Does War Lead To Peace?

Written by James McMahon : November 19, 2007

As I noted in a comment on another post, I live a couple of miles from an Air force base, so it is safe to assume that I live in a military town. The majority of the people in the community are either retired military, active military, or civilians who work at the base. So it did not surprise me when, several days ago, I was driving around town and pulled up behind a truck with patriotic bumper stickers on it. However, on the back glass of the truck’s cab was a sticker that I had never seen before. It was an image of a B-52 bomber inside a circle, which from a distance looked like a peace sign, and around the ‘peace’ sign were the words ‘Peace the Old-fashioned Way’ (now for trademark and copyright reasons I cannot post an image of this ’sign’ but if you want to see what I am talking about click here ). When I saw this I began to think of the implications of such a statement. Can war really lead to peace?

As far as I know, the first Christian theologian to ever make such an assertion was Augustine (354-430). In a letter to a Roman governor in Africa, Augustine wrote:

“Peace should be the object of your desire; war should be waged only as a necessity, and waged only that God may by it deliver men from the necessity and preserve them in peace. For peace is not sought in order to [be] the kindling of war, but war is waged in order that peace may be obtained. Therefore, even in waging war, cherish the spirit of a peacemaker” (Augustine, To Boniface (Letter CLXXXIX), in The Confessions of St. Augustine, with a Sketch of His Life and Work, 794).

In my opinion, it was upon this premise that the whole tradition of Christian just-war thinking was developed. This type of thinking still, some 16 centuries later, permeates the political discourse of the modern day figure heads of the American empire. I can vaguely remember Ronald Reagan’s presidency (mainly the second term), but I listened to the rhetoric of George Bush I, William Clinton, and George Bush II and remember the words similar to Augustine’s rolling off their lips. The words ‘we engage in this military action so that our children will know a world at peace’ were often used to justify the use of military force, be it Gulf War I, Kosovo, Afghanistan, or Iraq.

As an amateur student of history, I can look back at a history of human warfare dating back long before Augustine first penned those words and see it as one in which wars were fought, won or lost, and a period of cessation of violence ensued. It was during these times of no active warfare that people would say there was peace. However, those periods were really just a time when tribes, states, or nations rearmed for the next war.

I guess the point I am trying to make is that war does not bring peace (at least not a true lasting peace). This notion of war leading to peace is perhaps one of the greatest deceptions ever perpetrated against the church, a deception that continues to this day. In my opinion, this philosophy is an example of the people of God thinking that they can do something through human means that only God can do. When one reads the earliest Christian writings, one sees the title Prince of Peace ascribed to Jesus. Jesus is the only true bringer of peace, and though He expects His people to be instruments of peace in the world, i.e. peacemakers, in the end the world will never truly know peace until the Lord brings it fully into this world. It is time for the church to wake up and see that advocating the use of instruments of death, violence, and bloodshed to bring peace to the world has caused us to reject the teachings of Jesus as contained in the Sermon on the Mount.

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15 Responses to “Does War Lead To Peace?”

  1. daniel.t on November 19th, 2007 6:48 pm


    Thanks. While war may bring some feeling of security (that slimy addiction we’ve gotten ourselves into the past few years), I can’t see any way that war can be a part of God’s vision of Shalom for the world.
    I think that the issue of “security” may be just as much of a threat as “just war theory” has been. While I am not certain that the USAmerican version of freedom is the best, I have been shocked how quickly this generation, post 9-11 has quickly traded that value for freedom. At the same time, it seems like this attitude pervades the climate of the church. We want so badly to cling to something concrete that we can hide behind rather than finding something beautiful, dynamic, and complex that we can live into.
    Shalom; Peace, is not easy, it is not simple, it is not ever fully realized, and therefore it is dangerous. What more could we ever dream of?

    Grace and Peace,

  2. Stephen on November 19th, 2007 9:45 pm

    Thanks for this.
    I am reminded of one of the essays in Yoder’s “What Would You Do?” I can’t find my copy right now. But it is a dialouge between two friends. One friend does not see pacifism as “working”. The second friend replies with an illustration. He says that all of humanity is drowning in a pool. The only solution that they can see to stop drowning is to fight and push each other under the water so they can survive. Meanwhile, some people try to build a dock from where they are standing in the water. The other ridicule their attempt, saying that could never work. and it might not. But obviously drowning each other to survive yourself is not helping the overall situation.

    okay, I hope that made sense. I wish I could find my copy of that book.

    basically killing for peace is like raping for virginity.

