Essay: Militarism in Christian Context, Past and Present

Militarism in Christian Context Past and Present

EK Knappenberger, for Dr. D.F. Evans; October 2016

Posted to July 2017


“War is a racket, where the few profit and the many pay.”[1]

“War is a force that gives us meaning.”[2]

“War is a lie.”[3]

 “War is hell.”[4]


If war is hell, then why do Christians participate in it?  There is a disconnect at the heart of the Christian community as it relates to the hell of war.[5]  Not only is the violence of war categorically unchristian, as we will briefly demonstrate below, but beyond even that, the attitude of militarism which gives rise to war is part of the unholy trinity (militarism, materialism and racism) which threatens all human existence today.[6]  This paper will briefly sketch the problem of militarism as it relates to Christians in historical context, showing four examples of how it has been addressed through history, with an aim to persuade Christians to take a missional stance related to militarism in their local and international communities.

Militarism is a Christian problem

Militarism, strictly defined as an ideological focus on military matters, predates Christianity or even Judaism, indeed is one of the oldest parts of human culture.[7]  The early Christian movement was at least explicitly nonviolent, leaving a large corpus of writings and testimonies to that end.[8]  To the leaders of the early church, state violence was one of the most serious problems, and went hand in hand with imperial militarism – a reality reflected in the canon, perhaps most strongly by the imagery in the book of Revelation.  In Revelation, there are several metaphorical reformulations of militaristic attitudes, and the protagonist is a slain lamb who triumphs over armies without ever actually fighting.[9]  Of course, the strongest condemnation of militarism in the Christian tradition comes from Jesus himself in Matthew: “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.”[10]

While war itself, especially in the modern and atomic eras, has become increasingly detrimental to human life,[11] civilization, and the earth itself, the problem of militarism includes but extends well beyond war.[12]  Militarism is deeply connected to misogyny[13], psycho-spiritual dysfunction,[14] and moral decay.[15]  The effects of the military industrial complex linger across every sector of society in a complex network of exploitative hyper-industrialism and socio-political corruption.[16]  Militarism is alive and well, infecting youth even in supposedly neutral educational settings.[17]  Perhaps the worst problem of militarism is the way that it functions as ideological hegemony, i.e. a totalizing force that sustains a narrative of meaning that infects the human imagination.[18]  Anthropologically speaking, the roots of the problem of militarism derive from several sources: the mimetic nature of human desire as it became aware of the metaphysical aspects of violence;[19] a co-development with the emergence of ideology as a mode of being;[20] and as a consequence of sin in creation.[21]

Four responses to militarism

            Christians have taken many different approaches to the problem of militarism.  Here we will quickly explore four of the many responses to militarism.  First, the acceptance by Christian theologians of militarism in the tradition of Constantinian doctrine.  This of course is most-fully articulated by Augustinian Just War theory.  Second, the reactive approach taken by Christian pacifism.  Third, we will outline the barest skeleton of the history and philosophy of nonviolence.  Lastly, we will hastily explore the latest, surprising secular response to militarism on the radical left.  This is in no way a thorough account of any of these ideas, but will serve merely as sketches outlining the general forms of response to militarism.

  1. The development of Constantinianism in the 4th century had a profound and negative impact on Christian social ethics.[22] Whereas the early followers of Jesus were by self-definition called to life outside of national identity and power structures, often suffering brutal deaths at the hands of the empire for refusing to participate either symbolically or actively in its violence, this was to change after the advent of imperial theology.[23]  Augustine first articulated an ethical doctrine that could justify, in certain situations, the use of state or military violence.  These criteria are so strict, however, it is unclear if there has ever been a war that is ethically justifiable in this framework.[24]  The attempts of those, both Catholic and Protestant, who would appropriate a form of militarism into Christian doctrine have followed Augustine into practical failure – failure, that is, to keep Christians from engaging in immoral, militaristic violence.[25]  Just War theory, for instance, was (wrongly) used as a rationale for the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, inaugurating an ongoing bloodbath and destabilizing the entire region.[26]
  2. Christian pacifism has sought to provide an ethical alternative to Just War doctrine. Elements of pacifism were kept alive in various sub-traditions throughout the sixteen centuries since Constantine.[27]  The various traditions that have flourished over the last five hundred years include but are not limited to Quakerism, Anabaptism, Jehovah’s Witness, the Franciscans and parts of other protestant traditions, such as Methodism.[28]  Typically these traditions have held minority status within their historical milieux, and have had limited success in establishing the right to conscientious objection to military service, but have left the systems of militarism themselves mostly unchallenged and intact.[29]  Christian pacifism provided the basis for 20th century pacifist movements that were not necessarily overtly Christian, influencing figures such as Leo Tolstoy, Gandhi, A.J. Muste and Martin Luther King.[30]
  3. Another response to militarism has been secular, academic and utilitarian. Conceptually, the effects of non-violence can be measured against those of violence, and quantitative studies have demonstrated the efficacy of nonviolence in relation to military violence for achieving sociopolitical goals.[31]  Qualitative research has sought these same results since the early twentieth century.[32]  The active arm of this movement is typified by non-profit corporate and institutional peace activism, but maintains ties to liberal Christian community and practice.
  4. The last response to militarism which we will briefly explore, an idea that made its debut very recently, comes from the 21st century intellectual leftists Slavoj Zizek and Frederic Jameson and their students: that of “Dual Power” and the “Universal Army”.[33] From a Marxist perspective, there is only one social institution that is strong enough to achieve the perennial ends of peace, equality, universal welfare and healthcare, an end to war, and a transformation of militarism if not an end of it, and that is the military.[34] The terminology developed here is that of Marxism, but the goals are explicitly utopian in nature; indeed theirs is the first compelling utopian vision in half a century.[35]  The key engagement is this: that a universal, permanent, lifelong military service will profoundly transform the institutional military into a new, as yet unknown social institution.  Since this army will be truly universal, the inevitability of war and the superstructures of nationalist-militarism will be unnecessary altogether.  There will, therefore, be no militarism in the strictest sense, if only because this utopian vision is one of totalization; when expanded (by means of the academic critique of ideology) past its own limits from within its own ideological boundaries, the militarist ideology will dissipate into irrelevance.  This is an interesting, if unexplored methodology of dealing with militarism which will no doubt receive more interest in the coming century.


