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On War and Peace: Methodism’s Responsible Ambivalence

The third 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 Dr. J. Philip Wogaman:

United Methodist positions on issues related to war and peace can be puzzling.  The denomination is not a “peace church,” in the manner of Quakers or Mennonites.  That is to say, it is not forthrightly pacifist.  But in its Social Principles it resolutely declares that “war is incompatible with the teachings and example of Christ.”  And, “we therefore reject war as an instrument of national foreign policy.”  One would suppose that anything that is incompatible with Christ’s teachings and example would by definition be opposed by Methodist Christians.  But then, the same Social Principles declare that “when peaceful alternatives have failed, the force of arms may regretfully be preferable to unchecked aggression, tyranny, and genocide.”  So the church can honor both pacifists and those who believe in just war doctrine.  Even the UM bishops pastoral letter, In Defense of Creation, which absolutely  opposes use of nuclear deterrence (considering nuclear deterrence is contrary to both pacifism and just war doctrine), also opposes unilateral American nuclear disarmament:  “The rejection of nuclear deterrence, however, does not necessarily mean immediate, unilateral disarmament…. The interim possession of such weapons for a strictly limited time requires a different justification—an ethic of reciprocity [emph. in text] as nuclear-weapon states act together in agreed stages to reduce and ultimately to eliminate their nuclear arms.”  (p. 48)  Of course, the only reason for continued “interim possession” of nuclear weapons is for them to deter any adversary from taking advantage of this nation’s unilateral disarmament!  And, for this interim possession to be an effective deterrent the nation must at least give the impression that it is prepared to use them!

So the church communicates a certain ambivalence about these issues.  It emphatically embraces the view that war, presumably all war, is contrary to the gospel of Christ.  Just as emphatically, its bishops condemn the very notion of deterrence.  But then, the church accepts, as Christian, the position of those who use just war doctrine.  And its bishops allow for a limited holding of nuclear weapons as a deterrent to attack by any nuclear power that is tempted to take advantage of this nation’s unilateral disarmament.

What are we to make of this ambivalence?

I do not think it should be rejected out of hand.  In fact, such ambivalence may express a more responsible position than any of the more absolutist alternatives.  The ambivalence at least honestly reflects the different views held by United Methodists.  There are many United Methodist pacifists and, I suppose, even more United Methodists who would subscribe to some version of just war doctrine.  Implicitly, there is no room here for a crusading spirit, no support for using the weapons and terrors of war to destroy those considered to be the enemies of God.  Likewise, in respect to nuclear issues, there is no room for use of nuclear weapons in a “first strike”—that is, to initiate a nuclear exchange—even though some United Methodists might support that.  During the Vietnam War, I recall a conversation with one theologian who advocated “nuking” North Vietnam.  “Just one nuke,” he pleaded.  Nothing in the Defense of Creation pastoral would countenance that!

But the deeper reasons why the UM ambivalence can be considered responsible is that it keeps faith with the long-standing Methodist love ethic and its long-held view that war is evil.  Pacifists are very clear about that in their utter renunciation of war under any circumstances.  But those who take the Just War view are also quite clear.  In principle, Just War doctrine also regards war as an evil.  It is to be avoided unless there are genuinely compelling reasons for waging war, reasons that have been spelled out in a centuries-old tradition as conditions that must be met.  So, in Just War doctrine the moral presumption is against war, and any war must bear the burden of proof.  Neither pacifism nor Just War doctrine is blind to the evils of war.

In respect to the nuclear issues raised by In Defense of Creation, one might quibble over the inconsistency of totally rejecting deterrence and then accepting it as part of a phased nuclear disarmament program.  But the UM bishops were at least quite clear about the awfulness of any use of nuclear weapons.  The logic of their position, even including the phased disarmament caveat, is to reject any first strike use of such weapons.  They have recognized that nuclear power vastly enlarges the scale of death and destruction in war, with almost unimaginable “collateral” damage to completely innocent parties and to the planet itself.

So what is a United Methodist to make of what I have called this “responsible ambivalence?”  Can we rest easily with it?  Perhaps it is better to say that we can rest with it, but only uneasily!

J. Philip Wogaman is Professor Emeritus of Christian Ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary (where he taught from 1966 to 1992) in Washington, DC. He served as senior minister at Foundry United Methodist Church (1992-2002) and is a past president of the Society of Christian Ethics. He has authored several books, including Christian Ethics: A Historical Introduction, 2nd ed. (Westminster John Knox, 2011).

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