  3. James on November 19th, 2007 11:46 pm

    Thanks to both of you for your thoughts. I think you both make valid observations.

    I always appreciate the argument against pacifism, i.e. that it won’t work at the national level because a nation that is pacifist will cease to exist the day after it rejects violence as an option. As someone heavily influenced by the Anabaptist tradition I respond by saying I am not talking to a nation in the political/economic sense, I am talking to the Church, its just that most people cannot make a distinction between the Church and the State because to them the two are so intertwined that they are almost viewed as one.

    To that end, I enjoyed a sermon series by Rob Bell titled “Calling all Peacemakers”. One thing I took out of that series was that if we can convince the Church to adopt the peacemaking mandate of Jesus and reject violence, then the armies of a large percentage of the nations of the world would shrink considerably. Another point that Bell made was that rather than Christians being soldiers wouldn’t it be great if when nations went to war, the international community would call in the Christians because they were the true peacemaking community capable of bringing an end to violence. Wouldn’t that be something?

  4. Jason Barr on November 20th, 2007 1:11 am

    I kid you not, I once had a conversation at Cornerstone festival (which in my experience is generally pretty friendly to more radical ideas about Christianity in general) where a guy asked me how I could be a Christian and believe in peace. I was so stunned I blogged about it.

  5. Michael Cline on November 20th, 2007 7:58 am

    I always wonder what Augustine would say if he lived in a world where nuclear war was always just on the horizon. Would he think there was even such an alternative as a “just-war?” With today’s military options, I cannot even begin to see how any war could ever be “just.” Maybe I like imagination, but I don’t see it. I suppose I’ll use my imagination towards peace making instead.

  6. Michael Cline on November 20th, 2007 7:58 am

    Maybe I “lack” imagination. Whoops

  7. Mark Van Steenwyk on November 20th, 2007 10:45 am

    That’s ok Michael. I “like” imagination too.

  8. Michael Cline on November 20th, 2007 11:31 am

    It’s highly under-rated :)

  9. Renee on November 20th, 2007 12:06 pm


    Thank you for clearing up the distinction between Church and State.

    My question is, though, what does this message of pacifism mean when addressed to oppressed peoples? You are writing from the perspective of a Christian living in a powerful nation that can choose whether to make war on less powerful nations - note that none of the conflicts you mentioned were say, USA v China or USA v Russia.

    What would you say to peoples who are oppressed? Would you tell them to rule out violence as an option when they face extinction and oppression?So was the American Revolution unChristian? The North’s response in the American Civil War? Were all African slave rebellions (some of which were started by Christians) in the West wrong? What about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s attempt to take Hitler’s life?

    I’m afraid I would have sided with Dietrich Bonheffer on that one.

    I used to be a sort of a pacifist. Maybe I’m still thinking things out. But while I know that civil rights movements have worked and peaceful protests work, I feel it could be premature to rule out violence entirely. God himself does not rule out violence. Violence is not in itself a bad thing. The reason why it is mostly a bad thing is because at least generally, humans have no mandate to use it.

    But does being a pacifist mean that Christians never go to the rescue of the oppressed if that means fighting, maybe killing, the oppressor? Does it mean that we tell the oppressed that they should never rebel? Worse, does it mean we hinder their efforts at rebellion? And do we end up then, in blanket submission to the authorities?

    There will be violence until there is peace. You also assume that there is peace, which violence breaks. But what if there is no peace because of an existing situation? How can there be peace without justice? How can there be peace when there is oppression?

    I say, in a situation like that, where there is already no peace, I have not started the violence. I must find a response. To get to peace, I may have to go through violence.

    What would a Christian stateperson do then if violence is allowed for the state but not the Christian? Are they, in that position, allowed to press the red button?

    I am really, personally, interested in these questions, and I thank you in advance for your response.

