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UM Stance on War a “Hodgepodge of Disciplines” Eric LeMastersFebruary 24, 2011
The United Methodist Church, unlike the “peace church” traditions that adhere to a strict pacifist ideology, has for most of its history allowed room for consciences of individuals to determine the justness of military conflict. This ambiguity in the discipline was both lamented and affirmed at a recent three-day gathering of UM ministers and theologians at United Methodism’s Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas.
“What stance towards war best embodies Christian faith?” asked Perkins ethicist Joseph Allen, the conference’s first plenary speaker. “Does it mean following Jesus’ command to turn the other cheek, and his refusal to resort to arms against those who came to arrest him? Or on the contrary, does it mean protecting the weak against their oppressors, standing between the attacked and their unjust attackers, even if that requires a resort to violence?”
“Christians are not agreed on that,” he said.
This issue proved to be the central contention in a series of lectures that showcased the often contradictory views within the UMC. Prominent speakers included retired ethicist and minister J. Philip Wogaman, former pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, D.C. and counselor to former President Bill Clinton; theologian Glenn Stassen of Fuller Theological Seminary; and Miguel De La Torre, ethicist from United Methodism’s Iliff School of Theology in Denver.
Both just war advocates and pacifists seemed to be given a fair hearing throughout the conference, though the U.S. war in Iraq was nearly universally condemned.
Many speakers complained of the inconsistencies in The United Methodist Church’s historical approach to war. In the program’s Women’s Lecture, Nicole Johnson of the University of Mount Union fretted that the denomination’s “hodgepodge of disciplines” has frustrated the consciences of UM Christians for the past four decades.
The UMC’s Social Principles stipulate that the Church supports both those who “oppose all war” and those who “conscientiously choose to serve in the armed forces.” It goes on to admit that “neither the way of military action, nor the way of inaction is always righteous before God.”
Johnson, herself a pacifist, took issue with the apparently unfair characterization of pacifism as “inaction” juxtaposed with military action.
“I think that’s a simply a bad habit of mind to get into,” she asserted. “It prevents our creative problem solving in conflict situations. I’m not convinced we necessarily need to use military action to pursue justice.” Johnson promoted an “active nonviolence” as opposed to the “inaction” that an alternative to war implies.
Johnson compared the language in the Book of Discipline which finds homosexuality incompatible with Christian teaching to similar language surrounding the issue of war. “The difference is that those statements about homosexuality have been invoked to oust homosexual pastors from their pulpits,” she claimed. “But a pastor does not get ousted from her pulpit for expressing her support for a particular war, despite the fact that war is described in the current doctrine as ‘incompatible with and contrary to the gospel and teachings of Jesus.’
“And I don’t recall an outcry in winter of 2003 calling for President Bush, a Methodist, to have his membership revoked because he initiated the war in Iraq,” Johnson added.
Stephen Long from Marquette University agreed that rejecting the pacifist position betrays a lack of faith in Christ’s redemptive work in the world. At a panel discussion explicitly contrasting the just war and pacifist models, Long insinuated that such adherence to a realist perspective on war effectively amounts to disloyalty to the “transnational church.”
“Our first loyalty has to be to brothers and sisters throughout the world who’ve been baptized,” Long asserted. “And the real problem in the Christian churches today, is quite frankly, we subordinate ourselves to the nation. I think it’s a tremendous problem on the Left and the Right. We simply don’t have that conviction that our first loyalty is precisely to this transnational community.”
Co-panelist Kevin Carnahan from Central Methodist University, while defending just war principles, alleged that the confusing approach United Methodism has taken to war at least partly reflects the denomination’s more optimistic assessment of what can be done in the world, as compared to other Christian traditions.
“Our Social Principles… reflect this ambiguity in Methodism,” Carnahan explained. “There’s never, I think, a full-hearted approval of the just war tradition in all its fullness, in part because Methodists don’t want to go there! They don’t want to accept just war as a standing doctrine of the church, because for goodness
sake, we believe we’re more optimistic than that.”
Just War Theory Denounced and Affirmed
Other speakers were decidedly not so optimistic. In his lecture, Miguel De La Torre pulled heavily from past presentations and articles decrying imperialist U.S. intervention in Central America and other countries. In particular he tore into the apparent double standard held by the American “church of privilege,” which he says calls for peace even while the U.S. holds the world hostage economically.
“I confess that I sometimes have certain concerns when those of the dominant culture begin to speak about just war theory or pacifism,” said De La Torre. He sarcastically charged that only “once the Pax Americana is established, once we have the vast majority of world’s resources flowing to the U.S., at that point we can then begin to talk about [how] nobody else should do violence.”
“So, in the back of my mind I have to wonder: ‘Is all this talk about nonviolence a way to keep certain people in check?’” De La Torre asked. “Is our interest in nonviolence a way of making sure ‘they,’ from whom we have taken so much, don’t rebel against us?” Though clearly positing this suspicion as his own, he insisted this is a question he himself has not yet been able to answer.
De La Torre admitted that he has little interest in the “just war versus pacifism” debate.
“The discussion of just war and pacifism is great for the dominant culture to do. So you all should definitely do that,” said De La Torre to somewhat uncomfortable laughter. “But not for those who live based on the consequences of the violence that is already being done; that’s not the conversation we’re having. The conversation that we’re having is, ‘How do we survive this present violence, this economic violence, this social violence? How do we survive it and maintain our integrity?’ That’s the conversation that’s occurring on the underside of the dominant culture’s discussion.” To the marginalized, he argued, any talk of the kind exhibited at the conference is a luxury of the privileged church.
Subsequent speakers weren’t quite so cynical – otherwise the seminar might have ended there. Glen Stassen countered that the debate between Christians whether or not to make war is, contrary to De La Torre’s assertion, relevant and very important – but that Christians must first and foremost be ready with a preventative framework that could preclude the waging of war in the first place.
“You can’t just go with pacifism and just war. They both intend to prevent war, so [we need to] develop an articulate paradigm” for just peacemaking, he argued. His lecture effectively amounted to a synopsis of a book of the same name to which he contributed. In his lecture he supported, among other things, the strengthening of supranational authorities such as the United Nations and the complete nuclear disarmament of major powers such as the U.S.
In the same panel discussion, Philip Wogaman said the pacifist tradition was worthy of respect and should “not be discouraged,” but that it is ultimately unrealistic. He posited that a military response to clearly horrible atrocities, such as ethnic cleansing campaigns and genocide, would be appropriate if handled within the moral framework of Just War Theory.“Christians agree that God is ultimately in charge, but we cannot forget that in human events, God acts through the actions of people,” Wogaman explained. “We cannot rely upon God to intervene from outside. If sin is real, and it must occasionally be resisted forcibly, then it must be by people – especially people who are responsive to God’s purposes.”
Pictured above are: Glen Stassen, of Fuller Seminary, and Phil Wogamon, former pastor to Bill Clinton at Foundry UMC, respectively.
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