How does Christian pacifism work? [Questioning faith #15]

Ted Grimsrud—January 29, 2023

My definition of pacifism starts with the conviction that no belief or commitment or loyalty matters more than loving all others. It follows from such a conviction that participating in or preparing for or supporting warfare would never be acceptable. A key element, then, of this kind of conviction is that it requires a break from the widely held assumption that we should allow our nation to decide for us when war is okay. This assumption I call the “blank check”—the willingness (generally simply assumed more than self-consciously chosen) to do what our nation calls upon us to do, to give it—in effect—a blank check.

I have studied the responses American citizens had to their nation’s all-in call for fighting World War II. Only a tiny handful refused to take up arms, and I would say that almost universally those “conscientious objectors” shared a sense of loyalty to some higher moral conviction than accepting the blank check—and those who weren’t COs did not share that loyalty. Those who went to war did accept that their highest loyalty was owed to their nation.

If I add the modifier “Christian” to the term pacifism, the basic definition remains the same, but it adds the source of the conviction about the centrality of love. “Christian pacifism,” I would say, is the conviction that loving others is our never to be subordinated moral commitment, and this is due to the message of Jesus. Christians who aspire to have love be their central moral conviction (that is, “Christian pacifists”) look especially to Jesus’s teaching that love of God and neighbor is the heart of God’s will for human beings.

Why self-consciousness about pacifism matters

The two main inter-related reasons for why it is so important actually to understand Christian pacifism are: (1) in the long history of Christianity, hardly any Christian groups have in fact been committed to pacifism despite it being so central to Jesus’s message and (2) in the long history of human civilization hardly any Christians seem to have seriously questioned the validity of giving the state a blank check when it comes to warfare despite war being so obviously a violation of Jesus’s core message.

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Is Christian theology war theology? [Question faith #14]

Ted Grimsrud—January 9, 2023

The kind of theology I believe in is what I call “peace theology.” By “peace theology” I mean the conviction that love of God and of all neighbors are the center of faith. No other conviction or commitment is as important as love. As a result of this conviction, violence, warfare, injustice, and domination are all rejected as acceptable behaviors—that is, I believe we are called to a pacifistic way of life. One of the main emphases of peace theology is to seek to understand all of our key convictions in light of this core conviction of love.

I also recognize that the Christian tradition has not affirmed peace theology. The vast majority of Christian teaching and Christian practice has found war and other forms of violence to be acceptable for most of its history. However, I believe that peace theology is the original Christian theology—it follows directly from the life and teaching of Jesus. So, for me, one of the key questions that arises in relation to Christianity is: Why did things change (see my earlier blog post, “Why did Christianity move so far away from the message of Jesus?”)?

The social context for thinking about peace theology

The question that just now has intrigued me is this: In recognizing that Christian theology (defined here in terms of what most Christians believe) is no longer peace theology, does that mean that Christian theology is “war theology”? In this post, I want to reflect on that question. I will start with an assumption that not everyone will share. I suspect it is impossible to be neutral about war in our current world, at least in the United States. That is, the momentum in our society it towards war. Public spending, policy decisions, and the message of popular culture all are prowar, pro-preparation for war, pro-military response to conflicts. Peace theologian Walter Wink used the term “myth of redemptive violence” to describe the general disposition of American culture (and most other cultures). Americans believe that violence works to solve problems, that often it is the only thing that works. So, we are drawn to orient ourselves toward violence and warfare. Another coined term fits in describing our general disposition in the US: “warism.” By “warism” I have in mind the belief in war, a belief that leads to the acceptance of making preparation for war-making the most important focus of our society (as measured, say, by public expenditures).

In a warist world that is shaped by the myth of redemptive violence, theological neutrality is impossible. To say nothing and to ignore the dominant mythology in our society is actually to offer implicit support and affirmation. To say nothing also seems to be blind to the ways that warism shapes everything about how we perceive the world—including our theology. I tend to think we either self-consciously notice and oppose warism or we, at least implicitly, affirm it. We can’t avoid it.

Continue reading “Is Christian theology war theology? [Question faith #14]”