In the church setting, peace is largely about setting safe boundaries. Churches are communities of people of faith. The people are sharing their faith with one another, and seeking a place to help themselves and one another live out this faith. Faith is very important to us: Faith helps us to shape our ethical views. Faith helps us to set our priorities. Corporate faith helps build an identity with a community.
Unfortunately, where there are groups of people, there are opinions about what direction the group should take. Where there are resources such as money, there are opinions on the best way to spend that money. Where there is a public voice — there are various opinions of what that voice should say. Where there are a variety of opinions, there will be politics. Unfortunately, politics can disturb the peace of the community.
Even more unfortunate is that people often bring politics with them. While it is true that our priorities and our ethical views affect our views of national and local politics. While this is good, too often, people want to use the church community as their mouthpiece. Unfortunately, this results in people getting passionate about urgent matters that, while urgent, are not important to the faith community.
Christianity is not dependent upon politics. The church grew when the state was hostile to the church. When we embrace the urgency of the political system, we risk being distracted from the things that are important. Even more importantly, we often forget that the gospel is for all people, and not only for those people who have the same political views we do. We cannot afford to put faith in princes before our faith in God.
I’ve experienced some of the disquiet caused by division through politics. I was on staff during a split that was largely motivated by issues which were political hot topics of the time. In conversations with people on both sides of the split, I heard narratives about other people — stories that cast them in the worst possible light, and attempted to imply things which in most cases were not true. People on different sides could not even always decide what the issues were, the only thing they knew was there was disagreement, and something had to be done about it.
What I learned is that peace requires listening and conversation. Even more, peace requires a safe place. One of the acts of war is to dehumanize, or at least villianize the other. The major role of a shepherd is not to enlarge the flock, or to build up a property. The major role of a shepherd is to keep the flock safe from harm. In the case of the church, it is important to maintain a safe space where it is possible to worship God and share faith. These things break down when the peace of the community breaks down.
My culture has a mixed relationship with peace. People in the United States are militant, or pacifist, or somewhere in between. There are stories that glorify violence as the solution — and there are stories that villainize forceful acts that are legally justifiable. If a person speaks out against (a) war, that person will be called a traitor, and if a person defends the use of (reasonable) force by law enforcement, the person will be called a fascist. Our current culture is polarized, and impolite. Whatever view a person takes, that person likely feels under attack.
It is clear that the culture is strongly competitive — many people feel like they are fighting for their voices to be heard, for a better position in society, or just for the resources necessary to survive. We may oppose physical violence, but our culture has little interest in respecting others. Even people who practice peace often attack with cruel words.
We live in a society that does not see God’s image. We see ethnicity, voter blocks, socioeconomic groups, and political parties. We know who are allies are, and we know who our enemies are, but we forget that God created all of humanity in God’s own image. It is too easy to attack the political and intellectual opponent, even to the point of attempting to destroy reputations. Even people who fight for peace have difficulty living up to the call of peacemaking.
But, for all of the backstabbing, hateful speech, and personal attacks everybody I know values kindness and loyalty. Everybody I know wants to have friends in their life who will not “throw them under the bus” — and, there is a certain bit of shame when a person does act out in these ways. For all the cultural push to fight, there is also a dynamic that wants to stop fighting.
I live in a culture where it is possible to surround myself with like minded people, and it is also possible to make friends with a large diversity of people. I live in a culture where I am allowed to make peace with my neighbors, but conflict is also allowed, as long as it does not disruptive or measurably damaging. The challenge is to find ways of living peaceably even though not everybody values peace.
Quakers are likely best known for embracing the peace testimony. My Theological response was my own, but it has much in common with Robert Barclay’s response in his Apology. The language that Friends have used in expressing their official opposition to war has been strong, both historically and currently. Yearly meetings throughout the world have their official statements against all wars, and many yearly meetings write minutes condemning current wars. Meetings ranging from theologically liberal to fundamentalist offer ‘counter-recruitment’ advice, recommending against military life. There can be no doubt of the official position.
