The General Assembly started the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program in 1980. I started in Seminary in 1982. It was time and an era when the church was seriously engaged with questions of war, peace and a commitment to peacemaking. The Commitment to Peacemaking was an idea which fostered significant support across the church, and, of course, significant debate. I remember in my first years of ministry passionate debates at Presbytery meetings about questions of war and peacemaking.
What happened to our commitment to peace? We live in a war torn world. What happened to our voice, our calling, our witness to Christ the Prince of Peace? Why are we seemingly afraid to engage these questions and these issues? Is our common life now so fragile that these debates frighten us? Questions of war and peace, questions of the ways our nation should be engaged in the world and the church’s response to that engagement are deeply controversial and difficult questions. But these are questions our church has always engaged, always debated. We have always pushed theological reflection into these realms. I am very concerned that these vital questions have simply dropped out of our conversation, out of our common life. Are we so weak and frightened, and hunkered down into the isolated life of our congregation, that we are now afraid to engage these questions of war and peace? Or, and this may be closer to the truth, have our pastors and church leaders so abandoned the hard work of theological study and reflection that we do not have anything to say, expect occasionally a trite repetition of the editorials of either George Will on one side or Thomas Friedman on the other.
In a recent edition of The Presbyterian Outlook, Professor Stanley Hauerwas, who is not Presbyterian, said in an interview that all Christians are called to be pacifists. Wow! What a provocative statement in a Presbyterian magazine. Our Presbyterian Church, and the larger Reformed Tradition, is not now and has never been pacifist. Historically and theologically it is simply wrong to say that all Christians are called to be pacifists. I know I am not. Is this not a vitally important theological and spiritual question for the church today?
In his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, President Obama was reaching for some philosophical and theological foundation for an understanding of peace which is not pacifist and fully engages the brutal realities of our world today. I quote: “A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force is sometimes necessary is not a call to cynicism. – it is recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”
I am not making a partisan comment for Obama; please do not hear that. What I am saying is deeper. I believe Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize speech was reaching back into the tradition of Christian realism for some foundational thinking about war and peace. This is our tradition. These are core convictions for the Presbyterian Church. Especially in the American Presbyterian tradition, Christian Realism has always been the theological framework with which we struggled with questions of war, peacemaking, international relations and law enforcement. Given the tenacious power of evil in our world today, the church is called to engage these questions, debate these issues. Remaining silent on these questions is not an option for Presbyterians. There must be public engagement. This is not a task we can abandon because it makes us uncomfortable or because the conversation always creates debate and heated conflict. We must speak publicly. We are the Presbyterians; this is our calling.
I am talking about the Christian realism of the Barmen Declaration of Faith in our Book of Confessions. The most profound American voice in this tradition of Christian realism is Reinhold Niebuhr. Like the Barmen Declaration, Niebuhr was also writing in the World War II era. Niebuhr was very critical of the churches reluctance to engage these questions. Niebuhr was pushing the churches and our nation to understand the reality of the world we live in.
Writing in 1941 Niebuhr published a paper which is relevant today titled, “The Christian Faith and the World Crisis.”
I quote: Too many American Christians, Niebuhr argued, believed that “war could be eliminated if only Christians and other men of good will refused resolutely enough to have anything to do with conflict. In our opinion this utopianism has contributed to the tardiness of the democracies in defending themselves against the perils of a new barbarism, and (in America at least) it is easily compounded with an irresponsible and selfish nationalism. Love must be regarded as the final flower and fruit of justice, however, when love is substituted for justice it degenerates into sentimentality and may become the accomplice of tyranny. We are well aware of the sins of all the nations, including our own, which have contributed to the chaos of our era. Yet we believe the task of defending the rich inheritance of our civilization to be an imperative one, however much we might desire that our social system were more worthy of defense.”
I believe we must stand in this long tradition of Christian realism, powerfully articulated by Reinhold Niebuhr for example, which does not flinch at the power of evil in our world, is not afraid, and boldly proclaims the sovereignty of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
We live in a day when the evil of al Qaeda is a contagious virus trying to infect our very souls. I am not arguing for some kind of pro-American militarism; I am often appalled by our American arrogance. I am arguing against the often fear-filled silence in our churches which is afraid to even discuss these issues. “Blessed at the peacemakers for they will be called the children of God.” What does that mean in a world increasingly scorched by the power of evil?
See interview with Stanley Hauerwas, “The Presbyterian Outlook”, Dec. 7, 2009.
See President Obama’s “Nobel Peace Prize speech” now available via Google search.
See Reinhold Niebuhr, “Christian Faith and the World Crisis”, first published in Christianity and Crisis, February 10, 1941 and now available via Google search.
On Reinhold Niebuhr see Jon Meacham, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, (Random House).
Mark J. Englund-Krieger