This article is published in collaboration with Campus, a Taiwanese evangelical magazine.
In the summer of 2021, American public opinion reached a new milestone: Just over half the country, per a survey by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, supported sending US troops to defend Taiwan if China were to invade.
Since then, as cross-strait tensions have heightened and the US began supporting Ukraine in its defense against Russian aggression, American opinion has wavered. Though increasingly likely to say Taiwan-China tensions are a very serious problem for the United States, Americans are not of one mind on what our country’s policies toward Taiwan and China ought to be.
Our disagreements on this subject don’t follow clear partisan or religious patterns. Though Democrats and Republicans are strongly polarized on many issues, when it comes to Taiwan, polling shows mixed views across partisan lines.
Americans increasingly view China as an enemy and are increasingly worried Beijing will choose to invade. But ambiguity isn’t just an official US strategy; our national thinking on this subject really is ambiguous, and American Christians generally and evangelicals specifically aren’t distinct from our compatriots here.
What if China attacks Taiwan? What the United States should or would do is a truly open question in American politics, and what Taiwanese Christians should do is an even more complex question.
The last two years of escalation in tension in US-Taiwan-China relations are worrisome—most of all in those cases where such escalation could have been avoided. Careless rhetoric from US president Joe Biden and provocative but ultimately unnecessary US political visits have exacerbated relations with China without meaningfully enhancing Taiwanese security.
Meanwhile, it has become commonplace in American politics to assume US-China military conflict is inevitable, and US policymakers and politicians seem to be spending too much time hyping that threat and too little effort taking pragmatic steps to forestall it. It is easy to arrange a photo-op in Taipei and burnish one’s own political brand. It is more difficult to attempt the long, halting, often frustrating work of preventing an open war between nuclear powers that would upend the world as we know it.
Troublingly, the current shape of US-Taiwan-China relations looks like a classic example of what political scientists call a “security dilemma.” As Harvard University international relations scholar Stephen M. Walt has explained at Foreign Policy, a security dilemma is what happens when “the actions that one state takes to make itself more secure—building armaments, putting military forces on alert, forming new alliances—tend to make other states less secure and lead them to respond in kind.”
Walt gives several examples of contemporary security dilemmas, and Beijing’s recent behavior is among them: “China regards America’s long position of regional influence [around the Indo-Pacific]—and especially its network of military bases and its naval and air presence—as a potential threat,” and it has responded with regional military buildup of its own.
And this, in turn, has “made some of China’s neighbors less secure,” and some of those neighbors, including Taiwan, “have responded by moving closer together politically, renewing ties with the United States, and building up their own military forces.” All of which, Walt explains, has led Beijing to “accuse Washington of a well-orchestrated effort to ‘contain’ it and of trying [to] keep China permanently vulnerable.”
The result? A “tightening spiral of hostility that leaves neither side better off than before.” This is a grim prospect; and grimmer still is the possibility of war between China and Taiwan, or China and the US, or both.
In 2022 the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a US think tank, arranged a war game to explore the consequences of US involvement in a hypothetical Chinese invasion of Taiwan. In their hypothetical simulation, China lost—but the victory came at a high price. A war like this “would likely devolve into brutal large-scale combat,” a report on the exercise concluded. The death toll would be “historic by any modern measure,” and that’s without the real chance of a nuclear exchange.
But, crucially, the assumption that such a war is inevitable is wrong. Tense and rivalrous but functionally peaceful coexistence remains possible—just as it has been for decades. In the US, for our part, keeping the peace would require a strategic reorientation toward prudence and restraint, a recommitment to working-level diplomacy with both Taipei and Beijing, and an eschewal of performative politics that needlessly and fruitlessly tighten the spiral of hostility.
In the years during and after my time in seminary, I was a member of a Mennonite church. Like other Anabaptist Christians—a category in which I still place myself, though I’ve moved to a new city and, therefore, a different congregation—my Mennonite community believed that Jesus was to be taken seriously and literally when he told us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:43–48).
We believed, too, that the category of “enemy” included not only our annoying family members or political competitors but our national enemies—people who would do us real harm. We believed, and I still believe, that Jesus asks us to reject violence, even when that choice is very costly, because it is the choice he made for us in choosing to suffer the violence of the cross rather than inflict it on his enemies (Rom. 5:8, James 4:4).
