After several hours of vigorous debate, Synod 2006 called on Christian Reformed churches and agencies to be agents of peace and shalom.
Synod urged church members and assemblies to participate actively in building cultures of peace at all levels of society, including “participating in government and the political process, supporting nonviolent conflict resolution, strengthening respect for human rights, and opposing increasing militarization and other tendencies when they threaten peace.”
Some delegates felt the church has no business addressing the state on political matters. “It’s not the role of this denomination to make political statements on behalf of the entire membership,” said Curtis Dubay, elder delegate from Classis Hackensack.
But Rev. Ted Bootsma, Classis Toronto, pointed out, “God’s people have always spoken with a prophetic voice. This tradition goes back to the Old Testament prophets, who spoke out boldly. Joel was commanded to speak out against all injustice, including wars, and he addressed all the nations surrounding Israel.”
Other delegates objected to encouraging the church’s agencies “to promote and actively engage in international initiatives for building peace with justice.” Rev. Carl Kammeraad, chair of the study committee who has served many years as a reserve military chaplain, pointed to the work of the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee as an example of international peacemaking.
Synod 2006 condemned preventive military actions as “inconsistent with the moral standards expressed in just-war criteria of just cause and last resort.” Synod also opposed the development of new weapons of mass destruction.
Paul Whatley Sr., elder delegate from Classis Central California, was pleased about that, recounting how he himself had seen the devastation caused by the use of napalm in Vietnam. “My brother still suffers the aftereffects of Agent Orange,” he said.
Though some delegates objected to the church advocating military policy to the government, Rev. John Medendorp, Classis Rocky Mountain, pointed out that synod was not addressing specific government policies. “We state principled positions of morality that governments can apply at any time,” he said.
Allow Soldiers to Opt Out
Synod also said the U.S. government should grant an honorable discharge to soldiers who object to a particular conflict, based on Christian just-war theory. (Canada allows selective conscientious objection.) Currently, the United States allows only pacifists to opt out of conflict situations. The recommendation to widen the criteria for conscientious objection elicited a strong debate.
Rev. Kevin Muyskens, Classis Heartland, wondered whether such selective conscientious objection would be abused “and allow an endless stream of soldiers to get out of a difficult situation.”
But Rev. Steven Alsum of Classis Rocky Mountain said that without selective conscientious objection, he would have a hard time counseling young people to go into the military. “How can I encourage them,” he asked, “if signing a contract with the military means you cannot disobey an order that profoundly goes against your loyalty to Jesus Christ without incurring lifelong suffering?”
Rev. Herman Keizer, a former Army chaplain and the CRC’s director of Chaplaincy Services, told the assembly how young people within the just-war tradition who sign up for the U.S. military face the possibility of going to jail and being dishonorably discharged if they have a selective conscientious objection to certain military actions.
“If you’re not a pacifist, your conscience will not be honored,” he said. “Even if that’s only one Christian Reformed young soldier, we should urge that the law protect him.”
In a related matter, synod directed the CRC’s Board of Trustees to make available materials that will assist pastors and churches in ministering to “members and their families who are contemplating, entering, or serving in the military, as well as to veterans in their congregations.”
Our History on War and Peace
As World War II looms, synod condemns “militarism as an attitude of mind which glorifies war as war,” yet warns vehemently against “the evils of present-day pacifism”: “He who denies the right and duty of the government to wage war on just occasions is not in harmony but in conflict with the Word of God.” Synod states the church can recognize only one kind of conscientious objector: the person who, recognizing his duty to obey his government and to defend his country . . . has intelligent and adequate grounds to be convinced that the war to which he is summoned is unjust.” Synod grounds its decisions in the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and John Calvin’s Institutes and reaffirms them in 1969.
With Vietnam fresh in their minds, delegates adopt specific “Guidelines for Making Ethical Decisions About War.” These guidelines offer questions that governments must address, in accordance with the church’s long-established criteria, in order to justify the use of military power and resort to war. As the 2006 War & Peace committee points out, “These questions convey the heart of the predominant moral position of the CRC with regard to war: that just governing requires the establishment and maintenance of a just peace, and only under rare and unusual circumstances are governments obliged to use military force to oppose violent injustice in order to restore peace.”
Synod 1977 also notes, “The church cannot expect that any set of guidelines . . . will necessarily result in a unanimous evaluation of any given war.”
Synod adopts “Guidelines for Justifiable Warfare” but questions whether just war is even possible anymore, given the unparalleled destructive power of modern nuclear weapons.
Synod adopts yet another set of guidelines, this time addressing “Conscientious Objection and Tax Resistance.” Synod states, “The Christian’s duty is to obey even when unsure of the morality of government action. This duty to obey pertains to taxes.” The church must of course provide spiritual care and support to conscientious tax resisters but does not have the authority to join them.
Compiled from the 2006 War and Peace report and from “CRC Statements and Guidelines Regarding War,” available from the CRC’s Office of Social Justice and Hunger Action at www.crcna.org/pages/osjha_peaceguidelines.cfm