Two Christian perspectives on war and world peace.

The Peacemongers: A Biblical Answer to Pacifism and Nuclear Disarmament, by Robert Duncan Culver (Tyndale, 1985, 160 pp.; $5.95, paper). Reviewed by Haven Bradford Gow, associate editor of the Police Times.

Robert Culver, a professor of theology at Winnipeg (Man.) Theological Seminary, grew up in the Grace Brethren church, a historic peace church like the Mennonites, the Church of the Brethren, and the Dunkers. Culver now favors Christian involvement in government and the military.

He respects the traditional church teaching that distinguishes “just” wars from immoral international conflicts. In his view, “War is undeniably a social evil.” At the same time, however, war “is not an unmixed evil, or God would not have commanded wars to be initiated by his people.”

Moreover, “a sober view of history will find some good from settlement of international quarrels by war.” True, “most wars are both unnecessary and wrongfully motivated,” but “Scripture never calls war, as such, a moral evil.”

Culver adds: “Hell is an evil also, but it is hardly demonstrable that hell is not a moral necessity. The necessity for such things as hell, jails, criminal courts, and war is where evil lies.”

As Culver knows, the traditional Christian just-war theory is rooted in the thinking of Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas (who restated and enlarged upon Saint Augustine’s thinking). Culver contends that the traditional just-war teaching “is no formula for conducting simon-pure wars of no moral ambiguity. Sin manages to pervade all things human. Even theological faculties and church committees exist under the condition of sin.… These facts render Christian just(ified)-war teachings realistic. They should not be judged by a standard of perfection demanded of nothing else in the area of human conduct.”

According to traditional Christian thought, wars are just when: (1) all means of nonmilitary settlement are exhausted; (2) the harm done is seen as less than the offense that must be corrected; (3) the resulting order is to be more stable than the previous one; (4) the aims of war are defined so that the enemy knows on what terms he may have peace; (5) there is sufficient strength so that there is probability of victory; (6) the cause and motives must be just, and not self-aggrandizement; (7) the acts of war are undertaken by legitimate governments.

To be sure, as Culver explains, some Christians fervently insist that it is immoral to kill another human being, even in self-defense; these pacifist Christians maintain that war and all preparations for war are evil and must be resisted. But conservative peace-church separatism has melted away, and an aggressive international pacifism based on liberal politics has taken its place. According to Culver, the activists are teaching a new theology under the guise of Anabaptist tradition.

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Other Voices

Like Culver, the Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr made the pilgrimage from pacifism to just-war theory. Before the rise of Hitler, Niebuhr was a firm pacifist, optimistic about human nature. But Niebuhr quickly came to see that Nazi Germany constituted a greater threat to peace, liberty, justice, and Christianity than war itself. Some wars, he came to believe, are just and therefore must be fought.

Niebuhr, a professor of Christian ethics at Union Theological Seminary before his death, once observed: “The pacifists … merely assert that if only men loved one another, all the complex, and sometimes horrible, realities of the political order could be dispensed with.” The pacifists, he added, “do not see that their ‘if begs the most basic problem of human history. It is because men are sinners that justice can be achieved only by a certain degree of coercion on the one hand, and by resistance to coercion and tyranny on the other hand.”

Other contemporary voices echo Augustine and Aquinas. One is Princeton University scholar Paul Ramsey. In Ramsey’s view, “political prudence” must be applied in decisions regarding war, such as whether a particular war should be fought, and at what level of violence. He maintains that in decisions concerning war, we always have to take into account the moral costs and benefits.

Another principle must be considered—the principle of discrimination, which maintains that just means must be employed to win a just war. This principle emphasizes that some deeds are impermissible, even when fighting in a just war. According to Ramsey, there is one “cardinal principle governing just conduct in war, namely, the moral immunity of non-combatants from deliberate, direct attack.”

Another modern-day exponent of the just-war theories of Augustine and Aquinas is Oliver O’Donovan, a tutor at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University, who observes that the just-war theory is a “systematic attempt to interpret acts of war by analogy with acts of civil government, not … to afford some justification for warmaking, but to bring it under the restraint of those moral standards which apply to other acts of government.”