There is a rather strong streak of individualism among Friends. Even when there is consensus to oppose all wars and discourage military service, military enlistment among Friends is fairly common. American Friends have fought in every war, and with the exception of the revolutionary war, returning soldiers were welcomed back into their meetings.
This confusing relationship with peace goes back to the founding days of the Society of Friends. many of the first generation of Friends fought in the English civil war. William Edmondson, for example, brought Quakerism to Ireland while serving in the military. If things had gone differently, Quakerism might have supported the Lord Protector and forces against the monarchy. If Quakerism had supported a party, Quakerism might have died with Oliver Cromwell.
While many Quakers fought in Cromwell’s army, George Fox refused when offered a commission as an officer. This choice preferred prison over an endorsement of one side in the civil war. Quakers were quickly seen as a danger, and the Quakers serving in Cromwell’s army were kicked out without pay, and often imprisoned.
In 1660, the commonwealth fell and the monarchy was restored. Quakers made a declaration of opposing all wars, thus denying opposition to the new monarch and simultaneously refusing military loyalty. The Quakers would soon find themselves with both people who fought under Oliver Cromwell, and others who were involved in making way for the restoration of the monarchy. Resisting war might be an ideal — but in this case it is also a pragmatic decision. If Quakers were seen as enemies of the monarchy, they would be punished for their politics.
One thing that the peace churches (Friends, Brethren, Mennonites) share is that the call for peace was made in times that these religious groups were facing violence. There was both the refusal to take part in the wars which Robert Barclay characterizes as Christians killing Christians, and from the time that Quakers publicly declared the opposition to all wars, there was an acceptance of the state sponsored violence against Quakers that would come for the next 30 years. (The Toleration act was passed in May of 1689.)
Today the testimony against war seems easy. There is no risk of suffering when a meeting writes a minute. There are no hard choices to make if one does not choose to enlist in the military. The easier it is, the quainter it appears. Nobody remembers that when Quakers (and other peace churches) chose to deny violence, it was a pragmatic decision made by people who faced violence and threats on a daily basis.
Christians and Jews both teach that when God created humanity, God created man and women in God’s image. New Testament teaching goes on to say that the one who hates his brother cannot love God. (I John 4:20) The reason given for this is that Humanity is created in God’s image. Symbolically, whatever we do to our fellow humans is something that we are doing to God.
Humans are very aware of the use of symbols to carry out anger, even anger for things that happened hundreds of years in the past. Every November many British communities make images of a 17th century terrorist named Guy Fawkes and burn this effigy. Popular culture reminds of folk magic such as voodoo dolls and poppets, which are figures in a rough human form which people do the violence they wish upon another person in hope that the evil will come. In American news, people debate the appropriateness of such acts as hanging the President in effigy. What is not debated is that none of these acts are acts of good will; they are symbolic acts of violence.
Symbolically, the way we act towards other human beings is the way we act toward God. Religious people find it offensive when their religious symbols are desecrated. Patriotic people find it offensive when national symbols such as the national flag is desecrated, unceremoniously burned, or even displayed improperly. If we truly believe that Humanity is the image of God in the same way that we believe the cross is a symbol of Christ, or the flag is the symbol of the nation, we should find it offensive whenever our fellow human is desecrated, destroyed, or put on shameful display. We should recognize that this is symbolic violence against God.
The call for peace is a call to recognize this high view of Humanity. When we talk about the complexity of exceptions such as what do we do to protect people from other people, there are many debates filled with complex issues. The problem with talk of war and enemies is that the value of the human beings rarely comes into the discussion. We undervalue the people we send to fight and die; we undervalue civilians; we undervalue the enemy soldiers who’s motivations for fighting most often has little to do with the positions of their government.
We call for peace, because war is a massive desecration of God’s image. Whatever the benefits, the symbolic cost is too great. War calls on entire nations to dehumanize the other. It calls on nations to forget that God created humanity in God’s image. War makes us forget what we are, and blaspheme God in the process.
