In his new book, Christians and War: A Brief History of the Church’s Teachings and Practices, the late Canadian Mennonite theologian, A. James Reimer, has clearly communicated at least one timely truth: Christians have always talked about war.
Reimer opens with the question posed by Martin Luther: “Can the Christian be a soldier?” (vii). He seeks to offer an interpretive narrative of how the church has dealt with this question throughout the ages. His purpose is “to present in summary, popular fashion a synthesis of materials chronicling the development of the church’s arguments, teachings, and practices concerning Christian participation in violence, war, and peacemaking from the biblical period to the present” (viii). A lofty task, and yet somehow Reimer manages to squeeze much material from two millennia of Christian history into 192 short pages, as well as offer constructive reflection on what the Christian response to war should be today.
Reimer proposes two overarching theses, one historical and one constructive. He proceeds in a chronological manner, highlighting various dispositions toward Christian participation in war (pacifism, justifiable war, just war, holy war, just policing, etc.), making the point that “the Christian church’s teachings and practices cannot be isolated from a much broader issue: that of the church’s attitude to the wider world” (5, 49). In so doing, Reimer helpfully recognizes that Christian ethics is not merely about moral absolutes and rules, but more basically about theology, and, following John Howard Yoder, especially ecclesiology (viii).
The constructive thesis Reimer proffers is found in the final chapters, where he promises to give a “theological-ethical defense and justification for ‘policing’ as an alternative to war,” which he thinks Christians should participate in (158). Reimer is critical of the “two standards” vision prevalent in his own Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition, which suggests that the ethical norms that follow from Christ’s teachings only apply to those within the church (i.e. nonresistance, enemy-love), while the “sub-Christian” sphere of society ought to be ruled by proper wielding of force (i.e. war, policing, punishment). Reimer thinks this “sectarian perfectionism” too rigidly fixes the boundary between the Kingdom of God and the broader society, which is really “porous and fluid.” Indeed, “It is not that one kingdom is sinful and the other pure. Both participate in fallenness and sinfulness and wait for the ultimate reconciliation of all things” (174). As such, the Christian constantly oscillates between the love demanded by Christ and the justice required to maintain culture. For Reimer, this means that the decision to participate in just policing – sharply distinguished from “war” in that it uses force only because of a responsibility to protect the vulnerable (R2P) – must be “left up to the individual conscience in conversation with the church community” (175). Reimer views this inherent moral ambiguity as a reflection of the life of the Trinity, wherein the Father, who is so transcendent that he is above even our notions of evil and good, gives and takes life, while the Son manifests the nonviolent love of God and the Spirit empowers such love (171-3).
Although the nature of Reimer’s project requires simplicity, a few concerns need to be raised, both historical and constructive. First, in connection with the New Testament (chapter 3), Reimer identifies relevant texts “without entering too deeply into exegetical and hermeneutical scholarship regarding various passages” (35). Yet, he still predisposes the reader by labeling some texts “Holy War Texts” and some “Just War Texts,” which is highly contentious. For example, Romans 13:1-7 is upheld as the great “Just War Text,” yet Reimer puzzles over why Romans 12 seems to be so completely at odds with it (42). But if one were to trace the imperatives in Romans 12 and 13, then it would become clear that Paul is saying nothing inconsistent at all to his audience, to Christians. Chapter 12 tells them not to retaliate (vv.17-21); in chapter 13 they are told to “be subject to” the government – something quite different than “participate in” the government (vv.1, 6). While Reimer seeks to avoid interpretive issues, the texts themselves demand such discussion. Ultimately he extracts a polarization of principles that perplex in the modern context: “how exactly is Jesus’ teaching about ‘loving the enemy’ and ‘turning the other cheek’ to be interpreted and applied to complex contemporary societies in which violence is a fact of life?” (45, emphasis mine). The bulk of the chapter is really about this question.
Moreover, Reimer overstates the presence of Christians in the Roman military in the first three centuries when he claims that “a strong case can be made against a strict pacifist reading of the early sources” (56). Rather than offer a reading of these sources, he gives circumstantial evidence: the so-called “Thundering Legion” under Marcus Aurelius near the end of the second century, and the fact that Tertullian assumes some Christians are in the army (56-7). He fails to mention circumstantial evidence to the contrary, especially Celsus’s charge (c.177-180 CE) that Christians refuse to serve in the army as well as Origen’s assumption that this is basically true (c.248 CE; Contra Celsum 3.5, 5.33, 8.73-5). He also does not emphasize that in the first three centuries no Christian writings support military participation. Such evidence suggests, contrary to Reimer’s presentation, that Christian participation in the army was the minority position of early Christians.
Much could be said of Reimer’s constructive approach. It is unclear how Reimer can claim that Christians are called to follow Jesus the Son in this life (54, 172), and that “No taking of human life can be justified in the name of Christ” (174), while still urging that Christians should participate in policing institutions where “the threat of lethal force may occasionally be necessary” (170). He justifies this ethical jump by leaving unclear what his first thesis claimed is the heart of the matter: the relation of the church to society. What is the church for Reimer? What is the Kingdom? The reader is left with Niebuhrian ambiguity. Further, his discussion of the ambivalent and dramatic life of the Trinity is not clearly relevant. To say that because the Father mysteriously takes life, “God, therefore, is not a pacifist in the strict sense” (174) is beside the point, since for Christians God is a pacifist when God is a human, Jesus, who according to Reimer “embodies the standard for all Christian ethics” (34).
A. James Reimer has undertaken a difficult task: presenting a very complicated and variegated subject with remarkable brevity. Those interested in using this work as a textbook may find Reimer’s historical survey useful, but they might find his constructive proposal wanting; for the student will not ultimately get a cogent answer to Luther’s original question.