Can Christians Turn Away from War?

Despite originating in Jesus’s messages of peace, Christianity has been arguably the world’s most violent religion with its adherents committing genocide on all continents except unpopulated Antarctica. Again and again, Christian churches have blessed warfare, but a new generation is objecting, says Rev. Howard Bess.

By the Rev. Howard Bess

The present upheaval in Christian churches cannot be divorced from the coming-of-age of a younger American population that is weary of war on the world scene, fed up with violence in our American communities, and outraged at the violence that is taking place in our homes. For many, violence has become unacceptable.

A key question that is taking center stage in this new developing Christianity is: “Is God violent?” That topic is addressed in Rob Bell’s book, Love Wins,which put him on the cover of Time magazine and won him a major piece in The New Yorker.

The face of God as depicted by Michelangelo in his painting at the Sistine Chapel.

Bell is not a lonely voice. He represents a growing base of American Christians who are weary of an angry, violent God, who loves some people and not others, loves some kinds of Christians but not others, loves Americans and not Chinese, loves Christians but not Muslims, and endorses insane wars.

But, some Christians ask, what about the God found in the Bible? That God is sometimes loving and sometimes violent. Thus, for many Christians, choosing a God who favors no violence is a denial of the Holy Bible.

Which leads Christians to another question: Is the Bible indeed a Holy book without error or is it a collection of writings that reveals ongoing discussions and arguments about the nature and activities of the God of Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Jesus?

The growing American objection to violence is forcing a new look among Christians at the authority of the Bible as a Holy book. In particular, the new breed of emerging Christians is choosing to look to Jesus for authority rather than the rest of the Bible. According to the historical record that survives, Jesus was a non-violent, loving people’s rabbi.  He never inflicted violence on others, nor did he endorse violence in his teachings.

When this new breed of emerging Christians looks at Jesus, they read simple statements like “Love your enemies” and “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  They hear him telling his disciple to “Put up your sword” with the added admonition, “Those who live by the sword will also die by the sword.” These short sayings are memorable and give good guidance to living life in a different, non-violent, peaceful manner.

But can America become a non-violent, peaceful country? Or have the many wars of our past poisoned our minds and hearts beyond recall? Have we fallen into the lie that peace and security can only be attained with bigger armies and more powerful weapons? Or, do we hear the warning of Jesus “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”

I recently reread Martin Luther King’s “Pledge of Nonviolence.” He asked masses of people to take the pledge, and it was one of the key motivators of mostly peaceful change in America during the civil rights movement.

Today, the so-called emerging Christians are leaving traditional churches in large numbers and for good reasons. One of those reasons is that traditional churches (with some notable exceptions) have not pursued their role as peacemakers.

Let us be fair. In the history of America, Christian churches and individuals have done an amazing amount of good. The drive to rid the country of slavery was church driven. The civil rights movement of the 1960s was church driven. The nation counts on the services of the Salvation Army and Catholic Social Services. We all benefit from Christian-based health and education networks.

However, Christian churches in America have utterly failed in communicating the message of peace and non-violence that is written in large letters in the teachings of Jesus. Just War Theory has been used to justify every war that America has chosen to wage.

Some timid churches have prided themselves as being tolerant toward this debate. But I believe Jesus would find the standard of tolerance disgusting. To be true to Jesus, Christians must be pro-active and shout the message of peace and non-violence from the rooftops.

I find the present upheaval in Christianity to be encouraging because people involved appear to be taking Jesus seriously. Jesus said that a small light could light up a whole room, that a bit of yeast could raise a whole loaf, and that a bit of salt could flavor the whole pot.

Our new crop of Jesus-followers is part of our nation’s hope, leading the country from war and violence to the Jesus way of peace and non-violence.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska.  His email address is [email protected]. 

14 comments for “Can Christians Turn Away from War?

  1. RORI
    March 10, 2013 at 18:27

    The New Testament teaches that war or the use of force to impose one’s will unto other countries has greed as motive not the desire to spread the good news of the Gospel. There is absolutely no support for holy war in the New Testament but that hasn’t prevented politicians from launching wars of choice and recruiting support for it from church leaders. The preachers that support war are likened to the beast that has two horns like a lamb but speaks like a dragon Revelation 13:11.

  2. delia ruhe
    March 10, 2013 at 07:21

    Jehovah has an ancestor: the desert god of war. Christianity was born of an argument between two groups of Jews, and argument that turned into real hostility. Indeed, anyone reading the history of Christianity for the first time might be hard pressed to distinguish it from antisemitism. Late medieval Christianity is a horror of persecution: when it finished with the Jews, it started in on women. And don’t even get me started on heretics.

    American Christians certainly demonstrated their taste for violence, bloodshed, and death by crucifixion in their passion for Mel Gibson’s *Passion*. I hope this new and improved generation of Christians have an idea about how to deal with that.

  3. Peter Loeb
    March 10, 2013 at 06:04

    As a non-Christian, I have no comment on the internecine differences in inter-
    pretation. I once tried to read the Bible and found it so violent I quickly
    gave up.

