Christmas and Endless War

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.”

Jesus delivering his Sermon on the Mount as depicted in a painting by Nineteenth Century artist Carl Heinrich Bloch.

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.

Alternative Path

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 [email protected].  

16 comments for “Christmas and Endless War

  1. Zachary Smith
    December 30, 2016 at 02:53

    Brother Howard Bess claims that “Jesus practiced non-resistance to the very end. … There is no suggestion in the teachings of Jesus that there is any justice to be found in killing or punishment.”

    So not true, according to apostles Matthew and John below:

    Why do you cite Bible verses to dispute the True Way? Don’t you understand that actual history has to be denied to pave the road to the Right Way of Thinking?

    People who read the New Testament must ignore all the hints, suggestions, and direct statements about the coming violence. Why was it coming? Because Jesus came from a culture under unbearable pressure from their own history and the Jewish resentment to Roman occupation was coming to a boiling point.

    Jesus – the man – felt that pressure too, but he was also extremely knowledgeable about Roman power. After all, he grew up a short walk from a major Roman city where his father Joseph probably worked. Something had to be done do drive away the invaders, but that “something” was utterly beyond the ability of the local people. So the solution Jesus adopted wasn’t too different from that of other cultures in other ages.

    Ancient peoples tended to have “King in the mountain” (see wiki) legends; cultural Titans who would return to save their people if times got so bad this became necessary. In Europe think King Wenceslaus, Frederick Barbarossa, and King Arthur in Avalon. An interesting variation by the Japanese involved the belief that Divine Winds (Kamikaze) would save them from the threat of imminent invasions as they had in the past from invading Mongols.

    When conditions became hopeless with native Americans, they were driven to Ghost and Sun Dances. These could involve pain and sacrifice as the people attempted to demonstrate to the Spirits they were seriously devout and worthy of intervention.


    Because of the nature of Judaism, invoking the spirits of Moses or Samson wasn’t in the cards, but there was a movement created to bring the people to total purity in the eyes of Yahweh. Jesus taught that there must be no violence among fellow Jews, and that his followers must renounce all wealth and even their parents if it came to that. Serious sacrifice, this turning the other cheek and the rest!

    All this was to induce God to finally intervene and do something impossible for his people – to drive away the Romans.

    Yes, Jesus taught non-violence because he was a practical man in terms of his time and place. He knew what would happen if a revolt broke out against the Roman Empire. What he did teach was religious purity with many visible and painful sacrifices to convince his God that they were deserving of Divine Intervention. Like with the Ghost Dance movement, the Apocalyptics of Roman Palestine were driven to these extremes because there was no alternative in the “Real World”.

    • HpO
      December 30, 2016 at 13:04

      “Why”? you questioned. Because:

      Jesus’ CBR (crucifixion, burial and resurrection) is, if based upon faith, the key to understanding war – as well as the stumbling block, if due to unbelief.  His CBR had once made Him a nonviolent peacemaker.  But in the end-times, post-“Christmastime” obviously, according to those testimonies from apostles Matthew, John and Paul, it also shall make Him – let’s face it – an ever-holy mass-killing warrior, whose battle-flag for all to see, believers and unbelievers alike, reads loud and clear: “King of Kings & Lord of Lords!”. All because up to that time He and His Father have both been rejected and His disciples have all been assassinated and massacred, for their undying faith in God and His Son, the one and only Messiah of Israel.

  2. HpO
    December 29, 2016 at 23:46

    Brother Howard Bess claims that “Jesus practiced non-resistance to the very end.  … There is no suggestion in the teachings of Jesus that there is any justice to be found in killing or punishment.”

    So not true, according to apostles Matthew and John below:

    Matthew 26:53 – Do you think that I (Jesus) cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve (warring) legions of angels?

    Revelation 6:1-2 – Then I saw the Lamb (Jesus) open one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures call out, as with a voice of thunder, “Come!” I looked, and there was a white horse! Its rider had a bow; a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering and to conquer.

