The Doctrine of Peace: What’s At Stake?

One of the most challenging questions Christians have been forced to grapple with over the last two millennia has been our response to war. How we answer the questions that pertain to war, justice, and peace determines the kind of gospel we preach to the world. And make no mistake that the answers we give in our generation are only made more complicated by the moral relativism that dominates modern thinking. 

Challenges To Answering This Question

So much about our Christian testimony and the kind of good-news we preach to the world hangs on our answer to this question that, for those who really try to grapple deeply with this subject, the most frustrating challenge often turns out not to be people’s “wrongness”, but their cavalier attitude: it is not the clear-sighted advocates of the “just-war” and “holy-war” theories that are most troubling, but those well meaning Christians who, without having searched these matters out with the kind of urgency warranted by matters of life and death, are nonetheless so certain of their own rightness that they are unwilling to be challenged, or to be bothered to search more deeply in order to better understand what is at stake before encouraging others to go off to war and kill. This kind of cavalier attitude is what I find most troubling among God’s people, who, though called as peacemakers, are so quick to sound the call to war! 

Unfortunately, moral apathy is not the only obstacle Christians have to deal with when considering what the good news of Jesus means for those who face the prospect of war. It is also necessary to deal with our modern sense of moral uncertainty. Again, here it is not so much someone’s “wrongness” as their “moral fuzziness” and “apathy” that is most troubling. Christians who are genuinely morally concerned, but yet uncommitted in their moral convictions, so often simply muddy the waters by their endless prevarications. It is one thing to raise the issues of Scripture in order to fully test one’s view, it is quite another to simply pummel something with endless speculative objections in order to avoid dealing with key substantive issues. So we find ourselves in the most unfortunate of circumstances today that so many would prefer to bear some sense of personal guilt rather than tolerate the views of someone with any sense of simple moral certainty. For “moral certainty” is perhaps chief among sins in today’s culture simply because such certainty might force us to deal with our own share of moral culpability for the state of the world. 

My Purpose In Writing

I have been investigating this subject at length since 2018 and I have discovered that there are very few serious explorations of this subject. One can easily find endless one-page blogs, articles, and Tweets speculating about the virtues and vices of war, but to find full-length books and complete surveys concerning the ethical or theological issues pertaining to war is very difficult. How can our blogs, articles, and social media posts have any value if they are not based on anything of real substance? 

The purpose of this series, then, will be to contribute to a perceived need I see in the Church for digesting and breaking down, for the consideration of serious Christian thinkers, the more extensive works advocating for Christian doctrines of peace. I see a need for this because not everyone has the time to do the extensive reading necessary to give this subject the proper weight of consideration it requires. And yet these questions persist and demand an answer from us all nevertheless. We face the real prospect of war. We see systemic violence throughout our culture. We must deal with the relevant questions of this subject. And, since in my own life and ministry I have benefited from resources that have done the same as I hope to do here on other complex subjects, I hope I can help serious Christian thinkers access and weigh these issues in light of our Lord’s good and holy will for his people. 

What’s At Stake

In following Jean Lasserre’s approach in “War and the Gospel“, I think it is helpful to first point out what is at stake when Christians weigh how the gospel shapes our view on war and answers whether or not violence can establish justice or bring peace on earth. 

First, we must recognize that the sacred value of human life has never been viewed with such cheap disdain as it is today. Abortion, euthanasia, genocide, senicide, and suicide only scratch the surface of our cheap disdain for life. We glamorize killing in entertainment, and employ its vernacular in our everyday language as there is no sphere of life wherein we don’t fight some kind of “war”. Even our comedy routinely includes routines that make light of human death. None of this is likely to shock my readers. I don’t include it here for its shock value – indeed these subjects have become mundane to us – but, rather, to make the point clear: the answer Christians give to what the gospel means for how we view war, justice, and peace will be one of the chief contenders for restoring value to human life! Our answers to these questions will also decide the kind of value we assign to human life, whether life has immutable value, or can be stripped of its value, if life itself is inextricably precious because we are made in God’s image, and therefore is worth sacrificing one’s own life to save through the powerful good news of Jesus, or if in light of such a powerful gospel the value of human life can simply be discarded.

