When I was a young boy, I remember seeing one of those World War II movies that shifts between events on the side of the allies and events on the German side. The scenes involving German soldiers had English captions. In one of those scenes a German officer confides to another, “Sometimes I wonder whether God is on our side.” On viewing this scene, I did a double-take. It was obvious to me that God was on the side of the opponents of Germany. They were the bad guys, and we were the good guys. But this line suggested that some Germans viewed things in exactly the opposite way. The officer who had doubts was questioning an assumption that many of his fellow citizens took for granted.
People generally recognize the absurdity of thinking that God is a supporter of their favorite football team or basketball team. We may be passionate about wanting our team to win, but it is hard to think that God takes sides in that way. When we pray before a game, we feel okay about praying for people not to be hurt or for the game to be enjoyable. But praying for our side to win seems over the top. On the other hand, many people find it natural to assume that when it comes to war, God is on the side of their nation. God may not be a Dallas Cowboys fan, despite the joke that they left an opening at the top of the stadium so that God could watch the Cowboys. But many American Christians assume that God is on the side of American troops and against those they fight.
During one of the wars in the Middle East in which the U.S. was involved, I noted that reports from the American media would mention U.S. casualties and that people hearing the reports would be glad when they were low. But many of the same people gave no thought at all to the number of casualties on the other side. Obviously, they were the bad guys and deserved what they got. If we heard reports of serious misconduct by American troops, the reaction was often to think that such behavior was the exception rather than the rule or to think that such acts are excusable during times of war.
Many contemporary Christians are unaware that in the first three centuries of the Christian era, it was taken for granted that Christians renounced participating in warfare. This stance was understood to be required by the teachings of Jesus. One Christian writer from the second century advised soldiers who became Christians either to quit the army or to accept martyrdom. Some anti-Christian critics of the time used the Christian rejection of violence as a basis for accusing Christians of disloyalty, expressing concern that if this stance were more widespread, the Empire would be at risk.
This understanding of Christian teaching changed with Constantine’s declaration of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire. At this point Christians began to have access to political power and mostly decided that their new task was to use this power wisely. Thinkers such as Augustine argued that participation in war was permissible as long as certain criteria were met. Developing the thought of Cicero, he formulated criteria for a war being just and listed restrictions on conduct in a just war, such as not targeting civilians. While there have been pacifists after Augustine, the idea that war is justified under some circumstances and that Christians may participate in just wars became the dominant position.
Many Christian thinkers believe that the shift associated with gaining political power led to a kind of compromise with worldly standards that undermined Christians’ ability to live out a faith whose standards often deviate from the wider culture. They argue that the church can be faithful in its witness only by restraining the urge to gain and use political power for its ends. That view can be debated, but it seems clear that Christian attempts to use political power for good purposes have often been misguided and that gaining power has often had a corrupting influence on the church.
While the just war tradition was formulated as a way of limiting organized violence, it has not been very successful in achieving that aim. Christians have usually been convinced that when their nation decided to go to war, the cause was just, and they have for the most part not been outspoken in criticizing the way their nation conducted wars. A large majority of American Christians thought that the targeting of civilian populations during World War II by air attacks on cities in Germany and nuclear attacks on cities in Japan was justified.
Many churches today do not recognize a tension between being a good Christian and being a patriotic citizen. In fact, many churches have no problem in singing patriotic hymns and pledging allegiance to the country in worship services. These attitudes are in sharp contrast with the declaration of the early church that Christ is Lord, which was understood to mean that Caesar was not. They thought of Christ as the real ruler who would ultimately prevail over earthly rulers who controlled by means of coercive violence.
We may think that democratic processes make it possible to give our allegiance both to Christ and to the state, but when we can’t imagine opposing what our nation does in the name of Christ, we empty commitment to Christ of real content. When our support for our nation means that we regard the harm inflicted on those we have designated as its enemies as unimportant, it is hard to claim that we are serving the Christ who loves all people of the world. When we automatically assume that God is on the side of our nation and against those who oppose it, there is good reason to think that we have substituted a false god for the true one.
For a fuller discussion of the issue of Christian teaching about violence, see chapter 15 of Changing Your Mind Without Losing Your Faith (God’s New Order: Enemies and Violence).