“The war to end war” or “the war to end all wars”—Woodrow Wilson’s borrow from H.G. Wells to justify World War I was met with cynicism even during the First World War, and since then has become a sardonic lament. Here, on the one hundredth anniversary of the end of that war, we know it ended nothing. The culmination of that conflict directly contributed to the rise of the Second World War, the end of which fed the conflicts in Korea and Southeast Asia, which motivated interventions in the Middle East, and on and on and on…. World War I ended nothing; instead it contributed to the bloodiest century in human history.
The persistence of war in our world prompts the question for Christians: should we even expect the end of war? Is war a scourge to eliminate, or is it a necessary evil that we sometimes endure or even actively utilize? Should Christians be opposed to war, even when undertaken in the name of justice and peace?
Many Christians today believe pacifism lies at the heart of the gospel. They take their cue from the Prince of Peace who rode into Jerusalem on a humble donkey, who preached love for enemies and responded to violence by surrendering to the cross. They hear Paul’s advice in Romans to bless those who persecute, to live peaceably, and to refuse to repay evil with evil, and they believe that those words are the heart of a gospel ethic.
Other Christians do not believe that their faith requires them to espouse pacifism. They believe that war is sometimes necessary, they support the justified use of the military, and in fact, many Christians serve in the military without an ounce of moral contradiction. They read about Jesus’s reaction to corruption in the Temple and hear it as gospel proof that sometimes anger and violence serve a righteous cause. With Paul they affirm that government—including the military—can sometimes be the means by which God’s justice is meted out.
Does being Christian always require nonviolence, or can there sometimes be a necessary end to war?
It’s a question that has preoccupied the Church for its entire existence. It’s a question the students in my Christian ethics class are asking this semester. They are reading pacifists like Martin Luther King, Jr. who argue that we should love our enemies. Whether talking about domestic conflict or international affairs, MLK rejected the use of violence in the struggle for justice. He argued that Christians are called to a different spirit, a radical love for even our enemies: agape love.
King defined agape love this way:
Agape [is] understanding and creative, redemptive goodwill for all men. An overflowing love which seeks nothing in return, agape is the love of God operating in the human heart. At this level, we love men not because we like them, nor because their ways appeal to us, nor even because they possess some type of divine spark; we love every man because God loves him. At this level, we love the person who does an evil deed, although we hate the deed that he does.
MLK believed this kind of redemptive goodwill for all people, even our enemies, is our responsibility in moments of conflict because Jesus commanded it explicitly. But he also thought it was the only tactic that would work to bring about reconciliation and a just society. Hate “scars the soul and distorts” us, King claimed. Hate not only fails to bring about reconciliation with the enemy, it also changes us, and not for the better. By contrast, King believed that “love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.” Hate tears down relationships, but love transforms them and redeems them.
This commitment to loving the enemy was the spirit in which King insisted on nonviolent civil disobedience in the domestic struggle with segregation, and it also informed his commitment to pacifism in international affairs. “No nation can live alone,” he preached one Christmas morning, “and as long as we try, the more we are going to have war in this world. Now the judgment of God is upon us, and we must either learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools.” Christian faith offers a gospel of peace in a culture of war, he said: “With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when there will be peace on earth and good will toward men. It will be a glorious day, the morning stars will sing together, and the sons of God will shout for joy.” King recognized that his call to nonviolence was counter-cultural. But to his mind, it was both the more practical and the more faithful way to deal with conflict.
My students are also reading Reinhold Niebuhr, another prominent Christian thinker and public intellectual of the last century. Years before MLK came to prominence, in the period after the First World War and before anyone really knew there would be a Second, Niebuhr was surrounded by mainline liberal church leaders who actively and ambitiously called for an end to all war, and believed that that end was within humanity’s grasp. The first World War was to be the end of all war; we had learned the tragic consequences of our mistakes. In the League of Nations we had begun to create the mechanisms for ensuring that nations would not have to resort to war to work out their differences, that there would be alternatives to war to maintain order and a global community. Niebuhr was surrounded by good Christian leaders calling for the end of war—and he rejected virtually all of them.
