The second world war and Christian conscience:
War has always been with us, and the Christian needs to think long and hard about what the biblical response is to be. Throughout church history the majority position has been that of just war theory (that some wars are justifiable – mainly to stop aggression, protect the innocent, and maintain justice), with pacifism (that war is always wrong and never should be engaged in) a minority view.
Centuries of Christian thinking on issues of war and peace have not led to unanimity, and major differences continue. For what it is worth, I side with just war thought. See this piece for example: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/03/26/just-war-theory/
This is my 122nd article on the broad issue of war and peace, and here I want to narrow things down to just one war: WWII. Obviously during the 1930s many Christians were thinking carefully about whether war was justified as they witnessed the rise of Hitler and the Nazis.
Important thinkers such as C. S. Lewis and Reinhold Niebuhr both wrote important essays back then as to why pacifism was not a viable option. They both spoke to this in 1940 for example, with Lewis giving a talk on “Why I am Not a Pacifist” and Niebuhr writing “Why the Christian Church Is Not Pacifist.” I discuss both here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2015/01/30/auschwitz-war-and-justice/
But there were church leaders who still insisted that it was wrong to go to war to stop Hitler. Again, they would have been in the minority, but they had an influential voice in the 30s and 40s. One book that is well worth being aware of in this regard is edited by Joseph Loconte: The End of Illusions: Religious Leaders Confront Hitler’s Gathering Storm (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004).
In it we have seven representative pacifists making their case, and seven just war theorists (or at least those who felt it was morally justifiable to do whatever needed to be done to resist the Nazis, end Hitler’s quest for world domination, and stop the Holocaust).
Most of the writers featured in the book have two or three pieces included. The article by Niebuhr that I mentioned is found here as well. In this piece I want to quote from another key figure who spoke strongly and movingly of the need to oppose Hitler.
I refer to the famous Swiss theologian and professor Karl Barth (1886-1968). He had lived in Germany in the 20s and 30s and wrote the 1934 Barmen Declaration, and returned to Switzerland in 1935. Three short letters of his appear in this book and are worth quoting from.
The first letter was penned to French Protestants in December 1939, shortly after France and Britain declared war on Germany. He writes: “Our generation would be answerable before God and before humanity if the attempt were not made to put an end to the menace of Hitler. In the end war remained the only means of achieving this purpose.” He continues:
The Church of Jesus Christ cannot and will not wage war. . . . But precisely because the Church knows about justification which we men cannot attain by any means for ourselves, she cannot remain indifferent. She cannot remain “neutral” in things great or small where justice is at stake, where the attempt is being made to establish a poor feeble human justice against over-whelming, flagrant injustice. Where this is at stake, there the Church cannot withhold her witness. It is the command of God that justice be done on earth: it is precisely for this purpose that God has instituted the State and given to it the sword; and, despite all the shortcomings of which it may otherwise be guilty, the State which endeavours to defend the right proves itself precisely by these endeavours to be a Just State, and may claim the obedience of everyone. It would be regrettable if the Christian Churches, which in previous wars have so often and so thoughtlessly spoken the language of nationalism and of militarism, should just in this war equally thoughtlessly decide to adopt the silence of neutrality and pacifism. The Churches ought today to pray in all penitence and sobriety for a just peace, and in the same penitence and sobriety to bear witness to all the world that it is necessary and worth while to fight and to suffer for this just peace.
The second letter, also to French Protestants, was written in October 1940 just after the country had fallen to the Germans. In it he discusses – among other things – the shortcomings of German Christianity in the 1930s which retreated “from responsibility in ecclesiastical and political spheres to the inner sphere of a religious attitude which, in order to maintain itself, no longer concerned itself with, or at least was not willing to fight and suffer for, the right form of the Church, let alone that of the State.”
The last letter, written to Great Britain in April 1941, looks at the deficiencies of pacifism, at least in regard to stopping Hitler:
We do not exclude the possibility that the well-known arguments of Christian pacifism, which twenty-five years ago we either made our own or which at any rate deeply disturbed us, may later, in a different situation and in a different form, once again bring us under their power. But on the other hand we cannot deny that at present those arguments, in the form which we know them, have not this power. We long from the bottom of our hearts for conditions which will allow us men to exist and to live for one another, without being forced to exist and to live in conflict with one another, as we must when engaged in a dreadful war. Therefore we deeply deplore that war must be waged today. But we have no reason to say that it ought not to be waged; no reason to hinder those who are responsible for its conduct; no reason to avoid co-operating in its conduct. Rather we have every reason to acknowledge that this war must be waged, and indeed waged with determination and vigour; we have every reason to devote ourselves wholly to it. We hope that this war will end soon; but it must end in such a way that we shall achieve its object—its limited but essential object. We do not want a compromise, but a decision of the question about which this war is being waged.
He goes on to say we would not be Christians if we
did not take into account the possibility that it may be God’s will to punish us and the whole world, for having done so little to defend the Right, by a Nazi victory and the success of Hitler’s evil enterprise. But neither should we be Christians if we were not convinced, just because we admit this possibility, that we must not on any account become Hitler’s accomplices by assisting, either actively or passively, in the achievement of what he desires and purposes.
Appealing to Romans 13;1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17, Barth reminds us that the task of the State is “to discriminate between Right and Wrong in the lives of all men and to set certain bounds for their conduct. The State must keep constant watch on these bounds, and constantly defend them…” He goes on:
The State was instituted by God to do this, and, as it does this, it is the “Minister of God” in its own sphere and in its own way, just as much as the Church itself. The State bears the sword in order to fulfill this very function. This fact is a solemn judgment on us, but it is God’s changeless decree. Where the life of men will not be governed by the preaching of the Gospel nor by prayer, nor by Baptism or the Lord’s Supper—in other words, where the bounds of the Church stop—there begins the realm within whose bounds God’s fatherly care, which does not fail even there, must be maintained and imposed, if necessary, by the threat of the sword, and, in the last resort, by its use.
He concludes his letter with these words:
The cause which is at stake in this war is our own cause, and we Christians first and foremost must make our own the anxieties, the hardships and the hopes this war demands of all men. The Christians who do not realize that they must take part unreservedly in this war must have slept over their Bibles as well as over their newspapers.
Not all wars of course are just, and what Barth said here applied to one particular war. But his sentiments are of value as the Christian considers war and peace in general. And the aims of a just war, as I mentioned – to stop aggression, protect the innocent, and maintain justice – are aims all Christians should in principle support, even if they may well differ on the justice and morality of particular wars.