November 12, 2009

Beyond Pacifism and Just War

The new reality Jesus proclaimed was nonviolent. That much is clear, not just from the Sermon on the Mount, but from his entire life and teaching and, above all, the way he faced his death at the hands of the Powers. His was not merely a tactical or pragmatic nonviolence seized upon because nothing else would have worked against the Roman Empire's virtual monopoly on power. Rather, he saw nonviolence as a direct expression of the nature of God and of the new reality breaking into the world from God. In a New Testament passage quoted more than any other during the church's first four centuries, Jesus taught that we should love our enemies [...] nonviolence is not just a means to the realm of God. It is a quality of that realm itself. Those who live nonviolently are already manifesting the transformed reality of the divine order, even while living under the jurisdiction of the Domination System.

The early Christians saw themselves as already inaugurating the new order. So they refused to engage in war. For three centuries, no Christian author to our knowledge approved of Christian participation in battle. Such data as we have indicate that involvement in the army even in peacetime was frowned upon. The early church theologian Tertullian had pithy advice for solders who converted to Christianity: quit the army, or be martyred by the army for refusing to fight.

When the emperor Constantine forbade pagan sacrifices by the army in 321 C.E., most Christians apparently read this as removing a major objection to military service. The other objection--killing--was easily rationalized since the empire no longer waged wars of expansion [...] When the Christian church began receiving preferential treatment by the very empire that it had once so steadfastly opposed, war, which had once seemed so evil, now appeared to many to be a necessity for preserving the empire that protected the church.

Christianity's weaponless victory over the Roman Empire resulted in the weaponless victory of the empire over the gospel. A fundamental transformation occurred when the church ceased being persecuted and became instead a persecutor. Once a religion attains sufficient power in a society that the state looks to it for support, that religion must also, of necessity, join in the repression of the state's enemies. For a faith that lived from its critique of domination and its vision of a nonviolent social order, this shift was catastrophic, for it could only mean embracing and rationalizing oppression.


Violence is contrary to the gospel. But we are not always able to live up to the gospel. [...] Even so, when as individuals or nations we are unable to act nonviolently, we are not excused for our actions, nor may we attempt to justify them.

But we also cannot condemn those who in desperation resort to counterviolence against the massive violence of an unjust order. We must wish them success, even if they are still caught in the myth of redemptive violence themselves. Who knows; perhaps their victory will usher in a better society able to divest itself of some of its oppressive elements [...]

We must admit our addiction to the Myth of Redemptive Violence--an addiction every bit as tenacious and seductive as bondage to alcohol or drugs. Civilization is hooked on violence. Rational argument, therefore, is not enough to break its grip over us. We need to acknowledge our bondage and turn to a higher power for help in extricating ourselves from our trust in destructive force.

A nation may feel that it must fight in order to prevent an even greater evil. But that does not cause the lesser evil to cease being evil. Declaring a war "just" is simply a ruse to rid ourselves of guilt. But we can no more free ourselves of guilt by decree than we can declare ourselves forgiven by fiat. If we have killed, it is a sin, and only God can forgive us, not a propaganda apparatus that declares our dirty wars "just." Governments and guerrilla chiefs are not endowed with the power to absolve us from sin. Only God can do that. And God is not mocked. The whole discussion of "just" wars is sub-Christian.


Jesus' third way is coercive insofar as it forces oppressors to make choices they would rather not make. But it is nonlethal, the great advantage of which is that if we have chosen a mistaken course, our opponents are still alive to benefit from our apologies. The same exegesis that undermines the scriptural basis for traditional just-war theory also erodes the foundation of nonresistant pacifism. Jesus' teaching carries us beyond just war and pacifism, to a militant nonviolence that actualizes in the present the ethos of God's domination-free future.

History itself has been confirming the practicality of Jesus' program of late. The irony would be delicious if it were not so bitter: earnest theologians have been earnestly persuading Christians for sixteen centuries that their gospel supports violence, while massive outpourings of citizens in one officially atheist country after another recently have demonstrated the effectiveness of Jesus' teaching of nonviolence as a means of liberation.

The position proposed here affirms the pacifist heritage of nonviolence as a fundamental tenet of the gospel of God's in-breaking new order. The church cannot, then, justify any violence or war as "good" or "just." And it affirms the "violence-reduction criteria" drawn from the just-war heritage as well.


No doubt the objection may be raised that affirmation of nonviolence by the churches would be too simplistic, that ethical judgments in the real world of the Powers are far too complex to adopt a fixed ethical stance. This objection, I must confess, was one of the main reasons I resisted committing myself without reserve to nonviolence for so many years. I have slowly come to see that what the church needs most desperately is precisely such a clear-cut, unambiguous position. [...] the church's own position should be understandable by the smallest child: we oppose violence in all forms. And we do so because we reject domination.

--Walter Wink, The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millenium (1999)

Posted by Jared at 10:40 PM | TrackBack