Christian militarism is a betrayal of Christ

What would Jesus do? Photo: Constantine, Wikimedia Commons

His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

– Isaiah 9:6

LONDON, January 9, 2013 – “God is Pro-War,” declared Jerry Falwell in the title of an article he authored in January 2004, some nine months after US forces invaded Iraq. A powerful voice in the Christian community, Falwell was the founder of the Moral Majority that for years served as the largest political lobby group for evangelical Christians. “One of the primary purposes of the church is to stop the spread of evil, even at the cost of human lives,” asserted Mr. Falwell in his piece.

Falwell was not the only evangelical leader who was zealous for the war. “We should offer to serve the war effort in any way possible,” said Charles Stanley at about the same time. A former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Mr. Stanley added, “God battles with people who oppose him, who fight against him and his followers.” His remarks were addressed not only to his congregation in the First Baptist Church of Atlanta but also to millions of television viewers across the United States who regularly watch his sermons.

In the years following 9/11 the pulpits in evangelical churches across the country regularly sounded a call to arms. The message resonated in the pews. A Pew poll conducted in April 2003 found that 87 percent of white American evangelicals supported the invasion of Iraq. This level of support was almost ten percentage points above that of the general population.

As an evangelical myself, I, too, argued for and supported the war. But over the years I started to have doubts whether this level of belligerence can ever be a rightful Christian stance. I also began looking into the circumstances surrounding other conflicts in American history and learned that the aftermath of 9/11 was not a unique display of evangelicals’ proclivity for war. That proclivity has a long history indeed.

Some one hundred years ago during World War I, Billy Sunday – the most popular American evangelist of the time – travelled up and down the country beating the war drum. Billy Sunday stumped for recruitment, urged the faithful to keep purchasing war bonds and raised large quantities of money. He spoke of the conflict as a clash of cosmic forces, telling his audiences: “I tell you it is Bill [German Emperor Wilhelm II] against Woodrow [President Wilson], Germany against America, Hell against Heaven.”

The zeal of Billy Sunday and the evangelical community for military confrontation was inexplicable for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the desire to become embroiled in a conflict in which the United States had no discernible vital interest. Furthermore, America’s involvement was in direct contravention to the warnings of the Founding Fathers who repeatedly cautioned against America’s military involvement in foreign lands and especially in Europe. George Washington addressed this subject emphatically in his farewell address:

“Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none; or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves by artificial ties in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities. Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course… Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation? Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice?”

Also surprising was the fact that Christians – who generally gravitate toward the conservative side of the political spectrum – would so enthusiastically throw their money and support behind Woodrow Wilson, a pro-labor progressive and one of the greatest state-expansionist that ever occupied the White House. A great believer in government activism, Wilson was behind a number of state-empowering initiatives such as the Federal Reserve Act, the Clayton Antitrust Act, the Federal Trade Commission Act, the income tax, and the Federal Farm Loan Act to name a few. Oddly enough, Wilson’s unprecedented strengthening of Leviathan did not make the Christians suspicious of his motives or the ability to do the right thing.

Sad to say, America’s entrance into World War I produced lamentable results. More than one hundred thousand Americans soldiers died and nearly twice as many were wounded. The actions of the US military caused the death of hundreds of thousands of European people in addition to causing untold damage to property in a conflict in which this country had no real stake.

To make matters worse, America’s entry into the conflict gave the Allies a disproportionate military advantage which translated into the crushing of Germany and the imposition of the Treaty of Versailles. That treaty was a deeply flawed one because it imposed unduly harsh terms on the German people, terms that proved unsustainable in the long run.

Wilson himself travelled to Europe and was a principal force in the treaty negotiations. This is what he said about his role some months later: “[T]he specifications of this treaty were American specifications, and we have got not only to be the architects, drawing up the specifications, but we have got to be the contractors, too.”

