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Friday, September 27, 2013

Christianity’s Contradictions On War

Christianity’s Contradictions On War

“The church could lead the world toward peace if every church
lived and taught as Jesus lived and taught.” - Every Church A
Peace Church

By Dr. Gary G. Kohls
September 27, 2013

Though based on the pacifist teachings of Jesus, Christianity has
been an accomplice to more wars and genocides than any other
religion, a paradox reflected in the contradictory views of 16th
Century protestant reformer Martin Luther and 20th Century civil
rights martyr Martin Luther King Jr.

Like the vast majority of Christian religious leaders of his era,
Martin Luther, the Father of the Protestant Reformation, met the
definition of a, “Constantinian” Christian, that is a Christian who
espoused theological teachings that were tolerant of violence and
accepted non-democratic, authoritarian and male-dominant practices.

Those teachings represented the theological framework of the
Christian church that became the state religion starting with
the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the early Fourth

Luther also was an Augustinian Monk, an order named after
Augustine of Hippo, who died in 430 and was later canonized
by the Roman Catholic Church.

St. Augustine regarded the nonviolent ethical teachings of Jesus
in the Sermon on the Mount as simply metaphorical and therefore
irrelevant in times of crisis.

Augustine epitomized Constantinian Christianity, and Luther
was a good student of Augustine.

Indeed, most of the influential religious leaders of the 1500s
including Luther, John Calvin, Henry VIII and the various popes,
seemed to have an unwritten ecumenical agreement that you
could kill one another and still be following Jesus.

A cursory reading of the Reformation and Counter Reformation
Wars that drenched Europe in the blood of Christian killing
Christian in the 16th Century will attest to that statement.

Constantinian-type Christianity, in stark contrast to Sermon on the
Mount Christianity, which was the original form of that religion and
the norm during the first few generations of its existence, follows a
number of aberrant, anti-gospel, violence-tolerant church teachings
that had been blessed by the murderous Emperor Constantine.

Many of those teachings were made doctrinal by Augustine.

Constantine, it should be pointed out, was a ruthless military
dictator who had rivals and even had members of his family

He was never a Christian in his lifetime and only consented to
being baptized when he was on his deathbed.

Augustine shaped his theology to be in conformity with the
authoritarian, obedience-demanding, pro-violence, justified-
war politics of the emperor; and Luther followed suit.

The Lutheran Church

Luther’s reformation attempts created great schisms in
Christianity when he tried to reform a corrupted Roman
Catholic Church by endorsing violent means and therefore
predictably failed to bring any peaceful Christ-like
transformation to the “reformed” church.

The horrific details of the massacres in the Peasant’s War of 1525,
that Luther endorsed and that ruthlessly put down a peasant’s
liberation movement.

I was born and raised Lutheran but have always been uncomfortable
with Lutheranism’s tendencies towards conservative politics,
conservative theologies, flag-waving patriotism and teachings that
tend to justify (or be silent about) American war-making.

Those tendencies are also prevalent in other American Protestant

After considerable study of the history and theology of the earliest
form of Christianity, I now know that the Protestant church’s
simplistic acceptance of their nation’s wars is totally contrary to
the ethical teachings of the nonviolent Jesus which was faithfully
taught by the earliest communities of faith.

After being confronted with these truths about the early pacifist
church, my theology and politics have both moved to the opposite
end of the theological spectrum of the church of my birth, toward
the left-wing, pacifist, anti-fascist, nonviolent teachings of Jesus
and Martin Luther King, Jr. and away from the traditional violence
justifying doctrines of Augustine and Martin Luther.

In Luther’s defense however, he did make three insightful
statements which resonate with me and which give me some
hope that the Protestant churches might wake up some day
and start teaching what Jesus taught.

As has been the experience of so many other non-violent, and
therefore anti-war, Christian activists, King’s commitment to
the Sermon on the Mount ethics of Jesus has shaped my response
to America’s current Bush/Obama foreign policies of aggressive
militarism and perpetual war, and the inevitable civilian deaths,
refugeeism, starvation, pestilence, and the spiritual and economic
bankruptcy of the nations that participate in war.

Failing To Preach The Gospel

Here are three statements from the writings of Martin Luther,
which Martin Luther King Jr. would have approved:

"The church that preaches the gospel in all of its fullness, except
as it applies to the great social ills of the day, is failing to preach
the gospel.”

"War is the greatest plague that can afflict humanity; it destroys
religions, it destroys states, it destroys families. Any scourge is
preferable to it.”

And then this profoundly important exchange, in which Luther
taught one of his followers to trust the ethics of the gospel
rather than the threats from his war-making government and
courageously become a selective conscientious objector to war.

The questioner asked: “Suppose my lord was wrong in going to

Luther: “If you know for sure that he is wrong, then you should
fear God rather than men (Acts 5:29), and you should neither fight
nor serve. For you cannot have a good conscience before God.”

Questioner: “Oh, no, you say, my lord would force me to do it; he
would take away my fief and would not give me my money, pay and
wages. Besides I would be despised and put to shame as a coward,
even worse as a man who did not keep his word and deserted his
lord in time of need.”

Luther: “I answer: You must take that risk and, with God’s help, let
whatever happens, happen. He can restore you a hundred fold as he
promises in the gospel…”

I suspect that Luther’s wisdom in those statements developed in
his later years, for surely a more spiritually mature Luther would
have recognized the suffering of the impoverished and oppressed
peasants that ultimately led to the Peasant’s War of 1525, as one
of the great social ills of his day.

In the years immediately prior to 1525, the peasants, inspired by
Luther’s anti-church/anti-establishment revolutionary teachings,
were finally rising up against their perennial oppressors: the ruling
elite, the wealthy landowners and the authoritarian Catholic Church.

