A Christian Reformed Perspective on Peace and War

Tasneem Jamal Defence & Human Security

Bruce Adema

Rev. Bruce Adema, is Director of Canadian Ministries, Christian Reformed Church in North America (CRCNA)

The Christian Reformed Church knows that our Lord calls all his people to be peacemakers. We are also very aware that the Lord has placed his people in societies with governments, and that we are called to respect and obey our government leaders in all things that do not conflict with God’s clear instruction to us.

Of course, that is where the debate begins. We stand in the “Just War” tradition, and men and women from the Christian Reformed Church have taken positions within the armed forces of our countries. Yet we are well aware of the complexities of the issues, and have wrestled with interpretation of various scriptural texts.

This wrestling led to the forming of a denominational study committee on the issue of peace and war. Published in 2006, it is available on the CRCNA website. Included in the report is biblical/theological reflection on the church as the bearer of shalom, analysis of the social environment, explanation of the just war tradition, and recommendations for the church in light of the discernment of scripture and society.

After the decisions and direction of Synod, the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue made issues around the conflict in Afghanistan a key part of its work. We have urged the government to follow through on its Peace, Justice and Reconciliation Action Plan for Afghanistan. Along with ecumenical partners, the call for peace continues to be sounded.

One of the authors of this report was Rev. Herman Kaiser, a retired military chaplain. What follows is from a paper he wrote for a conference of CRC and Mennonite Church Canada representatives in 2009. I am grateful that Rev. Kaiser allowed me to share his redacted comments with you.

What follows is from the paper by Rev. Kaiser.

One of the recommendations in the Report on Peace and War adopted by our Synod in 2006 states: “That Synod express appreciation for branches of the Christian church for work being done to make peace with justice a strong vocation and seek to work more closely with them, where possible, to enhance a collective impact and learn from one another.” I take that as permission and encouragement to enter conversation like the one we are having today.

You will notice, as we walk through some of our history on war and peace, that we have gained a deeper appreciation of the peace churches and what they can contribute to our efforts to be peace makers.

The Christian Reformed Church has addressed the issues of war and peace several times. Our Church has spoken in 1949, 1969, 1973, 1977, 1982, 1985, and in 2006.

In 1939, when the Christian Reformed Church synod first put forward a “Testimony regarding the Christian’s attitude toward war and peace,” Hitler had already swept across Poland. The United States, even while maintaining neutrality, edged closer to entering another European war. The political debate in the United States was set in the context of an isolationist political inclination, a fear of a worldwide conflagration in both Europe and Asia, and a widespread movement that condemned all wars as inherently prone to the horrors that attended the First World War.

The 1939 report resoundingly condemned “militarism as an attitude of mind which glorifies war as war” (Acts of Synod 1939, p. 241), while warning with equal vehemence against “the evils of present-day pacifism” (p. 241). The integrity of the church’s witness for justice was endangered, Synod argued, by the “insidious propaganda” (p. 243) of those who “condemn every war and, hence, refuse to bear arms under any conditions” (p. 242). This position is untenable the report insists: “he who denies the right and duty of the government to wage war on just occasions is not in harmony but in conflict with the Word of God—His conscience is seriously in error” (p. 247).

To be sure, adds the report, the duty to obey government is neither absolute nor unconditional: If faced with a choice, we must obey God rather than men. However, this leaves room for “only one kind of conscientious objector” (p. 247) to a government’s call to take up arms—that of a Christian who “is absolutely certain in light of the principles of the Word of God that his country is fighting for a wrong cause” (p. 249). However, “as a general rule, the orders of the government are to be obeyed” (p. 246), and “in a sinful and imperfect world, it may even be necessary to submit to an unjust law” (p. 246). Synod said that a Christian who cannot be certain that his government is waging war justly ought therefore to do as ordered. What are the conditions that define the justified use of military force? Surprisingly, the 1939 report had scarcely anything to offer in response to this question.

In closing, Synod urged all to pray for righteousness and peace in national and international affairs; to study the revealed Word for an understanding of the will of God for the guidance of the life of citizens and their government; to obey all lawfully constituted authorities for God’s sake; and, if a serious conflict of duty should occur, to obey God rather than men (Acts of Synod 1939, p. 249).

In 1969, two young men from Chicago asked the church for counsel concerning the Vietnam War and their desire to be selective conscientious objectors. When they did not get any consistent help from the local church, the men then appealed to Synod. Synod reaffirmed the decision of 1939 and supported the young men.

In 1973, Synod addressed the moral issues concerning the decisions to justify the Vietnam War, the use of force in the tactics of that war, and the fact that there were no provisions in U.S. law or policy that allowed for the selective conscientious objector and that the current policy “was quite contrary to the position of our church.” Under the Department of Defense conscientious objector rules, those of us in the Just War tradition and our members had no legal recourse. Since the entire country was discussing the plight of those who fled or were jailed, this Synod also made a plea for amnesty for those who fled to Canada, went to jail or in other ways tried to beat the draft. Synod did not judge the fleeing to another country as wrong.