  10. Mark Van Steenwyk on November 20th, 2007 12:30 pm

    Interesting enough, I find (as I look through history) that many (maybe even most) pacifists were part of an oppressed group. The Anabaptist were almost universally despised. The first three centuries of Christianity as a whole were largely pacifistic. And there have been many examples of pacifism in the so-called “developing” world.

    So, while it is easy for us to say “I’m a pacifist,” that doesn’t mean that pacifism is a doctrine for the comfortable bourgeois.

  11. Michael Cline on November 20th, 2007 1:31 pm

    I really should be preparing for finals rather than constantly messaging Mark on facebook and adding my two cents here. But…

    One more time…

    I certainly appreciate any point drawing on Bonhoeffer’s story. He is largely regarded the patron saint of “pacifism-lite.” People are free to be pacifists, but only up to a point. That point is when pacifism would require standing by idly while watching thousands of innocent people be murdered (i.e. Nazism). This same “pacifism-lite” crowd would quote Bible verses reminding the Christian that it is as much of a sin to do nothing when in the position to do good, then it is to something evil. Much of what Renee says can be included in this same thought pattern (I’m not saying she is, but that some of her thoughts run parallel with it).

    “How can there be peace when there is oppression?…To get to peace, I may have to go through violence….”

    This is where we need to make a clear distinction between “liberal pacifism” (I hate the term), and “Christological pacifism.” I am not a pacifist because I think it will bring peace. Jesus himself reminds us that he did not come so we can all hold hands and sing kumbaya. I am a pacifist because I see it as the closest option in imitating my Master, Jesus Christ. I do not think pacifism will “work.” It is hardly pragmatic and flies in the face of efficiency. The oppressed, if Christian, are not to use violence. Using violence as a means to an end which is largely colonial itself would not bring peace, or justice. I’m not advocating that the oppressed stick out their necks (as some Anabaptists supposedly did), but living faithfully like Jesus as the oppressed in the midst of the oppressors is what will ultimately bring the Kingdom…but it sure won’t be efficient in doing so. It never will look like the world’s progress-addiction.

  12. Jason Barr on November 20th, 2007 6:02 pm

    I think Michael gives fundamentally the right answer, that pacifism for the Christian is fundamentally about following Jesus, and not about “getting results”. If you haven’t read John H. Yoder’s Politics of Jesus the last chapter is really good on that issue.

    That being said, I think there are a couple of other things worth saying.

    In Bonhoeffer’s case, it is very easy to single out Bonhoeffer as the example of “what to do”, and I can’t honestly say that if I had been in his situation I would have acted differently. However, I find that most of the time when he comes up as an example, the person in the conversation who supports the use of violence tends to ignore the actions of the majority of the German church at the time. Can you imagine what Hitler would have had to do to consolidate his power if the churches in Germany hadn’t been so tied up in the state, hadn’t been so identified with violence as a legitimate means? If the whole church had been pacifist and opposed Hitler?

    Not that I don’t think Hitler would have moved against millions of his own citizens, but I wonder if the outcry that would have provoked might have moved countries like the US to act before the outbreak of the war… there are an awful lot of ways in which the US enabled Hitler, not the least being right-wing elements in the US who saw fascism as a better alternative to communism.

    Regarding the American Revolution… we have been pretty much brainwashed to see it as an unmitigated good. It wasn’t. An awful lot of it had to do with certain rather wealthy people in the US wanting to take control of their own currency and essentially cutting the Brits out of the deal - which is understandable, I don’t think anyone likes being exploited and it’s hard to argue the British colonial system wasn’t exploitative, but there is a very, very real sense in which the Revolution was basically a group of elites trying to take over the sphere of influence of another group of elites. Forget the popular myth of the minuteman soldier-farmer “defending his land”, most of the farmers who fought in the war either were conscripted or forced to serve well past the limit of the term for which they voluntarily signed up - and a lot of them lost their farms after (or even during) the war because bankers (regardless of their patriot/loyalist/neutral status) foreclosed on the land they had no way of working on to pay debts incurred while they were away at war, and the American government after the war did nothing to help them (in fact, when the farmers were driven to rebellion they raised troops from other states to crush the rebellion and then went and wrote the Constitution, which practically did everything it could to keep power out of the hands of the people).

    The North’s role in the American Civil War is also far from clearly “good”, but this comment is getting rather long and I need to wrap it up.