    Revelation 17:12-14 – And the ten horns that you saw are ten kings who have not yet received a kingdom, but they are to receive authority as kings for one hour, together with the beast.  These are united in yielding their power and authority to the beast; they will make war on the Lamb (Jesus), and the Lamb (Jesus) will conquer them, for he is Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful.”

    Revelation 19:11-16 – Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider (Jesus) is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war.  His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself.  He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God.  And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses.  From his (Jesus’) mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.  On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.”

    What, then, is the truth of this matter concerning war?  Can it be that no human-made war is ever just but that only God-made wars are?  Can it also be that, God-willing, God created the world to be in constant subjection to un-just human-made wars – until, finally, He ends them all with the ultimate God-made war that can only be waged by Jesus the Lamb in person?

  3. stan
    December 29, 2016 at 13:53

    Lets also remember that this is not a war. The U.S. government is just murdering the muslims on a massive scale using weapons of mass destruction. They have no defensive missiles or air force to protect themselves. According to, there have been 2-4 million muslims killed by the murder and rampage of the west which began in 1991. The people being killed never attacked us and we just fly a state-of-the-art military aircraft over their houses and drop bombs on their family. Its all about business and territory. Thats what wars are about, just like mobsters. The president has a hit list, he flys around planeloads of secret cash to make his illegal payoffs and bribes, and a couple of years ago he was strutting around like a peacock bragging about how he had offed his opponent in the head and dumped his body in the river. What part of mobster do people not understand? The big banks and big businesses of the Western British Empire and their vassal states are taking over the territory to control the resources and the terms of commerce and trade. The terms will be made in our favor. We will make them an offer they cannot refuse. That is what wars are about. Wars are never about freedom, democracy, getting rid of an evil dictator, or, my personal favorite, freeing someone elses slaves. It is amazing what a well designed and properly implemented campaign of war propaganda can do. “War on Terror”, Sheesh, give me a break.

    • Joe Average
      December 29, 2016 at 21:48

      Excellent comment. Maybe my gut feeling is playing tricks with me, but I’ve got the feeling that more and more people are waking up and realize what’s going on. It’s also we that people who can bring real change.

      I’ll gladly pay more for the coffee that I’m drinking if I can be sure that no child labor / slave labor is involved in harvesting the coffee beans. Sadly nowadays nearly everything has been subverted. Many of the products labeled “fair trade” aren’t really produced under fair conditions. The label is simply used for marketing purposes.

      The most powerful action of us – the people – is to boycott certain companies or buy products from companies with higher ethical standards. The whole system has to be reworked anyway. We’re living on a planet with finite resources. We can’t go on the way we are used to. Let’s hope the rest of us will wake up soon, too.

  4. December 29, 2016 at 12:27

    One has to look at the Palistinians to see what happens when one side wants peace and the other has no other purpose but to chase , or kill to make the Palistinians leave their country. Just look at what periodic peace has brought those long suffering Palistinians, the Jews use every peace interval to steal even more land. Peace is a false premise when a bulldozer arrives and plows your home away to make room for some Jew from the US or Europe to build his own house. How do you reconsile that fact with the message of peace? it is one thing to write of peace from your comfortable office in the USA, it is quite another to think about peace when your home and all of your belongings are being plowed under by a foreign invader.

    There is such a thing as just war. It is against greed, avarice, and racism. How else to stop the injustice the Jews are inflicting on innocent Palistinians every single day including the day that the writer wrote this piece. The US and UN are incapable of making the Jews obey International Law, so that leaves the Palistinains to stand up for themselves.

  5. Zachary Smith
    December 29, 2016 at 02:22

    There has never been a just war.

    I’m a Sioux tribesman promised by solemn treaty certain properties I can retain for the use by my people. The foreign enemy violates those treaties by continuing to steal my land and mistreat my people. Does the Reverend Bess maintain that armed resistance to continued theft and murder is “UnJust”? Does he suppose that if we Sioux did some kind of “sit-down” protest the foreigners would do any more than pause a moment to laugh themselves silly?

