Why do so many Christians support warism? [Questioning Faith #20]

Ted Grimsrud—April 13, 2023

One of the aspects of Christianity that has long troubled me and has played an increasingly significant role in my sense of my own faith has been how Christianity has for so long and so decisively been comfortable with “warism” (by which I mean to believe in war, to have a generally uncritical and positive disposition toward preparing for, threatening, promoting, and ultimately fighting in war). I grew up in my family with a mild warism and a vague Christian sensibility and had no sense that there could be a tension between the two. After my conversion at age 17, my religious convictions became much stronger as did my warism (in church, I was presented a very favorable view of America’s wars).

However, a few years later, I embraced Christian pacifism and became convicted that warism and Christian faith should be mutually exclusive. The contradiction became apparent once I began to see Jesus’s message as politically normative for Christians. Very quickly, I also came to see warism as deeply problematic on its own terms even when not judged in light of Jesus’s message. Mainly, though, my convictions about Jesus showed me the inherent problems with warism. As John Prine sang back in those days, “Jesus don’t like killing, no matter what the reason for.” I faced a crucial historical question. What changed? If Jesus was about peace, how did his followers become so warist?

Christianity’s turn from Jesus’s way

From the time of my embrace of Christian pacifism, I have wanted to understand better why the large majority of Christians have tended not to do likewise. I learned that the history of Christianity from New Testament times to the fourth century is ambiguous on questions of war and peace. Hence, analyses tend to be contested. I feel comfortable saying, though, that earliest Christianity did (with few exceptions) apply Jesus’s teachings in a way that led to pacifism. We have no record of a Christian leader supporting participation in warfare until the 4th century.

The evolution of Christianity during its first few centuries did move in the direction of the acceptance of war even though not in overt and direct ways. The big picture political situation changed early in the 4th century when Emperor Constantine formally established a rapprochement with Christianity following generations of intense and at times deadly persecution. Christians, it seems, accepted that connection immediately and without debate and in short order became soldiers and supporters of the Empire’s wars—to the point that less than a century after the initial rapprochement, only Christians were allowed in the Roman military.

Shockingly (at least from the point of view of Christian pacifism), the history of Christianity since the 4th century is, essentially, a history of the largely uncritical acceptance of war in almost all Christian communities. This is shocking because this warism seems so drastically contrary to what Jesus advocated. It is also shocking because we have virtually no record of debate or disagreement with the turn toward war among Christian leaders. And it is shocking as well that Jesus’s life and teaching essentially disappeared from the main accounts of Christian theology and ethics (this is apparent early on in the authoritative creeds and confessions of the churches that, typically, if they mention Jesus’s life at all, jump from his virgin birth to his crucifixion).

Christians and the state

My sense is that at its core, the move from Christianity’s early pacifism to accept fighting and support wars was not about new theology nearly so much as evolving views of the state and their relationship to it. The earliest Christians seem to have had a critical disposition toward the state, often seeing it as an enemy of God and God’s people. The book of Revelation set a tone of viewing the state as an idol that demanded and received loyalty from its people that was a rival to the loyalty people of faith owed to God alone. One of the main expressions of this idolatrous loyalty was in the killing that characterized warfare. Gradually, and generally without notice during the first few centuries, the Christian disposition toward the state became more positive. For a number of generations, the source of animosity in the Christian/state tension came more from the state as various Roman emperors found it politically useful to persecute Christians.

By the time Rome installed Constantine, an emperor who wanted to end the hostility, most Christians were all too happy to make friends with the Empire and its leaders. In short order, the Roman state became for Christians a close ally. Seemingly automatically, the positive view of the state was accompanied by a positive view about war and the military. What resulted was an almost total loss of the earlier suspicion of the state and the sensibility that linked loyalty to the state with idolatry. This transformation was complete to the point that ever since, Christians have almost always given the state a kind of “blank check” where they accept uncritically the linking together their loyalty to God with their loyalty to their state. They would accept whatever demands the state may make with little question. Somehow, what has followed has been a sea change in how Jesus’s life and teaching were appropriated. To the extent that Christians paid any attention at all to the call to love their enemies, it was to explain why that did not apply to their responsibilities as citizens of often-warring states.

