Time for Evangelicals to Rethink War

I had thought that holding a hard and fast ethic of non-violence was incompatible with my Reformed Evangelical beliefs, and then I picked up a book called FIGHT: A Christian Case for Nonviolence. Of course I have heard Scot McKnight, Stanley Haeurwas, Richard Hays, Shane Claiborne, and others in the “neo-Anabaptist” movement advocate this position, but never a self-proclaimed Evangelical. Preston Sprinkle, author of FIGHT, proved me wrong. He lists John Piper, John MacArthur, and R. C. Sproul as influences and Martin Luther as his hero. He has also co-authored a book with Francis Chan, so I was interested in what he had to say. While I am not quite ready to consider all wars unjustifiable, I largely agree with Sprinkle and he raises many good points about violence, war, militarism, and nationalism.

What I am most pleased about with this book is Sprinkle’s willingness to express his disagreement with most evangelicals about his views on the use of violence. Parting from the dominant evangelical opinion on such an important issue can lead to considerable backlash.

Sprinkle begins by going through the Old Testament and Israel’s participation in acts of violence. He makes the point that despite Israel’s participation in wars, they were much less violent than other Near Eastern cultures and they did not glorify violence. Sprinkle continues by explaining the New Testament ethic of non-violence. The New Testament is filled with passages that support non-violence. Romans 13, which discusses civil authority, however is problematic. Sprinkle points out that this chapter does not support the use of the sword, but rather acknowledges that it will be used. He continues with studying the positions of the church fathers towards violence and warfare. Origen and Tertullian and all of the church fathers until Ambrose and Augustine (both of whom advocated just war theory) would have to be considered pacifists using the modern definition of the word. They forbade Christians from participation in the military and opposed the use of any lethal self-defense. While the Church fathers were fallible human beings, it is very convincing that in the first three centuries of Christendom there is no evidence for any theologians supporting the taking of a life in any scenario.

After reading this, I am confused as to how American evangelicals are some of the most eager supporters of the expansion of the US military and use of violence to police the world. Sprinkle writes “I think a large portion of the American Evangelical church has been seduced, whether knowingly or not, by nationalistic militarism…Being an evangelical has become synonymous with being…pro-Republican and pro-war.” I cannot help but wonder if our positions on violence and war have been shaped more by America than the gospel. I fear our Americanism is shaping our Christianity, not the other way around. Don’t get me wrong, I am thankful for the sacrifice that men and women in the military have made, but I am uneasy about our war policies. Even if you subscribe to just war theory (which I am leaning towards at this point), there is no way that you can say that many of America’s military actions fit the criteria, which includes civilian immunity. Consider this: in World War I about 20% of deaths were civilians; in World War II this number increased to over 60%; and in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq some estimates are as high as 90%. When the US uses a drone strike, we kill an average of 25 civilians for every one terrorist. Sprinkle provides the following example. Imagine there was a deadly drug lord in suburban California that killed hundreds of Mexicans and Mexico decides to use a drone strike to kill him. Suppose they are successful, but along with killing the drug-lord, they kill 25 of his innocent neighbors. I have a feeling that wouldn’t go over so well with the American public. So who is to say American lives are more valuable than Afghan or Iraqi lives? Sprinkle hits the issue head on when he says that “it’s sad when American Christians talk about ‘us’ and ‘them’ and use these identity markers solely in terms of different national identities.”

I don’t have all the answers. What if an intruder is threatening your family? What if you can only stop someone from setting off a bomb by using lethal force? I do not know if either of these are justifiable. How about capital punishment? Should we de-arm the police? What I do know, however, is that it is time for American evangelicals to rethink their positions on war, nationalism, and militarism.

One final thought: I remember being on Facebook when Osama bin Laden was killed. I do not think I have ever seen my news feed with so much celebration. It was filled with patriotism and nationalism. I understand the desire for justice and I yearn for justice myself, but what I saw resembled vengeance more than justice. There was a twisted satisfaction that came across in the celebration of his death. While I do crave justice, at the same time, I yearn for mercy, even for the worst of sinners. The death of anyone made in the image of God, no matter how depraved is a tragedy. No death should be celebrated. Sprinkle writes that

“it would be odd – some would say hypocritical – for Christians to thank God for taking their death penalty and then spin around to celebrate the death of someone they think is worse than them.”

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