Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

Muddled Thinking on War, Peace and Justice

Jul 14, 2009

The broad topic of war and peace is a complex, multifaceted one which requires careful, prayerful and mature reflection. There are many considerations that need to be taken into account when seeking to properly discuss this issue: biblical, theological, ethical, historical, philosophical, geopolitical, and so on.

It requires more than bumper sticker moralising, in other words. Yet that is often what we find in this debate. Complex topics are often reduced to a glib protest banner. The left – both secular and religious – can often be monotonously guilty of this.

I have just come across yet another prime example of this, this time involving people who call themselves evangelical Christians. To be honest, it greatly saddens me to see Christians taking such perplexing and difficult issues and reducing them to mindless slogans. They undoubtedly think they are serving the cause of Christ in what they are doing, but in my eyes they are simply being an embarrassment, discrediting the complexity and nuance of Christian social thinking.

The story involves a Melbourne Baptist Pastor and three colleagues who have gone up to Queensland to protest joint American-Australian war games. The four are evangelicals who happen to be pacifists. Now I have written elsewhere about how Christians can agree to disagree on these issues. While pacifists have always been in a minority throughout church history, they have been a part of the Christian tradition nonetheless.

Needless to say, I strongly disagree with them at just about every turn. Those disagreements have been written up in other articles on this site. Here I simply wish to comment on two banners that were held by the protestors. They so very much reflect the muddled moralising and twisted thinking of the left.

The first says this: “War is terror is war”. As an example of mindless rhetoric, superficial jingoism, and distorted morality, this is of course a winner. Sure, it has been around for ages, and our four religious friends have simply latched on to it, evidently believing it nicely encapsulates their thinking on this topic.

It might be good for a media photo opportunity, but as a contribution to a very complex and difficult topic, it adds absolutely nothing. Indeed, all it does is show that these people do not seem to be very serious about what they are making such a stink about.

But like the left as a whole, they think a photo op and a media controversy are the preferred means of arguing a case. Never mind at least two and a half millennia of sustained, rigorous and careful thinking and reflection on these issues. Never mind that Christian social ethics can never be slimmed down to a protest banner. Never mind that vitally important topics like this require hard thinking and moral clarity.

Thus they short-circuit a very important ethical debate, and turn a very complex issue into another sound bite for the six o’clock news. But it is not just this devaluation of reasoning and moral reflection that worries me. The phrase itself is complete bunk. It is simply a vacuous and ludicrous statement, which adds nothing whatsoever of value to the debate.

Let’s consider what it says for a moment. In the eyes of these four, terrorism is the moral equivalent of warfare. So in their jaundiced and anaemic system of ethics, there is absolutely no difference between a jihadist who deliberately seeks to kill as many innocent women and children as possible, in order to terrorise them into embracing his agenda, and a man who seeks to defend a nation against the unjust aggression of a tyrant.

Thus a soldier trying to protect, say, children in a French village from the murderous butchery of the Nazis was just as evil as those who flew planes into the Twin Towers. Thus Bonhoeffer – whom they ironically name themselves after: “The Bonhoeffer Four” – was just as morally grotesque in his attempt to assassinate Hitler, as Hitler was himself. No difference: war equals terror.

There is so much more to say about this. What these four are really doing is impugning the very nature of God. In their radical pacifism they have to totally renounce much of the Old Testament. To turn Jesus into some peace-loving hippy who wouldn’t harm a fly, they not only have to ignore altogether the fact that Yahweh is a “god of war”, but they also have to take a scissors to the Book of Revelation.

There we discover this meek and mild Jesus turns out to be a returning conquering hero, riding a war steed with a sword of judgment in his hand. It is hard to remain a pacifist and claim to be fully biblical, especially after reading a passage like Rev. 19 for example.

Of course as anyone with a smattering of theological nous knows, there is both continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments. Some things, such as the Israelite sacrifices and temple activities do not carry over. But the character and nature of God remains the same.

