Faith and violence

Dear colleagues,

Like many of you, I have watched the unfolding of war in Ukraine with a mixture of horror and disbelief. To read the news is to be prompted to pray, to lament, and to mourn.

Times like these make many Christians ask what their faith has to say about violence. Scripture does not speak with one voice. To take one noteworthy pairing, Isaiah famously foretells a time when the people “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” (2:4) but the prophet Joel tells his listeners to “beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears” (3:10). Which one is it?

Over time, at least two distinct Christian traditions have developed in relation to violence. One, pacifism, asserts it is never acceptable for Christians to engage in violence. This line of thought, often associated with the Anabaptist tradition and other so-called “peace churches,” points to the peaceful ministry of Jesus of Nazareth—he came into Jerusalem on a donkey, not at the head of a conquering army—and his teaching about, for instance, the importance of turning the other cheek. Pacifists might also note that when Jesus was arrested, he told his followers to “put up your sword; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52). In some ways, I find Christian pacifists, many of whom have suffered greatly for their views, to be among the most compelling witnesses to the faith.

A second Christian response to violence is often called the just war tradition. Its origins can be found in Augustine of Hippo’s City of God. The just war tradition asserts that the sinfulness and brokenness of humans and our world means that violence will happen. When it does, Christians may be called to react with violence. Violence will always be a tragedy but there may yet be times when it is justified. Jesus, they point out, also said, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34) The just war tradition offers permission for violence, but also limitation. It seeks to put boundaries around the inevitable violence that will result from living in a fallen world. It identifies a set of conditions that need to obtain before a war can begin—that it be for a just cause, that the war be a last resort, that it take place under a lawful authority, that it have a reasonable chance of success, and others. There are also conditions that govern how the war is fought, especially that the violence be proportional and discriminate. Bombing a maternity hospital, as we saw in Ukraine last week, is neither proportional nor discriminate. Increasingly, there are efforts by just war scholars to ask about how to end a war in a just fashion but these efforts are still relatively new.

It is my experience that Christians in the pews want to hear and learn about how their faith speaks to the headlines all around us. People are wondering what they would do if they lived in Ukraine. Would they take up a gun, even if they had never fired one before? Part of our role as pastoral leaders is to bring to life the riches and resources of our Christian faith so that it speaks directly to the world we find ourselves in.

Faithfully yours,

Jesse Zink

This message was written by Jesse Zink for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community.