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.

The Christian acceptance of war

Most historians have acknowledged that the earliest Christians, so far as we know, were something very close to what we today would call pacifists in that they were in principle opposed to participating in war and other forms of violence. This assertion is contested as the evidence is ambiguous and sparse. However, the evidence that we do have, particularly written materials from the earliest Christians, points toward pacifism. This was the case until the 4th century.

Then things drastically change. That is, the written evidence concerning war and military service changes seemingly abruptly. Almost for sure, unrecorded changes in attitudes had been happening gradually for some time. In the 4th century, following the ascent of the emperor Constantine and his famous “conversion” to Christianity, public Christian opposition to participation in the military and fighting wars disappeared—setting the stage for the long tradition of Christian acceptance of war. Almost all Christian theology since then that has spoken to the issues has accepted war as valid as well as accepting violence against “heretics,” capital punishment, punitive criminal justice in general, and other “justified” violence.

In the years between Constantine and the 16th-century Reformation, the large majority of church members did not fight in wars and likely would have espoused a kind of peace-oriented view on warfare if asked. The main social dynamic was that wars were generally small and that those in the military were generally part of the military class. However, when wars of religion and nationalism began in Reformation era Europe, only a tiny number of Christians (mainly the early Anabaptists) opposed them or refused to fight in them when called upon to.

As war came to involve larger numbers of people (a key innovation came when during the Napoleonic wars at the turn of the 18th century widespread conscription was used to build armies), there was virtually no faith-based resistance from Christians. To the contrary, as a rule Christians offered unconditional support for their nations’ wars. This support continued during the massive wars of the 20th century—even as ever-larger numbers of citizens were drafted and casualties of both combatants and non-combatants skyrocketed.

To give an idea of just how universal the Christian affirmation of war became, I will refer to research I have done about the United States in World War II (see my PhD dissertation, “An Ethical Analysis of Conscientious Objection to World War II”). The United States instituted legal accommodations that allowed draftees who were opposed to participation in warfare to perform alternative service—a practical test of the pacifist convictions of American Christians. In the event, about 12,000 draftees performed alternative service compared to over 12 million who joined the military. That worked out to about one out of 1,000, or 0.1% of draftees being pacifists. Presumably, since the large majority of Americans were professing Christians, this miniscule percentage would be about the same for those who were church members.

Is there a theological basis for the near universal Christian affirmation of war? If we think of peace theology as theology that sees Jesus’s call to love all neighbors as the core conviction, one that precludes war, would it be accurate to call theology that accepts violence and warfare war theology? Let me suggest a two-part framework for thinking about war-accepting theology. The first element would be theology that overtly affirms war as, at least under certain conditions, valid and necessary (call this “active war theology”). The second element would be theology that does not exclude Christians affirming war (call this “passive war theology”).

Active war theology

A number of texts and themes have long been cited by those who explicitly affirm warfare. Perhaps the most obvious is the use of divinely initiated warfare in the Old Testament as a model for Christians. This goes back to the writings of Augustine at the end of the fateful 4th century. Since then, most Christians who have affirmed war have found the biblical precedents to be central. Such use of the Old Testament became popular only after the established Christian church ceased placing Jesus and his peaceable message at the center of Christian morality.

Along with quoting Old Testament war stories, Christians who have not understood Jesus’s teaching about love to be normative for all aspects of life have commonly cited the teaching in Romans 13 that has been understood to call upon Paul’s readers to obey their government, including in its exercise of punitive judgment toward wrongdoers. The weight of this text has generally been decisive when Christians feel they need to look elsewhere than Jesus’s life and teaching for guidance on how to relate to the state—and when they assume a positive disposition toward their nation. In contrast, in the generations immediately following Jesus’s ministry, his message was understood to call for his followers to place a higher priority on his moral teaching than on the demands of the state. Romans 13 was not cited much then.

Another theological theme that often underwrote an active acceptance of warfare was that those outside of the circle of the people of God were seen as Other and as inherently unclean. Since God is the God of our nation, we thus are called to see our nation’s enemies as unclean—and worthy of being warred against. God’s holiness and hatred of the unholy Other came to be linked with the dynamics of Othering that typically characterize nations at war—thereby making war against our nation’s enemies a war against God’s enemies. Linked with this notion of holiness, we find a sense of God’s justice as retributive justice. When our nation’s enemies act unjustly, the appropriate, God-honoring response is to punish the wrongdoers. This notion of retributive justice also has played a central role in the practice of capital punishment and other forms of violent criminal justice.

Another common aspect in the dynamic of active war theology is the sense that war is necessary for the defense or advancement of Christianity. The early image of Constantine’s warriors going into battle with crosses visibly displayed reflects what has been a common dimension of warfare in Christian nations ever since. In recent American history, often the sense of fighting to further Christian interests has been muted, but it has rarely been absent. The wars of America generally have been understood by Christians to be God’s wars.

