War and peace not abstract or distant issues, ethicist insists

Myles Wertnz, pictured delivering the Currie-Strickland Distinguished Lectures in Christian Ethics at Howard Payne University, has been named founding director of the Baptist Studies Center at Abilene Christian University's Graduate School of Theology. (File Photo)

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BROWNWOOD—When it comes to matters of war and peace, no American Christian is “off the hook,” a Baptist ethicist told an audience at Howard Payne University.

And any attempt to distance the church from that responsibility is both bad theology and poor pastoral ministry to returning combat veterans, said Myles Werntz, who holds the T.B. Maston Chair of Christian Ethics at Hardin-Simmons University’s Logsdon Seminary.

“To tell one who has engaged in violence professionally that they have acted in a realm removed from us is to condemn them to never being able to come home. Treating war as a special case sounds like we are being deferential, but it is ultimately consigning the soldier to a place apart from the rest of us,” said Werntz, associate professor of Christian ethics and practical theology at Logsdon.

Wertnz delivered the 13th annual Currie Strickland Distinguished Lectures in Christian Ethics at Howard Payne University, Feb. 6-7, speaking on “War and the Christian Life.”

Responsible for national actions

“A church is always a church of somewhere,” Werntz said. “It does not exist in thin air or in eternity, but in and through the world in which God brings it into being.”

So, the church in the United States should recognize Americans are responsible for the actions of their government and are involved in military conflict even if they never serve in the armed forces, he asserted.

“In a representative democracy, what is done abroad, even without our awareness, is that which we enable, both through our representativeness, our taxes, our support and our continued presence as Americans,” he said.

“America has been involved in official military conflict internationally for 93 percent of the years in its existence, and so simply as a matter of history, to be an American is to be those whose way of life is intertwined with America’s wars.”

Sibling conflict, not something ‘out there’

For Christians, questions surrounding violence cannot be viewed abstractly, he insisted. Beginning with Cain and Abel, the Bible emphasizes “the ones we fight are disavowed siblings” rather than strangers, Werntz asserted.

“Theologically, this should give us the most pause when we reach for war, for war encourages us to consider that there is an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’ when by Scripture’s own lights, the ones we kill are our brothers,” he said.

Military conflict is not something that happens “out there,” apart from the everyday lives of Christian civilians who are not engaged in combat, he insisted.

“War is not something the church gets to disavow, because it is always caught up with the killing which its nation performs against its own siblings,” Werntz said.

‘It never ends’

Wars fought overseas and domestic forms of violence differ by degree rather than by kind, he added.

“The violence which extends outward is always learned first at home, in our habits, in the systems which we swim in uncritically and unexamined, in the forms of violence which we willingly accept as necessary for our way of life to continue,” Werntz said.

War promises more than it can deliver, demanding sacrifice that gives nothing that is not in danger of being lost in the future, he asserted.

“The sacrifice of the soldier is only as good as the next soldier behind them, also willing to die in this perpetual search for a lasting peace. It never ends,” he said. “There is always another fight to win, another deeper sacrifice to make, of time, life, principles—in the hopes that if we fight harder and offer more of ourselves in the service of winning, it will be worth it. But it never ends.”

Peacemaking and the kingdom of God

For Christians, peacemaking means engaging the right way in a violent world, not retreating from it, he asserted.

“The same binding of a culture together in responsibility and guilt provides avenues for us to infiltrate a culture with peace,” Werntz said.

Christian peacemaking involves living as a citizen of the kingdom of God and bearing witness to the kingdom of God in the present world, he asserted.

“It is as cosmic as beating swords into plowshares and as small as waiting to worship until you have made peace with your enemy,” Werntz said. “Biblical peacemaking is not only about refraining from hitting back against your enemy, but creating a new world in which from top to bottom—from the way we eat to the way we worship to the way we argue with other nations—we are embodying this peace which is Jesus.”

The practice of Christian peacemaking has taken different forms at different times, and faithfulness to the peace of Christ can be costly, he warned.

“If you are a Christian, part of your call to Christ is to faithfulness to Jesus, and that may not end well for you,” he said. “Sometimes, we call those suckers, and sometimes we celebrate them as martyrs and saints.”

What does Christian peacemaking look like?

Werntz outlined four dimensions of biblical peacemaking:

  • The Christoform dimension. Biblical peacemaking looks like Jesus. So, biblical peacemaking pays attention “both to the way of Jesus, as well as to the person of Jesus,” he said. It involves “healing wounds which sin creates in us over and over again,” and it seeks to restore what is broken.
  • The material dimension. “To be peacemakers is to consider that, scripturally, peace is not something which exists beyond the world, but something which has come into the world in the person of Jesus, in a way which troubles all of that world which would rather have quiet than peace, a peace which is deeply material,” he said. That involves relational work and economic justice, he added. “If you want peace, it means that the fundamental architecture of our moral imagination as to what is mine and what I should do to maintain my way of life must change,” he insisted. “For Scripture, the way to peace materially means making sure everyone has what they need to live, and for the Christian, being willing to give it away and trust God.”
  • The liturgical dimension. “Worship is not simply a thing we do to feel a certain way, but it is quite literally how we become the peace of God in the world. It is how we are shaped and trained,” he said.
  • The habitual dimension. Biblical peacemaking is not responding reactively to violence, but proactively living out the kingdom of God as people who embody the kind of world Christ describes in the Sermon on the Mount.

“The vision of peacemaking which Scripture lays out for us is not a guarantee of any kind that what we do will not lead to further violence, or that by our actions, another violence will not crop up. This is the world racked by sin, and as Christians, we are called to peace not as the world gives, not one which is bound up with who can fight best or first, but to be the firstfruits of God’s own peace,” Werntz concluded.

“And so, let us join together and mirror for the world the true peace which is God, by going forth into the world in the image of Christ, attending to the practices which make for peace, and inviting the world into the peace of the kingdom of God which is already in the world and which the world has not overcome.”

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