That the Versailles Treaty was unsustainable was immediately obvious to many clear-sighted observers. Harold Nicolson, a British delegate at Versailles, said the treaty was “neither just nor wise,” and that the delegates were “very stupid men.” The economist John Maynard Keynes called its terms “Carthaginian.” Winston Churchill – no lover of Germany – described it as “monstrous” and “malignant” and said that “the idea that the vanquished could pay the expenses of the victors was a destructive and crazy delusion.”

President Wilson, on the other hand, seemed satisfied with the settlement he helped to bring about. This is what he said about it in a speech which he gave at Pueblo, Colorado in September of 1919:

“It is a very severe settlement with Germany, but there is not anything in it that she did not earn. Indeed, she earned more than she can ever be able to pay for, and the punishment exacted of her is not a punishment greater than she can bear, and it is absolutely necessary in order that no other nation may ever plot such a thing against humanity and civilization.”

It goes without saying that history proved Wilson wrong while vindicating Churchill’s assessment. Germany was indeed unable to pay for the war reparations and its economy eventually collapsed in a hyper-inflationary spiral. In 1924 the victors began reducing Germany’s payments and in 1932 the debt was forgiven in its entirety. But according to Ivan Castro, it was too late by then: “The national political, economic and social stability had been destroyed and extremist parties such as the Communists and the Nazis were gathering followers. The insecurity felt by the German people was one of the main causes that led to Adolf Hitler taking power in 1933.”

Castro is only one of many historians today who feel that Hitler could only rise to power because of the deleterious terms of the Versailles Treaty. American Christians, however, were oblivious to the havoc wrought across the ocean and they celebrated “victory” in that bloody and calamitous conflict. When President Wilson returned home from Versailles they greeted him not only as a hero but also as something of a savior. The war was considered a great success, but the noxious seeds sowed by America’s intervention would sprout in the not-too-distant future. Some fifteen years later Hitler rose to power in Germany and the world was on the course to the most destructive war mankind has ever known.

It can only be regretted that evangelical Christians directly contributed to the causes of that conflict by their misguided support for their country’s participation in the First War. Sadly, in their ebullience they neither paid heed to the peaceful example of Jesus Christ – the Prince of Peace who they claimed to follow – nor to the wise, pragmatic counsel of the Founding Fathers.

Needless to say, since then there has hardly been a conflict that evangelicals did not support or encourage. We evangelicals can, in fact, be reliably counted upon to endorse any war or aggressive action the US government chooses to undertake.

Another instance of Christian militarism was the Vietnam war which received support from both the far Christian right as well as mainstream conservatives Protestants. In 1965, when the American people were beginning to increasingly call into question the rightness of the Vietnam undertaking, Christianity Today – the flagship of conservative Protestantism – published an editorial praising President Johnson and celebrating the military might of the United States. The piece naively called Johnson a “brave soldier” who was only doing what was just and right. The editorial’s writer apparently suspected no ulterior motives or incompetence on the part of the US government.

Further on the Christian right was Billy James Hargis, a prominent minister, who through his nationally broadcast program urged increasing America’s involvement even as the scope of the disaster was becoming increasingly obvious. Hargis used his nationally broadcast program that was carried on more than 500 radio station to advance his aggressive pro-war stance. He even went so far as to accuse Christians who did not take a hardline position on communism and the war of being communists themselves.

This is how one observer, Jennifer Esch, assessed the Christians’ role in the Vietnam war:

“As the war progressed, members of the mainstream, conservative evangelical community made bolder and more frequent statements in support of the war… Conservative Christians’ continued support of the Johnson administration enabled Johnson to maintain his Vietnam policy, despite the growing number of anti-war activists during the late 1960s…”

Hargis and other Christian leaders claimed that communist triumph in Vietnam would bring about a domino effect which would lead to the spread of communism not only in Southeast Asia but eventually around the globe. They saw the conflict as a struggle between good and evil in which our troops were righteous soldiers of Christ. Needless to say, America’s military involvement in that part of the world represents a tragic chapter in this nation’s history. The United States did not achieve its objectives and suffered a humiliating defeat. Nearly sixty thousand soldiers died and many more were injured in addition to hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who were killed in the conflict.

