War- What is it Good For?

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Whenever I’m struggling with doubts about God or questioning my faith, I make sure to avoid my most notorious faith crisis trigger: war movies.  

It doesn’t matter whether a movie explores the atrocities of war, glorifies war, or even pokes fun at war—I just can’t  sit through ninety minutes of human beings blowing each other to pieces without facing the temptation to give up on the goodness of God altogether. I’ve never seen “Saving Private Ryan,” never seen “Schindler’s List,” never seen “Platoon.”

I’m not trying to hide my head in the sand. I know that these things really happened…but that’s why they bother me so much. Year after year, decade after decade, century after century, folks keep trying to fight the “war to end all wars,” but to no avail. Movies that portray the American soldiers as the only important characters drive me especially crazy. All those nameless Japanese or German or Vietnamese  actors getting shot as the movie’s score swells to a climax represent hundreds of thousands of real men—fathers, sons, husbands—who were killed on the “other side.”  They were no less loved by their families than Private Ryan was loved by his.  And supposedly, they were no less loved by God.

I don’t like war. I don’t like it in movies, or in books, or in real life. War makes me feel like God’s given up on us, that He’s so ticked off He’s just decided to abandon us and let us kill each other off. War makes me feel hopeless.

So, as I read Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw’s thoughts on nonviolence in Jesus for President, (our book club selection for the month of August), I felt particularly intrigued.

As we discussed last week, the point of Jesus for President is to remind followers of Christ that they are to be a set-apart people, that their first allegiance is to the Kingdom of Heaven, not to any earthly kingdom. It challenges believers to “transform the world through fascination” by honoring the teachings of Jesus—associating with the poor, loving enemies, showing mercy, and suffering.

While the authors acknowledge that “His is a theology and practice for the people of God, not a set of suggestions for the empire,” they show how the teachings of Jesus often conflict with our allegiance to our current empire (the United States), and call for a serious reevaluation among Christians of what it really means to emulate the Way of the cross.

For the authors, this translates into an unflappable commitment to nonviolence.

[If you question their sincerity, consider this: One of the authors, Shane Claiborne, actually went to Baghdad during the 2003 “shock and awe” bombing campaign to hang out with civilians. He could have been charged with treason for this.]

They use a lot of good biblical support to explain their position, focusing primarily on Jesus—His teachings and His death on the cross.

The Teachings of Jesus: The Third Way

One of my favorite parts of the book is the section about the Sermon on the Mount and the “third way” of turning the other cheek, walking the extra mile, and literally giving up the clothes off our backs. The authors point out that Jesus teaches His followers to transcend both passivity and violence by disarming opponents with surprising love.  Turning the other cheek means looking one’s enemy in the eye. Walking the extra mile means getting to know one’s opponent personally. Giving a greedy man all of your clothes when he sues you for your coat is a way of saying, “You want my coat. You can have it. You can even have my undies. But you cannot have my soul or my dignity.” (p.93) This third way teaches that, (in the words of Walter Wink,) “evil can be opposed without being emulated…enemies can be neutralized without being destroyed.” (p. 94-95)

Imagining ways to disarm enemies instead of destroying them takes some creativity and guts, but it’s the kind of policy that can transform the world.

The Death of Jesus: The Cross

On page 277 the authors write, “Jesus didn’t consider the way of the cross something he simply accomplished for the sake of others’ salvation, but he insisted, ‘You cannot be my disciples unless you too pick up your cross and follow me.’ Jesus taught nonviolence when he said, ‘I send you out as sheep among wolves.’ Jesus knew that his followers would face threats to their lives. But nowhere did Jesus teach that his followers should turn into wolves when they run into other scary wolves. He himself was killed like a sheep by wolves. By freely accepting crucifixion, he demonstrated what a sheep among wolves looks like…Jesus revealed that God, being love, chooses a different path—to suffer evil to overcome it.” (277)

They add, “How ironic when someone gets a tattoo of Jesus on the cross but has no problem with religiously condoning violence.” Quoting John Howard Yoder, they write: “The cross of Calvary was not a difficult family situation, not a frustration of visions or personal fulfillment, a crushing debt, nor a nagging in-law; it was the political, legally-to-be-expected result of a moral clash with the powers ruling [Jesus’] society.” (279)

Wow. Rarely do I think about the fact that when I wear a cross necklace or display a cross in my home, I am essentially saying, “My life is to be so counter-cultural that I am prepared to receive corporal punishment for my actions.” Whew! Makes me think twice about my level of commitment to this Heavenly Kingdom of Jesus Christ!

