Christians claim the name of Jesus as their leader, but for followers of someone who said “Do unto others as you would have them do to you,” and who chose to live out his messianic purpose by dying rather than by lead a bloody revolution, they sure do get trigger happy. In America, someone who owns a gun, serves in the military, and/or supports foreign wars under the guise of patriotism is also often a professed Bible-believing Christian. So how did we get from a Jewish peasant who was uninterested in engaging in violent power plays to a nation full of Christian families who stockpile guns, send their sons into military service, and are totally okay with bombing foreign countries into oblivion?
The transition happened a long, long time ago. Sometime in the past, we saw a change, a shift located between the time when early church fathers wrote agonized arguments about whether or not an individual could ever in good conscience serve in the military to a time when church leaders started serving up hot steaming dishes on a buffet of just war theory.
Historically speaking, Christians became increasingly supportive of state-sponsored violence and murder around the same time that Christianity became a religion with significant political power. From the end of the Roman Empire down to today, Christianity has been a prime moving force in the West. But instead of Western culture being deeply and fundamentally changed by Christian principles of peace and love, Christianity was changed to accommodate politics. Jesus claimed to have come to earth to fulfill the old law and usher in an era of grace. But more and more often, Christian nations looked like the barbaric Old Testament nations, carrying out wars and crusades in the name of a god who was, apparently, still okay with genocide.
That’s the root of the problem then: Christians go along with culture instead of embracing the more decidedly radical values of the man they’re supposedly following. There are a few sects of Christianity which are non-violent but they have always been considered at the fringe rather than the center of mainstream religion. But how do Christians justify their embrace of warfare? How do they look at the Biblical text, at the teachings of the New Testament, and then condone that most violent of all actions, war?
It’s quite simple, really, a neat little theological get-out-of-text free card, called, “That doesn’t apply!” Of course, if you’re choosing to live your life by an ancient text, to orient your entire worldview by something written thousands of years ago in a completely different time, you have to be able to figure out when and to whom certain passages apply. It gets trickier when you, like many evangelical Christians in America today, claim that each and every word of that text is the inspired word of God, completely true, inerrant and infallible and holy and just as relevant today as it was when originally written.
When it comes to war, Christians like to claim that biblical directives for peacekeeping just don’t apply to whatever nation they’re a resident of. Sometimes, they want you to think that war is actually the right thing to do (i.e., “bomb Syria! They used chemical weapons, which a good Christian nation like us would never stand for! There’s no other possible solution so dust off the military options, boys, we’re going in!”) Sometimes, they just say that the government knows better than we do and that those in positions of authority don’t have to follow all the rules that apply to individual people. The classic (and almost only) textual argument for how Christians should interact with government is pulled from Romans 13, which commands obedience to governing authorities. “That text was written in the time of Nero,” Christians say triumphantly. “If Paul told Christians to honor the government’s every decision at the murderous height of the Roman Empire, how much more can we obey every decision of our government?” [never mind that Jesus was crucified as a traitor to Rome, and that countless other church heroes and martyrs were jailed, beaten, or killed because they refused to obey the government’s orders to stop preaching the gospel].
I have two objections to this argument. The first is contextual (see, I can play that game too!). The other is a matter of consistency.
The entire Bible offers a wealth of verses preaching peace for the entire world. When the angels announced Jesus’ birth they said, “Glory to god in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” Jesus taught his followers to behave lovingly to everyone around them, including the Roman soldiers who were occupying their nation. Paul wrote, “As far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” No exceptions or qualifications. No just war theory. And the biblical writers were living in times of chaos. They were part of a tiny nation continually under attack, siege, or occupation, and instead of heading up a rag-tag group of courageous guerilla fighters, they taught their readers to live peaceably, foregoing their own good to serve others. And not to serve others by bombing them, but to serve others in tangibly good ways. Giving people food and clothes and healing from their diseases, for instance. We might argue over whether these teaching were a coping mechanism, designed to help people survive military occupation until they could eventually come out on top culturally, but whatever the purpose, those words (according to Christians) are for all times and all places, and those words are words of love and peace, not of war and power. The only war advocated in the New Testament is spiritual warfare against powers of darkness, and if the military institution, the instinct for violence on a mass scale, is not a power of darkness I don’t know what is.
But my second objection is the point where everyone should be rolling their eyes and calling foul. Because Christians have absolutely no problem trying to apply every other part of their religion to government, imposing every other principle on society at large. The biblical teaching that god created everything in 6 days, a few thousand years ago? Of course that should be written into textbooks at our public schools! Prohibitions on homosexuality? That’s so important we should write it into law and probably make it into the eleventh commandment for good measure because hey Moses probably left that off just because ten is such a nice round number. Prohibitions on being drunk? Let’s go hog-wild and put that in the damn Constitution! Heck, let’s straight-up call a convention of states and re-write the Constitution!
So when it comes to directives for personal behavior that doesn’t hurt anyone else, or to getting state-sponsored teaching that your religion is more true than science, Christians are totally on board with letting their religion guide government policy. But when it comes to actual Christian principles which are extremely important and could have drastic effects for the good of this world, suddenly they get scared. Suddenly their loyalty lies with the empire instead of with the god they so loudly profess at all other times. Suddenly “bomb your neighbor” and “shoot your neighbor in night raids” and “drone your neighbor” is found in place of “love your neighbor.” And we criticize Muslims for violence even as we go blow up their homelands in the name of our supposedly “Christian nation.”