    The point is that these conflicts are at best not unmitigated goods and do not to me constitute sufficient evidence to question the Christian principle of nonviolence even on the grounds of effectiveness. The African slave revolts may be a slightly different case due to the interesting relationship between certain forms of liberation theology and violence, but I would still have to be convinced that even in the complexities of the situations the criterion of effectiveness would warrant such action - I honestly doubt that it very often does, and even then I believe that for the Christian being faithful to follow the one who did not use violence to defeat his enemies but rather allowed them to destroy him, trusting that God would win the day and vindicate his servant, removes using violence as an option.

    In my “Anarchism, Christianity, and the Prophetic Imagination” series I’m actually going to get around to the argument that the state doesn’t just “use” violence but that violence is an integral part of the workings of the state and that Christians have essentially no allegiance to it, which raises the question of exactly how much the Christian can participate in the machinations of state (one I have yet to answer completely).

  13. Renee on November 20th, 2007 7:01 pm


    So far I am really enjoying your series on Anarchism and the Prophetic Imagination, by the way.

    Yes, the American Revolution and Civil War were not unmitigated goods. But neither were they unmitigated evils. It would have been unmitigated evil in the second case not to go to war.

    St Augustine’s thoughts were used as an excuse for war. But is he wrong just because he was misused?

    On the question of effectiveness, I can say that I agree that it’s not merely a matter of what “works”, but of what is right.

    Yet consider some Caribbean history (which is what I’m familiar with; I hope it doesn’t bore you):

    1490s - Spanish invade various islands. On some of them the Taino inhabitants have few methods of resistance. Their culture is wiped out. Many take their own lives.

    1790s - Haiti revolts against France. 1/3 of the people die in a very bloody rebellion. By 1804 Haiti is independent.

    1831 - Christmas slave rebellion in Jamaica was led by a Baptist deacon. He intended a peaceful protest. However, once the oppressors began to fire, people responded.

    1834 - Britain abolished slavery in all its possessions. We are often told this is Wilberforce’s work, but it is argued that the possibility that Jamaica would become like Haiti contributed hugely to the abolition of slavery. Wilberforce had been working for decades before this. But the rebellion and economics of the situation brought the point home. The oppressors were scared.

    Before his execution by the State said deacon recanted, having been convinced by missionaries that he was wrong; he ought to have submitted to the authorities. (Hence my question - what do you tell the people?)

    1865 - another protest in Jamaica was led by another Baptist deacon against oppressive and unjust conditions and laws imposed by the all-white local parliament. The violent response of the planters so horrified Britain that it abolished the local parliament and started ruling the colony directly (and more justly).

    It seems that violence, to some extent, can “work”.

    I could be falling on my sword here, but I think that Jesus was crucified not just by the oppressive State, but by his fellow colonial citizens. He spoke to people living under an oppressive State. People waited to hear him say how he was going to achieve the end of liberating Israel from Rome - Are you at this time going to return the kingdom to Israel, Lord? the disciples asked. People had been anticipating the Messiah for hundreds of years for this reason.

    It was the crowd waiting to be liberated, not the State, that insisted on the crucifixion of Jesus, according to the gospels.

    But He never spoke to the issue of what to do with State violence against Israel - “If someone hits you on one cheek, offer them the other cheek” is a command, I think, between individuals. If He meant to say all of Israel, why didn’t He? Why was He merely silent on the matter if He meant to tell people not to go to war at all? Why didn’t He tell the centurion who came to Him that he was wrong to go to war if He meant that going to war was wrong?

    I have tried to practise Jesus’ command (with some struggling and difficulty) in my private life. It has had some unexpected results. There is certainly a place for trusting God. But does it extend to the State and peoples? And when Christians get involved in violent protest, do we celebrate them as heroes or disavow them?

  14. Jason Barr on November 21st, 2007 12:07 am

    It would have been unmitigated evil in the second case not to go to war.

    I don’t buy this for a second, but I’d love for you to try and change my mind. The key phrase is “unmitigated evil”.

    I’ll also talk a bit about submission to authorities in my series, so I’m not going to jump the gun here.

