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Christianity and War

Posted on: November 11, 2018

Category: Theology

Christianity and War

Quest Thoughts: Christianity and War

If Christianity were truly based on the teaching of Jesus, it would be a religion of non-violence. Love your enemies, turn the other cheek, and walk a second mile - teachings of non-violent resistance - are hallmarks of the voice of Jesus. In its history, though, Christianity has thought Jesus unrealistic, and the church has often been the first to issue a call to arms.

When talk of non-violence emerges, theologians quickly turn to the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), who died at the hands of the Nazi regime. Bonhoeffer was committed to non-violence, but rumour has it that he participated in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler and was consequently executed. Even though this story is not true, many theologians like to uphold Bonhoeffer as an example of someone converted from non-violence to realism. (The true story is that Bonhoeffer was arrested for helping Jews escape Germany in a covert act called Operation 7 and for "perverting military power" in his attempts to persuade churches to resist the regime).

Historically, Christianity does not like the idea of non-violence, and this is part of its tragedy. Usually theologians side with Augustine (354-430) who justified state violence for self-defense purposes. The irony of this position - and many others - being inconsistent with Jesus is ignored. As a consequence, the church, in its history, plays the role of misplaced patriotism - a sacred body that equates faith with advocating the causes of national self-interest. Today, particularly in relation to the current US President, many Christian churches are willing to sacrifice the independence of theology for unabashed patriotism.

Realism in Christian theology emerged out of the Frist and Second World Wars. It is a theology that states while individuals can be good, groups are corrupt, and nations - the largest of groups - are driven by self-interest and the will to power. Accordingly, to follow Jesus involves admiring but ignoring his vision. The "Kingdom of God" is placed in a bracket for the time being while we must deal with the political world of nations. This form of theology holds a certain type of self-deception because it never sees how Christian realism can re-create Christianity as patriotism.

To some degree I can say yes to theological realism, especially on November 11 and with the memory of countless lives lost. I admire and admit to the care offered and the sacrifice made by many people like my own great-uncle who went into the Second World War out of his commitment to justice and sense of duty. Still, the memory of war is, or ought to be, a difficult one for the Christian tradition to hold.

Augustine's legacy, which he did not intend, ended up being a theology of realism that combines patriotism with religion. Inadvertently, Augustine promoted God and country as the highest calling. Yet, Christianity has to be careful with Augustine's legacy especially when remembering war. Christianity is sincerely a practice of life, and it is based on non-violence. In its history, despite its character, Christianity has justified war, justified anti-Semitism, and justified bigotry in the name of self-defense. These practices are unrelated to the Christian religion, but because of the appeal of Christian realism, these toxic ideologies end up standing in place of Christianity as its expression of faith.

The church rightly respects November 11 and all that it means. It rightly remembers the tragedies of war and the tragedies that cause war. It rightly highlights, prays for, and honours those who fought and died in causes that were just. But the church, if it promotes a practice of life and if it accepts non-violence as its practice, can and must promote justice independently of a nation or of a people. The church cannot let down its guard in this way and become, as it seems to be doing today, the cause and justification of fear, bigotry, and misplaced patriotism. Christianity is not patriotic. It knows no nation as its own. It is a way of life. And like it or not, that way is one of non-violence.


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