"As I mused, the fire burned"

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War and Peace Remembrance Day Workshop

with 3 comments

The Edmonton Ecumenical Peace Network will present the workshop: ‘War and Peace: What’s a Christian to Do?” on Friday, November 11th, from 1-4 pm at All Saints’ Anglican Cathedral, 10035-103 Street, Edmonton. There is no charge for this workshop, to be led by the Rev. Tim Chesterton, however a donation is suggested to cover the cost of coffee and refreshments.

In the early Christian centuries most Christians seem to have been pacifists, believing that the teaching of Jesus forbad his followers from participating in war. Later – especially after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire – a new tradition gradually developed, the ‘Just War’ theory, which most Christians today accept.

How are we to interpret the teachings of Jesus about loving our enemies in today’s world? How do they fit in with the rest of the Bible, and what are the different ways they have been interpreted throughout Christian history? Come and learn about the different ways Christians have interpreted the teaching of Jesus, share your own views on the subject, and listen to what others think. To register, please contact All Saints’ Cathedral at 780-428-6323 or email them as asac@telusplanet.net. The Edmonton Ecumenical Peace Network is a community of Christians from different denominations who believe that violence and war are incompatible with the teaching of Jesus and are learning together how to practice this conviction in their daily lives.


A worthy dialogue.

This is a pressing question facing Christians today. I for one am a Christian that does not accept Just War theory (even having operated for 20+ years in uniform following the law of war that is directly derived from that theory). I do not believe that one can remove Christ’s imperative to avoid violence, but demonstrating through reason that some circumstances demand that response. Sin is sin, even if there is a really, really good moral reason for carrying out that action.

What troubles me is that this line of reason leads to an outright rejection of the use of force, the military and even the police. I have heard Christians state directly that Christians do not join the military or become police officers.

The one situation that is clearer is the Christian who lives in a dictatorship or a hostile culture. Oscar Romero’s priests taking up arms to fight alongside their parishoners is not something that I could conceive as a Christian response. A Christian under persecution is called to suffer with Christ, as is the witness of history and the witness of Scripture.

The question of far more interest to me, is the onus on the Christian to follow the second great commandment, to love their neighbour. How does this impact Christ’s command to avoid the sword?

I see that there is some contradiction in the Christian assertion that Christians do not become police officers. Yet those same Christians, I am certain, call upon the police to investigate their break-ins and hit and run vehicle accidents. How a Christian can permit “non-believers” to provide good order and law to their society (even though many police are believers), while prohibiting their brothers and sisters from undertaking that role, is not coherent. This is also what Ron Sider was speaking out against in the Mennonite community – the willingness to allow other people’s sons and daughters to face the risk; while continuing to enjoy the safety that is brought about by that sacrifice.

I’m also doubtful of such absolute prohibitions, barring an explicit absolute prohibition in Scripture. To do so is to limit God’s ability to act in the creation – what about the Christian who discerns that a call to uniformed service is his or her Godly vocation?

The question that challenges me is the use of force when one is in the position to stop violence being done to others, but only through the use of force or at least the threat of force. Your choice to not act does not bring suffering upon you, but upon your neighbour. My decision to follow a path of non-violence is fine if it results in my death; but how am I a neighbour, when I make that decision to preserve my own holiness…and it results in my neighbour’s death?

So, what does it mean to be a neighbour, when your neighbour is being murdered, and you have it within your means to save your neighbour, but only by injuring or killing the attacker?

I keep coming back to Rwanda on this point. If the US had supported UN action to send an armed force to Rwanda, the threat of force in-country would have likely halted much of the genocide. That UN force would have to go with the ability to use that force, just in case their presence was challenged. Would that be a Godly use of violence?

My answer would still be no; however, it might be a situation where the best we could do is to respond with force…to accept we’re sinning…and to repent after the lives are saved. I can’t justify (in a Godly sense) violence by arguing that the situation is dire (that’s just an end justifies the means argument), but I can accept that it is perhaps the best we can do in a broken world.

The contrary argument would seem to drive us to remain passive, albeit in prayer, while our neighbour is killed. My choice to opt for holiness brings suffering on others. I can’t accept that.

However, I will freely acknowledge that my unwillingness to not act means that I am choosing to act because the short-term protection of neighbour is more critical to me than the thought that God, in His time, will make all things right. That’s another sin by my measure, but the best I’ve been able to figure out in my brokeness. I’m also confident that God will be able to compensate for my errors and my use of violence.