            When William Tecumseh Sherman uttered the words, “War is hell” he was not making a theological observation.  Nevertheless, Christians would do well to listen to them, and to the words of many other veterans who became historic pacifists: Gandhi, Tolstoy, Smedley Butler, Socrates, Saint Francis, Althusser, Kasemann, Wittgenstein, Proudhon, Proust, Zinn and many more.  The problem of militarism is profoundly tied to the evils of violence, racism and materialism; it is deep in the human heart, at work in human language and imagination.  Militarism as ideological force is objectively harmful to legitimate socio-political goals, as Chenoweth and others have shown.[36]

This paper has not been a theological argument against militarism, but has demonstrated the historical roots of militarism in foreshortened form, as well as some of the responses against the domination of militarism in human culture.  As agents of God’s kingdom on earth, it is the job of Christians to “unmask, name, engage and redeem the fallen powers” including war, violence and militarism.[37]  This can only start with an honest self-appraisal and a willingness to look closely at the ways the church benefits from and condones militarism.  It is the truest form of Christian calling and mission, and, if we believe the canon, an eschatological inevitability.  For

He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.[38]

May it be so.

[1] From the highest-decorated soldier in American history, the only person to be awarded two congressional medals of honor, S.D. Butler, War Is a Racket: The Antiwar Classic by America’s Most Decorated Soldier (Skyhorse Publishing Company, Incorporated, 2013).

[2] The title of the award-winning book C. Hedges, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (PublicAffairs, 2014).

[3] D. Swanson, War Is a Lie (Just World Books, 2016).

[4] Attributed to William Tecumseh Sherman during his march across the south.

[5] For fundamentals of this attitude, R.H. Bainton, Christian Attitudes toward War and Peace: A Historical Survey and Critical Re-Evaluation (Abingdon Press, 1960).  See also J.H. Yoder, When War Is Unjust, Second Edition: Being Honest in Just-War Thinking (Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2001).

[6] From Dr. King’s Vietnam speech, “A Time to Break Silence,” 4 April, 1967 as found in M.L. King, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr (HarperCollins, 1990). pp 231-244.  Also, for more on categorical biblical pacifism see the writings of Wink, especially W. Wink, The Powers: Engaging the Powers (Fortress, 1992).; and J.H. Yoder, T.J. Koontz, and A. Alexis-Baker, Christian Attitudes to War, Peace, and Revolution (Baker Publishing Group, 2009).

[7] Bainton, Christian Attitudes toward War and Peace: A Historical Survey and Critical Re-Evaluation. pp 13-32.

[8] Ibid. Chs 5, 6; pp 66-100. See also Wink’s discussion of the domination system in Wink, The Powers: Engaging the Powers., Introduction, Part I; Grant M. Stoltzfus, The Early Christian Attitude to War: Quotations of the Church Fathers, Mimeographed handout (Harrisonburg, Virginia: 1962).

[9] This is a field of ongoing interpretation.  For a few good starting places, see V. Eller, War and Peace: From Genesis to Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2003).; A.Y. Collins, Crisis and Catharsis: The Power of the Apocalypse (Westminster Press, 1984). pp. 84-106; T. Grimsrud, Triumph of the Lamb: A Self-Study Guide to the Book of Revelation (Herald Press, 1987).

[10] Matthew 26:52.  All scriptural references from NRSV, M.D. Coogan et al., The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books: New Revised Standard Version (Oxford University Press, 2007).

[11] For one terrifying example, see H. Kahn and E. Jones, On Thermonuclear War (Transaction Publishers, 2011).

[12] See the secular writings of David Swanson for one example, e.g. Swanson, War Is a Lie..  Also the work of Paul Chappell, e.g. P.K. Chappell and D. Grossman, Will War Ever End?: A Soldier’s Vision of Peace for the 21st Century (Easton Studio Press, LLC, 2011).

