We are presented almost daily with stories of war and conflict, with inevitable associated tragedy. For some, war is a valid response to atrocities in our world. For others, there can never be anything that justifies war. Is there a correct Christian response to war and conflict in our world? Can Scripture help us out? Mick Duncan begins our exploration with the first of a series of articles on this issue.
Over Queen’s Birthday weekend this year, I laid out a scenario of a young person wanting to know whether homosexuality was a sin or not, before around 500 youth pastors and leaders to assist with finding an appropriate pastoral response. I asked the youth leaders how they would respond to such a question before explaining how I would respond: I said I would ask that person if we could meet for coffee once a week over four weeks, get to know each other, and then continue to catch up over several months to explore the question. To be respectful of the relationship it requires time and a willingness for both parties to know they’ve been heard.
Some issues are so multifaceted that they need time if we are to do them justice. Like the LGBT discussion, war and conflict is another issue that cannot be dealt with lightly and requires real engagement rather than surface judgements. This article is the first of several, but as such I can only address a portion of what I would like to say, so ‘hold your fire’ if you have differing views... hopefully we’ll get to those.
Should I state from the beginning my position on war and conflict? Am I a pacifist? A just war devotee? Am I a pre-emptionist or a combination of one or more? I have decided to keep you guessing.
The spiritual practice of sitting with statistics
As a starting point, I would like to recommend the spiritual practice of learning to sit with statistics, otherwise we will struggle to make any headway. Instead of skimming over the stats and making shallow observations, we need to wait until our hearts catch up with our heads. Behind the data is someone’s son, daughter, and family. War is not just an issue of facts and figures, it’s about people.
The statistics on war and conflict are truly disturbing. Desmond Tutu claims that every year, small arms alone kill more people than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki put together. For countries in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa, that represents an annual average of $US22b spent on arms. That money could have enabled those countries to put every child in school and to reduce child mortality rates.
The Red Cross notes that in some conflict zones in Africa, up to 90% of the casualties are civilians, mostly women and children. According to the United Nations, in the Bosnia-Herzegovina war of the early 1990s, 40,000 women and girls were systematically raped. In the Rwandan genocide of 1994 it’s believed that somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 women and girls were raped. There is today a strong ‘victim bias’ against women and girls in conflict zones.
So why do we go to war when it inevitably leads to such pain and waste of resources?
There are so many theories and not all of them are helpful. Professor Mark Van Vugt argues that the male sex drive is to blame for most of the world’s conflicts; the ‘male warrior’ instinct which programmes men to be aggressive towards anyone they view as an outsider. Some point to the increase of conflict during periods of extreme weather as a factor.
Professor Sukhwinder Shergill suggests that war results from an escalation of commitment between two parties, each believing the other has acted wrongly, and then responding with equal force (although typically that’s 40% more force than they experienced). The Vietnam conflict may be a case in point.
Another theorist, Rene Girard, talks in terms of ‘mimetic desire’ (mimicking or imitating) to explain war: Country A observes that country B wants something in country C. Because country B wants it, country A now wants it too. So A and B enter into conflict over C. Mimetic desire morphs into rivalry culminating in mimetic contagion.
War can also be a commentary on a nation’s history. If, for example, a nation has unfinished business around its own historical domestic conflicts, lack of closure may result in a toxicity that turns quickly to anger. An unhealed past can determine actions in the present. We see this in people, so why not in collectives of people (nations)?
And of course Christians will want to add (in my opinion rightly so), that behind the scenes there’s always the influence of Satan (the accuser/confuser) and the dark mysteries of sin.
Scripture and war
This brings us to the question of Scripture and war. In the beginning (Genesis) - prior to the fall – and at the end (Revelation), war is not part of the ideal picture being presented. In the sandwich, however, we have mixed messages. Deuteronomy gives rules of engagement on conduct in war. The Joshua narrative has God colluding with the reality of war. Isaiah prophesied spears being turned into plowshares and Micah talks of shalom where everyone can sit under their fig tree in safety and well-being.
In Matthew’s Gospel, we are told not to resist an evil person and to love our enemy, and yet in the Gospel of Luke, soldiers are told to be good soldiers and not to give up their profession.
Nowhere in the New Testament is war-making included in the list of activities that are incompatible with Christian profession. While this is an overly brief take, it suggests that we need to be cautious in pronouncing that Scripture supports a particular position for a just war, pacifism, or points inbetween.
In my next article I want to address some of the unfortunate misunderstandings around just war and pacifism, and introduce a third position of pre-emption, so powerfully explored in the recent film Eyes in the Sky.
For those wanting to do a bit of light reading I recommend Preston Sprinkle’s Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence and Ronald Sider’s Nonviolent Action: What Christian Ethics Demands But Most Christians Have Never Really Tried. While these books are firmly placed in the non-violent tradition, they nevertheless provide some insights for those who argue for a more violent solution to some conflicts.
In terms of Scripture and its mixed messages, the best I’ve read is John Goldingay’s Old Testament Theology, Volumes 1-3. Of course you don’t have to read the entire set as I did - use the index and go straight to relevant pages. Enjoy!
I look forward to our next engagement. Until then, how about we all pray for a conflict zone each day for the next six months?
Story: Mick Duncan
Mick lectures in Applied Theology at Carey Baptist College and describes himself as a shy, introverted minor kiwi prophet(!)
Photo credit: crazystocker/shutterstock.com
- What is your view on war?
- What informs this? What might you explore to understand this issue further?
- Find out the story of one of the places marked. Commit to pray for this place for the next six months.
- If you need somewhere to start check out Pray for the World by Operation World or christianaid.org.uk/resources/churches/prayer.