At one level, the Christian debate about the morality of war is ancient and timeless. Juxtaposed against the ubiquitous warfare of human history stands Jesus Christ, who taught enemy-love, nonretaliation and peacemaking, and went to his death on the Cross without defending himself.
Anyone who takes the Gospel accounts of Jesus at all seriously must be impressed by his renunciation of violence both in word and deed. Certainly, the New Testament writers and the most visible leaders of the church’s first 250 years taught that to follow Jesus meant to suffer violence rather than inflict it.
When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed (1 Peter 2:23-25).
Anyone who knows much about the historical context of Jesus’ ministry must be doubly impressed, because his renunciation of violence was offered in the context of Roman imperial oppression and a restive Jewish population whose sacred homeland was under occupation. A mere 35 years after Jesus’ ministry, a Jewish uprising did in fact occur. It was followed by a crushing Roman response that included the destruction of the Temple and the deaths of thousands upon thousands. Jesus appears to have warned against such a path even during his ministry (Luke 19:41-44), and there is no evidence that his Palestinian Jewish disciples participated in it a generation later.
It is therefore rather simple to declare that fidelity to Jesus Christ requires abstention from participation in or support of all violence. This pacifist position had strong support during the early years of church history. However, it became subordinated to a dominant “just war” position from Augustine forward, in a move that can be viewed either as a great moral collapse or a victory for moral realism in a sinful world.
Just war thinking
Just war thinking metastasized into a grotesque holy war offshoot that can be dated at least to the Crusades, in which killing enemies in the name of Jesus became viewed as a positive good rather than a necessary evil. This mayhem of gleeful godly killing, not least during the post-Reformation wars of religion, helped to delegitimize Christian holy war thinking, leaving a chastened just war theory and a resurgent pacifism as the two main options moving into the modern era.
“Just war thinking metastasized into a grotesque holy war offshoot that can be dated at least to the Crusades.”
World War I ushered in a whole new level of technologized killing. Its preventability, stupidity and tragedy stimulated a dramatic turn toward pacifism among Christians and many others in the postwar period. Unfortunately, not everyone thought nonviolence the proper response to the millions of dead from the war. Militant nationalists in Germany, for example, thought the proper response was to avenge the dead through another war.
Christian pacifist tendencies largely gave way to a return to (un)holy-imperial-vengeance-race-war on the Nazi side and indignant but resolute just war response on the allied side. For the allied populations, World War II became the unequivocally just war. An entire generation’s understanding of nation, war and morality was ineradicably affected.
But that war ended with atomic bombs dropped by our side over two Japanese cities. The specter of a massive nuclear exchange that could destroy civilization itself then shadowed the entire Cold War period. The unambiguous moral rightness of “our side” faded or disappeared for many of us during the Cold War, not just because we were accumulating and threatening the use of nuclear weapons but also because we were engaging in proxy wars all around the world in the name of anti-communism. The Vietnam War, in particular, did much to further mistrust of the U.S. government from the 1960s forward.
Both principled and “functional” pacifism (that is, pacifism in all but name) surged again among many Christian groups and scholars during this period. In the hands of leading pacifist Christian scholars like Stanley Hauerwas and J.H. Yoder, it became clear that it was not just the teaching and example of Jesus that drove the pacifism of many U.S. ethicists, but also a growing cynicism about “The State” (or, at least, the United States, or NATO, or the West) ever acting in a morally defensible manner.
Romans 13 gave way to Revelation 13 — the state became demonic life-devouring Beast rather than God-ordained authority for the public good. World War II-era confidence in the relative virtue of “our side” had been shattered.
The context has changed
“The Russian assault on Ukraine, taking place before the eyes of a watching world, should and will affect current Christian moral thinking about war.”
I began by saying that at one level the Christian debate over the morality of war is ancient and timeless. But notice that I have been offering a historical narrative demonstrating that, at another level, the Christian debate over the morality of war is profoundly contemporary and contextual. Neither the texts of the Bible nor the tradition of the church have changed. But here in the year of our Lord 2022 the context has changed, and its affects our moral judgments. That is true on all issues, by the way. Context matters.
All of this is to lead up to the following point: I believe the Russian assault on Ukraine, taking place before the eyes of a watching world, should and will affect current Christian moral thinking about war. It will contribute to reviving the meaningfulness of classic just war theory and challenging the (principled or functional) pacifism regnant for a generation in Christian ethics and some church bodies.
On the Russian side, this is one of the clearest real-life examples of an unjust war I have encountered in life or study. In classic just war terms, Russia is obviously wrong both in initiating this war (no just cause, no right intention) and in how it is waging the war (violations of proportionality and of the rules of war, such as indiscriminate shelling of population centers).
“Ukraine is fighting a just war.”
Likewise, Ukraine clearly is acting in a morally justifiable manner, both in defending itself (just cause, right intention, legitimate authority) and, as far as I can see so far, in how it has defended itself. Ukraine is fighting a just war. There is no reason for cynicism about the motives of Ukraine’s government or the conduct of its soldiers and people. There is no Beast at work in Kyiv. This is a people defending itself, led by a government doing government’s most sacred task — protecting its people.
The limits of peacemaking
Most everyone reading this post probably knows that my teacher and friend Glen Stassen developed just peacemaking theory as an alternative to the old stuck debate between pacifism and just war. I wholeheartedly support not just Glen’s theory but also diplomatic efforts to end this conflict right now. Tantalizing diplomatic solutions appear and disappear on a daily basis.
But the obvious existence of just peacemaking opportunities matters only if there are two sides willing to make a just peace. Despite occasional nice noises from the Russian side about peace, their bombs keep falling on Ukraine’s surviving families. As long as they do, the Ukrainians will keep defending themselves. Many of those Ukrainians are Christians. I wonder who among us will tell them that their national self-defense efforts are immoral?
This is the conundrum that always has faced the Christian tradition on war. It goes like this: Sometimes the tension between following the Jesus we meet in the Gospels and responding to the world as it is simply cannot be resolved — and real people in real time must choose, must act, as responsibly and faithfully as they can.
It is a good thing that the Gospel has a word for us about grace.
David P. Gushee is a leading Christian ethicist. serves as distinguished university professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University, chair of Christian social ethics at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and senior research fellow at International Baptist Theological Study Centre. He is a past president of both the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Christian Ethics. His latest book is Introducing Christian Ethics. He’s also the author of Kingdom Ethics, After Evangelicalism, and Changing Our Mind: The Landmark Call for Inclusion of LGBTQ Christians. He and his wife, Jeanie, live in Atlanta. Learn more: davidpgushee.com or Facebook.
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