Something like a blank check was present already in the writing of the profoundly influential Bishop Augustine of Hippo who, drawing heavily on the Roman political thinker Cicero, provided much of the intellectual grounding for what came to known as the just war theory. Augustine taught that ordinary Christian citizens should of course be happy to be part of the military and to fight in wars when called upon. While he expressed concern that the top leaders of the state and military should be sure that their wars were justifiable, his instruction to the ordinary Christians was simply that their task was to obey their superiors. If they were ordered to fight, they had the obligation to fight without questioning their orders.

It is the case that the large majority of Christians did not participate in warfare until the emergence of mass warfare in the Napoleonic era which led to the use of conscription that cast the net nationwide in the enlistment of soldiers. Before, service in the military was generally limited to the professional soldier class. But there were few restrictions on Christians being part of this class. Soldiers, especially those at the top of the military hierarchy, were greatly honored by the churches. The idea that Christians would refuse to fight due to their loyalty to Jesus mostly ended back in the 4th century.

The early Christian refusal to support war did not completely die out, of course. Tiny pacifist minorities have survived around the edges of Christianity. They rarely reached the critical mass needed to be seen as a threat to the established prowar ethos of mainstream Christianity. That the blank check held sway among Christians may be seen not only in the almost total ignorance of pacifism as an option for those who professed Christian faith but, maybe even more telling, in the lack of a clear articulation of the just war theory for more than a millennium after Augustine’s time (Augustine had never articulated a systematic argument for just war philosophy, he simply spoke to various issues on an ad hoc basis). Contrary to the common view, over the generations Christians did not create articulated just war philosophy in order to make sure that their wars were morally appropriate. The practical reality was that Christians simply did what they were told to do by their various states. In time, some Catholic moral philosophers did sketch out a just war approach, but this was never well known or operationalized by any militarily engaged state.

The reality for most Christians has only ever been some version of the blank check approach. If there would be debates about war among Christians, they would mainly be about which state they should fight for when there were conflicts between rival states that could demand loyalty from the same soldiers. We see this in an especially poignant way when we study the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. Almost automatically, when Protestants broke with Catholicism the result was bloody warfare, “the wars of religion” that some historians now see as a key impetus in the ultimate rise of atheism and secularism in Europe.

Sustaining the blank check

The blank check has remained powerfully operative for the large majority of Christian communities down to the present day. I believe, though, that it not actually a very secure position. I believe that human beings do not naturally want to be warists—both on a personal level in that we are not born warriors but have to learn to be as well as on a social level in that warism is actually a viewpoint that profoundly undermines human wellbeing. So, what keeps it going? Let me suggest several aspects that sustain the blank check in spite of its fragility.

The most powerful factor may be our lifelong socialization into the myth of redemptive violence, the religious-like belief that violence is necessary for security and that it works to provide for our most important needs. This belief is part of the air we breathe in the US. The stories we are told from a young age, children’s cartoons, the movies and television shows we watch, the novels we read, the political messages we receive, advertisements, and so much more all repeat the same basic story—violence is simply the nature of things, and it is a requirement to resolve conflicts, to provide security, and to insure our future. The good guys usually win—and that is due to their violence. So, it is the unquestioning response of most Americans (including Christians) that we need to build up our war machine on a continual basis even when we already spend more on our military than the next ten largest countries in the world combined.

Among Christians another major factor has been a long history of interpreting the Bible in warism-friendly ways. Violence in the Old Testament has been highlighted in discussions of war among Christians, to the point that it decisively overshadows Jesus’s life and teaching. A single, cryptic statement in Romans 13 has typically been interpreted to call for Christian obedience to government. It has been cited over and over as the basis for going to war when the state calls—in contrast to the steady warnings in the Bible about how state leaders tend to be rebels against God (e.g., Egypt’s Pharaoh, Israel’s kings, the Babylonians, and the Romans). Such readings of the Bible have permeated most Christian traditions and powerfully shaped from an early age those who grow up in the church.

A third factor would be the strong effect of Othering, where some people are defined as different and, typically, as morally less valuable and respectable than those within our own people group. Such Othering often is a prerequisite for imagining some people as enemies to be feared who are acceptable to war against. Christians are susceptible to Othering in part because of how they draw clear boundary lines between themselves as God’s people and Others outside that population. The Othering has a powerful, on-going impact. As the saying goes, human beings create boundaries and then boundaries create human beings.