The domino effect that the evangelicals so feared never materialized. Asia did not fall into Soviet hands and America was not engulfed by the flames of communism. America was, however, shaken to the core by divisions over the senseless war that tore and badly damaged the fabric of American society. It is truly paradoxical that by their ill-advised support of an invasion in a far-away part of the globe Christians nearly brought to its knees the very society which they sought to protect from outside danger.

Unfortunately, evangelical Christians have repeatedly failed to recognize the deadly and destructive consequences that their zeal for war has produced over the decades. Quite to the contrary, they have been continually urging the American government to engage in military confrontation whenever international tensions arose anywhere in the world. We can see a manifestation of this tendency even today as evangelical Christians are the main force behind the drive to bomb Syria and Iran.

The record of the last hundred years unmistakably shows that evangelical Christians have consistently been the most aggressive, belligerent and war-like demographic in US society. This is a truly startling fact, since it stands as a glaring contradiction on the part of those who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ.

Both by personal example and oral precept Jesus never suggested that his followers should engage or initiate physical violence of any kind. Again and again – by his words as well as deeds – Jesus advocated peace and non-violence. Peacefulness, non-violence, gentleness are, in fact, the very essence of Christ. This is so clearly and emphatically highlighted throughout the Gospels that only the blind could not see it.

The record could not be any more clear. The fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus, for instance, quotes Jesus as saying, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” He prefaced this statement with “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.”

In another place, Jesus says, “Love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.”

But even more powerful than his words is Jesus’ personal example. When he was about to be arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Apostle Peter – who accompanied Jesus that fateful night – drew a sword and injured one of the arresting party. Jesus chastized him even for this seemingly justifiable act of self-defensive violence, telling him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” He then added, “Don’t you realize that I could ask my Father for thousands of angels to protect us, and he would send them instantly?”

This instance is supremely revealing of Jesus’ emphasis on non-violence since at that moment Jesus apparently had at his disposal a force of inconceivable power. In the Old Testament book of Second Kings we read a story in which an angel destroyed an Assyrian army of one hundred and eighty five thousand men besieging the ancient city of Jerusalem.

In light of this, it is difficult to conceive the combined firepower of thousands of angels when one could wipe out a vast army by himself. And yet Jesus chose not to use this force even in self-defense against evil men who were coming to arrest him and dispatch him to an excruciating death. He could have annihilated his persecutors and all his enemies in an instant, but he decided not to resort violence. It is, indeed, not for nothing that he is called the Prince of Peace. And he wants his followers – including us evangelical Christians – to follow his example. Tertullian, one of the early Church Fathers, insightfully observed, “When Christ disarmed Peter in the garden, he disarmed all Christians.”

But Jesus was still not finished with his forbearance in the face of great suffering and evil. As he was being fastened to the cross – nails driven through his hands and feet – he cried, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Not only did he choose not to destroy his tormentors, he pleaded with God to grant them forgiveness.

How many of us evangelicals live up to the example and injunctions of our Lord? How many of us love and forgive our enemies? Not only do we fail to do this, we make enemies out of people who have never done anything to us. And then we press our government to unleash hell in their countries and fire weapons and explode hundreds of tons of munitions in the places where they live.

Many of my fellow evangelicals would flinch and even become angry at the suggestion that we should not retaliate even in self-defense. Nevertheless, the fact remains that this is what Jesus Christ taught by precept and example. The irate reaction of many Christians at the notion of non-violence just shows how far we fall of Christ’s standard.

But our purpose here is not to hold ourselves to the very high measure of loving one’s enemies and forgiving our tormentors. We would do well if we could at least live up to the lower standard of being peacemakers. Unfortunately, we fail badly even by that lower criterion. Again and again in the last hundred years we have been war instigators and aggressors. We have urged our government to take military action and effect death and destruction among peoples who have done us no harm. Peacemakers we are certainly not.