“The suffering way of the cross,” the authors write, “is the ironic and astounding way to bring life to the world. Unless a seed dies, it cannot bring life. It’s not that they cross is just some necessary step to accomplishing some religious plan of salvation—an abstract scheme that leaves Jesus politically meaningless…It is a completely different way to view the world, success, and the meaning of history.” (131)

Again they quote Yoder: “Here at the cross is the man who loves his enemies, the man whose righteousness is greater than that of the Pharisees, who being rich became poor, who gives his robe to those who took his cloak, who prays for those who spitefully use him. The cross is not a detour or a hurdle on the way to the kingdom, nor is it even the way to the kingdom; it is the kingdom come.”

Christians and Support for the U.S. Military

It’s challenging enough to consider how taking Jesus literally would affect one’s interpersonal relationships on a day-to-day basis;  it’s quite another issue to consider how we are to apply these teachings to our relationship with the “empire” of the United States of America, where killing “evildoers”  has been glorified as part of our national calling.

Should Christians participate in the military? Is that a conflict of interest?

Claiborne and Haw suggest that it is.

Quoting early church leaders and Roman historians (among them Origen, Tertullian, Justin Martyr, Hippolytus, and Tatian), Claiborne and Haw show that participants in the early Church consistently refused military service.  

They write, “Today the logic goes something like this…’We can support a president while also worshipping Jesus as the Son of God.’ But how is this possible? For one says that we must love our enemies, and the other says we must kill them: one promotes the economics of competition, while the other admonishes the forgiveness of debts. To which do we pledge allegiance? Surely, one of them must have the wrong idea of how to move history. Can a servant serve two masters? To say that we must kill our enemies and join the popular project to ‘rid the world of evil’ is to call Jesus unrealistic…How ironic it is to see a bumper sticker that says, ‘Jesus is the answer’ next to a bumper sticker supporting the war in Iraq, as if to say, ‘Jesus is the answer—but not in the real world.’” (Emphasis is mine.)


They go on to correctly point out that leaders often appeal to our morals (and even our faith) to get us to support another war…which they correctly point out is never really the last war.  As Christians this shouldn’t surprise us, of course, as Jesus clearly taught that the only way to overcome evil is with good.

Now, I know a whole lot of people who serve in the military. And I have a whole lot of friends who support U.S. military action in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. I try to thank every veteran I meet for his or her service, and I always tear up when “Taps” is played on the trumpet.  Before now, it never even occurred to me to be a pacifist.  I didn’t think it was realistic. (What would have happened to the Jews if Christians had not fought in World War II?)

Yet Claiborne and Haw have a point, and I’m interested in your response to it. If we believe that the teachings of Jesus have the power to change the world, shouldn’t we honor His teachings about non-violence and love for our enemies by opposing war?

I’m really not sure what I think about this. (Although I think that the next time someone boasts that he or she prefers to take the Bible literally, I will ask if he or she is in fact a pacifist.)

I would especially welcome the thoughts of readers who have served in the military. I really value your opinion on this. Do you think that the teachings of Jesus apply strictly to one’s personal life? In other words, is it possible to honor the teachings of Jesus by loving one’s personal enemies, but killing enemies of the state? Is that an appropriate distinction?

Furthermore, how are we Christians to respond to the War on Terror?

I have a feeling that war movies will be around for a long time, whether I like it or not. I suppose it may be time for me to decide how I ought to respond to their real-life counterparts.

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