The Othering may be linked with the tendency that Christians have long had to give a positive theological meaning to their own nation. Certainly, this is an important dynamic in the US. We grow up singing songs such as “God Bless America” and seeing “In God We Trust” on our money. Most churches have American flags front and center. The interests of the Christian God and the interests of the American nation-state are generally closely linked.

A final and reinforcing factor is hostility toward those who dissent from these dynamics that sustain the blank check. This is a major reason that challenges are rarely voiced to the idea that the blank check is the overwhelming predominant Christian attitude toward war. People who challenge the prevailing assumptions as a rule are ignored as being part of a miniscule minority. However, should their challenge ever gain traction, they will be treated harshly.

What can be done?

Given the hurtful consequences of Christianity’s adherence to the blank check and the possibility that that position may actually be more fragile than its popularity would imply, Christian pacifists and others who hope to break its hold should try to find ways to resist it—even in face of likely hostile resistance. I will mention just a few elements of such a strategy.

To see the world through the lens of biblical faith requires discernment into the character and will of God on the one hand and the nature of the idols that are most likely to contend for our loyalty on the other hand. I suggest that blank check Christianity is succumbing to an idolatry of the warist state. Such a conclusion follows from the affirmation that we best know God’s character through careful attention to Jesus’s life and teaching and how he embodied the message of Torah and the prophets. We should be attentive to the sharp contrasts that are apparent when we compare Jesus’s vision for human life with the values and practices of warist nation-states. Such a comparison will encourage us to recognize the dynamics of idolatry that are present when the blank check holds sway. Such a recognition should lead to seeking to break the hold of the idols and toward a new vision for political life.

Placing the message of Jesus and the prophets at the center of our political discernment will also help us to develop alternative readings of the Bible. We will challenge the warist emphases on Old Testament violence and on Roman 13’s alleged call for obedience to the state. We will both discern other ways to read those specific texts and, more importantly, place at the center of our biblical interpretation a Jesus-inspired political theology that recognizes the Bible’s vision for peace and genuine restorative justice that has no place for warism.

Reading the Bible for a political philosophy that reflects the core elements of the message of Jesus and the prophets concerning themes such as power, care for vulnerable and oppressed people, critiques of dominating hierarchies, and decentralized leadership points toward a foundational suspicion of centralized state power. Such a political philosophy may well have some common ground with the anarchist tradition insofar as it combines this suspicion of state power with an optimism about the possibilities for self-organizing among social groups.

The processes of discernment regarding reading the Bible, resisting warism, and envisioning alternative political dynamics that focus on empowerment from below, restorative justice in face of conflicts and harm doing, and an economics of generosity make clear how important the formation of communities of dissent is. For Christians to break free from warism will require a critical mass of faith communities where the way of Jesus and the prophets is being embodied.

Questioning Faith blog series

One thought on “Why do so many Christians support warism? [Questioning Faith #20]

  1. Good informative article, Ted. Thanks.

    I know from over 5 years consistently working for systemic change in our political structures and processes (which COULD and perhaps WOULD lead to significant changes in warism), that re-orienting even just Christians in America is a daunting task. Not to say it shouldn’t be engaged. It should!

    Here’s something I’ve been wondering: Do you have a strategy beyond your own writing for tackling the project? Like how to perhaps stimulate and build a movement? And how it can/should be connected to related movements? (That latter process of connecting and building collaboration is a major focus of my main colleague and me in Compassionate Citizens Foundation.)

    Related to those questions is whether it’s best to deal with just general education and principles, including working on alternatives such as strategies for effective resistance in the event we would be attacked if we had much a much weaker military and became a tempting target. Or is there a way to “jump into the middle” of” a building conflict that increasingly seems like a lead-up to war, such as China’s determination to reunify with Taiwan by whatever means necessary?

    That is jump in by actively promoting a strategy and/or operations that could at least have a chance of settling the Taiwan situation short of kinetic attack… because, if the several high officials (or observant citizens like Warren Buffet) who think an attack is highly likely by 2025 to 2027 are right, Christians are almost certain to strongly back US participation… And the related question comes up as to whether it MAY be that US military participation might ultimately save more lives than if we stayed out and the Taiwanese resisted strongly but with great casualties, perhaps on both sides, but certainly on theirs? This is of course unknowable in advance but it is at least deserving of analysis and discussion, and as to whether we have any moral (or other) obligation to help Taiwan resist potential invasion.

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