The second Sunday of Advent is traditionally a time where we reflect on the coming Christ as the Prince of Peace, as the founder of a kingdom in which the lion will lay down with the lamb (and not eat him). This was reflected in this week’s (alternative) Gospel lection, in which the Benedictus promises us that the One to come will “guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Lk. 1:79). But what does that mean? What does a life bent towards the peace of Christ look like as the world waits for the kingdom to be fulfilled?
Christians have traditionally argued over this. Some, like Tertullian and later the Anabaptists and their descendants, advocated a nonviolent witness as the only option for Christians everywhere and at every time. More recently, inspired by Ghandi and later King, Christians have taken up the nonviolent banner as a means of achieving peace. (Same means, but different ends. The former are concerned primarily with fidelity and witness, while the latter practice nonviolence for larger purposes, usually the overturning of a particular injustice).
Since Ambrose and Augustine, the mainstream position has been some variant of the ‘just war’ position. This holds that war may be right/necessary/just/justifiable under certain conditions. This was the position held by such luminaries as Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and Barth. But the consensus, particularly among evangelical Christians, seems to be shifting.
A generation of young people raised by parents who lived through Vietnam, themselves disillusioned with campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and without the historical acumen to place these in any kind of perspective, are being drawn to the pacifist position with alarming regularity. This has a lot to do with authors such as Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder, who have given the Christian pacifist stance renewed legitimacy and intellectual firepower over the last decades.
Obviously these issues are too big to handle here, but I’d like to point out a problem that no pacifist has offered a legitimate solution to: the police function of the state. In my experience, even the most strident pacifists will say that the state still has a legitimate police function, that criminals must be brought to justice and restrained from doing further harm. Presumably, this means Christians can participate in these functions without fear of apostasy.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” indeed. But if the police function is viable, how is it nonviolent? Violence is essentially force, and police can and must force wrongdoers, restraining their evil and sometimes stopping them fatally. As good as things like stun guns and pepper spray are (and they are not non-violent, just non-bloody), it is likely like cops will be carrying guns and nightsticks for the foreseeable future. How, then, can one support the police function and still claim nonviolence?
Furthermore, if these peacemakers are legitimate and blessed, then why not soldiers? The difference is one of scale and direction of force. Bad guys externally need to be restrained as much as bad guys internally.
This is why, last Sunday, in prayer time I remembered the soldiers of our congregation and around the world, and asked God’s blessing on them as peacemakers. Peace is not a simple achievement, not something we gain by acting peacefully: as Donald Kagan points out in his On the Origins of War and Preservation of Peace, peace must be fought for and actively maintained. That is why the service of peacemakers is blessed. Their work is hard, bloody, and until Christ comes in final victory, it will be violent. It will be a wonderful day when their service is not needed, but that day is not today. Come, Lord Jesus – but until that day, raise up men and women of courage and justice who will work for the gift of peace – fleeting and incomplete as it will be – here and abroad.
P.S. Theological brownie points for anyone who can tell me why I posted the picture above.