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Indeed, a persuasive case has been made for the need to fight just wars, employing only just means to win them. Professor Culver’s helpful book adds a clear voice to the discussion.

Christian Peacemaking and International Conflict: A Realist Pacifist Perspective, by Duane K. Friesen (Herald, 1986, 320 pp.; $19.95, paper). Reviewed by Charles Scriven, a pastor in Takoma Park, Maryland.

Duane Friesen exhibits a quality that Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann attributes to the prophets: “the ministry of imagination.” Like the prophets, Friesen conjures an alternative vision of the future, breaks our resignation, our self-deception, and calls us to fresh and daring forms of faithfulness to God.

In Christian Peacemaking and International Conflict, Friesen, a professor of Bible and religion at Bethel College in Newton, Kansas, defies the commonly held assumption that Christians are bound to prevailing cultural ideas on war and peace—“government leaders should protect national self-interest,” or “a strong military is critically important.” Writing from a Radical Reformation perspective, he argues with vivid description for a nonviolent and transnational form of Christian peacemaking as an alternative to these ideas.

The goal of authentic Christian peacemaking, Friesen asserts, is peace, social justice, and environmental wholeness in all the world—without recourse to injuring people as we seek this goal. Rightly understood, he says, this approach constitutes a “realistic” and feasible approach to the problems of international conflict.

The growing interdependence of nations undermines the need for war, Friesen claims. Citing our experience with the Shah of Iran, he points out that power is not necessarily the same as military might: ordinary people, largely unarmed but united in purpose, can effect massive changes in society. Moreover, Friesen adds, such evils as slavery, dueling, and lynching have not proved to be permanent—even in a sinful world. Perhaps the evil of war itself can also come to an end.

The Task Of Transformation

In two chapters of theological exposition, Friesen explains how the doctrines of creation and sin illuminate our understanding of human institutions, and how the doctrines of redemption and eschatology provide a basis for seeking social change. Although our institutional life is flawed and beyond perfecting, Friesen says, it nevertheless can be substantially transformed. The church, embodying the nonviolent servanthood of Jesus, must take up this task of transformation.

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A central issue for the book is how this goal can be achieved; how the church can “remain faithful to its own norms” yet be “relevant to the larger political community.” Friesen believes the church should cooperate with the larger community when it can do so in good conscience; but when it cannot, it must offer criticism—and imagination.

Friesen’s own treatment of justice and nonviolence sets an example. Biblical justice, he says, mandates both the abolition of poverty and the preservation of human rights. Therefore, neither the free market nor Marxist socialism is adequate; “democratic socialism” would be best, he says. Short of that, we must advance the biblical ideal in whatever ways we can, both on the national and the international levels.

But it must be done without violence. By the force of example and the withdrawal of consent, the church can, Friesen insists, effect change. He rebukes the conventional Christian support of “justified” violence, saying that, in the end, it is an accommodation to the status quo. As the church long ago imagined and created hospitals, it must now imagine and create means for breaking the cycle of violence in our world. It is the church’s special task to develop “new models of conflict resolution.” Christians live up to their calling when together they “live out a lifestyle of love, forgiveness, and peace.” Through that example, we “witness to what could be, and convert others to that position.”

This book is in part a theology of peacemaking, and in part a manual for peacemaking. The latter feature is prominent in the final chapter, where Friesen tells how to receive “empowerment” for the task and sustain commitment to it. In this essay on spirituality, Friesen discusses factors like prayer, worship, and shared life in the congregation.

Problems We Can Live With

Unfortunately, Friesen addresses the questions of church and world without mentioning H. Richard Niebuhr, arguably our century’s most influential writer on the subject. And he fails to address the frequently voiced objection that nonviolence is legalistic, which seems an obviously important topic for his point of view.

But these are problems we can live with. The book’s total impact is a powerful and thoroughgoing challenge. The prose is workmanlike, not elegant, but the arguments compel respectful attention. The more we hear from people like Friesen—John Yoder, Ronald Sider, and Stanley Hauerwas come to mind—the more suspicious we become toward conventional Christian endorsement of state violence.

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