In an earlier piece I briefly sketched the history of evangelical militarism in America. In this article I’d like to touch on one obvious fact that so many of my evangelical brethren seem to overlook: Those who persistently agitate and call for war cannot be true followers of Jesus Christ.
Jesus is called the Prince of Peace for a very good reason: Both by his teachings and personal example Jesus opposed war and physical violence. It is for this reason that militarists cannot be his genuine disciples. To be a warmonger while at the same time claiming to be a devotee of the Prince of Peace is a logical contradiction.
Again and again – by words as well as by example – Jesus exhorted his followers to shun violence and pursue peace. To recognize Jesus’ message of nonviolence and peace does not require special scholastic acumen or theological proficiency. All it takes is the ability to read, since the gospels clearly portray him as such.
For example, in the fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel Jesus is quoted as saying, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” He prefaces this statement with, “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.”
In Luke chapter six Jesus says: “But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you.” In Matthew 5:54 Jesus takes his teachings one step further: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
But even more powerful than his words is Jesus’ personal example. When he was about to be arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, the Apostle Peter drew his sword and injured one of the arresting party. Jesus chastised him even for this seemingly justifiable act of self-defense, telling him, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” Then he added, “Don’t you realize that I could ask my Father for thousands of angels to protect us, and he would send them instantly?”
This instance is supremely revealing of Jesus’ attitude towards violence, since at that moment he apparently had at his disposal a force of overwhelming power. In the Old Testament’s book of Second Kings we find a story in which a single angel destroyed an Assyrian army of more than one hundred thousand men. How immense must have been the combined power of the thousands of angels that Jesus said he could have called upon to defend him.
And yet Jesus chose not to use this force against those who were coming to arrest him. He could have annihilated his persecutors in an instant, but he decided not to resort to violence. And he wants his followers to follow his example as evidenced by his rebuke of Peter. Tertullian, one of the early Church Fathers, grasped this point when he observed, “When Christ disarmed Peter in the garden, He disarmed all Christians.”
But Jesus was not finished with his remarkable display of restraint and forbearance. As he was being fastened to the cross – nails driven through his hands and feet – he cried, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Not only did Jesus choose not to destroy his tormentors, he pleaded with God to grant them forgiveness.
How many of us evangelicals live up to the example and injunctions of our Lord? How many of us love and forgive our enemies? Not only do we fail to do this, we make enemies out of people who have done us no harm. And then we urge our government to unleash hell in their countries. What have, for example, the people of Vietnam or Iraq ever done to deserve the violence we have perpetrated upon them? Did they ever attack us or pose an unprovoked threat?
Many of my fellow evangelicals would flinch and even become angry at the suggestion that we should not retaliate even in self-defense. Nevertheless, it remains an incontrovertible fact that this is what Jesus taught by precept and example. The irate reaction of many Christians at any suggestion of nonviolence shows just how woefully short we fall of the measure laid down by Christ.
But our purpose here is not to hold ourselves to the high standard of loving one’s enemies and forgiving our tormentors. We would do well if we could at least live up to the lower standard of being peacemakers. Unfortunately, we fail even by that lesser criterion. Again and again in the last one hundred years American Christians have lobbied and pushed for war. We have repeatedly pressurized our government to take military action and unleash death and destruction in nations that posed no threat. We turn innocuous peoples into our enemies and then we cheer when we see them being pummeled, bombed and killed by our military machinery.
When some years ago Hugo Chavez made derisive remarks about the U.S. government in a speech in New York, I received e-mail circulars from my evangelical friends expressing great indignation. There were even some suggestions that we should take him out. How utterly un-Christlike such thinking is. Jesus prayed for forgiveness of those who were piercing his hands and feet, and some of us wanted to do away with Chavez just because he spoke some less than flattering words about our government. We would do well to remember that Jesus displayed his forbearance despite his innocence while our government could hardly be described as guiltless. It has caused a great deal of unwarranted death and destruction in more than a century of international war making.
We Christians not only fail to live up to the Lord’s teachings, we are also put to shame by unbelievers and members of other faiths who are less belligerent and more compassionate than we are. It may take almost superhuman strength to love one’s enemies. Perhaps God will not count our failure to do so as sin. But to fail to be peaceful, to be an aggressor, is a sin and a crime against everything Jesus has ever stood for. And not only Jesus – the conscience of every sane human being knows it is wrong to wage war, to attack and to destroy, especially in far away places where we have no compelling reason to get involved.
It is remarkable that so many evangelical Christians do not see this. One would expect that professed followers of Jesus Christ – a man so loving and gentle – would be more peaceful than the rest of the population. Sadly, we are not. Jesus’ chiding of the Pharisees seems to be eerily applicable to us today: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.” Like the Pharisees of his day we, too, diligently read our Bible, but the more we do the further we seem to drift away from the Jesus portrayed there.
In the eight chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus asked his disciples: “Do you not yet perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened?” We would do well to ponder these questions, since it is to us that Jesus is speaking.
Let us conclude with a quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Protestant theologian and someone who understood who Jesus was and what he expects of those who would follow him. This is what Bonhoeffer wrote in his book The Cost of Discipleship: “The followers of Jesus have been called to peace. When he called them they found their peace, for he is their peace. But now they are told that they must not only have peace but make it. And to that end they renounce all violence and tumult.”
Bonhoeffer was executed in a German concentration camp just one month before the end of World War II. Eyewitnesses reported that throughout his imprisonment Bonhoeffer showed remarkable equanimity and displayed no anger or hatred toward his tormentors. He had no desire for revenge against those who turned his life into a living hell. This was because Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a true disciple of Jesus Christ.
Vasko Kohlmayer is a reformed neocon. His articles have appeared in a number of newspapers, journals and internet outlets. They include the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Times, the New York Sun, LewRockwell.com, Human Events, Frontpage Magazine, American Thinker, the Jewish Press, the Austin American-Statesman, Canada Free Press, RealClearPolitics, and Intellectual Conservative among others. You can email Vasko.