The peace testimony has the advantage of a very long history. There have been Christian pacifists throughout Christian history, but the same cannot be proven of Christian supporters of war. For the first three centuries of the church, the advice and the stories that come to us have been consistently against war. When advising people whether or not to enlist in the military, the advice was don’t. When we read of Roman soldiers becoming Christians, most often we read of these soldiers being executed for the crime of their Christianity.
The stories that the early church hand down to us are the stories of the church in conflict with the governments. Christians might have been non-violent, but the reason they were executed was for resisting the rule of the state. Christians pledged their allegiance to Christ — and would not pledge loyalty to Caesar. It is unthinkable to join the military of an enemy state — especially when it is forbidden to fight for the Kingdom where your loyalty lies. A Christian would not fight against the enemies of the Church, because the highest honor a Christian might have is to die a martyr, just as Christ did before.
As Christianity won the hearts and minds of the people, Rome began to change. In the 4th Century Constantine claimed Christianity and soldiers began to become baptized as Christians without being executed for treason. Christianity had to deal with a reality where they were no longer engaging in civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance against the government — they were now respected members of society.
This new position in society required Christian thinkers to ask questions that had never come up before. When Christians participated in ever level of society, and society was rapidly becoming Christianized — Christians had to adapt from the position that Rome was an enemy to the position that Rome was an ally. Clearly this adaptation did not include hiding the past, the stories of martyrs and opposition were still told and celebrated, but there were also new stories told of how Constantine changed Rome — and some of these new stories included soldiers fighting under the standard of Christ.
Constantine’s Rome puts Christianity in a condition where there is a spectrum of opinions on what the Christian’s role is in this world. This spectrum ranges from pacifism to the level that the person avoids any involvement with the government to having a religious nationalist militarism, seeing service to God being the same as military service to the nation. The stories told include both those who were killed by Roman soldiers — and those of Roman soldiers who fought under the Chi-Rho standard.
With two competing narratives create a challenge for theologians — do the theologians give the Emperor the right to determine that something is moral in certain conditions that would be immoral under all other conditions? Do the theologians call for a return to the days when to be a Christian was to be in rebellion against the emperor — or do they seek something that is completely different.
Just War Theory is exactly that, and it is somewhat misnamed. Just war theory knows that war is evil — but it also has an element of pragmatism, recognizing that sometimes force is necessary to stop another evil. Just war theory traditionally had two sides to it. There were ethics for the person who decided that force should be used, and there were ethics for these who applied the force. Before declaring war, the government has to determine that the war is winnable, without causing more harm than the evil that it is warring against. For the person waging the just war — the rules are use as little force as possible, and don’t harm the innocents. Just war, as described, is police work at its best — it is never what we would actually call war.
Personally, I’m an advocate of the just war theory, because it calls on people at every level to be ethical. When people point out that we needed war to stop Hitler, we should realize that Hitler would not have gotten anywhere without a system of policemen who arrested falsely, judges who perverted justice while sentencing, and soldiers who never asked the question: “Is this the right thing to do?” Wherever the answers to address such evil lie, it is not maintaining the systems that enable evil. Ultimately, when people behave ethically at every level, the outcome will be peace.
The Biblical call to peace is something that suffers from proof-texting. It is not difficult to make a list of Bible verses that talk about Jesus as Prince of peace and calling on his disciples not to fight. The problem with proof-texts is that they tend to be taken in isolation of their context. An even bigger problem is that it seems that for every proof-text, there is an opposing proof-text. If I wanted to look for brief quotes supporting violence, I could likely find them.
For me, the Biblical call to peace is found in Jesus’ teaching of the Kingdom of heaven. The simplicity the Sermon on the mount calls us to, along with the nature of Christ’s Kingdom calls us to peace. The Earthly kingdoms are those that try to expand and endure through warfare. Christ’s kingdom holds hearts and souls through love instead of land by force. The biggest call to peace is the question of: “Can a man serve two masters?” Another way to ask it, “How is it serving the Kingdom of heaven to kill those who are part of it in the name of an earthly kingdom?”
