Christian Faith and War 1: Christian Pacifism


[Note: the Introduction to this series of blog posts about the morality of war can be found here.]

In his 2012 autobiography, American Sniper, Chris Kyle offers a firsthand account of his experiences as a sniper during the Iraq War. A member of U.S. Navy SEAL Team 3, Kyle is widely recognized as the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, with at least 150 confirmed kills. While Kyle spends much of his book recounting battlefield anecdotes of his time in Iraq, late in the book Kyle turns his attention to how war has affected him personally:


No one is. Before you’re in combat, you have this innocence about you. Then, all of a sudden, you see this whole other side of life.

I don’t regret any of it. I’d do it again. At the same time, war definitely changes you.

You embrace death.

As a SEAL, you go to the Dark Side. You’re immersed in it. Continually going to war, you gravitate to the blackest parts of existence. Your psyche builds up its defenses–that’s why you laugh at gruesome things like heads being blown apart, and worse.

Growing up, I wanted to be military. But I wondered, how would I feel about killing someone?

Now I know. It’s no big deal.

I did it a lot more than I’d ever thought I would–or, for that matter, more than any American sniper before me. But I also witnessed the evil my targets committed and wanted to commit, and by killing them, I protected the lives of many fellow soldiers.

Coming to terms with the necessity of killing in war, Kyle reflects on his own eventual death (which tragically came shortly after the publication of American Sniper on a Texas gun range. Kyle was shot to death by a fellow soldier suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). “I am a strong Christian,” he says:

Honestly, I don’t know what will really happen on Judgment Day. But what I lean towards is that you know all of your sins, and God knows them all, and shame covers over you at the reality that He knows. . . . But in that backroom or whatever it is when God confronts me with my sins, I do not believe any of the kills I had during the war will be among them. Everyone I shot was evil. I had good cause on every shot. They all deserved to die.”

They all deserved to die. While it is quite easy to understand why soldiers like Kyle–men and women for whom war is not an ethereal abstraction but a deeply personal, life-altering experience–would find reasons to justify killing another person, not all Christians agree that Christians discipleship can be so easily reconciled with the violence of war. For nearly two millennia Christians have observed that killing one’s enemy sits, at best, uncomfortably within a tradition that points to Jesus Christ as the starting point for our moral lives. It’s not difficult to see this tension. Consider Jesus’ own words:

  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Mt 5:38-39)
  • “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Mt. 5:43-45a)

jesus-love-your-enemies-lgThink about it. How easy is it to reconcile nonresistance with killing an enemy in war? Is it really possible to love an enemy when you are using lethal force against him? If Christian discipleship is about following Jesus, then is this what a Christian soldier is doing when he is staring at the enemy at the end of a gun scope, lining up the perfect head shot that will give him the most efficient kill? And consider Jesus’ own example. Christians regularly claim that Jesus died on the cross for his enemies, and Jesus calls his followers to take up their crosses as well and follow him (Mt. 16:24). Would Jesus take up a weapon to kill an enemy? If not, then how can those who strive to be like him do so?

Reflecting on these questions for a few moments you might come to appreciate the logic of Christian pacifismCan a faithful Christian kill an enemy in war? Is love a virtue that can ever motivate a Christian to go to war? Christian pacifists say no, and the experiences of soldiers like Chris Kyle exemplifies the kind of character-altering consequences of violence that should worry us all. When a Christian can end the life of any person feeling not a hint of regret, when remorse about human death transforms into satisfaction for a job done well, something has gone terribly wrong with our moral vision. Or so Christian pacifists would argue.

What is Christian pacifism? Pacifism is itself diverse, so any summary runs the risk of ignoring important differences among Christian pacifists.  Nonetheless, for the sake of clarity I’m going to simplify this diversity by summarizing some of the common claims that unite those Christians who embrace pacifism:

  • In Christ, God’s kingdom has “come near” to the world. Christ himself embodied a new way of life consistent with God’s reign.
  • Christ calls his followers to likewise embody this way of life, to bear witness to the new possibilities that God has made available. Christians are, above all, citizens of the kingdom of God living among the kingdoms of the world.
  • The church is a community that God calls to embody this alternative way of God’s kingdom for the world. For those who do not embrace Jesus as Lord, the Christian community will appear radical, countercultural, and strange. This is so because God’s kingdom itself is radical, countercultural, and strange to a world that resists the reign of God.
  • The violence of the world is evidence of ongoing resistance to the reign of God. In Christ, God reveals an alternative to this violence. Christ bears witness to the transforming possibilities of nonviolent love.
  • Christians must reject the violence of the world and embrace nonviolence as part of their mission of bearing witness to the real presence of God’s kingdom.
  • When Christians participate in the violence of war they are compromising with the world, and they are also demonstrating a lack of faith in the power of God to transform the world through nonviolent love.

There are other things that one might say about what Christian pacifists believe, but my list offers a useful starting point for how some Christians perceive the morality of war. The essential point here is that Christian faith requires us to embrace something other than violence. Taking the life of an enemy in war is not only incompatible with Jesus’ teaching. It is also  in conflict with the way that things actually are. Christians who embrace the way of God’s kingdom are truly the ones who are living “with the grain of the universe.”

Here I should also clear up some common misconceptions that people have of Christian pacifism:

  • Christian pacifists are not advocating that Christians should do nothing in the face of injustice. Rather, Christians must take on the difficult task of pursuing creative, nonviolent alternatives to injustice.
  • Christian pacifists are not sentimental about the consequences of nonviolence. They recognize that refusing to use violence against an enemy does not mean that the enemy will change, nor are nonviolent means always successful at curbing injustice. Of course, the violence of war is not always successful at curbing injustice either.
  • Christian pacifists are not calling Christians to withdraw from the world. Quite the contrary, Christians must enter into the world fully, but they must do so in ways that are consistent with the reality of God’s reign.

The roots of Christian pacifism stretch back to the earliest days of the church. When we look at the extant evidence from early Christianity, Christian authors who wrote about the morality of war regularly argued that Christian faith is incompatible with military service. “We who were full of war and murder of one another…” says Justin Martyr, a second century church father, “have each exchanged his warlike instruments–swords into plows and spears into agricultural implements” (Dialogue 237). Tertullian, a contemporary of Justin, likewise questioned the propriety of Christian military service:

There is no agreement between the divine and human oath, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be under obligation to two, God and Caesar…. But how will a Christian war, indeed how will he serve even in peace without a sword, which the Lord has taken away?… The Lord, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier.” (On Idolatry 19)

I could expand here to offer up similar words from other early church fathers like Origen, Athenagoras, and Hippolytus, but I won’t belabor the point.  For the first three centuries of the church’s existence, pacifism–a principled rejection of the violence of war–prevails among early church fathers who were writing about war. This pacifism was born from the conviction that the violence of war conflicts with Christ’s example and teachings. As well, Christian leaders expressed concerns about the idolatry that allegiance to Caesar might entail for Christians who pledged themselves to serve Rome. The fact that church leaders felt compelled to write about the question implies that this uniform rejection of war may not well represent the diversity of attitudes and practices in the early Christian community. Trying to right the wrongs of military service, after all, would make sense only if it were the case that some Christians were serving in the Roman military.

More recently, Christian theologians like John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas have offered influential defenses of Christian pacifism for contemporary Christians. But alas, this post is getting long, and I’ve got kids I need to pick up from school. I’ll conclude today all too abruptly. I hope to return to my discussion of pacifism next week, perhaps with an interview with a colleague of mine about some of the challenges to Christian pacifism.