An Idol Called Peace

an idol called peace

 Peace is a good thing. God is described numerous times throughout the Biblical text as being a proponent of peace (Psalm 34:14, Isaiah 9:6, 1 Corinthians 14:33, etc.). Yet carnage, death and destruction also find their place within the Biblical narrative; many times the same God who claims to be the “prince of Peace” mandates violence. The most startling and significant of these examples was when God allowed his own Son to be crucified. Violence- it would seem- can be and has been utilized as an instrument of God’s wrath. Thus a Christian who claims or asserts “peace” as an end goal is entirely misguided.

Which is why I’m a pacifist.

On the one hand, this seems like a paradoxical statement. But if we examine the Biblical text we find that peace is not an end in and of itself. The (albeit, prominent) role of peace throughout the Biblical narrative is as a means to a greater end: that end being God’s glorification. For God is a God who “makes wars cease to the ends of the earth” in order that he “…will be exalted among the nations” (Psalm 46:9-10). The Psalmist does not desire peace but rather acknowledges it as an earthly testimony to God’s Lordship. God’s glorification is the chief end and purpose of not only the Biblical narrative but also the individual Christian life and corporate aim of the Christian Church.

Which is why I should specify in saying: I’m a Christian pacifist.

Just War Theorists excuse warfare as a necessary evil for the sake of peace. Under this view, war can be justified when its end is clear, its authority legitimate, all other options are exhausted and there is civilian or noncombatant immunity. In other words: if peace is accomplished, the violence must be regulated but can be justified.

The problem with this theory is clear. As Professor of Theological Ethics Dr. Daniel M. Bell states: “one would have to search long and hard to find a war whose supporters did not claim their cause was just.” Hence: World War II was a war against a genocidal regime; the war in Iraq was a preemptive strike necessary for the stability of the Middle East, and so on and so forth. The pacifist counter to this proposition is that it’s plainly (and cruelly) ironic: following the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, the entire city was flattened. At that point, there was no violence. But everyone was also dead. To call that ‘peace’ is just absurd. Peace must be attained- and can only be attained- with the absence of violence entirely.

But arrival at the latter conclusion brings a dilemma for the Christian Pacifist. Because one cannot argue that God is only a God of peace. Granted, Christ told Peter to put his sword away (Matthew 26:52) which the church father Tertullian took to mean that Jesus “in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier.” But, then again, the Israelites committed God-ordained genocide against many of their pagan enemies. And Christ also said he did not come to bring peace but the sword (Matthew 10:34). Lastly, we cannot deny the fact that Christ’s sacrificial purpose was centered on an act of violence- albeit as a recipient of violence- but violence nonetheless.

For a Christian, any theology in which peace is held up as the supreme end, whether directly or indirectly, cannot hold water. The pagan pacifist worships peace but for the Christian pacifist Christ is the king.

Therefore, Christian pacifism cannot be presented as different words plugged into the same rhetoric as our secular counterparts. Which, all too often, it is. The result is Christian pacifists bowing not to a God of grace and justice, of wrath and compassion, but to a one-dimensional God of peace. In other words, we must understand that God is the God of peace, but he is also much more.

And so the Christian pacifist acknowledges the nuanced possibility that God can and does utilize violence in his name. The Christian cannot implement pacifism for the sake of maintaining a utopian ideal. Rather, nonviolence needs to be adopted and preferred by Christians as a way of proclaiming Christ and his coming kingdom.

As such, Christian pacifism sees the violence and massacres of the Old Testament, not in juxtaposition to the New Testament, but as a dark foreshadowing of the wrath of God to be poured out upon sin and death itself, a judgment that is borne by Christ on the Cross. In seeing such continuity, there is no disparity in a God of the Old Testament who executes his judgment through the nation of Israel and a God of the New Testament who takes the sin of the world on and usurps it through the most inconceivable of means- beating death at it’s own game, rising from the grave on Easter morn.

What the Biblical narrative points to is that Christ’s defeat of death also defeated the purpose of violence and death in his inaugurated kingdom. Christ defeated death so the Christian might proclaim its end. For the Christian to claim otherwise is a denial of Christ’s opposition to sin on the cross. As a result of Calvary, human instigation of violence can no longer be excused as a Biblical notion; it does not embellish the continuity of the Biblical meta-narrative but breaks from it almost entirely!

Which gives the Christian pacifist an entirely different paradigm -a revolutionary perspective- with which to view the world. Here I will paraphrase Alasdair MacIntyre in suggesting that the Christian is called to ask not ‘what should I do?’ but rather ‘what is the story I tell with my life?’