In 1977, the Synod approved a report on the “Ethical Decisions about War.” This report had 15 guidelines and three introductory observations to assist the reader in using the guidelines. This report is the closest the CRCNA had come to an articulation of the Just War Tradition paradigm for justifying the use of military power. Because of uneasiness with the report of 1973, especially on the part of the Canadian members, this Synod recommended the following: “If a Christian cannot conscientiously engage in a given war or in alternate service, his refusal must be within the framework of law. He must expose himself to the due process and even the penalty of the state whose laws he has knowingly, publicly, and conscientiously broken. He should not ‘go underground’ or flee the country except under conditions of extraordinary oppression or intolerably brutal tyranny.”

In 1982, Synod approved a report called “Guidelines for Justifiable Warfare.” What is interesting about this report is that it was first presented in 1964 and sent by Synod to the churches for study. It was not brought back to Synod during the intervening years. This report also addressed the use of nuclear power in war. Synod communicated this report to the President of the United States, the Prime Minister of Canada, and the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

In 1984, Synod was asked to support tax resistance as a form of conscientious objection. In 1985, Synod adopted another set of guidelines, this one dealing with “Conscientious Objection and Tax Resistance.” The church acknowledged the need for Christians to obey the government and the right to object to policies and practices the Christian deems as unjust. The means and strategy of the Christian objector must be compatible with biblical teachings on government. To bring change, the Christian should exhaust honorable, legal, and discreet means. He should consider civil disobedience as a last resort. If his conscience leads him to the extremity of disobeying government, the Christian ought to submit to government’s authority by accepting the penalty for his disobedience. The Christian may ask for and expect sympathetic concern from fellow Christians, members of the church as body or organism. It is ordinarily inappropriate for the Christian conscientious objector to ask the church as institute to join him in his individual strategy. The instituted church cannot assume, as its own, individual methods of resistance; it has neither the competence nor the authority from the Lord to do so. The Christian may, however, expect the church to give him what it does have the authority and competence to give: prophetic proclamation of the Word, pastoral care, and diaconal support. The nature of the church’s “necessary support” for him is to help him endure his hardship, not to join him in the individual methods of objection he chooses.
In 2006, Synod approved another report with several recommendations. The statement I quoted at the beginning came from the Study Committee’s long discussion of the continued viability of the Just War Tradition given the many new developments in the current world political, national and international scene. The committee felt that the Tradition was still a good way to structure the ethical and moral debate concerning the justification to go to war and the conduct of the war. Synod approved sending two messages to the President of the United States and the Prime Minister of Canada: one concerning the ambiguity in the National Security Strategy of 2002 between preventive war and pre-emptive war (The Department of Defense now has a different definition for each word); and the need to change the DOD Directive on Conscientious Objection to include selective conscientious objection. The Department has not accepted this position, so draft legislation has been sent to several legislators urging them to introduce the Bill.

Summary of CRC’s Position on War and Peace

1. CRC members are exhorted to be peacemakers:
. . . we who claim his name must live peaceably ourselves, furnishing to the world conspicuous examples of peace-loving, harmonious living, and must also privately and publicly denounce war and strive to prevent it by prayer, by redressing the grievances of oppressed people, by prophetic calls to peace, by urging the faithful exercise of diplomacy, by entering the political arena ourselves, and by strong appeals to all in high places to resolve tensions by peaceful means. Christians must be reconcilers.
(Acts of Synod 1977, p. 558)

2. CRC maintains that a “just war” is possible and permissible, i.e., that a legitimately constituted government may and, in the case of aggression, must use appropriate force to achieve the ends of justice and freedom.

3. The CRC position is grounded in the view of the state and its bearing of the sword as found in Romans 13:4 and supported by the general analogy of scripture referenc[ing] the rightful use of force by duly constituted government in the pursuit of justice and freedom.

4. The CRC recognizes that even though there are occasions and reasons when war may be justified, it also recognizes that (“in the eyes of God”) there are no completely or purely just wars.

5. The CRC eschews both pacifism and militarism. Even though the 1977 report acknowledges that pacifism is attractive to many Christians, it judges that in the final analysis “pacifism is mistaken.” With respect to militarism, however, the report speaks even more strongly.

6. Selective conscientious objection is acceptable with respect to a specific war under very limited conditions.

7. The imperative “to obey one’s government” is a generalization and not a universalization (“obey them in all things that are not in conflict with God’s Word”–Belgic Confession, Article 36).

8. The principle of proportionality and discrimination leads the CRC to conclude that the widespread use of nuclear weapons in a war renders such a war as unjust.

Finally, because of the uniquely Christian love of peace and mission of reconciliation, Christians know that all national truculence, all inclination—surely all eagerness—to fight, all crusading spirit, every proud display of weaponry and glorying in military might, is thoroughly immoral and contrary both to the letter and spirit of everything our Lord teaches.

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