The Nation's Pulse

Religiously Battling for Pacifism

Must all Christians be pacifists? Increasingly among Protestant and Evangelical elites the answer is yes.

By 12.13.10

Send to Kindle

Must all Christians be pacifists?  Nearly all churches, excepting Anabaptists and Quakers, have traditionally taught that Christians may serve in the military or law enforcement of a legitimate government. But a rising tide of absolutist pacifism at least among U.S. Protestant and Evangelical elites is evangelizing for the Anabaptist message.

The latest voice is distinguished evangelical New Testament scholar Ben Witherington, a frequent television commentator on biblical topics who commendably and thoughtfully has disputed the Jesus Seminar, the Da Vinci Code and other nonsense. Many religious pacifists of late, including prominent Evangelical Left activist Jim Wallis, are vague about their pacifism, speaking against war, while touting more benign "police" actions, as though they were non-violent. Witherington, in a recent exchange, more consistently suggests Christians must avoid serving in both military and police.

In that exchange with a fellow theologian, Witherington declared he did not think "Christians should either serve in the military or as police." And he wondered whether Christians could even serve as military chaplains or medics. Witherington insisted: "In short, for the Christian, there are plenty of things worth dying for and giving your life for, but nothing worth killing for, for life is of sacred worth, and we are called to save it, even from itself."

Witherington's interlocutor, Old Testament scholar Lawson Stone, responded: "My own reading of the Bible leads me to think humans have an obligation with fear and trembling, to use the power to take life or deprive persons of their liberty or property in the maintenance of that just society," to include Christians serving as soldiers and police. Stoned added: "If one believes in government provided health-care and basic income guarantees, one believes in coercion. Violence and war are just the most conspicuous forms of coercion."

This latter point is widely ignored by many contemporary Christian pacifists, legions of whom avidly support an ever wider and more coercive welfare and regulatory state. For them, Caesar's sword may seize the health care system, levy confiscatory taxes, minutely regulate personal habits, and impose various visions of multiculturalism, with enthusiastic cheerleading from Christians. But Caesar must be condemned, or at least denied cooperation, for any forceful coercion of terrorists or other violent malefactors. 

THE CURRENT RELIGIOUS FAD for pacifism is not unique in modern history. Pacifism nearly captured all America's Mainline Protestant churches after World War I, owing both to revulsion over that war but also due to ascendant, utopian modernist theology. Reinhold Niebuhr famously developed Christian Realism in the 1930s to help liberal Protestants justify war without relying on traditional Christian Just War teaching.

Even in the middle of World War II, America's then largest Protestant denomination, Methodism, by a narrow vote at its 1944 governing convention, was able to surmount its previous official anti-war stance, ratified in 1940, even after Nazi Germany had ravaged Poland. "We repudiate the theory that a state, even though imperfect in itself, must not fight against intolerable wrongs," the Methodists decreed with D-Day only weeks away. "We are well within the Christian position when we assert the necessity of the use of military forces to resist an aggression which would overthrow every right which is held sacred by civilized men." 

By the 1960s, liberal Protestants like the Methodists again relapsed into utopian pacifism, angry over Vietnam, and impatient with Niebuhr's framework, though Niebuhr himself opposed Vietnam. By the 1970s, radicalized Protestants were vacationing from their pacifism to support Marxist Third World revolution and essentially opposed violence only if waged by the U.S. or its allies. Mainline Protestant agencies, in decline since the early 1960s, have opposed U.S. military spending and all U.S. military actions since Vietnam. By 911, few Mainline Protestant elites were able to articulate, much less affirm, either traditional Just War teaching or Niebuhrian realism. The United Methodists, by a quirk of fate, had in fact amended their anti-war stance by agreeing at their 2000 governing convention that force can be justified against tyranny, aggression and genocide. But even after 9-11, church elites ignored the official stance to advocate dialogue and self-examination.

America's Mainline Protestants have been displaced in influence by evangelicals. Unease by many young evangelicals with the length of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has almost certainly fueled widening support for pacifism. But the old Social Gospel pacifism of the last century has been displaced by Anabaptist notions of at least superficial separatism and ambivalence about the state. Old Evangelical Left fixtures, like Jim Wallis, still motivated by 1960s era anti-war activism, and relentless fans of Big Government, have ironically embraced some Anabaptist themes in their wider campaigns against American force. More traditional Evangelicals and Protestants, sometimes unsure of their own tradition, are too often absent from the debate.

Insisting that Christians shun not only the military but also law enforcement, as Witherington suggested, is more faithful to historic Anabaptist separatist beliefs and more morally consistent than what Evangelical Leftists like Wallis usually assert. But removing Christians from government hardly bodes well for a nation increasingly spiritually adrift. And debating pacifism during America's next major crisis, as many Mainline Protestant elites were during even World War II, hardly seems wise. Lawson Stone's exchange with Witherington hopefully will help motivate other evangelicals to burnish their intellectual and spiritual weapons for an important debate that may help determine America's capacity for survival. 

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of Methodism and Politics in the Twentieth CenturyYou can follow him on Twitter @markdtooley.