For if there is any voice on earth that must defend the value of human life, certainly it must be the voice of those who possess the dual sacred truths that the human race was made in God’s sacred likeness and that the sacrificial death of his Son is powerfully efficacious to transform.

And on this point Christians are missing an opportunity to connect to this despairing world in a truly meaningful way: our secular society is filled with desperate cries, pleading for the recognition of the individual and the vulnerable. Our generation craves the value for our individuality that modern philosophical thinkers have stolen from us. But where is the voice of the Church? Where are those Christians with a clear vision of the gospel and the requisite courage necessary to give hope to those parched souls who thirst for righteousness? In all too many cases, Christians are so immersed in the world’s thinking that we have lost sight of the gospel’s vision for peace, and we have failed to speak to our time with the true fiery logic of the cross! Instead, we use the logic of this world that produces the world’s clarion call to war rather than the Kingdom of God’s clarion call to the cross. 

Second, as an outworking of this first point, our answer to these questions will be the means by which modern man will one day finally judge the Church and her witness. To borrow Jean Lasserre’s words, “Where is the vaunted Good News if it takes part in the slaughter and howls with the wolves? What real significance can Jesus Christ have, if his disciples join in collective hatred and violence so readily, if they too gamble with human life? How can the Church bring a message of hope to men oppressed by their murderous factions, if it seems to sanction these factions and murders with its moral authority?” For Jean Lasserre, at least, few things spoke more directly to the value the Church assigns to human life than how she responds to the violence of this world. And I agree.

When our secular critics rail against religion, they are often simply stating their contempt for the hypocrisy of Christians who preach love and do not practice it. We esteem “conservatives” (read as synonymous with “Christian”) who are litigious and ready at any moment to take their political and ideological opponents to court in order to defend “conservatism” (read as synonymous with “Christianity”). Yet Jesus could not have been clearer that his followers were to embrace the logic of the cross by “letting the one who wants to sue us for our shirt have also our coat” (Matthew 5:40). And the apostle Paul applied this fiery logic to conclude “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?” (1 Corinthians 6:7). For it is through the faith that only arises from the fiery logic of the cross that the wisdom of love prevails to overcome evil with good!

Despite all appearances, the world longs for the kind of hope that can only be accessed through the logic of the cross. Souls are parched and yearn for the blessed peace of Christ that will release their souls from the oppression of this world. But to whom should these souls turn to find such hope when the Church clamors for war and political power? “Therefore“, Lassarre concludes, “there can surely be few tasks of greater importance and urgency than to study this problem of respect for human life under the inspiration and direction of the Holy Spirit in the fraternal communion of all those who invoke the name of Jesus Christ…

What is truly at stake in how Christians answer this question is the credibility of our gospel testimony and our witness of Christ. How can the world take seriously a Church that preaches both Christ and military doctrine, who doesn’t possess the moral conviction necessary to willingly sacrifice our own lives to restore peace to the broken? How can they realize the love of Christ when we preach “love for enemies” but practice violent resistance against them, when we say that Christ doesn’t give peace in the way of the world but then use the sword to establish peace? Like it or not, such actions repudiate the essential claims of Jesus’ good news.

I will urge extreme caution in this series to those who might think they can answer the above questions with simple theological gymnastics. Such maneuvers might satisfy the church choir, but they often do not fly with the world, which plainly sees the blatant disconnect between what Jesus taught and what the Church practices. Though some political allies might welcome our compromise, are such compromises faithful to the one who did not call his Church to war?

For these reasons I believe it is incumbent upon our generation to recover what has been long lost in the Church and restore to our faith the sacred doctrines of peace so that the light of the Prince of Peace can shine in us. Count this as my small contribution to this effort.

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“War and the Gospel”, by Jean Lasserre; Herald Press (1962); pages 5, 9-10.

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