Speaking of War & Peace

It’s been three years since the onset of the war in Iraq. Heated debate continues about the justice, wisdom, and efficacy of that war. Since 1939 the CRC has spoken on issues of war and peace. “But where is the church’s voice now?” you may wonder.

Since 2003, a committee appointed by the Christian Reformed Church has been quietly studying just-war theory and the use of military force, along with the Christian’s role in peacemaking. That committee’s report is now complete (see www.crcna.org/resources/synodrelated). It’s time for the CRC to discuss and decide how to act on it.

To get the ball rolling, The Banner, with permission from the chair of the study committee, asked two of the committee’s members who have differing views to share their thoughts—what they would have liked the report to say and why they settled for what it does say. We hope their conversation will provide a healthy model for our wider discussions.

[Opinion 1]

On the whole, I am satisfied with the report our committee submitted because, for the most part, it situates the important questions about peace and war in the larger context of responsibility for just governance.

I do wish, however, that, given the committee’s assignment, the report would have remained focused on the question of why and how Christians should work for just governance in their political communities and in the international arena.

Only governments may find justification for going to war, and, as the report argues, justifiable warfare is rare and highly qualified. Thus, it’s primarily with regard to civic responsibilities under government that questions about peace in relation to war should be considered by the Christian Reformed Church.

The report properly affirms and articulates the biblical calling of Christians to be reconcilers and peacemakers. On that basis the report makes the case for the responsibility of governments to uphold public peace by establishing just political communities and international relations. And public justice may, on rare occasions, call for the use of military force to protect the innocent and resist unjust aggression in order to recover or help to establish a peaceful public order. But parts of the report still reflect what I think is a mistaken contrast between peace and war.

The mistaken contrast I have in mind is one that puts the church on the side of peace and governments on the side of conflict (and thus the disruption of peace). This gets close to a contrast between the church as peacemaker (whose members should perhaps be pacifists) and governments that make war in opposition to a Christian ethic of peace.

The error here, in my estimation, comes from failing to see that the people of God in Christ bear legitimate responsibility in the arena of citizenship and government, just as they do in families, schools, and workplaces. The way Christians ought to serve God and neighbors in their civic roles is by working for just political communities. This is where the important criteria for the just use of force come in.

Unjust aggression, whether by domestic thieves and violent offenders or by violent foreign aggressors, is what disrupts peace. To establish and uphold public peace is precisely one of the obligations of government. And for government to fulfill that responsibility it may, on rare occasions, be justified in going to war.

The people of God in Christ, when properly exercising their responsibilities outside the civic arena, will certainly contribute indirectly to public peace. But actions in the other arenas do not determine the laws and operations of government. It is directly in the civic arena that public peace must be secured and upheld through the just enforcement of just laws.

To be sure, governments can and do act unjustly, even becoming the illegitimate aggressors that governments are supposed to restrain and punish. The report properly calls into question, for example, the U.S. government’s use of military force at the present time. Christian citizens and public officeholders should be ready to oppose the unjust use of force by their own governments. That is precisely what the just-war criteria help to make possible.

The just-war criteria have not been articulated over the centuries to provide moral backing for governments to go to war for whatever nationalistic, civil-religious, or self-aggrandizing reasons they choose. On the contrary, the just-war criteria are an expression of the normative obligation that binds governments to exercise just governance. And when governments fail to do justice, they must be called to account and their actions condemned.

I wish the report would have focused all its arguments as well as its concluding recommendations on ways that the Christian Reformed Church could go about urging Christians to exercise their civic responsibilities to promote peace through just governance. Many other dimensions of Christian service that contribute to peace and reconciliation are critically important, but for a study of war and peace, it is the civic/governmental responsibilities that should be kept in focus.

[Opinion 2]

My hope is that the Report on war and peace will change the question that gets attention in the CRC. Instead of debating when we can go to war, let’s work on how we can build peace. That will be a significant shift in focus, with consequences for what we do. If the report is successful in that objective, then the four themes I think deserve more attention will get it later:

1. Listening to the voices of affected people

One value of Reformed thinking is its positive attitude toward the role of government. In keeping with that, this report looks at the issues of war and peace primarily from the perspective of governments. But we also need to listen more carefully to the people living with armed conflict.

The reason I find the “responsibility to protect” paradigm more helpful than just-war criteria is that it frames issues in terms of human security — security for people — rather than state security. The two are not separate, but neither can they be equated in today’s conflicts.

Christians are wise to adopt a questioning stance, rather than easily adopting the national aspirations of our own governments. God and country are a potent mix; misguided nationalism often replaces sober judgment based on careful analysis. Much of the research on the application of just-war criteria acknowledges that national loyalties get in the way of rigorous judgment. The best antidote for that error is to listen more to the voices of the people most affected by armed conflict.

That includes paying more attention to the war-wounded among our military. Churches, especially those who bless wars, have a responsibility to do more than make heroes of returning soldiers who struggle with trauma, guilt, and pain, and who now must fit back into “normal” society. If we truly pay attention to them, we will work harder to prevent wars in the future.