Jesus of the Gospels is the same God who is a warrior in the OT, and is the same God who comes in fierce judgment in the last book of the Bible. It does no good whatsoever to try to separate who Jesus is in his fullness from who God is, as revealed throughout all of Scripture.

Much more can be said, but let me briefly turn to the second protest banner they proudly held up: “Resist the war on Afghanistan.” So what exactly does that mean? The religious left prides itself in how much they are into social justice. Were they concerned about justice for the Afghanis who suffered horribly under the murderous Taliban dictatorship? Did they go to Afghanistan when the Taliban were in control, holding up their silly banners, seeking to be peacemakers?

Or is injustice only something which America and its allies are capable of committing? Are protests only to be aimed at Uncle Sam and his cronies? One so often sees this blatant hypocrisy and double standards of the religious left. They are always happy to condemn the West, but where are they when real acts of injustice are taking place?

Where were they when Saddam was murdering and gassing his own citizens? Where were they when Stalin was killing his millions? Where were they when Mao massacred countless Chinese? Will they now go to the Sudan with their little placards, and demand that the Muslim rulers there stop killing Christians, including those who are being crucified?

And closer to home, do these same people sit outside of abortion clinics, protesting what is arguably the worst case of genocide the world has ever known? Do they try to blockade the abortion mills, in an effort to stop the war on the unborn?

Do they wave banners around – when the TV crews are present, of course – with words like these: “Abortion is terror is abortion”? Or what about, “Resist the war on the unborn”? For some reason I have not noticed too many of these lefties involved in these sorts of protests. I did not spot them doing this on the evening news of late.

As I said, believers are free to think differently about these matters. Pacifism has been a Christian option for some, and we can respect that fact. But what we do not have to respect is the bumper sticker morality and fuzzy thinking that so often goes along with their cause.

This does not do much good to the importance of sober reflection on complex social issues, and it does not do much good to the richness, diversity and complexity of the Biblical texts. What is required here is genuine moral clarity, not pretentious clichés.

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26 Responses to Muddled Thinking on War, Peace and Justice

  • They have taken no notice of Paul’s writing in Romans regarding respecting those in authority. They have deliberately placed themselves in harm’s way and have made the Name of Christ an offence to both Australian and American service personnel. Not to mention their flouting of the Queensland and Federal Occupational health and safety Acts. They will probably call for One World Government next to stop war, then they have really taken scissors to the Bible.
    They really need to take leaf out of the Amish’s example of pacifism, where there is no banner holding, just living a christian out Life.
    I have thought hard about my position as a Christian on war and have come down to Just war and unjust war juxtaposition.
    Wayne Pelling

  • I agree “believers are free to think differently about these matters [pacifism]”, but they are not free to be hypocrites, and such they become when protesting against harmless war games whilst almost totally ignoring the abortion holocaust on their own doorsteps.

    Ewan McDonald.

  • I can attest that I have invited one of the “Bonhoeffer Four” to a public meeting promoting fighting prostitution (violence against poor and vulnerable women) through making it illegal to buy “sexual services”. I have also invited him to various pro-life rallies. This well-known Perth ‘non-violence’ advocate has yet to front up to one of these events that promote peaceful outcomes for all in difficult situations.

    This is while this Christian ridicules police and states that seeing soldiers with Bibles “makes him sick”. Why the non-violent schizophrenia? Perhaps because this man identifies more with Greens policy than with the thousands slaughtered around the world every year.

    Lance Macormic

  • These double standards remind me of the Peace Movement decades ago. They could be relied on to demonstrate outside British and American military facilities but not outside Soviet Bloc or Red Chinese embassies. And they never applied for visas to Poland to protest outside Soviet army barracks.

    Does anyone remember that potty American saboteur-poseur-radical who used to break into Western airfields and dong parked bombers over the nose? Last I heard of her she wasn’t heading to Siberia to sort out those superannuated YAKs parked outside Vladivostok.