In an influential essay entitled, “Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist,” Niebuhr claimed that most forms of Christian pacifism are in fact heresy. Now Niebuhr wasn’t using the term “heresy” as it was invoked in medieval times, suggesting that Christian pacifists should be thrown out of the church or burned at the stake. He was using the term expressively, to make his point that pacifism is not an accurate reflection of the Christian gospel. Niebuhr thought pacifism is heresy because it is based on an optimism that is unjustified from the perspective of the gospel. In their call for an end to war, Christian pacifists suggest that human beings are good enough to pull that off. But according to Niebuhr, Christianity assumes no such thing, and in fact Christianity assumes the opposite: that as part of the human condition we will always fail to live up to the ideals and expectations God has for us. Grace, not moral perfection, is the heart of the gospel.
Niebuhr thought all those post-WWI Christians who were calling for a world safe from war, and who thought it was a realistic possibility in the so-called “Christian Century,” were spouting not good Christian doctrine but an Enlightenment-based optimism in the moral progress of humanity. If we just spread religion more broadly, if we just act more rationally, if we just educate people more successfully, we will evolve out of our need for violence. Niebuhr thought such an optimism was undercut both by experience and the testament of Christian faith, which reminds us that we are good creatures but also tragically self-defeating, and thus will never be able to live up to the ideals we or God have cast for ourselves. No society can ever be built on the perfection of love—not even close.
Thus the ideals of peace and perfect justice will always elude us. War as a reflection of our collective moral failings will always be with us. And in fact, Niebuhr argued, sometimes violence and war will be mechanisms we need for the work of justice and peace. Sometimes war has a regrettable but necessary purpose; it is a means to liberate those who languish under oppression. Sometimes not intervening in Nazi or Rwandan genocide or Syrian domestic terrorism will turn out to be the greater evil. For Niebuhr, calls for a “beloved community” of peace and goodwill were unjustifiably optimistic. Christians who take seriously the need for grace expect something different: a world in which we struggle toward the beloved community, while acknowledging and confessing our inevitable failures to achieve it.
So—which one was right? Both MLK and Niebuhr claimed to speak the gospel. Each also claimed that his vision for human society was the more realistic. Which one was right? History suggests that each of them possessed a kernel of truth. The success of the Civil Rights movement seems to vindicate King’s call to nonviolence, while the persistence of human rights atrocities in the twenty-first century would seem to validate Niebuhr.
Which one was right? Which one was more faithful to the Christian message? MLK undeniably channeled the teachings of Jesus in his call to love our enemies and meet brute force with soul force. Niebuhr’s reminder that sin and the need for grace are also Christian values is equally undeniable.
Which one was right? Should Christians realistically want for the end of war? Or should Christians acknowledge that as long as we live in this world, war will always be with us, and occasionally we ourselves will need it to stand up for good against powers of evil? We Christians may disagree about whether the elimination of war is an appropriate Christian expectation. But perhaps we might agree on this: that we are called to lead purposeful lives that strive toward more peace in the world. At the very least we can agree that we ought to work for more peace, more redemptive goodwill that judges us, reminds us of the bonds we share, and reshapes our societies. We may disagree with one another about how close we can get to the ideal of the beloved community, but I think we can agree we ought to be purposefully moving toward it. In a nation, in a world in which division, hatred, violence, and demonization are stoked to second-nature, we need the gospel of peace—even if we can never perfectly achieve it. We may not be able to rid the world of violent powers, but our preaching the gospel of peace can at least help prevent the world from getting numb to it all.
 MLK, Strength to Love, 52.
 MLK, Strength to Love, 53.
 MLK, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace,” 253.
 MLK, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace, 258.
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