On Christians Going to War to Halt Christian Violence
By Tricia Gates Brown
I’ve been reading a timely book, a book about war—the myriad devastations of war, and war’s singular seductiveness. In my view, it should be recommended reading for most every adult American. War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning (New York: Public Affairs, 2002), was written by Chris Hedges who worked for years as a war correspondent, living on the knife edge of lethal conflict in places as far-flung as El Salvador and Bosnia. Hedges recounts the wars he witnessed with the integrity and bluntness of a survivor who was also an outsider. As he sees it, war is indescribably vile, and destructive in every sense of the word. It impels normal people—people like you and me—to lust after violence, to murder without hesitation.
Hedges concedes, though, that there are times when people must take the poison of war, however vile. In his introduction, he says, “There are times when the force wielded by one immoral faction must be countered by a faction that, while never moral, is perhaps less immoral” (p. 16). He concludes this introduction—and here’s the rub—with a reference to Reinhold Niebuhr, the modern Christian theologian most famous for legitimating Christian participation in war. Niebuhr viewed war as a sin, but felt it was a sin Christians must, at times, willingly commit—commit and then repent of. Hedges’ homage to Niebuhr set me on edge, not because I cannot sympathize with Hedges’ perspective, but because Niebuhr is so often used by Christians to trump Jesus, and is cited in ways that are misleading and incomplete.
I can understand Hedges’ and Niebuhr’s point that war is, at times, a necessary evil, whether or not I agree with it. I can see how, at times in history, war seems to be the only solution to a conflict that has sunk to levels of insane brutality and baffling complexity. World War II is offered as an example of such a conflict. Hedges cites, as another example, the war in Bosnia. Sometimes evil regimes become so powerful and so depraved that nothing but a greater show of violence and force appears able to stop them.
But the argument that Christians should adopt methods of violence to address situations like those described above, fails to acknowledge the role Christian recourse to violence often plays in creating those situations in the first place. Many of the conflicts of the past century reached the fatal point at which war seemed inevitable because people who called themselves Christians had, for years, allowed themselves to practice violence and domination. Christians in Germany allowed hatred and racism, natural corollaries to war, to take root among them. They in turn empowered Hitler. Likewise, Christians in the former Yugoslavia allowed gangsters and criminals to lead them into a war fueled by racism and manufactured enmity.
Using Niebuhr as justification, many Christians argue we should be open to the option of war because, at times, history demands that we act to stop rampant violence. Yet so often violence is allowed to run rampant and to spiral out of control because of Christian acquiescence to it. How can more bloodshed by Christians be a solution in such a predicament?
Jesus taught his followers the way of nonviolent resistance and how to forego violence. On this, he was clear. The problem with the idea that Christians may, in situations like the Holocaust, have to resort to violence, is that the majority of Christians have been resorting to violence in most every conflict we have been engaged in since the dawn of Constantinian Christianity. It is our failure to heed Jesus’ call to nonviolence that has, in large measure, allowed situations like the Holocaust, and the genocide in Rwanda, and the massacres of El Salvador to happen. All of these wars happened in places where the majority of the population called itself Christian.
When Christians maintain openness to violence, history has shown we will more often than not use it for self-interested purposes, not as a last resort when all other methods of resolving conflicts have proven ineffective, as Niebuhr envisioned. These days, I see numerous Christians supporting all-out war against Iraq because it is viewed as necessary to protect the interests and security of our country. We are not altogether unlike the pre-World War II Germans, who had laid themselves wide open to the seductions of violence long before Hitler came along. We do not face a situation like World War II, or like Bosnia, yet a great number of Christians in our country enthusiastically hop on the war wagon. Many Christians are resisting the drive to war, but the majority beat their drums to the rhythm set by Washington. This is the result of centuries of Christian acquiescence to violence, and inattention to the teachings of Jesus.
It is time for Christians to say “no” to war absolutely, to invest ourselves in addressing global conflicts nonviolently, and in actively striving to make friends of our enemies. The present-day “yes” to violence and war voiced by so many Christians is paving the way for a conflict of mammoth proportions, a conflict in which, one of these days, it will seem that only violence and force can win the day. But the fact is, the majority of Christians chose the path of war long ago, and that path, that choice, will help bring us to the brink of “inevitable” war again and again.