When Hugo Chavez spoke at the UN in New York a few years ago and made some derisive remarks about our government, I received e-mail circulars from my evangelical brethren expressing great indignation. There were even suggestions that we should take him out. But is this what Jesus would do? Remember, he prayed to God to grant forgiveness to those who were piercing his holy hands and feet. And here we wanted to punish Hugo Chavez simply for saying some words. It should also be remembered that Jesus was completely innocent while our government is not. It has plenty of blood on its hands and so have we for more than a century of war-instigation and belligerency.

It is worth observing that Jesus promulgated the blessedness of peacemaking in the so-called sermon on the Mount. This discourse was delivered to one of the large crowds that followed him during his itinerant ministry in Galilee in what is now Northern Israel. Most of those in attendance were not his close disciples and they came to that meeting for a variety of different reasons which included curiosity, desire for healing, hope of receiving free food, etc. Many of them would, in fact, later abandon Jesus when he pronounced more exacting teachings. Jesus must have know that this was going to happen, and yet he still told these “non-Christians” about the blessedness of being peacemakers. Clearly, this was a virtue Jesus expected even non-believers to cultivate.

Here is a painful paradox: When it comes to being peacemakers our fellow citizens are better at living up to Christ’s ideals than we are, since surveys consistently show that evangelicals support wars by a greater margin than the general population.

Neither are we merciful. A Pew poll conducted in March of 2003 found that secular people were more worried about civilians casualties in Iraq than evangelical Christians. Astonishingly, among all religious affiliations, evangelicals were the least concerned about the death toll that the invasion exacted among the Iraq’s population.

This should makes us pause. We not only fail to live up even to the lower standard of Christ’s teachings, but are also put to shame by unbelievers, atheists and members of other faiths who are less belligerent and more merciful than we are. One realizes it takes superhuman strength to love one’s enemies. Perhaps God will not count failure to do this as sin. But to fail to be peaceful, to be an aggressor, is a sin and crime that goes against everything Jesus stands for. And not only Jesus – the conscience of every sane human being knows it is wrong to wage war, to attack and to destroy, especially in far-away places where we have no business of getting involved.

Most civilized people realize that it is preferable to seek peace and not to pursue war. How is it possible, then, that we evangelical Christians – followers of the Prince of Peace who is the very embodiment of meekness and gentleness – fail to get a point which is so absolutely fundamental?

Someone who knows nothing of Christianity and would judge it only by the actions of its followers would have to come to the conclusion that the Christ evangelicals profess to worship is a man of war, belligerent and aggressive, one who meddles in other people’s affairs and who uses force and violence to achieve his ends. Nothing could be further from the Christ of the Bible. And yet this is the impression we often give, especially when we get involved in politics. The world is watching how Christians behave, and I fear that we evangelicals have given Christ a bad name indeed.

We would do well to ponder these things carefully while taking to heart the warning of our Lord: “Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent… But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you.”

______________________

Born and raised under communism, Vasko Kohlmayer is a naturalized American citizen. He has lived in several countries under various forms of government, but he still marvels at the goodness of God and the wonder of life.

He has written for a number of newspapers, magazines and internet journals. Vasko currently lives in Europe with his long-suffering wife and two beautiful daughters.

His column “Higher Things” deals with matters pertaining to God. You can read more by clicking on this link.

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Vasko Kohlmayer

Born and raised under communism, Vasko Kohlmayer is a naturalized American citizen. He has lived in several countries under various forms of government, but he still marvels at the goodness of God and the wonder of life. He has discovered that no matter how many places you've been, there is always something new to learn wherever you go.

Having started with sciences, he earned degrees in philosophy and literature. He has written for a number of newspapers, magazines and internet journals on subjects ranging from Russian politics to the gold standard. Vasko currently lives in Europe with his long-suffering wife and two beautiful daughters. He is the founder of The Christian Writers Foundation.  

 

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