    I can imagine I’m a Russian in late 1941 with this mental dialogue:

    “On one side we face an evil, ruthless dictator who will stop at nothing to crush us and get what he wants.
    On the other side, we face Hitler, who will stop at nothing and crush us to get what he wants.
    I think I’ll pick the one who speaks Russian.

    If I’d said that in 1941, it’s because I didn’t know the real picture. Stalin was a genuine horror story, but Hitler’s plans included eventually killing every Russian he could get his hands on and replacing them with Germans. Could the Reverend Bess explain what is wrong with fighting to prevent this from happening? Would the gentleman really say my resistance was “UnJust”?

    I’m an African peasant subject to periodic slave raids by neighbors armed by raiders armed with foreign-supplied weapons Is it “UnJust” for me to attempt to organize a large scale resistance to these raids and end them forever if possible?

    On the face of it, that remark by Reverend Bess is the dumbest thing I’ve seen for quite a while. I’d like to learn how kissing the feet of an aggressor before he strikes off your head with his sword is any way related to the teachings of Jesus.

    • Elizabeth Burton
      December 29, 2016 at 15:16

      The essay isn’t intended to be a tutorial. It’s an impassioned request that people stop embracing the rhetoric of those in power without question. We have been almost continuously at war in this country for most of its existence, and with a few exceptions the bulk of them have been wars of conquest and colonialism.

      With regard to your first example, I suggest you go study up on Standing Rock, where actual Native American tribesmen have done precisely what you dismiss as ineffective—and laid a foundation for victory. All the violence was done by the “righteous.”

      Your second example is fine, if you’re a Russian. However, for those non-Russians under Stalin, the situation was precisely that of a Russian under Hitler—genocide. It was why so many of them opted to join the Germans.

      Your final example has no use whatsoever, because your African “peasant” (and your use of the term says a great deal) would need the support and assistance of some other, greater power to provide the means for them to “organize a large scale resistance.” Must I point out how well doing that has worked for the average citizen of Nicaragua? Or Syria?

      The Reverend Mr. Bass isn’t saying we should never fight, and it’s telling you’ve chosen to so misinterpret his message. He is saying we have been murdering people for millennia on the basis that doing so under circumstances that are inevitably determined by those who desire to start wars, and that doing so is a violation of Christian principles and needs to stop. Instead, those who profess to believe the message of Jesus should be finding ways to apply principles of peace to resolve situations where savagery only makes the situation worse.

      • Zachary Smith
        December 29, 2016 at 17:03

        What part of “There has never been a just war” is it you don’t understand?

        Your equating the frontier Indian Removal practices to what is happening in 2016 is simply nonsensical. Whether Phil Sheridan said it or not, attitudes about “the only good Indian is a dead Indian” were extremely widespread. AND acted on.

        Your second example is fine, if you’re a Russian. However, for those non-Russians under Stalin, the situation was precisely that of a Russian under Hitler—genocide. It was why so many of them opted to join the Germans.

        I suggest you locate a good WW2 history book and read it. Yes, because of Stalin’s horrors many tried to accommodate the invading Germans – until they learned what was intended for them.

        Equating Stalin’s 20+ million murders of his people with Hitler’s actual deeds AND plans strikes me as monstrous. From the Russian Holocaust Wiki:

        Thirteen million Soviet citizens became victims of a repressive policy of Germans and their allies in occupied territory, where they died because of mass murders, famine, absence of elementary medical aid and slave labor.

        That total supposedly counts the deaths in Leningrad, the millions of Soviet POWs starved to death, and the nearly 6 million Russian Jews who were killed. I expect the numbers are on the low side because of all the Soviet civilians quietly starving to death throughout the nation because there wasn’t enough farming land remaining in the unoccupied part of the USSR to feed them all with an adequate diet.

        And I remind you one more time – Hitler planned to exterminate the sub-human Slavs. If you claim that a repressive regime who slaughters 20+ million is the same as one which is well-started on the path to kill 150 million, I maintain you are math-challenged, morals-challenged, or perhaps both.

        Finally, I have no patience for “politically correct” history. At least ninety nine percent of my ancestors 400 years ago were peasants. That means they were mostly illiterate, mostly dirty and dirt poor, and at the bottom of the social ladder.

