When did killing become acceptable for Jesus' followers?
Jesus taught his followers to love their enemies, not go to war against them.
Since September 11, 2001, Muslims clerics and spokespersons have been under increasing pressure to explain whether that religion supports violence and terrorism. Few have posed similar questions to the Christian community.
During 1947-48, my father headed up the Correspondence Department of the Emergency Planning Council (one of the forerunners of Lutheran World Relief) at Concordia Publishing House. In those years immediately after the end of World War II, the council was sending desperately needed food and clothing to Europe.
Some time after that program began, a group of German Lutheran pastors traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, in order to thank American Lutherans for all we had done to help Germany get back on its feet. At a gathering in an auditorium at a facility owned by the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), the Germans discussed the devastation to their country, expressed their gratitude for what U.S. Lutherans had done and then responded to questions.
LCMS pastors and seminary professors asked how it was that Lutheran pastors had gone along with what Germany was doing prior to and during the war. The German pastors gave the usual Lutheran responses — “St. Paul says, ‘Obey those in authority’; and Jesus teaches, ‘Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s’.” They also made reference to Lutheran ‘Just War’ theory.
As I remember, the LCMS pastors and theologians responded emphatically: “No! That was not a just war. You should have disobeyed. We should obey God rather than men. Innocent people were killed.”
Since that time, I’ve wondered what I — or my church — would do if our country was complicit in similar behavior. Would I be willing to put my body in front of trains carrying civilians to their deaths? Would I be willing to speak out? Would our church, our pastors and theologians speak up?
August 6, 2005, was the 15th anniversary of a U.S. policy of sanctions, bombings and occupation of Iraq. This doctrine has resulted in the deaths of over one million Iraqi civilians. Many of these victims are under the age of five. Since the invasion, 100,000 civilians have reportedly been killed and hundreds of thousands more have been maimed in body and mind. In addition the FBI and Red Cross have documented that torture has been carried out in U.S. military prisons.
Is that consistent with what Jesus would do? Is this the life and spirit we’ve been given as his followers? Is this proper Christian behavior or witness? How do we explain the relative silence or outright support by Lutheran churches, pastors and theologians, concerning this political and military doctrine and policy during the past 15 years?
* Is it because Lutheran seminaries provide few classes on ‘Just War’ criteria and no courses on the theology and spirituality of the oldest tradition in Christianity — Christian Nonviolence?
* Is it because we haven’t seriously examined whether incursions into Afghanistan and Iraq meet the criteria of Just War as developed by Augustine and the early Church fathers?
* Is it because we’ve forgotten that God created a world where there can be enough of the essentials to survive — as long as some aren’t swimming in luxury wealth?
* Is it because it’s easier to point to the moat in our enemy’s eye than to look at the beam in ours?
* Is it because Jesus’ rejection of violence and his love of even lethal enemies seems too utopian, idealistic, and unrealistic to us?
* Is it because it’s easy to spend endless hours arguing whether it is an abomination for two men to lie in bed with one another rather, but difficult to address whether it’s an abomination for two men to be shooting at one another?
* Is it because, in recent decades, we’ve relegated the role of ‘theologian’ to the Clintons, the Bushs, the Trumans, and other theologically-untrained politicians and policymakers when determining which wars are ‘just’?
* Is it because it’s easier to confront Muslims on terrorism than our own ‘Christian’ America, which has terrorized the rest of the world with the threat of nuclear annihilation during the past six decades?
* Is it because we believe that killing national enemies is morally superior to Jesus’ command that we show nonviolent love toward friends and enemies?
* Is it because contemporary Caesars are successfully able to increasing our fears (“The communists are coming!” or “The terrorists are coming!”) so that we forget Jesus’ teachings, “Fear not” and “Love as I have loved”?
* Is it because facing up to the possibility that a war which we have supported, which has destroyed thousands of lives on both sides, and which was justified by blatant lies, is simply too threatening to for us?
* Is it because we fear that people will accuse us of dishonoring our sons and daughters in combat if we raise questions about administrative decisions?
* Is it because we are secretly fearful that, perhaps we as a Church have betrayed our enlisted children when we didn’t adequately warn and prepare them for the, mayhem, chaos, harsh realities and profound ethical dilemmas they now face?
* Is it because we’ve forgotten that Christ is truly present not only in our baptism and in the bread and the wine, but also in every human face —including those we fear and hate?
* Is it because we’re waiting for the Chinese, the North Koreans and al Kaida to accept Jesus’ teaching of returning good for evil before we implement it?
* Is it because we’re waiting for the Roman Catholic pontiff or other non-Lutheran Christian denominations to speak boldly before we do?
* Is it because we’re trapped, held captive, by our own wealth and privilege?
* Is it because the voices of justified violence in the churches — the Billy and Franklin Grahams, the Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons — seem so loud and prominent, while the Martin Luther Kings, the Archbishop Romeros, the Quakers, the Mennonites, the Stephans, the early Christian martyrs, all of whom are witness to Jesus’ unconditional nonviolent love, seem so far and distant?
* Is it that we live in a make-believe world that thinks Jesus would have been silent as his disciples went off to war and killed 100,000 civilians and brutalized thousands more?
* Or, is it that, perhaps — just perhaps — that we fear we’re at our own Bonhoeffer moment in history? (And, we know what happened to Bonhoeffer.)
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Bostelmann is a combat trained infantry veteran, member of Vets for Peace, who gives presentations on Christian Nonviolence to church groups and congregations. He is a member of Mount Olive Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.