War and Peace – Part 5 – My Own Evolution

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.

8 thoughts on “War and Peace – Part 5 – My Own Evolution”

  1. Mason

    Dan, I enjoyed hearing your story here, helped me better see where you are coming from in all this.
    I might post a bit of my journey sometime, but suffice it to say at this point that I came from a very different background in how war and the military are understood. In fact, I tend to tread lightly on this topic with freinds and family because many of them see my stance as at best unpatriotic and unbiblical. Not that I don’t express how I see it, I just try to avoid uneccesary arguments that won’t go anywhere.

    Enjoyed your quote from Boyd. And I admit that it is hard to see how one can live these things out, though I think part of that is we are culturally conditioned to think quite differently than using nonviolence. But in the end I think it should be our goal even if we may at times be at a loss as far as how we can apply it in specific situations.

  2. RJ

    Thanks again for those of us who are non-violent by nature but have not studied scripture thoroughly enough to justify it via God’s word. I know the Mennonites and other non-violence sects take a lot of hits during our country’s wars. I do admire them for that. I recently read an article from the Amish http://www.amish-heartland.com/amish/article/1935512 that eloquently explains their positions.

  3. Scott


    You know that I agree that Christians should not serve in the military. But I think that if you allow for “intervening to stop an attack by one third party on another” you’ll have to allow for Christians serving in the military because, among other things, the military performs that function. While you say this is not an attack on an “enemy” I would suggest that as soon as you engage the aggressor, he becomes your enemy. This is especially true when those endangered are your family and you have a vested interest in their survival. And by the same principle, if you believe that abortion is killing the innocent, then Christians should be killing abortion providers.

    1. Dan Martin Post Author

      I hear what you’re saying, Scott. I guess my reply would be twofold. First, when I allow for the possibility of using deadly force to defend the innocent or powerless, I grant that I may be inconsistent and/or lacking in vision at this point. Although most hypothetical situations proposed by those arguing *for* the use of force are ludicrous, I cannot honestly rule out all such actions even given my convictions.

      Second, it is possible to consider abortion morally unacceptable without granting it equivalence to murder. This is where I’m at. Therefore, I disagree that my defense-of-the-defenseless standard would support murder of abortion doctors.

    2. Dan Martin Post Author

      Oh, and I should have clarified…yes, defending the weak through force is one function the military performs. If that role could be separated from the rest of the military’s actions, you are right that my position would have to allow for believers to serve. But if you read back over what I’ve written, part of my argument is that when one submits oneself to the military chain of command, one abdicates his right to evaluate the morality or immorality of his actions. The soldier has no right (nor frequently, sufficient data) to assess whether the act he’s being ordered to commit is moral, nor whether it is indeed the last defense of the defenseless. Nor, even if he does know, may he decline the order.

      Likewise, I think, a fundamental flaw in so-called “just war theory” is that nobody determines whether to enlist, or to participate in a military action, on the basis of Augustine’s criteria. Have you ever heard a church declare “we find this conflict not to be just, and therefore we admonish our military members to abstain from supporting or participating?” No? Me neither.

  4. Scott

    I agree that “just war theory” is not only untenable in today’s conflicts, but has had no Christian justification since its inception. Nor, as you say, is it applied. I’m sure you’re aware of John Howard Yoder’s book on the subject, in which he challenges JWT supporters to actually put it to use to reduce the number of wars in which we engage.

    Regarding defending one’s family: when I became a pacifist I removed the loaded .41 magnum from the nightstand next to my side of the bed, unloaded it and placed it in storage in another room of the house. I no longer keep a handgun in my vehicle. I don’t have lethal force at my disposal to protect another person. I have acknowledged to God that the time and manner of my death are in His hands. My wife feels the same way. All Christians can adopt this attitude. If someone attacks my wife in my presence I may disobey Jesus and resist the evil person (I’m not convinced that it only applies to attacks on you alone) by placing my body between the aggressor and my wife, giving her time to escape. But I have removed my capacity to use lethal force. May God decide whether the aggressor kills either of us.

  5. Dan Martin Post Author

    I’m with you, Scott. I don’t keep loaded weapons in reach either. There’s no question that a lot of violence (not just self defense) would be avoided if fewer people kept the tools of violence close at hand.

    But there are plenty of ways to use deadly force even without a gun in one’s hand. Being a veteran of combat, you surely know this in a way I do not. We all have the “capacity to use lethal force” to some degree. In the heat of a threat, would I willingly refuse to use it to protect my wife and kids? Once I would have said unequivocally “yes.” Now I’m not as certain. Not arguing that this is the correct position, just trying to candidly look into my own heart.

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