Religion is dangerous – and wonderful. Religion can let lose the best and the worst in humankind. It is probably not so much because of religion per se as it is because of humankind. Simul iustus et peccator as a Lutheran would put it. At the same time just (or justified) and a sinner. Religion brings power, especially when you can use eternal fates as threats, but also when calling upon people’s respect for traditions. We never get out of sinfulness. All the times in history, when individuals and churches have thought they were beyond that, they have at least become self-righteous and at worst they have committed atrocities. Religion, which does not consider what it does to the life of the other, near and far away, is egoism. Religion, which does not use critique also as self-criticism is hypocrisy.
Through the New Testament we clearly see different ways of relating to the worldly powers, from Jesus, not only on the issue of paying tax, through Paul’s apparent acceptance of the Roman Empire and finally the absolute rejection of it in Revelations. After Constantine and Theodosius the situation is totally changed. The historic churches become parts of politics, more or less super-national in the Roman Western tradition, more caesaro-papistic in the Eastern traditions. With the reformation, especially in the Lutheran and perhaps also in Anglican traditions, with their close links to kings and principalities of this world, as they were seen to uphold God’s reign in the worldly realm, churches probably seldom offered any strong opposition to war. It had all changed with Constantine, and the feeling that power and wealth is necessary for the survival of the Church and its message became stronger than the commitment to the message and the Imitatio Christi. We recognize the dilemma!
If we stay European we can notice the great challenge of the pietistic movements to the national churches especially in northern Europe. It can be said that in the 17th century the Swedish soldiers proudly marched south and east in the name of the Swedish king and in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, as did soldiers of other nations in other directions. Some decades later they returned as losers, torn and worn, singing songs about the blood of Jesus and the faithful few. Religion was about to become a private matter, as was also the agenda and aim of the secular Enlightenment. And – religion was about to, once again, become a tool of those in opposition.
However, the continental pietism of the 17th century had roots, for example down to the times of the Great Plague in the 14th century and in the 15th and 16th century peasants’ and peace movements. Here we meet an early civil society long before that concept was invented. As a Lutheran it has been important but painful to revisit the clashes between one of the historic peace churches, the Mennonites, and Lutherans in 16th century Germany. With the Mennonites we meet Christians deeply committed to stand up against violence, injustice and war, be their targets church, kings or other powers, often despising their opponents – and other Christians despising, condemning and killing the peace-fighters... Lethal violence in God’s name.
We, as Churches and Christians, surely have a mixed history.
So many excellent initiatives have been taken by churches and individual Christians over the years. They have aroused enthusiasm and often made a real difference. Churches have been able to point out injustices and the potential power of these to threaten peace. Churches have been able to make a difference by getting people to actually change politics and priorities. Schools have been built, values have been underscored, social change has come, Human Rights have been made visible and undergirded, disarmament and control of weapon export strengthened. All this has been done, is being done and has to be done. But when war has broken out or when aggression has demanded to be met, the Churches have, I think, usually meant little for peace. Remember, for example WW I. And remember the American President Wilson and his excellent Christian and humane principles for the peace after WW I. Retribution and aggression were too strong and democracy was no barrier against that. "Oh no. Now is the time to fight back!"
Thus it seems to me as if Christian efforts for peace always have been far more effective as prevention than as remedy. When the power game has started it seems it has normally been stopped only by power and exhaustion. And the loser will fight back when he has got his power back…
The RCC, the WCC, AACC, Religions for peace, Sant’ Egidio and other surely have played important roles as mediators in times of war - but I think churches and Christians have always been more successful before war has broken out and in post-war situations – with the exception of some great examples of reconciliation, e.g. In South Africa. To be an actor with a long time perspective and a very solid base for Humans Rights makes a difference, especially if we are able to lift up and make visible the values in life that we actually hold the highest but so often forget or do not at all express.
If we can be actors who do hold justice and peace together we can be far more successful than if we only act out of a peace perspective limited to no visible war or to a justice perspective without people of flesh and blood living in and with an astounding creation. It is when we, as churches together, can keep things together and can stand for similar things locally, nationally and internationally, that we can make a difference. In these days we have to lift up the UN-initiative of declaring nuclear weapons illegal and expect special responsibility for that initiative from all churches in the countries in possession of such.
- Justice and peace, based in the Golden Rule, built on experiences of the disasters of war.
- Long term historical perspective, based in the Golden Rule, stretched out in time; history and future.
- International perspectives, based in the Golden Rule, stretched out in geography.
- And the Golden Rule based in the knowledge that we can only love because of God who loves us and who continuously lets the sun shine over both good and evil and over those who love and those who despise God.
Peace is the way to peace. We are called to dare to see and express how peace is threatened and to remember and express the disasters which all wars always lead to.