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.

Continue reading “Christianity on war and peace: An overview”

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Pacifism and violence in the struggle against oppression

Ted Grimsrud—October 29, 2017

Is pacifism a viable social philosophy? I believe that it is, though I also recognize that arguments in favor of the possibility that at times violence might be appropriate can seem pretty persuasive. Nevertheless, as I will outline later in this post, I think the moral and practical problems with violence are ultimately insurmountable.

The impact of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., in the twentieth-century put principled nonviolence on the table as a possible option for those who desire social transformation. As well, the historic peace churches (Mennonites, Quakers, and Brethren) have sought in recent generations to apply their long tradition of Christian pacifism to social issues. But many have questioned whether pacifism is an adequate approach in the real world—whether it might even be unhelpful to the quest to overthrow injustice.

Principled pacifism may be defined as the conviction that it is never morally acceptable to use lethal violence against other people. This conviction has never been widely held, even though in the United States it has been present in a fairly prominent way dating back to the establishment of the Pennsylvania colony in the 1680s. The main impact of pacifist convictions in the US until the 20th century was the refusal of pacifists to join the military and fight in wars. The possibility of self-consciously nonviolent direct action did not gain widespread acceptance until the 20th century.

Changing notions of peacemaking

I write as a Mennonite Christian pacifist, though I believe that pacifism is a valid commitment for anyone. Several 20th century factors combined to transform the understandings and practices of principled pacifism among “peace church” Christians. World War I showed just how widespread and utterly destructive modern war could be (though much worse was soon to come), so a pragmatic case for rejection of war became more widespread. The philosophy and practice of nonviolent direct action as a means to bring about social change gained currency especially through the work of Gandhi in South Africa at the turn of the century and a couple of decades later in India. And peace church people became more acculturated and more likely to feel a sense of responsibility for having an impact in the wider world. Continue reading “Pacifism and violence in the struggle against oppression”

Why, in the end, I can’t vote for Hillary Clinton

Ted Grimsrud—November 4, 2016

Few of the people I know, even those who strongly supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries, are agonizing about their presidential vote next week. It is clear to just about everyone in my circles, it seems, that Donald Trump’s unacceptability as president could not be more clear. Hence, a vote for Clinton is a no-brainer.

Thinking in the context of the electoral college

I have been unsure, however. Not that I would imagine voting for Trump. Not that I don’t believe that Trump would be a complete disaster as president, a horror beyond imagining. But it seems important to me to recognize that our presidential election, given the undemocratic reality of the electoral college, is actually 50 different elections. As we learned in 2000, the winner of the national popular vote will not necessarily win the election.

So, the particular election I am voting in is the election that will determine the votes of Virginia’s members of the electoral college. This fact is important to keep in mind as I reflect on my struggle to discern how to cast my ballot. It is altogether possible that if we did go by the popular vote, I might decide to vote for Clinton—not so much as a vote for her as for a vote that would prevent Trump’s election (I made this kind of argument for voting for Obama in 2012—whereas in 2008 I happily [and naively] voted for Obama, believing at least a little in the hopey, changey stuff).

It is also altogether possible that if I lived in a state such as Ohio or Florida, where the outcome seems very much in doubt and whose electoral votes will be crucial to the outcome, I would vote for Clinton.

But those are irrelevant considerations for me as a resident of Virginia. In a stark contrast to 2000, when I voted for Ralph Nader because Virginia was in the bag for George Bush (meaning a vote for Albert Gore seemed like a wasted vote), now it seems as if Virginia is in the bag for Clinton. I am glad for this for two reasons—one is that I do want Trump to lose, the second is that I feel freer to think of my vote as one I can cast based on my ideals than simply a vote to prevent a worse evil happening. Continue reading “Why, in the end, I can’t vote for Hillary Clinton”

Our fathers’ war

Several months ago, I embarked upon a big project of trying to make some sense of the moral impact of World War II on the United States. I have done quite a bit of reading, speaking, and writing so far—aided by the blessing of a sabbatical from my teaching responsibilities at Eastern Mennonite University. This lecture especially summarizes some of what I have been thinking about. Here is the link to the rough drafts of the chapters to this book.

One theme has arisen for me that I did not anticipate when I started. That is thinking a lot more about my own father’s involvement in this war and how that involvement might have had an impact on our relationship. I was the fourth of my parents’ five children, but the first and only son. On the surface, I can think of several ways the war shaped my life—I was named after a friend of my dad’s who died in combat during the war, my parents met each other because of the war, and the new medical technology that saved my life when I was born (blood transfusions) would likely not have been available had it not been for the war.

Something I had not really thought about until I started on my project, though, was the trauma the war inflicted on those who fought in it. It makes a lot of sense to imagine the terrible trauma on the people in the many parts of the world who endured the fighting first hand, and the trauma for those societies that poured heart and soul into the fight and lost, and the trauma for the loved ones of the millions upon millions who lost their lives in the war (including about 400,000 American soldiers).

But what about the soldiers who fought on the winning side, who returned home physically whole to a country largely unscathed by the conflict, and who went on to live successful lives? That is, what about people like my father? Continue reading “Our fathers’ war”