Christians at War: Introduction

1915 illustration of the Battle of Agincourt

“I am afeard…” – Shakespeare puts these words in the mouth of Michael Williams, an English soldier awaiting the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Here a 1915 illustration of that battle, in which the army of Henry V killed as many 10,000 French soldiers, just one battle in one of the longest wars fought between Christians – Wikimedia

I am afeard there are few die well that die in battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument?

Henry V, IV, i

They occupy indeed a higher place before God who, abandoning all these secular employments, serve Him with the strictest chastity; but “every one,” as the apostle says, “hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that” [1 Cor 7:7]. Some, then, in praying for you, fight against your invisible enemies; you, in fighting for them, contend against the barbarians, their visible enemies.

Augustine of Hippo, letter to Boniface (AD 418)

We’ve been keeping this blog for over a month now, addressing relatively small aspects of a huge topic. So it’s probably worth reminding ourselves of the three overarching questions for Bethel at War:

  • How did people from Bethel participate in the war?
  • How did the war shape life at Bethel itself?
  • During each conflict, how did people at Bethel understand and respond to the sometimes competing demands of national solidarity and Christian commitment?

To this point, I’ve written a fair amount about the first two questions — and almost nothing at all about the last.

You could read my posts on the experience of Bethel alumni in the world wars, or how those conflicts affected Bethel itself, and have very little sense that I was writing about an institution that saw itself (as in the Junior College catalog published in the first year of WWII) as “a Christian school,” an institution of higher learning with “a Christian atmosphere.” To be sure, the shared vocation of the women featured in my last two posts hints at the centrality of missions to Bethel in the era of the world wars, but I’ve yet to show how the school’s administrators, faculty, students, or alumni grappled with the tensions seemingly inherent in followers of the Prince of Peace going to war.

Of course, Christians have offered many responses to this problem: from denying that the problem exists (and even claiming that God wills Christians to kill others for His good and holy purposes) to proclaiming that its only solution is total non-violence. It’s probably fair to say that the majority of Christians since the time of Augustine have joined that African church father in finding it at least occasionally justifiable, if always regrettable and likely sinful, to go to war during their temporary sojourn in a fallen world:

Would that one faith existed in all, for then there would be less weary struggling, and the devil with his angels would be more easily conquered; but since it is necessary in this life that the citizens of the kingdom of heaven should be subjected to temptations among erring and impious men, that they may be exercised, and “tried as gold in the furnace” [Wis 3:6], we ought not before the appointed time to desire to live with those alone who are holy and righteous, so that, by patience, we may deserve to receive this blessedness in its proper time.

Augustine to Boniface

As this series unfolds, I’ll explore at least three Bethel responses to the problem of Christian participation in warfare. But first, I’d very much welcome readers’ comments:

Do you see a tension inherent in Christians going to war? If so, do you think that a form of pacifism is the best option for followers of Christ? (Or perhaps something like the late Glen Stassen’s “just peacemaking“?) Or do you affirm the “Christian just war tradition” that stretches back to Anselm and Augustine? (Here’s a 2010 essay by Baptist ethicist David Gushee that I often suggest to students seeking an overview of these and other positions.)

Read the next post in this series>>

One comment

  1. As a former Marine turned Christian pacifist, yes, I see a tension. And so did many heroes of the faith preceeding WWI, like D.L Moody and C.H. Spurgeon. Mark Twain’s War Prayer reflects the spirit of the times preceeding WWI, and the fact that he would not allow it to be published until after his death tells us something more about the spirit of Chrisians at that time.

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