      • HpO
        December 30, 2016 at 21:41

        About that, per Elizabeth Burton: “those who profess to believe the message of Jesus should be finding ways to apply principles of peace to resolve situations where savagery only makes the situation worse.”

        But, truth be told, there’s really no such thing at all: “the message of Jesus” without Jesus composing, then sending it in person, is no such message at all. Nor can the “principles of peace” without Him defining, establishing and implementing them directly in person as the Prince of Peace, be such principles at all. That’s why in church history, when applying these things “to resolve situations … only makes the situation worse” in its “savagery”! Because Jesus had left the building.

    • Joe Average
      December 29, 2016 at 21:29

      Reverend Bess is correct. There is no such thing as a just war. Without attackers there would be no need for defense (solely defense may be called just). There is no just reason for an attack. It’s always about getting rid of competitors, natural resources and/or slaves. If you go even further you could also say that eliminating competitors, grabbing natural resources and getting slaves are “positive income”. It all boils down to money – the greed to possess more and more and more money.

      Maybe defense (real defense and not the “German style of defense”: “Seit 5:45 Uhr wird jetzt zurückgeschossen!”) is the closest thing that could be labeled just. In any case Jesus didn’t even teach His followers to make an attempt at self-defense. At least an aggressor with something resembling a conscience might feel humiliated by slaying someone who doesn’t fight back. (With regard to an aggressor: I’m not talking about psychopaths.)

      To sum it up: Without aggression the Sioux tribesmen and the invaders could’ve lived peacefully together. The US would be a different country than it is now. Without a power-hungry German chancellor pushing Germany attacking Russia there wouldn’t have been the need to fight back. Without greedy slave traders there wouldn’t have been the need for resistance.

      • Zachary Smith
        December 30, 2016 at 01:43

        Reverend Bess is correct. There is no such thing as a just war. Without attackers there would be no need for defense …

        I believe I misunderstood the rules of this game. I was under the impression the discussion involved the Real World rather than one where early humans evolved into a different creature than exists today. In view of that, I’m going to quote extensively from another gentleman who often writes for this site, especially in and around August.

        1. The baptized Catholic Adolf Hitler would have been raised within a progressive peace church by a strong pacifist Catholic mother who would have nurtured and loved and protected little Adolf from the cruelty of his father and the cruelty and anti-Semitism of the Austrian Christian culture he grew up in.

        2. The Lutheran Adolf Eichmann, the Russian Orthodox dictator Joseph Stalin, and the Catholics Benito Mussolini and Joseph Goebbels and most of the rest of those of Nazi infamy were baptized Christians, but none of them were ever taught that the Sermon on the Mount was central to the theology of Jesus and that therefore nonviolence was at the core his politics.

        3. If every church had been a peace church, the American Christian churches of the South would have rejected the brutal enslavement of blacks Africans and the American Civil War would not have happened.

        4. If every church had been a peace church, Christian European monarchs and their obedient Christian soldiers would not have raped Africa, Asia and the Americas into colonial submission over gold, silver and slaves, and the bloody armed revolutions of liberation a century later would not have been fought.

        5. If every US church was a peace church, a unified, benevolent United States would be working hard right now to nurture and reconcile with, rather than demonize and marginalize, the officially feared and hated minorities such as Muslims, Palestinians, Jews, blacks, Hispanics, gays, lesbians, and non-white foreigners of various ethnicities and religious persuasions.

        6. If every church was a peace church, there would not be the current crippling military budget which makes every program of social uplift unaffordable.

        7. If every European church had been a peace church, there would have been no World War I, no oppressive Treaty of Versailles, no Nazi party and no World War II.

        8. If every church was a peace church American Christian children would not be cruelly bullying their weaker brothers and sisters in the Columbine high schools of this land, and the victims of bullying would have no reason to shoot back.

        9. If every church had been a peace church, professed Christian presidents would not be trying to outspend their predecessors on lethal weapons systems, nor would they become gleeful hanging judges with a need to disprove their suspected wimp-hood by saber-rattling their nations into World War III.

