There is a profound contradiction for Christians who celebrate the “prince of peace” at Christmas and then return to the business of endless — and expanding — war the rest of the year, as the Rev. Howard Bess observes.
By the Rev. Howard Bess
Christmastime is a good time for a frank discussion about Christianity and war. The great issue of Christmas is not whether or not Jesus was born of a virgin but whether his followers will embrace his message of peace on this earth.
My thinking goes to the tradition of the cross. Crucifixion on a cross was a cruel execution practiced daily by the rulers from Rome. For his executioners, Jesus was simply one more rabble-rouser who was disturbing the peace. Jesus practiced non-resistance to the very end. He looked at his murderers; then he looked to the heavens and spoke the words of reconciliation: “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.”
Christian churches (which have often endorsed wars between nations and even wars of conquest) have somehow missed the words of Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians: “God….has given us the ministry of reconciliation.” There is no reconciliation in killing or in punishment. War and punishment of any kind are an admission of failure.
In April 2016, a large gathering of devout Roman Catholics gathered at the Vatican to discuss “Nonviolence and Just Peace.” It was not a gathering of only select Bishops and Catholic hierarchy. Ordinary priests and nuns were there as were devout social scientists, theologians, diplomats and other lay persons who see themselves as peacekeepers.
While the search for world peace goes beyond the issue of war, all participants agreed that what is being done is not working. Included in the non-functional approaches is the centuries old teaching of “Just War.” (“Just War” theory within Christianity dates back to Saint Augustine who defended the necessity of war amid the collapsing Roman Empire. The doctrine was refined by Thomas Aquinas in the Thirteenth Century who laid out principles that justified war as long as it was waged by a properly instituted authority, pursued a good and just purpose, and had the ultimate goal of establishing peace.)
Sister Nazik Matty, an Iraqi nun who was driven from her home in Mosul by ISIS, has become a key spokesperson for the movement for Just Peace, telling the conference: “Which of the wars we have been in is a just war? … In my country there was no just war. War is the mother of ignorance, isolation, and poverty. Please tell the world there is no such thing as a just war. I say this as a daughter of war.”
On behalf of Sister Nazik Matty and all others who have been victims of war, I repeat: There is no just war. There is no reconciliation in punishment of any kind. There is no suggestion in the teachings of Jesus that there is any justice to be found in killing or punishment. This is true whether it is a slap in the face of a child by a parent, a bullet in the heart by a murderer, or the touch of a button in a drone control center.
Though I am a proud graduate of Wheaton College, a centerpiece of Evangelical theology and leadership, I have long been out of step with Wheaton’s style of Christian orthodoxy. I am a Baptist and have a deep commitment to a diversity that is not allowed in the Wheaton faculty.
Wheaton College taught me to think and nurtured my devotion to Christ, but there is a blight on the Wheaton campus. The ROTC unit at Wheaton trains very bright, capable persons for service in the United States military. The motto of Wheaton College is “For Christ and His Kingdom.” Confronting my beloved alma mater is not easy. The Wheaton College motto is compromised as long as the ROTC unit remains on campus.
I have always found it difficult to be a critic unless I also point to a better way. “War is not the answer” is a meaningless statement without an alternative path proposal. I offer these proposals as a witness to the non-religious and as a challenge to believers of every kind. I write as a devoted follower of Jesus, the peasant teacher from Nazareth and true son of God.
RID OURSELVES OF JUST WAR TEACHINGS IN OUR CHURCHES, COLLEGES AND SEMINARIES. The thinking of Augustine and Aquinas has been advocated for centuries and has no record of success, only failures. There has never been a just war.
EMBRACE THE MINISTRY AND VOCATION OF RECONCILIATION. EXPLORE ITS MEANING AND PURSUE ITS PRACTICE. The kingdom of God is not a gated community or a ghetto. It is not about fences or guard posts. It is about love, kindness and justice.
PRACTICE REPENTANCE AND ABOUNDING GRACE. Blame, accusation, and finger pointing are cancers. Remember and proclaim Jesus’s words from the cross.
REPAIR WHAT IS BROKEN AND CREATE, BUILD, AND SHARE WHAT IS NEEDED. We are a throwaway society. War has turned human beings into throwaway things, too. Heal people and create for their benefit.
DEVELOP PERSONAL LIFESTYLES COMPATIBLE WITH THE LIFE AND TEACHING OF JESUS FROM NAZARETH. I return to Matthew, chapters 5-7, for my own benefit and spiritual health. I urge you all to do the same. I pray a blessed new year, full of peace for you all and for all our neighbors in the world.
The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.