“Inaction” in the Face of Injustice? United Methodism on War and Peace

By Nicole L. Johnson

In response to changing political and cultural realities over the past several decades, the United Methodist Church has come to embrace various positions on the subject of war and peace. The denomination’s Book of Discipline makes evident a certain doctrinal pluralism on these topics and their related issues and questions. Textual analysis of the Discipline in order to discover the evolution of current teachings on war and peace (which one would likely never do unless, like me, one undertook such a project as part of one’s doctoral dissertation) reveals a doctrinal tradition that has come to include, for example, a Social Principles statement on “War and Peace” in which war is defined as “incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ” and is therefore to be “reject[ed] as an instrument of national foreign policy” while simultaneously recognizing in the statement on “Military Service” the “many Christians” who believe that war is acceptable in some situations and offering respect and support for those “who conscientiously choose to serve in the armed forces.”

This is the fourth and final post for our short series of reflections on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the United Methodist bishops’ war and peace pastoral letter, In Defense of Creation; this one is by Nicole L. Johnson.

In response to changing political and cultural realities over the past several decades, the United Methodist Church has come to embrace various positions on the subject of war and peace. The denomination’s Book of Discipline makes evident a certain doctrinal pluralism on these topics and their related issues and questions. Textual analysis of the Discipline in order to discover the evolution of current teachings on war and peace (which one would likely never do unless, like me, one undertook such a project as part of one’s doctoral dissertation) reveals a doctrinal tradition that has come to include, for example, a Social Principles statement on “War and Peace” in which war is defined as “incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ” and is therefore to be “reject[ed] as an instrument of national foreign policy” while simultaneously recognizing in the statement on “Military Service” the “many Christians” who believe that war is acceptable in some situations and offering respect and support for those “who conscientiously choose to serve in the armed forces.” 

That the Book of Discipline – the “book of law” of the United Methodist Church, which includes the doctrines, teachings, policies, and organizational guidelines of the denomination – contains a plurality of positions on war and peace is not at issue here, although elsewhere I have argued that doctrinal inconsistency and failure to take a stand on the pressing issues of the day jeopardize the church’s moral witness and claims to moral authority around this and other major social concerns. As the Discipline itself professes early in its pages, “a church lacking the courage to act decisively on personal and social issues loses its claim to moral authority.”

At issue for the moment is the failure of the United Methodist Church to develop any real, widespread, and theologically-grounded understanding of active nonviolence or support for those committed to this course of thought and action – especially given the plurality of positions held doctrinally by the United Methodist tradition. Perhaps in an attempt at humility, the Social Principles statement on “Military Service” ends with the following sentence: “As Christians we are aware that neither the way of military action, nor the way of inaction is always righteous before God.” This statement captures the problem I wish to highlight here. The choices given in this sentence put an unfortunate limitation on the options available to Christians: either one can take the way of military (and presumably violent) action, or one can choose the way of “inaction” which is just a fancy way of saying “doing nothing.”

The choice between military action and some kind of stander-by passive-ism is, of course, a false one. This false choice prevents our creative problem-solving in conflict situations or in other circumstances involving injustice. If my reading of the scriptures is at all accurate, seeking justice is always what is “righteous before God.” Standing up on behalf of the poor, the powerless, the oppressed, the downtrodden, and the abused is always “righteous before God.” But must military action always be the norm or the first resort in our pursuit of justice?  I am intrigued (or perhaps more accurately, haunted) by the question of why the churches (United Methodists are not alone here) seem unable (or unwilling?) to form people who are just as enthusiastic about seeking justice without a gun in their hands as those who will do so with one. Christian faith never allows us to fall into complacency nor to follow the way of “inaction” in the face of injustice, but why can’t we do a much better job of finding creative ways to pursue justice – which may indeed ask us to put our very lives on the line – that are outside of the realm of “military action”? The formation of thoughtful and committed disciples who take the call to peace and justice seriously but who do so through active nonviolence continues to be a challenge for the United Methodist Church and for the broader Christian tradition as well.

Nicole L. Johnson is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio. She is the author of Practicing Discipleship: Lived Theologies of Nonviolence in Conversation with the Doctrine of the United Methodist Church (Pickwick Publications, 2009).

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