        10. And if every church had been a peace church, those who claim discipleship to the non­violent Jesus would be leading the world to peace, rather than into war.

        11. And the Peaceable Kingdom of God would be at hand.

        You remarked about how “maybe” the Soviets could kind of stretched the rules and made a stab at self-defense. Their stalwart militias would have bravely used their improvised weapons and civilian hunting rifles and judo skills to face the German invaders. Assume those Nazis had been successfully pretending to be non-violent Peace Church members who also embraced the preaching of Reverend Bess, and we’ll cut the 1941 Barbarossa invasion to 5% of the actual event our grandfathers saw. Had to keep their perversions small enough to avoid prying eyes, you know.

        3.8 million personnel >>> 190,000 troops with flamethrowers, machine guns, mortars, and poison gas.
        3,350 tanks >>> 167 tanks
        2,770 aircraft >>> 138 bombers (they wouldn’t need any fighters, would they?)
        7,200 artillery pieces >>> 360 cannon

        But maybe I’m cheating here by not accepting the religious line of preachers Bess and Kohls that we must always pretend that everybody on Planet Earth accepts their doctrines to the exact letter. Muslims would instinctively embrace the teachings of Jesus as understood by Bess and Kohls. Ditto for the Emperor-worshiping Japanese of years past. Everybody on Earth would know of all the Ten Commandments and would have memorized the Sermon on the Mount, and never ever – ever even think of stepping off the True Path of Righteousness.

        Yeah, that ought to work out – especially if we also also adopt the Peter Pan/Tinkerbelle doctrine of Clapping Harder whenever doubts surface.

        • HpO
          December 30, 2016 at 22:10

          About that, per Zachary Smith quoting Gary G. Kohls (“Reflection for the Nagaski/Hiroshima week: What if every church had been a peace church?” – 8 September 2001): “the Sermon on the Mount was central to the theology of Jesus and that therefore nonviolence was at the core his politics.  … And (so) the Peaceable Kingdom of God would be at hand.”

          Reductionistic, minimalistic, simplistic, this.  Is it even possible to reduce or minimize Jesus to “the Sermon on the Mount” or to “nonviolence”?  No wonder this so-called “Peaceable Kingdom of God” – whatever that is – was never and is never and shall never be “at hand”.  Please do try harder next time, folks, by at least not reducing, minimizing, simplifying Jesus, thereby turning Him into a mere false messiah.

    • HpO
      December 30, 2016 at 03:27

      About that: “I’d like to learn how kissing the feet of an aggressor before he strikes off your head with his sword is any way related to the teachings of Jesus.” You’re right; it isn’t.

      What, in fact, He taught was only about the parallel of inevitable experience between His own agonizing suffering in the hands of His Jewish and “Gentile” enemies and the same thing that His own true disciples was going to endure.  It’s God’s will and means of people’s salvation, He said, that He and they must endure.  And how to endure that?  By loving back such enemies of God while being in such state of fatalistic agony.  For by doing so, they’re going to feel, understand, see the love of God for them, even His very own enemies, and at their darkest, ugliest moment.  I was one such enemy.

      Now, is this meant, then, to be a model of pacifism, non-violence, applicable locally and globally?  You’re right; it isn’t.  And further I say it’ll never work anyway or anyhow – in the absence of any stake of Jesus and His gospel in the whole political situation.

  6. Josh Stern
    December 29, 2016 at 02:04

    I believe Rev. Bess is advocating the view that even in theory there is not Just War. He may face critical rebuttal from those who argue that pacifism doesn’t work in practice. The present text doesn’t offer much of a hint at whether he plans to reply that a war of self-defense is an unjust necessity, to be undertaken as a last resort, or to endorse another way. I wish to add that, in practice, all of the modern wars shaping our society are being mis-represented, in important ways, while they are being fought. In practice, we all have a big practical problem with our current system of letting the people who most wish to fight wars also be the people who get to describe them & portray them as they wish, sometimes without much regard for justice or truth.

  7. Sean Daly
    December 29, 2016 at 01:46


Comments are closed.