    John Snowden

  • Christians are either made out to look like these narrow minded, patheticaly deluded peace activists or extreemist fundermental killers. The bible says you will know them by their fruit, what sort of fruit do this group produce and what sort of image are they giving Christianity?
    Donna Opie

  • Here is a one liner that is thoughtful and therefore powerful.
    “To be prepared for war, is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” –George Washington
    Greg Brien

  • As one who has carried a bible through my service in both the Navy and the Army in Australia I find these characters utterly offensive. They are making the Church look ridiculous in that they are fighting a non-cause against an enemy that does not exist while bringing it to the doorstep of those who have no agency in where their country sends them anyway.

    Seriously, what do they hope to achieve? Obama won the US election and is working to liberate the world from intolerance, injustice and sanity (whoops slipped), what more could they want. All they need to do is call the White House, give Kevin’s office a ring while they are waiting for the minders to screen that call, and the troops will be withdrawn from their evil pretend killing right away.

    It is true the military has a clearly defined purpose, and that is to deal swiftly, harshly and effectively with threats to the safety of the nation. Like the old man in Western Australia who shot the intruders trying to attack him and his bedridden wife, the military is worthy of great respect and honour when it exercises its power in a godly manner. Typically Western military forces, for all their faults, have been far more just, merciful and magnanimous than their pagan foes. This has more to do with the redeeming work of Christ on Western culture than some form of pacifistic ideal that attempts to euphemise the military as peace keepers and disaster relief workers in difficult to see uniforms. Guys like the Bonhoeffer four ought to put their efforts where they will be of some real use and help peacefully stop the real violence that is growing in our society. Instead of being self righteous wanna be hippies they ought to get to work redeeming the culture while there is still time – they may want to read a little Augustine on the way.

    I for one would proudly walk to war with a rifle in one hand and my bible in the other if the just and urgent need arose. I hope it never does but I am under no illusions (as my brothers in arms are not also) that some time may arise when rough men will need to stand ready once again to do violence so that our families can sleep safe in their beds. At this time many may be called to show what Christ called the greatest love – and those I know would not hesitate if the need arose.

    Phil Twiss

  • “Where were they when Saddam was murdering and gassing his own citizens? Where were they when Stalin was killing his millions? Where were they when Mao massacred countless Chinese? Will they now go to the Sudan with their little placards, and demand that the Muslim rulers there stop killing Christians, including those who are being crucified?”

    Good point, Bill. Same can be said for the “free David Hicks” bleeding hearts. But as Janet Albrechtsen points out, they are silent on the unlawful inprisonment of Stern Hu who has been treated worse so far;

    “So far we don’t know what Mr Hu has been charged with. He appears not to have access to a lawyer and has no contact with his family. This is sounding like a fairly clear infringement of the basic rights of an Australian. So Hu can surely look forward to a vocal and passionate campaign from our ever-vigilant human rights activists to free him from the clutches of a Chinese justice system that is hardly known for delivering justice. Or perhaps not.

    I checked Get Up’s website. Nothing there. It was a case of Mr Who? Same absence of interest over at Liberty Victoria. But let’s be fair and give them time. Maybe we will soon hear from Amnesty International, the various trade unions and civil libertarians who so eagerly became involved in the Fair Go For David campaign and the International Day of Action for David Hicks? Will we see a Fair Go For Stern operation? Or could it be that the brigade of do-gooders who paraded their commitment to human rights for David Hicks were largely driven by the fact that Hicks was imprisoned by Americans under the watch of President George W Bush?”

    Damien Spillane

  • Ah, Bill, but don’t you know, concentrating on abortion would be a ‘single issue’ wouldn’t it?

    Er, then what are they doing?

    Mark Rabich

  • Thanks for your words, Phil. Well said.
    Jeremy Peet

  • Hi Bill,

    I still can’t get over the irony of calling themseves “The Bonhoeffer Four”. Are they planning to assassinate Kevin Rudd? How would that sit with their pacifism? I wonder if they even know who Bonhoeffer was.