[13] See e.g. Y.N. Steidel, Women and War (Outskirts Press, Incorporated, 2013).

[14] E. Tick, War and the Soul: Healing Our Nation’s Veterans from Post-Tramatic Stress Disorder (Quest Books, 2005).

[15] Hedges, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.

[16] D. Swanson, The Military Industrial Complex at 50 (Archieboy Holdings, LLC., 2013).

[17] Evan K. Knappenberger, Rockingham Peace Education: Analysis, Response, Proposal (Harrisonburg, Virginia: Eastern Mennonite University, 2013).

[18] To Chris Hedges, militarism and human violence are intimately connected as an ideological hegemony.  To Wink, militarism and violence are “fallen powers” which must be redeemed in a Christological movement.  Hedges, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning; Wink, The Powers: Engaging the Powers.

[19] This is the insight of Rene Girard, as interpreted by James Alison;  J. Alison, The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin through Easter Eyes (Crossroad Publishing Company, 1998). J. Alison, Living in the End Times: The Last Things Re-Imagined (SPCK, 1997). and J. Alison, Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice (Doers Publ., 2013).

[20] For this, see the work of Deleuze and Guattari, “Nomadology: The War Machine” in their seminal work G. Deleuze and F. Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

[21] There are many who have followed this view.  Perhaps the strongest recent argument in this vein is from Wink, The Powers: Engaging the Powers. Sections 1,2.

[22] The authority on this issue is Yoder.  See for example J.H. Yoder, The Politics of Jesus (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994). pp 6, 167, 210, 240 and elsewhere.

[23] For this and other relevant work, see J.H. Yoder, The Original Revolution: Essays on Christian Pacifism (Herald Press, 1977). Pp 76-90.

[24] Grimsrud discussed this at length in his classes, “History and Philosophy of Nonviolence” and “Biblical Theology of Peace & Justice”; he uses the case of the Second World War as a test scenario for retroactive application of Augustinian criteria, and determines that it was not in fact morally justified.  T. Grimsrud, The Good War That Wasn’t–and Why It Matters: World War Ii’s Moral Legacy (Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2014).  Also, Yoder, When War Is Unjust, Second Edition: Being Honest in Just-War Thinking.

[25] Bainton, Christian Attitudes toward War and Peace: A Historical Survey and Critical Re-Evaluation.  Pp. 85 ff.

[26] C. Reed, Just War? (Church Pub., 2005).  T.E. Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005 (Penguin Publishing Group, 2006).

[27] This is a topic discussed at length by Mennonite historians of the 19th and 20th Centuries.  On the idea of “Non-resistance” (not to be equated with pacifism, per se) see J. Horsch, The Principle of Nonresistance as Held by the Mennonite Church: A Historical Survey (Mennonite Publishing House, 1927); J. Horsch, The Origin and Principles of the Anabaptists (Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1911); W.R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism (Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996).

[28] Bainton, Christian Attitudes toward War and Peace: A Historical Survey and Critical Re-Evaluation. pp 101-172.

[29] Ibid. pp. 211-267.

[30] Ira Chernus, American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea (Orbis Books, 2004); P. Ackerman and J. DuVall, A Force More Powerful: A Century of Non-Violent Conflict (St. Martin’s Press, 2000); M.K. Gandhi and M. Desai, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Floating Press, 2009).

[31] The foremost researcher in the still-new field of nonviolence studies is Erika Chenoweth, at the University of Denver.  Her studies have been groundbreaking.  Her quantitative and qualitative analyses are very thorough in demonstrating the all-around utility of nonviolent conflict.  E. Chenoweth and M.J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia University Press, 2011).

[32] Ackerman and DuVall, A Force More Powerful: A Century of Non-Violent Conflict; P.K. Chappell, Peaceful Revolution: How We Can Create the Future Needed for Humanity’s Survival (Easton Studio Press, LLC, 2013); P.K. Chappell, The Art of Waging Peace: A Strategic Approach to Improving Our Lives and the World (Easton Studio Press, LLC, 2013); P.K. Chappell and G. de Becker, The End of War: How Waging Peace Can Save Humanity, Our Planet and Our Future (Easton Studio Press, 2013).

[33] First published in 2016, by post-Marxist philosophers Frederic Jameson and Slavoj Zizek, the flagship book has received criticism from some pacifists.  F. Jameson and S. Zizek, An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army (Verso Books, 2016). See David Swanson’s review, D. Swanson, “Frederic Jameson’s War Machine,” CounterPunch Magazine, 2016.

[34] See Jameson’s introductory essay in Jameson and Zizek, An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army.

[35] See Zizek’s preface in ibid.

[36] See also E. Chenoweth et al., Rethinking Violence: States and Non-State Actors in Conflict (MIT Press, 2010); E. Chenoweth, The Inadvertent Effects of Democracy on Terrorist Group Proliferation (University of Colorado at Boulder, 2007).

[37] The language of Wink, W. Wink, Unmasking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence (Fortress Press); W. Wink, Naming the Powers: The Language of Power in the New Testament (Fortress Press); Wink, The Powers: Engaging the Powers.

[38] Isa. 2:4.


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