As Christians, the story we tell has to be centered on the cross, the cross that commissioned Christianity with the glorious task of proclaiming Christ as King against which sin, death, violence and destruction cannot stand. In light of this reality, for a Christian to perpetrate violence against another human being is contradictory to our Christian nature.

We may excuse the violence as a means to end, the end being peace, but such is not service to God but service only to a facet of God’s being. Peace is not the goal; but God’s glory is. A square is a rectangle but a rectangle is not necessarily a square: God’s glory includes peace, but peace doesn’t always give tribute to God’s glory.

At the end of the day, it is the coherent testimony of the Biblical text that must guide a Christian’s ethic. The Old Testament texts all point to the person and life of Christ- God’s revelation in full human flesh. And the climax of God’s revelation was a moment in which he subjected himself to the violence of human hands and commanded his disciples to put away their swords. Though armies of angels surrounded him, he never lifted a finger against those who perpetrated violence against him. He did this, not in the name of peace, but for the end purpose of God’s glorification.

Which is to say that the Christian pacifist must allow for the (theoretical) possibility of violence as a Christian means. This is necessary. Because the Biblical narrative is not a dogmatic presentation for or against violence, but a story that tells of God’s glory coming about in his creation. And a story- as anyone who reads for a living can testify- is not dogmatic; it is nuanced. The Christian pacifist is dishonest to proclaim that God cannot be served through violence- or at least that he never has been. In the same breath as this admission, however, it’s important to understand that the Biblical narrative has brought the Christian community to a point where violence is no longer a testimony to the glory of God, in that it’s purpose was completed in Christ on the cross.

The Christian calling is not to be peacemakers; it’s to glorify God. The former is idolization of a characteristic of God which, when placed upon the throne, can have destructive demands (“the ends justify the means”). The Christian is called to serve God in his entirety, not cherry-pick attributes and serve as we please. And the climax of God’s revelation was Calvary. From the cross, Christ disallows a sword in the hand of the Christian. As NT Wright once put it, the Christian story is not a power story, it’s a love story. Love poured out on all humanity, all creation, not to be negated or overlooked for any idol. Even that of peace.

Thus, as Stanley Hauerwas states:

“Christians are not called to non-violence because we think non-violence is a strategy to rid the world of war. Of course, we would like to make war less likely. But rather Christians are called to non-violence in a world of war because as faithful followers of Christ we cannot imagine being anything other than non-violent in a world of war.”

Christians are not called to serve an idol called “peace”. But we are called to serve a God whose climactic moment of revelation was the death of death. The story to be told in the Christian’s life is that we’ve no use for violence because we’ve seen God in the flesh and we behold his glory – not as one who fights death, but one by whom death is already conquered.

 

Which is why I am a Christian pacifist.

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The People Who Made Me A Pacifist

Pacifist

I grew up in a military family. My father was an Air Force pilot, as was his father before him. I always admired them both. So it made sense that, when it came to deciding on my future, the military held prominent appeal.

I entered college with a Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship; my goal was to earn a college degree then begin my career as an Infantry officer. I woke up for physical training at 4 AM. I ran extra miles on the weekend. I dreamt of going to Ranger School.

I was always aware that there were some people who viewed my choice of profession as immoral, even anti-Christian. And I had no problem publically disputing such claims. I wrote editorials for the school newspaper. I cited Christian thinkers like C.S. Lewis and Augustine as support. And I appealed to Biblical notions of justice, wrath and even Christ’s demands for selfless service.

But then I underwent a transformation. Through conversation, research, and prayer I adopted pacifist beliefs. This change of heart did not occur in isolation; I was deeply influenced by numerous writers, friends, co-workers and mentors.

Here’s a few of those people:

  1. Shane Claiborne

Shane Claiborne is a radical character. His father was a Vietnam veteran and died when he was young. He attended college and seminary, during which he developed a firm conviction for Christ’s calling to nonviolence and radical love towards others.

During my junior year of college- my third year of Army officer training- I picked up a copy of Claiborne’s book Irresistible Revolution. C.S. Lewis once said that a young atheist couldn’t be too careful with what he reads; the same should be said for a young Army officer.

In his book, Claiborne tells of how he journeyed with a group of like-minded Christians to Iraq during the United States “Shock and Awe” campaign at the beginning of the Second Gulf War. While there, Claiborne witnessed the pain, horror and aguish brought about by American bombs. He saw hospitals destroyed, churches annihilated, and children orphaned. Such tragedies weren’t necessarily news to me. But American media reported them callously. They were “collateral damage”: a necessary evil for a greater good.

