Christ’s ministry is not symbolized by the whip but by the cross.
The contemporary build-up of the superpowers’ nuclear arsenals is a horrendous reality. Each Poseidon submarine has 10 missiles, each of which has 14 MIRV warheads, each of which is equivalent to the Hiroshima bomb. So one submarine carries enough power to destroy 140 Hiroshimas. America’s 11,000 nuclear warheads could annihilate the complete world population 12 times over, SALT II sets a ceiling on the number and type of missiles, but not on warheads, so that within a few years the two superpowers are likely to have between 20 and 30 thousand of them. What lunacy is this?
Five nations are now known to have both nuclear weapons and delivery systems, while five more have the capability to develop them, SIPRI (the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) forecasts that by 1985 the nuclear club may have grown to 35 member nations.
Nobody can predict with any accuracy how much devastation a nuclear war would cause. It would depend on a number of factors. But the U.S. Congress document The Effects of Nuclear War (1979) says that “the minimum consequences would be enormous.” It provides four case studies ranging from a single megaton weapon attack on a city the size of Detroit or Leningrad to “a very large attack against a range of military and economic targets” in which the USSR struck first and the U.S. retaliated. The former would mean up to two million dead, and the latter up to 77 percent of the American population (about 160 million) and up to 40 percent of the Russian. Moreover, many more millions would die later of their injuries, or starve or freeze to death the following winter, while in the long term cancer would claim yet more victims.
It is against this background of horror that we need to hear again the words of Jesus: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called God’s children. Peacemaking is a divine activity, and we can claim to be authentic children of God only if we seek to do what our heavenly Father is doing. Thus, the basis for peacemaking is theological: it derives from our doctrine of God.
To be sure, the God of the Bible is a God of both salvation and judgment. But not equally so, as if these were parallel expressions of his nature. For Scripture calls judgment his “strange work”; his characteristic work, in which he delights, in salvation or peacemaking. Similarly, Jesus reacted to willful perversity with anger, uttered scathing denunciations upon hypocrites, drove the moneychangers out of the temple. He also endured the humiliation and barbarities of crucifixion without resistance. Thus we see in the ministry of the same Jesus both violence and nonviolence. Yet his resort to violence of word and deed was occasional, alien, uncharacteristic; his characteristic was nonviolence; the symbol of his ministry is not the whip but the cross.
It is on the ground of this theology—of this revelation of God in Christ and in Scripture—that we Christians must all be opposed to war and dedicated to peace. Of course, throughout the centuries different Christians have formulated their conclusions differently. Some have been total pacifists, arguing that the example and teaching of Jesus commit his disciples to renounce the use of force in any form and to follow instead the way of the Cross, that is, of nonviolent love. Others have seen that according to Paul, officers of the state are “ministers of God” appointed to reward good conduct and punish bad, have argued that Christian citizens may share in the state’s God-given role, and have sought to extend it into the international arena in terms of the “just war.” Although this notion has been expressed in various forms, it may be said to have at least four essential aspects.
First, the cause must be righteous. That is, the war must be defensive not aggressive, its goal must be to secure justice and peace, and it may be justified only as a last resort after all attempts at reconciliation have failed.
Second, the means must be controlled. The two key words have been used regarding the limitation of violence. One is “proportionate.” That is, the degree of injury inflicted must be less than that incurred. The other word is “discriminately.” Police action is essentially discriminate, namely the arresting, bringing to trial, and punishment of specific criminals. Similarly, a war could not be in any sense “just” unless directed only against enemy combatants, leaving civilians immune. This principle is enough to condemn the saturation bombing of German cities in World War II (as Bishop George Bell of Chichester had the courage to argue in the House of Lords), and the fact that Hitler started it is no excuse. I believe the same principle is sufficient to condemn the use of strategic nuclear weapons. Because they are indiscriminate in their effects, destroying combatants and noncombatants alike, it seems clear to me that they are ethically indefensible, and that every Christian, whatever he may think of the possibility of a “just” use of conventional weapons, must be a nuclear pacifist. As the Roman Catholic bishops expressed it at Vatican II: “Any act of war aimed indiscriminately at the destruction of entire cities or of extensive areas along with their population is a crime against God and man himself. It merits unequivocal and unhesitating condemnation” (Gaudium et Spes, par. 80).
Third, the motive must be pure, for in no circumstances whatever does Christianity tolerate hatred, cruelty, envy, or greed. And fourth, the outcome must be predictable: there must be a reasonable prospect of victory, and of gaining the just ends for which the war is fought.
My point, however, is not so much to weigh the respective arguments which some adduce for total pacifism and others for the “just war” position, but rather to emphasize that the advocates of both positions are opposed to war. Both should be able to affirm the statement made by the Anglican bishops at successive Lambeth conferences (1930, 1948, 1968) that “war as a method of settling international disputes is incompatible with the teaching and example of the Lord Jesus Christ.”
So then, although “just war” proponents may seek to justify engagement in war in certain restricted circumstances, they should never seek to glorify it. They may acquiesce in it with the greatest reluctance and the most painful qualms of conscience, but only if they perceive it as the least of all the alternative evils. And we should steadfastly refuse to glamorize war; war remains inhuman, unchristian, bestial. It is peacemaking we are to glorify. In brief, the only possible way Christians can try to justify war is to present it as the only possible way to make peace.
In my next “Cornerstone” article I hope to make some practical suggestions about Christian peacemaking.
John R. W. Stott is rector emeritus of All Souls Church, London, England.
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