    Mansel Rogerson

  • Hi Bill,
    I agree with you on this one, for sure. Pacifism is, I think, an inconsistent position to hold, as I have written here:

    Church leaders have to place more care in the statements they make, otherwise no-one will listen to them. While these men are allowed to be pacifists, they must show themselves to be consistent and reasonable, which as you have shown, they fail to do.

    Simon Kennedy, VIC

  • “Here is a one liner that is thoughtful and therefore powerful.
    “To be prepared for war, is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.” –George Washington
    Greg Brien”

    What has that got to do with modern times? We have spent trillions of dollars, rubles, pounds etc. building huge nuclear arsenals, plus bacteriological and nerve gas weapons. We had better find a cheaper way to keep the peace. The entire planet is an expensively armed camp. A billion dollars for one bomber? With that money I could work wonders on our crumbling hospital system.

    Washington had it easy, all those clumsy muskets and cannon. They are great for turning into ploughshares. Can’t say the same for plutonium and nerve gas.

    John Snowden

  • Im a serving member of the Australian Army and a Christian, and I’m proud to be able to wear my uniform. Im also proud of my service in Afghanistan.

    This appears to be a clear case of satan weasling his way into the Church. He’s a sneaky one.

    Whats that saying “satans greatest feat was convincing the world he doesn’t exist”……

    Julian Wasserman

  • I must confess to being a little puzzled by the comparison between the protestors’ campaign and campaigns against abortion. Unless the group that went up to Queensland has actually spoken out against anti-abortion campaigns, I’m not sure that criticism, or cries of hypocrisy, are warranted. Could it be that this particular part of the Body of Christ feels compelled to speak out against war, whilst another feels equally compelled to speak out against the horrors of abortion? I agree with Bill that simply presenting banners and slogans does very little in the way of substantive contribution to a complex debate, but I’m not sure that they ought to be faulted for expending their collective political energy on an issue that may not be as close to the hearts of conservatives than abortion is.

    On the issue of Christianity and war, can I recommend Richard B. Hays’ book, “The Moral Vision of the New Testament”? His chapter on war is masterful; although he does come down on the side of pacifism, his treatment of Scripture, and his exposition of the cross is rather persuasive.

    Scott Buchanan

  • Thanks Scott

    My charge of hypocrisy did not really have to do with the abortion issue. Some pacifists are also anti-abortion. My concern was those who seem to denounce war selectively. These guys often seem to denounce a war if America is involved, or Australia, but they seem silent on wars initiated by those not of the West. Thus I still must ask: was the religious left equally vocal in denouncing the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, for example? Or any of the acts of Soviet aggression over the decades? Usually the left made excuses for Soviet imperialism instead.

    And yes, I have Hays book, which is very good in many areas, including his thoughts on homosexuality. Suffice it to say I do not find his views on war and peace to be as persuasive!

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • It was probably my comments linking apathy toward abortion to the charge of hypocrisy that Scott took exception to. I’m prepared to accept that different parts of the Body of Christ have different callings, but what you often find with the so-called “Bonhoeffer Four” types is that they are not just apathetic toward opposing abortion but are commonly found on the wrong side of the debate. If any of the four have any history of opposition to abortion then I apologise in advance.

    Concerning different callings, I do not accept total apathy towards abortion from any Christian regardless of where their primary calling might be. Abortion is such a serious issue it should concern the whole church, and if it did and we saw more opposition to it from those who claim to be Christian then I’m sure the issue could be turned around.

    Ewan McDonald.

  • Thanks Ewan

    And even if people have different callings, or specific ministries – although one can ask if there is in fact a divine calling to protest outside military bases – one should still recognise the validity of other callings, including those whom God has called to serve in the military. Just as John the Baptist, Jesus and the early disciples did not denounce those who were in the military (Matt 27:54 (=Mark 15:39; Luke 23:47); Luke 3:14; 7:1-10 (=Matt 8:5-13); Acts 10; Phil 1:13; 4:22), neither should we. We certainly should not be making uncharitable comments such as, ‘seeing soldiers with Bibles makes me sick’.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Ewan, you said:
    “but they are not free to be hypocrites”
    but I would gently suggest that they are in fact that free.