But Anabaptists also recognize that this is a very difficult thing to ask. In sermons and other church teachings about enemies and nonviolence, my church returned again and again to a particular story from church history that encapsulates how we tried to think about this hard teaching in our own lives.
The story is about another Anabaptist, a Dutch man named Dirk Willems who lived in the 16th century. Willems was imprisoned by Catholic authorities for his faith, but he was able to craft a rope out of rags in his jail cell and use it to escape out the window. He ran off as fast as he could—with a prison guard in close pursuit.
It was winter, and Willems soon came to a frozen pond. He was thin from his time eating prison rations, and he ran lightly across the surface of the ice. The guard followed, but he was better fed and too heavy for the ice to support him—so he plunged into the frigid water and began to drown.
And although Willems could have escaped, he didn’t. Instead, he turned around and rescued the guard from the icy pond at the risk of his own life.
And what did the guard do for the man who had saved his life? He arrested him again, returning him to prison. A few months later, Willems was executed, burned at the stake—his screams reportedly heard more than a mile away as the wind blew the fire off his upper body, prolonging his suffering.
Dirk Willems loved his enemy, and in return, his enemy handed him over to a horrible death.
Mennonites tell this story, terrifying though it is, because Willems knew what would happen to him when he turned around on that ice. He wanted to live and not suffer—he was escaping, after all. Perhaps he had a passing hope that showing the prison guard mercy would mean he would be shown mercy. But surely, he realized there was no such guarantee. Yet he rescued his enemy anyway.
Not only did Willems rescue the guard, but he must have done so without hesitation. Drowning in an icy pond can be very quick. If the guard had gotten stuck under the ice or become too cold, he would not have lived.
That means Willems must have run back as soon as he realized what had happened. He had no time for ethical calculation, no time to weigh whether Jesus really expected him to love this enemy this way. He had to act immediately. He had to act on instinct. He had to act with a speed that would’ve only been possible if loving his enemies was something he had long since learned to do well. Willems was able to save his enemy when every second counted because he had already conformed this part of his life and character to the peace of Christ.
That is why the Anabaptist Christians I knew told this story so much: It is not easy to love an enemy, even with God’s help. It does not come naturally to us. And it is not something we can simply decide to do in the moment of action. What we do when an enemy is before us—when we are furious or terrorized or in anguish—will be less of a choice than an instinct. It will be less something we consciously decide to do than an expression of who we are.
It is all very well to say, I would turn the other cheek. I would not strike back. But we don’t and can’t really know what we’ll do until the first strike hits.
One of our teachers at my Mennonite church used to say that he truly believed Jesus called him to nonviolence, but he did not know what he’d do if a burglar threatened to kill his wife or child. He could only hope and pray that his response would be Christlike. He could only ask God to prepare him, through sanctification, so that if that day of violence ever came, his instinct would be “conformed to the image” of Jesus, like Dirk Willems’s instinct was (Rom. 8:29).
For many of us in modern, wealthy countries, the first strike may never come. It is easy for me, in this sense, to talk about a Christian call to love our enemies and the need to build an instinct of peace. As a middle-class woman in America, my instinct may never be put to the test.
But in Taiwan, it well could be. If tensions across the Taiwan Strait lead to war, how should Christians in Taiwan respond?
I don’t expect all—or even most—Christians to agree with me about what Jesus meant when he told us to love our enemies. I realize many deeply faithful Christians have interpreted that command differently than I and other Anabaptists do. Maybe you aren’t convinced that Jesus has called his followers to a principle of nonviolence at all costs. Maybe, if China were to invade Taiwan, you would take up arms to defend your home and do the aggressors violence in return.
By the standard of the venerable Christian philosophical tradition of just war theory, your cause would unquestionably be just. And even though I believe Jesus commanded his followers to lay down our arms, writing in peace and safety 8,000 miles away, I could hardly condemn you if you didn’t. I don’t know what I’d do if the Chinese military threatened my family, life, and home. I can only hope and pray my response would look something like Christ. That is what I hope and pray for Christians in Taiwan too.
But first, I hope and pray that war will never come. Mercifully, as serious as the situation has become, war remains far from certain. Peace, though uneasy, has lasted. And God willing, it will last longer still.
Bonnie Kristian is the editorial director of ideas and books at Christianity Today.