War and Peace – Part 5 – My Own Evolution

Posted by Dan Martin | Posted in War and Peace | Posted on 29-01-2009

Throughout my posts to date I have been careful (and I hope it shows) to qualify my statements with the perspective that I am not absolutely sure that no Christian can ever use violent means for any reason. I sense that some of the commenters so far (and I am grateful for your input–keep it coming!) probably feel a little more strongly on this than I do. I haven’t always been willing to countenance such reservations, and to be honest I’m not entirely sure that I’m not just copping out here. In any event, I hope that a brief summary of how I got where I am might help to tease some of this out, or at least stimulate some good probing questions from the rest of you.

I grew up in Mennonite and Church of the Brethren fellowships, so my early perspective was one of absolute “nonresistance,” which was the term we usually used at the time (from Jesus’ “do not resist an evildoer” in Matt. 5:39). Not only did I hold then–as I still do–that military service was incompatible with Christian morality, I also held that any use of violence, whether in self-defense or defense of another, was morally unacceptable (of course, that didn’t stop some very physical fights with my brothers, but that’s another story!). I went to a Mennonite high school and a Mennonite college, so in reality I never seriously confronted a different point of view during the first twenty-six years of my life.

It was when I was dating my fiancee (now wife of 19 years) that I first faced my convictions in a new light. She did not grow up Mennonite, but rather several different Evangelical denominations, and many of the men in her family are veterans. I told her very directly during our courtship, that she needed to be OK with the understanding that as much as I loved her, I could never kill even to save her. It’s a testimony of how devoted to me she was (is) that she accepted this and married me anyway (for which I remain grateful beyond words).

But that situation forced me to consider a question I had never faced before: It’s all well and good to be willing to die for my own convictions, or to save others. But what about letting someone else die for my convictions–in particular someone who doesn’t also share them? Suddenly the answer wasn’t so obvious. . .and to this day it still isn’t, for me anyway. Today, I don’t think I could let my wife or kids die or be seriously injured if I had it in my power to stop the attacker, even lethally.

Here the example of Jesus is unfortunately far more murky than we might wish. Living in Roman-Empire-occupied Israel, Jesus certainly encountered violence in progress, but with the exception of those instances where he was himself the target, the only example we have to go on is the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). This is a case where Jesus stopped the violence nonviolently, by shaming the would-be perpetrators. It’s a great example of how force of any kind may not be the only response even to a crazed mob. But it’s not sufficient to clearly give us a template for all situations. He certainly wasn’t averse to some physicality as evidenced by his spectacular cleansing of the temple–though we have no evidence that anyone was injured (and therefore I suspect not) in this event. But what would Jesus have done in the event of a physical attack on an innocent person? The evidence just doesn’t tell us.

I remain convinced that warfare is unacceptable for the believer. I don’t, in fact, subscribe to the usual interpretations of “Just Warfare,” although I continue to maintain that if Christians even took Augustine’s criteria seriously we’d have fewer wars than we do. Nevertheless, I cannot in my current thinking, say that it is always, unequivocally, unacceptable for a follower of Jesus to reach for a weapon. At this juncture in my life, I still find myself carving out an exception for those cases where violence is being done to innocents, and in which that violence can be stopped by exerting force–even deadly force–against the perpetrator. This is not an attack on an “enemy” I’m talking about here. It’s intervening to stop an attack by one third party on another.

That intervention need not always be deadly. Creative leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, among others, have demonstrated that even in situations of violent oppression, nonviolence can have spectacular results. I freely grant the contentions of authors like Greg Boyd and Shane Claiborne, as well as my fellow blogger Mason over at New Ways Forward, that resorting to violent intervention may be as much a failure of imagination as it is a necessary evil. Boyd, I think, does a great job of crystallizing this dilemma in the final chapter of “Myth of a Christian Nation” (pp. 166-167). Having just stated that Jesus “would choose nonviolence” if his family was attacked, Greg says:

“At the same time, I have to confess that I’m not sure this is what I’d do. I honestly admit that, like most people, I don’t yet quite see how it would be moral to do what I believe Jesus would do. Yet I have to assume that my disagreement with Jesus is due to my not having sufficiently cultivated a kingdom heart and mind. If I felt I had to harm or take the life of another to prevent what clearly seemed to be a greater evil, I could not feel righteous or even justified about it. Like Bonhoeffer who, despite his pacifism, plotted to assassinate Hitler, I could only plead for God’s mercy.

What we must never do, however, is acquiesce to our worldly condition by rationalizing away Jesus’ clear kingdom prescriptions. . .”

This is where I’m at, for now.

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