    However, they are then required to accept that their freedom comes with the responsibility to accept valid criticism, such as we see in this article, and respond to it.

    John Angelico

  • Thanks Ewan,

    I was largely responding to comments such as yours, and should have been clearer. Of course, I understand your frustration with Christians who feel more comfortable on the left side of politics (though I would argue that the terms “left” and “right” are far too simplistic to describe political leanings), but I still cannot criticize the attention they give to, say, issues of war and violence, rather than abortion. Are we not to be peacemakers (Matt. 5:9, 43-48)?

    That said Ewan, I heartily agree with you (and Bill) when it comes to the religious left’s stance on abortion. Whilst I cannot imagine what many a woman faces when confronted with the option to terminate her child, it is clear that those who are deeply opposed to war and state-sponsored violence are at the same time conspicuous in their silence when it comes to abortion.

    Bill – I do agree with you in regards to the charge of moral equivalency (unfortunately, I wasn’t born when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, so I do not know how anti-war activists responded at the time). There is obviously a wide, unbridgeable gulf separating those who target civilians as part of a concerted campaign of terror, and those who employ violence – with its inevitable consequences – to uphold justice, order, peace, etc. Nevertheless, is it not our responsibility as Christians to try and ultimately move beyond a reliance on war, which, despite lofty ideals and unimpeachable motives, can often have disastrous consequences?

    Also, I do agree that John the Baptist and Jesus did not seem too troubled by the fact that some who came to them were soldiers. However, I am still not sure whether those passages are to be taken as prescriptive or merely descriptive.

    Scott Buchanan

  • Thanks Scott

    Just one quick response. Christians who recognise that in a fallen world war may be the lesser of several evils do not have a “reliance on war”. In fact, a main principle of jus ad bellum (justice in going to war), of traditional just war theory, is that of last resort, that is, all peaceful means have been exhausted before going to war. So this has nothing to do with relying on war, but acknowledging that the principle of justice is equally important as that of peace, and sometimes to maintain the peace and preserve justice, one must go to war.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Brothers and Sister Donna,

    It saddens me to find that this issue is being debated in the way. Bill, I think you would find behind at least two of the Christians involved in this action a substantial contribution to complex thinking on these issues.

    I also couldn’t find a picture of the Bonhoeffer 4 holding that particular banner anywhere. I did however see an image of Ciaron O’Reilly and Jim Dowling holding the banner. I wonder if maybe you’ve got your wires crossed?

    Emma Palandri

  • And Lance, as an avid advocate of non-violence living in Perth who was also very involved in the last campaign to introduce the Swedish model, I’d be very keen to chat this over with you sometime.
    Emma Palandri

  • Bill, do you think that the wars which we are training for and engaged in now meet the Just War criteria?
    Emma Palandri

  • Thanks Emma

    I know nothing about the individuals involved, and simply relied on media reports, and the images they used. If the photos were a mismatch, then I offer my apologies. But I believe my point remains. I would suspect that the B4 would concur with the sentiments of these posters, and may even have used them themselves in the past. Either way, their symbolic protest actions would still in my mind be an example of pretentious clichés, and not genuine moral clarity.

    Yes I think just war principles can still hold today, and I would have thought one recent example would have been the war of liberation to free Kuwait from Iraqi aggression. But bear in mind that in a fallen world, there will be no perfect just war, just as there will be no perfect expression of pacifism.

    In a fallen world, there will always be tensions between biblical values, such as justice, peace, righteousness and holiness. In the same way, there will be no perfect expression of the church, or even of individual Christianity. Thus the job of seeking to see the will of God realised on earth as it is in heaven will always be partial, incomplete and less than perfect. But we must try nonetheless.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hey Bill. You might be interested in the discussion going on over at the neobaptist blog – – where Stan has very graciously and hospitably allowed me to respond to his earlier post on my actions. Grace and peace to you.
    Simon Moyle

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