immediate violence reduction, which can then create space for nonviolent initiatives. Sometimes violence-reduction strategies are the only option available, and they may be found in unlikely places.

David Christie was a young Scottish soldier in the British peacekeeping forces in Yemen in the late 1960s. “The situation was similar to Iraq, with people being killed every day,” Christie wrote in the South African magazine Today. “Not only were we tough, but we had the power to destroy the whole town.” But he had a commander who understood that their duty was to promote and build peace, and he trained his men to do something unusual: not to react when attacked.

“During our tour of duty we had 102 grenades thrown at us, and in response the battalion fi red the grand total of two shots, killing one grenade-thrower,” Christie wrote. “The cost to us was over 100 of our own men wounded, and surely by the grace of God only one killed. Slowly, very slowly, the local people began to trust us and made it clear to the local terrorists that they were not welcome in their area.”

The world longs to see the kind of peace we can make. We want to be about the business of disarming ourselves from that which divides and dominates—handguns, war, nuclear weapons, suicide bombs, mace, security systems, private defense contractors, private armies, bloated defense budgets. Instead, let’s experiment with putting on the whole armor of God, as it says in Ephesians 6. Wrap truth around our waist and put on right action as our Kevlar vest. Lace up boots that prepare us to do the work of peace. Carry the defense system of our faith to protect ourselves from the incoming missiles of sin. Put on the hardhat of God’s wisdom and carry no weapon but the Word of God.

Above all else, pray, pray, pray.

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