Final point, as much as Hays and Yoder and Haueraus debate this point, I can not see any place in Scripture where there is an absolute prohibition on military service or police service. Christ’s comment to the Roman soldiers who ask him about what they should do was not, thrown down your swords, but rather, do not extort and be content with your pay (Luke 3:13-15). I would appreciate it if those opposing perspectives would acknowledge that they are forwarding a derived theology that can be supported (and not supported) through textual work, but is not directly available from Christ’s words. As John Stackhouse Jr notes, I, like him, would appreciate some acknowledgement that there is more than one position available on the question of military/police service.


Written by sameo416

October 18, 2011 at 8:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. I have heard Christians state directly that Christians do not join the military or become police officers.

    I believe Hippolytus was the first one to put that down in writing, wasn’t he?

    Tim Chesterton

    October 23, 2011 at 11:28 pm

  2. Lots of good thoughts here Matt. A couple of responses.

    First, I cannot see anywhere in the gospels where Jesus prohibits prostitution. In fact, he seems to be rather cosy with prostitutes. If you say, ‘But surely his prohibition of lust and fornication and so on involves a prohibition of prostitution?’ then I would reply, ‘And surely his prohibition of killing and his command to love your enemies involves a prohibition of military service’? You know very well that this was how the Church Fathers interpreted the scriptures for at least the first 150 years of Christianity.

    Second, I cannot understand the idea of sinning with the intention of repenting afterwards, as if this makes it alright. Do you think God will accept people’s repentance if he knows full well that it is not genuine – i.e. that given the same set of circumstances they would do the same thing again? If a thief came to you and said, “Well, I did the burglary because I needed to feed my family, but then I repented afterward, and I’m going to do the whole thing again next time they’re hungry’, what would be your pastoral advice?

    Lastly, I would simply point out that if the Christian missionaries who evangelised Rwanda had done their job and made sure that the people of the ‘most Christian nation in Africa’ understood that a call to follow Christ involved a call to turn away from violence and tribalism, the situation would have been very different in the first place.

    Tim Chesterton

    October 23, 2011 at 11:36 pm

    • Thanks Tim,

      My comment about the lack of an absolute prohibition wasn’t intended to forward my argument – I just wanted to highlight that some argue the point as if there was an absolute prohibition from the lips of Christ. You have to infer things to get to an absolute prohibition on military service, which was my only point. Inferred positions (or derived theology) are weaker, imho, than those which can be shown to be direct commands of Christ (love thy neighbour as thyself).

      I’m staying away from the Church fathers on this question, as there have been 1850 years of contrary thought as the dominant paridigm. I’m not sure either position is that helpful.

      Perhaps set my sinning with knowledge aforehand comments aside. That is a bit further down the debate, as I was trying to reconcile what I see as an imperative to sometimes use violence to fulfil Christ’s command to love thy neighbour. The first question is violence, the second is the state of your soul afterwards.

      One of the weaknesses I see in almost every apology for pacifism I’ve read is the answer of how a non-violent approach would have resolved events that have already happened. When Hays addresses the argument of the Second World War, he provides a simliar response – what if the Christians had refused to fight?

      You can’t counter an argument successfully by offering hypothetical situations that might have changed the reality of history. My first response to Hays is that there were lots of non-Christians in Germany pre-WW II who would have been happy to send all the Christians off to the camps as well…but that is just fencing in the dark with ‘what if’ arguments.

      The reality is Rwanda happened, 800,000+ were slaughtered. How does the pacifist answer the question of the use of force in that situation? If the answer is, do nothing, pray and let God sort things out, it would be good to say so.

      How does the pacifist answer the question of the use of force when my neighbour is undergoing a violent home invasion, the police are 30 minutes away, and I have the means to intervene to stop things…but only by using violence? If the answer is, yes, you do nothing and let your neighbour die, it would be nice to hear that stated directly.

      My main difficulty with absolute pacifism is that it demands I make the decision to protect my holiness, by allowing my neighbour to die. I’m not sure how that meet’s Christ’s supreme commandment to love thy neighbour.

      I think there is an alternate way – Ron Sider’s Christian Peacekeeper Teams – but that to is mostly at the point of hypothesis (aside from a few specific instances, no where near the scale he suggested). Even in that case, I can still see history that can only be answered by a violent response.


      October 24, 2011 at 4:00 pm

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