But Claiborne pulled bodies from wreckage. He cried and worshiped with scores of Iraqi Christians, huddled in bomb shelters and church basements. During this time, he had a conversation with Iraqi Christians who wondered why American Christians were bombing them. Claiborne tried to explain that the Christians who dropped bombs believed that, in doing so, they were doing God’s will.

This story had a profound impact on me; it prompted me to realize that the enemies of my country are not necessarily enemies of mine. More troubling was the thought that they also weren’t enemies of Christ.

  1. Sergeant Jones

Shortly after encountering Shane Claiborne, I participated in a day of weapons training. I was waiting in a line of fellow officers at the range, preparing to practice firing an M240 machine gun. A sergeant was inspecting all the officers, ensuring proper wear of our flak vests and earplugs. He was a grisly character, vividly wrinkled and scarred. He had about half a container of chewing tobacco stuffed in his bottom lip.

As he went along the line of officers, he asked each of us: “why did you join the Army?!”. It didn’t matter what the answer was, Sergeant Jones always responded with: “WRONG! You joined the Army to kill!”

Sergeant Jones may have had the appearance and demeanor of a Dostoevsky antagonist. But his philosophy is neither unprecedented nor rare in military ranks and training. Army running cadences unite soldiers with cries of: “Shoot! Shoot! Shoot to kill!” All soldiers- regardless of their duty description- are required to qualify at the weapons range. The Soldiers Creed- also memorized by all- states that members “… stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States.”

Sergeant Jones opened my eyes to the poignant reality that engagement in the military demanded forfeiture of personal convictions to those of my nation. If my nation said: “kill!” then I had sworn to kill.

But I’m a Christian whose sole allegiance is to Christ; Christ who tells me to love my enemies, pray for those who would do me harm.

How then can I serve?

  1. Adolf Hitler

The history books of my youth shied away from one vital lesson: the villains never believe they are villains.

Adolf Hitler is a good example. A simple reading of Mein Kempf reveals a conscience who: “believes today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty.” Vincent J. Donovan, in his book Christianity Rediscovered, tells of how Hitler always prayed for the blessing of “Almighty God” upon his troops. Donovan recounts a conversation he had with a Nazi doctor who told him how the nuns and students in German schools were sure to pray for blessings on the Nazi endeavors.

Adolf Hitler believed he had a duty to “be a fighter for truth and justice.” To such an end, Hitler said, “It matters not whether these weapons of ours are humane: if they gain us our freedom, they are justified before our conscience and before our God.”

When I stumbled upon these little tidbits of history, when I compared the rhetoric of my military leaders with villains of ages past, I felt a shiver go down my spine.

What side of history would I have been on? What side am I on?

  1. Jesus Christ

It is not fair to say, as many pacifists might, that Jesus words on this issue were “cut and dry”. Though I hold to the belief that Jesus truly commanded nonviolence, most of his teachings were parabolous and vague. And appeals to a purely literal reading of Christ’s words aren’t helpful to the nuances of this conversation. Additionally, such arguments are easily bypassed or shot down.

But what Christians cannot overlook is the story Christ’s life told. Christ who had infinite power did not use it to subjugate creation to his will. Rather, he submitted to his enemies and suffered as the recipient, not the perpetrator, of violence. As Christians, we are committed to making Christ’s story our story.

NT Wright put it well when he said: “our story is not a power story but a love story.” And I have come to the conviction that I cannot live as a testimony to this story while also accepting employment as a lethal weapon for my country.

Still, it’s easy for me to tout this ethic from the comforts of middle-class America. My family will probably never be threatened and I am unlikely to ever be put in a situation that forces me to choose between my commitment to non-violence and my own personal safety. As such, I hold this ethic humbly and understand the cost it demands is not one I may ever have to pay. I live in a country defended by men and women who bravely (and virtuously) fight for my freedom.

But a necessity for humility does not mean I should abandon a pacifist ethic. I cannot control the times in which I live, but I can control the story I tell. As a Christian, the story of my life should be one that follows closely and fervently in the steps of a crucified Savior. And there is no room for an M16 on the cross; no swords allowed in the hands of his disciples.

It is with such a conviction that I proclaim that I am a Christian. And, therefore, I am also a pacifist. For I truly believe that, as Tertullian once put it: “Christ in disarming Peter disarmed every soldier.”

And so I lay down my sword.

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