Christianity on war and peace: An overview

Ted Grimsrud—March 15, 2018

[I was recently asked to write up the following brief overview of how Christians tend to view warfare. It will hopefully be published in the forthcoming Bloomsbury Companion to Studying Christians.]

Accounts of how Christians think and act in relation to war have tended to repeat the general typology that was introduced back in 1960 by historian Roland Bainton in Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace. Bainton saw three categories: pacifism (the commitment not to participate in war in any form), the just war (the willingness to go to war when certain criteria insuring the justness of the war are met), and the crusade (a sense of call from God to fight in a war that is understood to be divinely required).

However, this typology has been criticized for leaving too many options out and over-simplifying what is left. As an alternative, I propose a revised typology that has two main types: (1) Negatively disposed toward war and (2) positively disposed toward war. Each of these two types has three subtypes.

“Negatively disposed” toward war

What unites the three “negatively disposed” approaches is the conviction that, morally, the benefit of the doubt is always against war.

  1. Principled pacifism. This view is against war based on starting principles. For example, some Christians have said that they can not fight due to their understanding of Jesus’ commands such as “love your enemies.” The relative justice of particular wars is irrelevant. For example, in the United States during World War II those who were morally opposed to fighting were allowed to do alternative service as conscientious objectors. Such conscientious objectors refused military service simply because they believed any possible war was wrong due to their moral principles. Even if their country was to fight in a “just war,” principled pacifists would still refuse to fight.
  2. Pragmatic pacifism. This view is against war based on the evidence of how warfare works in actual practice. These conclusions follow from using just war criteria to conclude that all actual wars are certain to be unjust; that is, this pacifism is based on evidence. This view suggests that each war has violated some if not all the standard just war criteria.
  3. Critical just war. This view differs from “pragmatic pacifism” due by being open to the possibility that just war criteria may be met. These criteria typically are sorted into two categories: “just cause” (e.g., defending against aggression, resisting tyranny, stopping atrocities, declared by a legitimate authority, only undertaken as a last resort, undertaken with the near certainty of victory) and “just means” (e.g., noncombatants are not targeted, the violence used is not out of proportion to the good that the war achieves, of limited duration, the humane treatment of prisoners of war). This view starts with the assumption that any particular war is not just unless proved otherwise. The logical conclusion for those holding this view is that wars that do not overcome that burden of proof should be opposed. Something like this was a common view in the U.S. during the Vietnam War for many draftees who refused to fight went to Canada or prison.

This description of the “critical just war” view is close to the way many describe the “just war” position in general. They assume that it is the main alternative to pacifism in the Christian tradition. However, the “critical just war” view actually has few adherents. Notice that this view has no legal standing in the U.S.; those opposed to particular wars are still required to enter the military in the case of a draft or stay in the military if they are already there. If this view actually were common, there should have been more effort to make it legally viable.

“Positively disposed” toward war

What unites the three “positively disposed” approaches that follow is the conviction that war is inevitable and therefore we should not imagine a world without war. With this approach, we should not assume that wars need to overcome an anti-war benefit of the doubt.

  1. Just war as restraint. This view accepts the inevitability of war and believes that it is dangerous to seek to do away with war. A negative attitude toward war hinders preparedness efforts and jeopardizes national interests by weakening the ability to respond appropriately with military force when necessary. The purpose of moral reasoning is to advocate for restraint in the tactics of war, not to try to end war.
  2. Blank check. Though this view has not been named or studied by students of the history of war, it is by far the most common view held by Christians since the fourth century. The core conviction here is that citizens by definition have the responsibility to go to war when their nation calls upon them to. Though the influential fourth century bishop, Augustine, has been called the “founder” of Christian just war thought, he exerted great influence in undergirding the “blank check” approach. Augustine argued that citizens should leave the reasoning concerning a war’s justness to the government. A citizen’s responsibility is simply to obey one’s government.
  3. Crusade. This view differs from the blank check by having a more positive view of the goodness of war. If transcendental values are at stake, when one has a clear sense of calling to fight, then one must do so. Since for a crusade, the war serves an absolute good, one need not be concerned with just war concerns for proper procedures. In a crusade, the calling is to fight, all-out.

The typology outlined here helpfully separates two general approaches to pacifism. It also helps us see how pacifism and certain approaches to just war philosophy actually have a great deal in common. Also, this typology draws a dividing line between two distinct just war approaches. The “critical just war” view has much more in common with pacifism than with the “just war as restraint” view. This typology lifts up the “blank check” as not only a distinctive view rarely noticed in most discussions on this topic—but actually as by far the dominant view among Christians (and other citizens).



Christianity’s default position

Though our data is sparse, most historians of the early Christian era agree that most Christians likely affirmed some form of pacifism for a number of generations following the time of Jesus. The pacifism of the early Christians shows that those closest in history to Jesus understood his message to call them to radical love that precluded violence.