    Regardless of whether or not violence “works” I still do not believe it is an option for followers of Jesus, nor am I convinced that it ultimately does anything more than set up another ultimately violent social order. Christianity is not intended to be a social revolution in the sense that the church is called to depose governments and replace them with kinder, gentler governments. The apostles and evangelists knew this and wrote their letters that are now the New Testament under the assumption that Christians would be a minority group always under the threat of persecution and likely without power to effect change on the large scale structures of society by using the machinations of human politics. This is one thing Paul is talking about when he quotes Proverbs in Romans 12 about repaying evil with good - repaying evil with good, repaying violence with peace, makes a prophetic call and judgment upon the one who is evil, and urges him to repent and enter into God’s kingdom of justice and peace.

    Jesus was absolutely killed by his fellow oppressed citizens - precisely because he did not deliver the kind of revolution they were looking for. 1st century Jewish apocalypticism (to grossly oversimplify) looked for Messiah to begin the holy war in which God would unleash legions of angels to defeat Israel’s enemies and establish them as the empire of God’s reign. In fact, there is even speculation that this is what Judas was trying to provoke in betraying Jesus, which I think is entirely possible, and that Peter was trying to begin the holy revolution when he cut off the ear of Malchus in Gethsemane. But, if you follow the chain of authority and the way it functioned in the ancient world, the ultimate responsibility for the actual act of killing Jesus rested upon Caesar, through Pilate as his authorized agent. According to the philosophy of criminal justice prevalent at the time (if you’ll forgive the use of an anachronistic term) to commit a crime against the state was to offend Caesar himself, who then was seen as exacting revenge against the criminal through the assigned punishment.

    This philosophy came into its full flower in the medieval period where, somewhat ironically to my mind, it formed the background for Anselm’s development on the doctrine of substitutionary atonement - but I digress.

    Paul clearly assigns responsibility for Jesus’ murder to the powers and principalities that represent the political authorities of the day (as well as all other powers that have been corrupted by sin and are enslaved to evil and death) and uses language to describe Jesus and the church that echoes propaganda from Rome. The early church clearly assigned responsibility for Jesus’ death to both the Jews (particularly the Jewish leaders) and to Rome, and as per the dominant philosophical understanding of the day since Jesus was particularly crucified by the Roman law then Rome and ultimately Caesar should be seen as responsible. It is even in the Gospels, when Pilate puts the sign “King of the Jews” on his cross - treason, insurrection, which was a crime against Rome that did not regard how Jesus had offended the Jews.

    Regarding the “turn the other cheek” command, was he only speaking to individuals? Furthermore, have you considered the consequences of such an action - particularly as you read on to the command to “go the extra mile”? These were actions that, in cultural context, constitute extreme subversions of social mores in a ways that carry clearly political connotations. I can explain that more later if you like, but this comment is already getting really, really long.

    I suppose a very basic point that could be said in response to the events from Caribbean history would be this… if Jesus didn’t want the Jews to revolt and came for a different purpose than establishing a kingdom by violence, why would he sanction revolt by the slaves and other oppressed peoples? The Jews who called for revolt were in general pretty hard up and oppressed pretty hard, so I don’t think you can say “the slaves in the Caribbean were worse off than the 1st century Jews were”.

    Violence can certainly “work”, look how well it worked in the French Revolution. Violence was working all over the place. But if Jesus didn’t call his followers, who were oppressed, to revolt, why would he call anyone anywhere else to revolt? It seems to me to be entirely antithetical to the values Jesus expressed in inaugurating the kingdom of God on earth, and so I see no reason why we as followers of Jesus should or even can entertain violence as a viable method when the one we claim to follow did not. And Jesus, remember, was working within a culture that had the memory of the Maccabbean revolt against Antiochus IV - so he had the precedent of a successful revolt on his side, one that the people of his time often looked to as a pattern they expected the Messiah to follow.

  15. James on November 24th, 2007 11:14 pm

    I’m sorry I missed the discussion. I have been away for the holiday and had no internet access.

    Renee, I thank you for your questions and maybe I will try to respond to them (one or two at a time) in coming posts. I have a introverted personality so before I respond I will have to think, reflect, and organize my thoughts.

    I appreciate the discussion on this post and hope to play a more active part in future discussions.

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