Passive war theology

Probably most would agree with the points I make above about active war theology—these describe the bases for Christians overtly supporting war. My points concerning passive war theology may be less obvious. Again, the context here is my perception that we live in a culture that is always pushing us toward war. Theology that does not assist us in resisting that push is in a passive sense war theology. What are some of the elements of such theology?

The key theological move that has made Christians vulnerable to the acceptance of war is to marginalize the life and teaching of Jesus. For the earliest Christians and for the small fragment of Christianity that has continued to affirm pacifism, almost always Jesus’s message has stood at the center of their faith convictions. However, when it came time in the evolution of early Christianity for leaders to formulate their core convictions in the form of creedal statements, direct reference to that message was left out.

What are probably the two earliest creeds, the Apostles’ Creed and the first Nicene Creed, both jump from Jesus’s birth to his death without anything about what he said and did. In ignoring Jesus’s life and teaching these creeds surely were not intentionally intending to deny the importance of those aspects of the story. However, when they boiled things down to a bare essence and left Jesus’s life and teaching out, they removed from the core understanding of Christianity the main content that would protect Christians from accepting warfare. It may not be coincidental that at the same time that Christianity turned toward creedalism it also turned away from pacifism. And ever since the fourth century, most creeds and confessions of Christianity have continued to marginalize Jesus’s life and teaching.

Another key emphasis that characterized Christian doctrine beginning with the creeds was an emphasis on God’s separation from creation, the affirmation of an “autonomous God” reflected in seeing God as omnipotent, omniscient, and unchanging. With this notion of God, what became most important in relation to Jesus was the confession of Jesus as “fully divine,” a confession that, though coupled with the affirmation of Jesus as fully human, made the message of Jesus’s life and teaching even more marginal for Christian theology. Love as a characteristic of this autonomous God became more abstract and other worldly than the historically embedded love of the God of the Bible, most definitively expressed in the life and teaching of Jesus.

One other element of passive war theology may be what we could call “autonomous sacramentalism”—how core Christian rituals (“sacraments”) may be seen as means of grace that have validity (even being necessary for salvation) apart from the embodiment of faith conviction in life. As far as I know, no Christian tradition would explicitly state that the rituals have validity apart from moral faithfulness, but in practice the rituals do often have a stand-alone character. All too often people who violate Jesus’s moral expectations partake without turning away from such violations (including acting in ways that violate the love command).

Peace theology responds

Given the terrible track record of Christianity in relation to warfare, imagining a peace theology alternative to war theology stands as an urgent task. Here I will only briefly touch on what I think should be important correctives. The answer to war theology is not, tempting as it might be, to advocate simply for doing away with doctrines and rituals. The doctrines and rituals are not inherently problematic. They may indeed be helpful for the sustenance of faith when they are self-consciously understood to serve the embodiment of Jesus’s message. That is, when they center love of all neighbors as the key expression of a living relationship with God (see my book, Theology as if Jesus Matters: An Introduction to Christianity’s Main Convictions).

Peace theology does offer alternative ways to understand the various elements of active war theology, especially with regard to interpreting and applying the teaching of the Bible (see my book, God’s Healing Strategy: An Introduction to the Bible’s Main Themes). With regard to the elements of passive war theology, we might focus more on changing the context within which we understand God, Jesus, and the sacraments. If we see those convictions as meant always to serve the practice of love of all neighbors, we may be able to turn them from passive war theology to overt peace theology.

Questioning Faith blog series

3 thoughts on “Is Christian theology war theology? [Question faith #14]

  1. What would the “efficacy of a sacrament” look like?   The water works more in some and less in others?   Some swallow the leader in a way that propitiates God and others do not?

    Romans 5: 9  Since we have now been declared righteous by His blood, we will be saved through Him from wrath. 10 For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, 
    How can those who are still at enmity with God have already been reconciled to God ?

  2. Good thoughts and analysis, Ted. As you imply, the problem is massive. Very few, Christian or otherwise, will stand on the principle of love, taken broadly and deeply.

    As you know, no doubt better than I, to consistently stand against war requires a large, complex approach to national policy/attitudes and international relations. I can’t see even copious amounts of education and spiritual lift being able to make the world much more peaceful.

    It will take committed people using deep skills to put in place the many-layered processes needed to keep disagreements from blossoming into armed conflict. And once conflict is to a certain point, there’s insufficient will to stop it.

    1. I just referred to “disagreements “. I’m not sure that mere differences of opinion, at least in the modern/postmodern era, lead to armed conflicts.

      Here are some of the things that can and sometimes DO lead to wars or extensive violence:

      The reality OR perception that an opponent in power (or with potential to attack powerfully) is going to take away treasured freedom(s). Similarly, to seriously alter a person’s culture/way of living or ability to produce income.

      [I intend to add to this, but can’t now, so will post this much… I think it shows my bent toward things generally concrete and/or financial as more likely to be violence triggers than abstract beliefs.

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