It is not until after the beginning of the 4th century that church leaders openly articulated an acceptance of Christians in the military. However, then the change from pacifism to acceptance of military involvement came decisively—indicating that the way had been prepared for quite some time. Probably the most central factor then, and in the generations down to our present day, in Christians turning away from their default pacifist position was a rejection of the distinction between loyalty to the community of faith and loyalty to the nation-state.

Christian pacifism survived, but at the margins the church. Christian pacifism surfaced among small groups that may be seen as movements that tried to restore a more Jesus-oriented approach to faith. The two traditions that sustained their peace witness into our present day were the Anabaptists who emerged in the 16th century and the Quakers who emerged in the 17th century. They have been called the “Historic Peace Churches.”

It took an Indian Hindu, Mohandas Gandhi, to demonstrate the potential of nonviolent action for effecting social change without bloodshed. Gandhi drew deep inspiration from the life and teaching of Jesus—and, in turn, inspired 20th-century Christians to take more seriously the possible confluence between the quest for social change and pacifism. Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist preacher who actually did not enter the civil rights movement as a pacifist, established the linkage between civil rights activism and nonviolence in a way that captured the imagination of millions. King did, at end of his all too short life, espoused a principled pacifism that was forged through on-the-ground experience.

The “blank check” and critical just war thought

Today’s pro-military Christians are in many ways closer to the actual Christian tradition than pacifists. The fourth century provides us with the key symbols that provide a framework for understanding the general practical philosophy of Christianity toward warfare. Constantine the Emperor at the beginning of the century and Augustine the Bishop at the end of the century may be said to reflect two poles within post-pacifist Christianity.

Constantine symbolizes the acceptance by Christians of the role of national leaders in determining the justifiability of war. In deferring to national leaders and national interests concerning warfare, the large majority of Christians have essentially uncritically understood it to be their responsibility simply to obey their government when it calls upon them to fight – that is, to give the government a blank check.

The other pole of the post-pacifist context concerning Christians and war may be called the “critical just war” approach. Augustine symbolizes this approach because he is often considered the father of the just war tradition. However, Augustine never articulated a formal just war philosophy with organized, systematic lists of criteria that could actually function as a critical resource for Christian responses to warfare. His actual approach in practice was much closer to the blank check. The ordinary Christian is to defer to one’s leaders.

It is not until the 16th century that we have a systematic delineation of the just war criteria as a formal statement. Only in the 20th century did the critical just war pole among post-pacifist Christianity begin to play a genuinely critical role. For most of the past seventeen centuries, the fundamental approach to warfare among the vast majority of Christians has been the blank check. Only in this way could you have war after war where Christians take up arms against other Christians.

Enlivening the “critical just war” view

The events of August 1945 changed application of just war principles forever. The use of nuclear weapons galvanized an outpouring of horror. A position called “nuclear pacifism” emerged based on just war criteria that says, ahead of time, that a nuclear war could never be justifiable. Just war criteria actually became a basis for opposing real wars. “Nuclear pacifism” among Christians received a tremendous boost with the 1983 pastoral letter from the United States Roman Catholic bishops that pointed strongly toward nuclear pacifism.

In the 1960s, for the first time the United States engaged in an extended war that did not meet with overwhelming public support. During the Vietnam War, a new category emerged, “selective conscientious objection.” This category included people who objected to participation in this particular war—not because they were pacifists but because they believed that that particular war was unjust.

Just war thought has in recent years served a critical function in fostering a refusal to participate in what seen as an unjust war. Just war thought served, as well, as a resource for those who actively opposed a war as it was being fought and not only after the fact. Now it also provides the language for opposing a war before it happens (e.g., note pre-war opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the early 2000s).

Nuclear pacifism and selective conscientious objection are products of the “critical just war” sensibility. They show that the main divide among Christians is not between pacifism and just war but between being negatively or positively disposed toward war as a starting point.

Brief bibliography:

Bainton, Roland. Christian Attitudes Toward War and Peace: A Historical Survey and Critical Re-evaluation. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1960.

Brock, Peter. Pacifism in Europe to 1914. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Brock, Peter. The Quaker Peace Testimony 1660-1914. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1990.

Cahill, Lisa Sowle. Love Your Enemies: Discipleship, Pacifism, and the Just War Theory. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994.

Grimsrud, Ted. The Good War That Wasn’t—And Why It Matters: The Moral Legacy of World War II. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014.

Hornus, Jean-Michel. It is Not Lawful for Me to Fight: Early Christian Attitudes Toward War, Violence, and the State. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1990.

Johnson, James Turner. Can Modern War Be Just? New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984.

Miller, Marlin and Barbara Nelson Gingerich, eds. The Church’s Peace Witness. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994.

Wink, Walter. Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.

Yoder, John Howard. Christian Attitudes To War, Peace, and Revolution. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2009.

Yoder, John Howard. Nevertheless: The Varieties and Shortcomings of Religious Pacifism, second edition. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994.

Yoder, John Howard. When War is Unjust: Being Honest in Just War Thinking, 2nd edition. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001.


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