Traditions of War and Peace (Jan-Feb 2002)

By Matt Dabbs

by Mark Elrod
January – February, 2002

It is an unfortunate characteristic of human nature that most of us don’t like to think about deep theological or philosophical issues until they explode in our faces. There is no doubt that the events of September 11, 2001 have now focused the attention of many Christians on issues they haven’t thought about seriously in decades. Among these are questions associated with war and the Christian conscience.

It is equally unfortunate that none of us have the luxury of working out our theology or political philosophy in a vacuum. For most of us, everything we believe about both God and government is a sum total of our life experiences with both. Our response to the brutality of September 11 will probably shape our thinking about God as much as it does about international terrorism.

This isn’t news—Christians have wrestled with understanding the relationship between God and government for centuries. The Bible’s lack of clarity on political questions has produced viewpoints ranging from conscientious objection to all forms of violent conflict to the Crusades. While some Christians have read the Bible and found a God of peace, others have read the same book and found a God that condones war as a political instrument.

Christendom’s struggle to find the proper balance between religious truth and political necessity has also characterized Restoration churches and their development of thought about war. Within the several churches of the American Restoration movement we have seen both pacifist and crusading traditions dominate our response to government, war and the military. It is quite possible that our thinking on this issue will eventually result in a journey from one extreme to another.

In order to understand where we might end up in our thinking on the war question, it might be good to consider where we have been and where we are right now.

Where have we been? It often comes as a surprise to my students when they learn that the thinking within our religious fellowship on the war question has evolved more than any other theological principle in this century.

Even a cursory reading of the articles written in Restoration publications prior to World War II indicate that among church leaders, there were strong pacifist sentiments. Churches of Christ members made up a significant number of men who were imprisoned for resisting the draft during World War I and up until 1940, the Selective Service considered the Churches of Christ to be a traditional peace church.

Undoubtedly, the person who had the greatest influence on pacifist thinking among the Restorationist churches was David Lipscomb. I strongly suspect that today most Christians would consider Lipscomb’s views on war and government to be quite extreme. Among other things, Lipscomb held that a Christian had no business participating in politics, voting, holding public office or serving in the military. These views were propagated in Lipscomb’s book, Civil Government (1913), and in the pages of the journal he published, the Gospel Advocate. Other publishers and church journals express similar anti-war views well into the 1930s.

The theology of Lipscomb’s pacifism is controversial and complicated and it has been attributed to everything from pre-millennialism to disenchantment with post-war reconstruction. Fundamentally, Lipscomb believed that accommodation with the demands of any government was possible only up to the point where it interfered with a Christian’s service to God and he built a very high wall between the two activities.

About the time of World War II and after, the position of members and leaders in Churches of Christ began to shift away from pacifism toward what is known as the just war tradition. This latter view places us squarely in the mainstream of almost all other American churches.

Where are we now? The religious doctrine of the just war probably dates from Augustine’s City of God written in AD 435. Augustine and others have suggested that Christian nations can wage just wars and Christian citizens can participate in these wars with a clear conscience. A just war is characterized as one that is either defensive in nature or is designed to right a wrong committed by an aggressor.

In embracing the just war tradition, Christians say two things about war. The first is that war is a morally justifiable alternative to other forms of conflict resolution for civilized nations. The other is that war is something that Christians can participate in if it is declared and waged justly. The unfortunate hole in the just war doctrine is that declaring wars to be just or unjust nearly always falls to governments. Not surprisingly, most nation-states consider all wars they are involved in to be just wars.

Looking at available data to study the war question it seems the shift away from pacifism began either during or immediately after World War II. In my research on this subject in the 1980s, I discovered that the number of men from the Churches of Christ participating in civilian alternatives to the military draft declined to almost zero in the 1950s. At the same time, the Lipscomb doctrine on war disappeared almost entirely from brotherhood journals. For example, editorials written in church papers during the war in Vietnam reveal not only support for military service but also point out that the presence of so many Christians in the American military presented new evangelistic opportunities in both Europe and Asia.

The shift in thinking was caused by several political issues that transformed the thinking of many Christians during the Cold War. One was that international communism posed a threat to Western Civilization and Christian churches in a way that had never before been seen. Since communist regimes stood in the way of spreading the gospel, it was relatively easy to rationalize that church and state faced the same enemy in the effort to contain communism. Another was the transition that the Church of Christ made when it became a mainstream church in the 1950s and 1960s: extremist political views such as the Lipscomb doctrine on war and government were de-emphasized as these churches sought to evangelize their communities.

Today, all of us know someone who has served in the armed forces either in peace time or war time. For most Christians, military service is seldom questioned or suggested to be an issue of faith or spirituality.

Where are we going? Once again, our thinking on this important issue is being shaped by a national emergency that has galvanized the nation. The recent outpourings of national pride and patriotism are forcing us once again to decide where we stand in all of this.

The good news is that we are still a priesthood of believers; the question of how to respond to the state when it asks for our support still comes down to an individual decision. The bad news is that in the coming months and years, members of our fellowship who have never felt comfortable with the just war tradition will have a difficult time explaining themselves to the majority. If history is any guide, in the wake of a direct assault on our American way of life, those who take a stand for non-violence will find themselves in the minority pretty quickly.

From what I have seen so far, the thinking of the members of the Churches of Christ that I come in contact with on a daily basis is certainly not at odds with that of most other religious groups in the United States. It seems that our response to the new war on terrorism has been to express fidelity to the government of the United States and to support its policies so long as they are consistent with the will of God as expressed in the Bible.

There are several dangers that Christians face as our nation wages war on terrorism and seeks to bring to justice the persons responsible for the September 11 attacks. One is that it is possible that in the coming months we could find ourselves pulled along by a doctrine that lies at the other extreme of the Lipscomb doctrine on war and even beyond the tenets of the just war tradition. The danger is that we could find ourselves supporting our own version of a Christian jihad, or holy war, as our nation wages war on terrorism.

Most of us know by now that the Muslim concept of the jihad has been badly mangled and misused by Islamic extremists but it still serves as the basis for terrorist acts directed at the West. But it is also important to recognize that there are both religious and political elements in our country that would like to incorporate the same kind of ideal into our thinking on war. It is important to recognize this and for Christians to distance themselves from any attempt to incorporate holy war into our religion and politics.

As the war unfolds, I’m concerned that our understanding of true Christian citizenship will further unravel. Our citizenship is squarely with the kingdom of God and not the kingdom of man. To be deluded into thinking that the weapons of carnal warfare can solve the problems of this world is short-sighted and plays into the hands of the forces of evil.New Wineskins

Mark Elrod is Associate Professor of Political Science at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas, a veteran of the US Navy (1976-1980) and a graduate of David Lipscomb (B.A., 1984) and Vanderbilt University (Ph.D., 1994). Elrod currently serves as a deacon at the Westside Church in Searcy where he and his family have attended since 1987.

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This author published 1598 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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