Initially the peasants protested nonviolently.

They submitted written demands that they be granted their
human rights.

Tragically, as is still happening in these modern times, the protest
movement was brutally put down by the establishment’s obedient
soldiers and the peasants were compelled to resort to defensive
violence, which ended badly for them, shades of the recent
nonviolent protests in Egypt and Syria.

Luther’s Betrayal Of The Peasants

Luther shocked the peasants when he betrayed them and sided with
the one percent ruling elite, whose well-armed soldiers slaughtered
them in that brief war.

Luther forever lost the support of the peasantry when he actually
called for their annihilation. Luther wrote in a tract:

“These are strange times, when a prince can achieve heaven by
killing peasants more assuredly than other men can with prayer.”

The reality that the briefly optimistic peasants hadn’t
comprehended was that their oppressors were the very
ones that had protected Luther from being hunted down
and killed by the soldiers of the pope.

Any thoughtful, fair-minded, ethical American must conclude
that the Bush/Cheney administration’s stated 2001 foreign
policy of perpetual war and the continuation of unaffordable,
bloated military budgets are two of the great social ills of our

But war, despite the rape, pillage, starvation, and destitution
that inevitably goes along with it, seems to be a taboo subject
in most of the churches of which I am familiar.

Modern wars can justifiably be described as organized mass
slaughter that mostly kills and maims innocent civilians.

It is a sobering reality that 80 to 90 percent of the casualties of
modern warfare are unarmed non-combatant civilians, largely
women and children.

The failure to protect non-combatants in war, according to the
Christian Just War Theory, makes that war an unjust one, and, in
terms of the teachings of moral theology, that makes the killing in
that war murder.

And that, of course, makes the planners, perpetrators and
participants in such wars murderers or accomplices to murder.

Martin Luther King Jr. Echoed Jesus

The heroic martyr Martin Luther King Jr., whose prophetic work
was modeled after the pacifist Jesus, and the pacifist Gandhi, and
not, despite his name, the war-justifying Luther, often commented
on what was expected of faithful and ethical Christians in their
response to injustice.

King’s views are best summarized by these profound but simple truths about silence in the face of evil:

"It may well be that the greatest tragedy of this period of social
change is not the glaring noisiness of the so-called bad people,
but the silence of the so-called good people."

"The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the
servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It
must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.
If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become
an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority."

"Cowardice asks the question – is it safe? Expediency asks the
question – is it politic? Vanity asks the question – is it popular?
But conscience asks the question – is it right? And there comes
a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor
politic, nor popular; but one must take it because it is right."

Luther’s three insightful observations above are as clear as could
be, as are the statements of King.

The church of Jesus Christ should be paying attention to all of these ethical statements simply because they are corollaries to Jesus’s
Sermon on the Mount commands to, “love your enemies” and, “do
unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

If the follower of Jesus takes these statements seriously, violence
against “the other” is impossible.

A few months before his assassination on April 4, 1968, King said
he didn’t want all his achievements mentioned at his funeral.

What he wanted said instead was this:

“Say that Martin King tried to feed the hungry, clothe the naked
and that he was right on the war question.”

The vast majority of American Christian churches are silent, and
therefore wrong, on the war questions.

Even Luther’s statements on war justifiably indict them for failing
to preach the full gospel.

Most of the Lutheran, Catholic and Reformed churches of the Third
Reich were equally silent, and wrong, about the wars of both Kaiser
Wilhelm and Hitler.

And, of course both the Catholic and Protestant Churches in
Christian Germany were silent, and therefore wrong, on the
Jewish question.

It seems to me that true peace churches should be modeling
themselves after the primitive, pacifist church of the first two
centuries by courageously speaking out against wars and the
inevitable cruelty, torture and slaughter that always occurs in

True peace churches should be warning about the deadly spiritual
consequences for both the warriors and their victims.

True peace churches should be teaching what Jesus taught about
violence (forbidden) and advise their members to refuse to
participate in homicidal violence of any kind.

Idealistic peace churches, sadly, represent only a tiny fraction of
the churches in America, and they have no choice but to be vocal.

To be silent would make them complicit with evil.

When Silence Is Betrayal

Martin Luther King Jr. understood the consequences for whistle-
blowers and prophets if and when they speak out for peace and

He said:

“There comes a time when silence is betrayal…but the calling
to speak is often a vocation of agony.”

King believed in the truth and practicality of the nonviolent
teachings of Jesus, and, like Jesus, lived that way.

And, contrary to the objectives of their assassins, neither
their spirits nor their teachings died with them.

Both are very much alive, and their spirits and inspiring words
live on.

And for those who claim discipleship to the Jesus of the gospels,
it should be ethically impossible to adopt the pro-violence stances
of the multitude of non-peace churches, whose punitive politics
and harsh theologies over the past 1,700 years have tragically
dominated the Christian Church.

Jesus often taught about the coming of the Reign of God,
which was all about the unconditional, nonviolent love of
friends and enemies.

He taught his disciples how they should live, how they should
love and how they should respond when they were tempted
to participate in or be silent about forms of violence such
as militarism, racism, economic oppression, torture, cruelty,
hunger and killling.

It is clear what Jesus taught.

In so many words, he was saying that “violence is forbidden
to those who wish to follow me.”

The planet and the creatures trying to survive on it are in peril
if the church of Martin Luther, Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesus
of Nazareth continues to fail in its sacred duty to actively and
nonviolently resist and courageously speak out against war and

Dr. Kohls was a founding member of Every Church A Peace Church,
which has recently merged with the Church of the Brethren’s Living
Peace Church organization. ECAPC is a 13-year-old international
ecumenical movement to recover gospel nonviolence as a norm for
all churches.

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