    Let’s be clear on one thing: The North American Continent was not vacant. It was not unpopulated. It was not “uncivilized”. Read Richard Drinnon’s classic

  4. Leland Mellott
    March 9, 2013 at 15:16

    In a dream, a man is interrogating me about Jesus of Nazareth. I say, “He killed no one.”

  5. bobzz
    March 8, 2013 at 00:13

    Many opinions, no evidence.

    • bobzz
      March 8, 2013 at 00:33

      I should have made clear that I am referencing early Christianity, not what it has become.

      • bobzz
        March 8, 2013 at 01:50

        “Christians are Jews for Jesus but they don’t know it.” Hillary is right on both counts here. My apologies for not noting this earlier, although I would say “the great majority” of Christians do not know it.

        Rehmat: You are a graduate of a Catholic mission school?? Do they give certificates of achievement for sleeping through class? I am not a Catholic, but you did not get the stuff you come up with in Catholic mission school.

  6. Hillary
    March 7, 2013 at 21:29

    Christians are Jews for Jesus but they don’t know it.
    Like super Zionist Rahm Emanuel said ” “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste”

  7. Morton Kurzweil
    March 7, 2013 at 21:03

    Every religion must war against those who do not agree to the group think of group values. All religion is organized behavior control. Every religion is based on bigotry, the belief that one religion is superior to all others and other cultures are inferior to that religion. Such belief promoted slavery and genocide, paranoia and violent defense of unprovable tenets of faith.
    Orthodoxy demands blind belief in autocracy. There is no room for questioning because there is no need for questioning when answers are supplied by faith a source of knowledge unknown to free humans.

  8. Gretchen Robinson
    March 7, 2013 at 19:22

    and if you ‘choose’ to believe that women are to keep silent in church, that it’s okay to burn a person as a witch, kill your son if he displeases you, slaughter your son by cutting his throat on a pyre because God told you to (as a test), that you can’t eat shellfish, or wear mixed fibers, are you going to think that’s okay? Or are you going to use your god-given reason to take your child to a doctor when s/he is sick because medical science can help. Or maybe there is no god and no jesus.

    You see, you can’t just close your eyes and I believe it and that ends it. Not if you want to live in this century. It’s easier if someone tells you what to believe. Plenty of televangelists out there will tell you you are special because of your beliefs. As for distinguishing between the Christian and Hebrew Bible, Jesus was born and died an observant Jew. He never meant to start a new religion. He came to ‘fulfill the Law.” How convenient that his words, redacted in 200 years later, are so ambiguous.

    Believe what you want but don’t bring your religion into my children’s schools or into my doctor’s office when I have a fetal death and want an abortion. We’re Americans. Let’s keep church and state separate.

  9. Lynne Gillooly
    March 7, 2013 at 18:17

    All I know is that the message of Christ in the New Testament is what I believe and choose to follow. It may be wrong, but I do not even consider the Old Testament as something to live by.

  10. qphile
    March 7, 2013 at 14:13

    @Rehmat, No one knows what Jesus said or believed; the gospels which supposedly record his words were written decades after his death, by people who had not met him. Christian doctrine is unclear, which is why Christianity has been characterized by disagreement and heresy since its inception. Christianity led to war; as a monotheistic belief dependent on conversion it was tailor-made to do so. “Zionism” is a historical accident created by 1600 years of Christian persecution of the Jews, by the disappearance of the Ottoman Empire, by the advent of the Brits in the Middle East after World War I. US evangelicals support Israel not because they are pro-Jewish (evangelicals believe that all non-converted Jews are going to hell) but because they are pro-Rapture.

    • bobzz
      March 7, 2013 at 16:24

      “No one knows what Jesus said or believed; the gospels which supposedly record his words were written decades after his death, by people who had not met him.”

      I’m not going to get into a big discussion here but will only say: The gospel tradition began with the very early church in Jerusalem (Acts 6). Jews (Jewish Christians) were extremely adept at preserving, handing on, and receiving precious tradition. The passing on of precious tradition was not a whisper chain in which the end bore no resemblance to the start. Thus the fact that the gospels were written decades later is not as strong an argument to discredit the reliability of their accounts as one might imagine. It is strange that secular historians are more positive about Jesus than religious scholars. The church lost its early unity when gentiles began substituting Greek philosophy for the tradition. If interested, check out Harald Riesenfeld, The Reliability of the Gospel Tradition, and Birger Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript, on the transmission of tradition. These guys have done some actual research.

  11. bobzz
    March 7, 2013 at 13:24

    Rehmat is off by far on early Christianity. Christians prior to Constantine were indeed peaceful. All objective historians agree. The critic, Celsus (AD 180), was frightened that Christians would convert Rome’s leaders because it would leave the nation defenseless. Many Christians confessed Christ as Lord and suffered martyrdom rather than bow to the state. The more the state persecuted the church, the more it grew. It was after Constantine that the state forged links with the church, and the church went off the rails. And it has been off for 17 centuries except for pockets here and there that did not forget Christ’s example and teachings. You see ‘Zionists’ behind everything. Do you really think Germans of the WWI and II era were Zionists? Are you a holocaust denier? Perhaps we can agree that the entanglement of the Christian Right and the Republican party is indeed more than a ‘problem’ for both church and nation.

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