In John 18:36 Jesus gives the reason why his followers must not fight to protect him, or to establish him as king: “My kingdom is not of this world”. Any kingdom that is established and held through the foundation of violence can also be disbanded through violence. There are no ancient empires that still stand. Christianity seems to be at its weakest spiritually when it has its greatest political influence. Jesus’ choice to separate Christ’s kingdom from Earthly politics separates my faith from the tools of this world. Violence becomes the worldly tool, peace becomes the tool of Christ’s kingdom.
I see genius in this because the tools of Christ’s Kingdom are lasting. The peaceful and meek do inherit the Earth, even though empires must die for this to happen. While nations, and even ethnic groups die off, the Kingdom of heaven endures; it crosses borders, racial lines and political ideologies. The kingdom of heaven is at hand for us to join but it is beyond the reach of the kingdoms of this world.
For me the Biblical call to peace is a call to a long term winning strategy. At first the strategy of the church must have made little sense. The Christians grew and grew but they never fought their persecutors even when they would have won. Christians died at the hands of the Romans, yet Christianity grew faster than the Romans could kill the Christians. In under four centuries Christianity conquered Rome without raising a hand against it. When Rome fell to the Barbarians Christians did not fall with Rome. Christians were never the government and they existed independently of the Government’s blessing. Because Christians survived the Roman persecution they were able to survive the fall of Rome as well. Peace kept Christianity ‘alive’, because peace comes from knowing that Christianity is not an empire.
The New Testament has no plans for how Christianity is to survive as a political entity; The New Testament was written in a time when the political powers of this world tried to remove Christianity from the face of the Earth. The model the New Testament provided served the Church well. Our greatest danger, now that Christianity is part of mainstream culture, is giving up that model, joining Rome, and falling along with the Roman Empire.
The peace testimony has been one of the more challenging testimonies for me to grasp emotionally. People talk about how a devotion to simplicity cuts across the grain of consumerist culture, but peace is even more counter cultural.
My father served alternative service before he was married. Like several others (mostly Mennonites) who disagreed with the Vietnam war, he was assigned to work in a mental hospital. I’ve learned, mostly from other people, that these people who viewed the war as immoral were seen as communist sympathizers, and faced violent attacks. As far as I know, the worst that my dad suffered was somebody setting his motorcycle on fire while he was at work.
Because my father saw it important to put faith above the expectations, or belief systems of our wider culture — it has not been difficult for me to learn good reasons to oppose war. Where there is war, the innocent suffer. Anything that can be called war largely hurts those who have no power to change anything, and leaves those who the war is about untouched. One might argue that war is a necessary evil, but it remains a great evil.
This is where the challenge for me comes: I am a person who responds to stories. Whenever we see stories that speak of war, or violence in general, the narrative tends to divide between heroes and villains. There is a way of transferring all the guilt to the villains, and leaving the heroes clean. The idea becomes not that violence caused the evil, but the violence stopped the evil. When I look to the stories that have currency in my culture, I see champions of violence who ‘defend’ the people who are suffering, but I don’t see champions of peace, nor do I see champions of consensus. It seems that those who broker peace are even seen as weak.
The only way that I’ve been able to reconcile these competing ideas is to admit that I feel all war is evil — but I am not a pacifist. I embrace a rather strict interpretation of Augustine’s Just war theory. The way I understand Just war is that force should be limited to as little as possible, and collateral damage is unacceptable. In addition, suicide missions are unacceptable — those who wage this ‘just war’ need to be reasonably sure of victory, and accountable for every excess of force beyond what is strictly necessary. Augustine’s just war theory is what our police departments follow when they live up to the high standards that they set for themselves. Nothing that has been called war follows these standards.
The bigger problem is how do we live at peace in our own lives? When people talk about the ‘peace testimony’, it is largely a political testimony — but, for the most part, a political opinion makes no difference in daily life. For something as counter cultural as peace, most years when it comes time to vote one must admit that there is not any peace candidates on the ballots.
For me, peace with the people around me is largely a matter of giving up the need to be right, or ‘important’ to the group. In my daily life peace means doing my best to stay out of self serving and dirty politics. The worst thing I can do to my opponents is attack their reputation — in order to live at peace with myself and others, the best I can do is pray for God’s blessing on those who are recognized before me.