2. Developing a stronger global perspective

Our children are becoming global citizens. I recognize that the CRC is North American, but we can show greater sensitivity to our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, particularly across the great gap between the powerful and the powerless. The report takes a step forward in recognizing that Canadian CRC members work in a different context. But the analysis remains largely U.S.-centric.

As unpopular as the current United Nations is in the United States, we need counter-balancing institutions at the international level, to hold in check nationalism of all stripes — not as superpowers, but as peace-building agents. The church is part of a global movement, and I hope the CRC will increasingly make a contribution to growing global initiatives for peace with justice.

3. Paying greater attention to the costs of war and spending priorities

If as many resources were spent building peace as are now spent preparing for war, our chances for peace would be much greater.

Peace is not an idle dream or passing prayer. It comes from deliberate hard work, using practical skills, tools, and dedicated resources. As the Carnegie Institute concluded, we know what needs to be done to resolve or prevent deadly conflicts, but we lack the political will to do it. Resources still go toward building highly sophisticated war machines instead of conflict prevention. The church should be a loud prophetic voice about misplaced priorities when more than a trillion dollars annually gets spent on weapons of war while a pittance is spent on peace building.

I take seriously God’s caution in Scripture about trusting in horses and chariots. He wanted Israel to show another way to peace. Experience shows that it is often the less powerful in military terms who resolve conflicts and broker peace with justice.

4. Exploring new approaches

Many think Reformed pacifism is an oxymoron. Yet others find the nexus between positive Reformed thinking about governance and the pacifist drive to find nonviolent solutions to conflict a creative spot to address contemporary challenges.

Work coming from the pacifist tradition no longer fits old stereotypes, and current armed conflicts do not fit the stereotype of civilized warfare that is assumed in most just-war statements. It’s time for new thinking that gets out of the old boxes.

Committee consensus could be found for recognition of the gifts of peacemaking that the pacifist tradition has nurtured, but not for a more robust recommendation that would nurture growth in that direction. Wars have been avoided as a consequence of nonviolent peacemaking. Thank God for it. Initiatives that draw on Reformed thinking about just governance and nonviolent conflict resolution from pacifist traditions could result in more dynamic strategies for peace than either tradition fosters on its own. It will happen if we focus on peace instead of war.

Keeping the Conversation Going

I agree with you, Kathy, that the voices of those most affected by war should be heard. But heard by whom? Who should hear the voices of those being killed by the Janjaweed in Darfur? You say “we” need to listen to those voices, but your “we” is everyone and no one. It is just governments, above all, who need to hear those voices, and that is why open, democratic governments must be built for the sake of peace.

I couldn’t agree with you more that Christians need an expanded global vision. The people of God in Christ live throughout the world, and we should see ourselves as a worldwide community in Christ, not first of all as nationalists. And that means we should be working together internationally to help build domestic and international institutions of just governance that can uphold public peace.

Finally, I fully support the right of citizens with pacifist convictions not to be required to serve in the military. But if by pacifism you mean identifying all use of force as unjust and therefore ungodly, you have eliminated the very institution of government, and that is unbiblical.

Even if governments use force sparingly and never go to war, they must have the right to monopolize the use of force and be prepared to use it against unjust aggression. If you believe that government (as a monopolizer of force) is unjust, then yes, “Reformed pacifism” is an oxymoron.

—Jim Skillen

You’re right, Jim, that just governance is an important goal, without a doubt. The issue is what Christians can and should do in messy contexts that are far from just.

While in theory just-war criteria are intended to be objective guidelines, as you suggest, in practice just-war talk is often used to build support for dubious actions; hence the need for Christians to nurture a healthy skepticism.

In theory, war should be a last resort. In reality, when a trillion dollars annually is spent on military weapons and a pittance is spent on peace work, the last resort easily becomes the preferred option.

In theory, governments should be the primary peace builders. But in the reality of globalization, the roles of different actors are increasingly interdependent; everyone needs to take responsibility to build peace.

It’s true that unjust aggression triggers armed conflict, but it occurs in the context of many other factors that also threaten peace. This is especially true in contemporary conflicts, as the report notes. Conflict prevention focuses on the other factors, and it is in conflict prevention and early conflict resolution that Christians and churches can often make a useful contribution toward peace.

—Kathy Vandergrift

For Discussion

  1. Should the CRC confine its pronouncements on war and peace to our “civic responsibilities to promote peace through governance,” as Skillen suggests, or should such pronouncements also actively call us to peacemaking efforts, as Vander Grift recommends?
  2. Does government ever have the right and responsibility to go to war? When? May it strike first in order to prevent an enemy from doing so first?
  3. Should governments spend less on defense and more on peacemaking?
  4. Is “Reformed pacifism” possible?
  5. Is it unpatriotic to question one’s government’s actions in conducting a war? Is it disrespectful to the troops who conduct it?
  6. What, if anything, do you want the CRC synod (our widest assembly, convening this June) to say to the U.S. government about war and peace? To the church?
  7. What can and should you do personally to promote justice and peace?

About the Authors

Kathy Vandergrift teaches public ethics to university students and advocates for the rights of children.

Dr. Jim Skillen is president of the Center for Public Justice in Washington, D.C.

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