Warlike Christians in an Age of Violence
Nick Megoran’s Warlike Christians in an Age of Violence is a call for Evangelical Christians to lay down their arms. “Peace is not a marginal issue” for Evangelicals, Megoran contends, but is at the heart of what it means to be a “biblical gospel church.” Embracing peace “will allow us to practice and proclaim a more authentic, effective, and infectious Christian faith” (xii).
Megoran, a Reader (that is, a senior professor) in Political Geography at the University of Newcastle, United Kingdom, argues that the liberal pacifist vision—whether propounded in a secular or a progressive Christian guise—is naïve, humanistic, and untenable. Instead, he makes the case for “Gospel peace” (a term he prefers to “pacifism”) grounded in classic Evangelical beliefs about the sole authority of scripture, justification by faith alone, the work of the Holy Spirit, and God’s promise of ultimate victory when Christ returns. “War,” he argues, “… like other forms of violence … entered our history through rebellion against God…. Men and women everywhere are called to repent of this rebellion, which is redeemable through the saving work of Christ alone” (xvii). For Megoran, the answer to war is preaching, worship, and mission that exalts Christ as Lord of all people. The church is meant to be “the window through which God’s future of gospel peace can be seen” (209).
In dealing with biblical texts, Megoran covers much of the same ground as Preston Sprinkle’s Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence,1 although he is more convincing than Sprinkle on the Old Testament. Whereas Sprinkle gets bogged down in a somewhat convoluted defense of Joshua’s conquest of the Canaanites that sounds like special pleading, Megoran is disarmingly candid: the Old Testament narrates divinely-sanctioned genocide. Its wars are unjust and indefensible by any modern standard. These conflicts, though, are God’s wars. They do not authorize a secular nation-state to pursue humanitarian interventionism.
On the New Testament, Megoran follows biblical scholars such as N. T. Wright and Richard Horsley in arguing that the New Testament lays “political dynamite” in its claim that the Messiah has come to liberate the earth from all other powers and dominions (9). The New Testament invocations to enemy love, forgiveness, and cruciform suffering are not simply an ethic for personal piety, but a charter by which the church, empowered by the Spirit, must embody the reign of God in every sphere of life. A Christian cannot be a participant in violence undertaken by the very “rulers of this age” that have been dethroned by Jesus’s peaceable kingdom.
Megoran is keenly aware that the church has a checkered past in regard to war. Indeed, while he finds much of the work of “new atheists” such as Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins shallow, he agrees that their attack on “Christians for using their faith to support violence over time” is lamentably legitimate (117). It is refreshing to hear an Evangelical admit that these bogeymen of countless sermons and apologetic talks may sometimes have a point.
Megoran summons several witnesses from church history to bear testimony to his position, including many of the church fathers, several sixteenth-century humanists, and a somewhat eclectic clutch of modern missionaries and preachers such as George Fox, Henry Martyn, Charles Spurgeon, and Gladys Aylward, although he unfortunately omits D. L. Moody and R. A. Torrey’s strong anti-war sentiments. He also registers multiple voices from the global Christian community that speak of Gospel peace in the midst of persecution. However, he probably overstates the case when he describes the Reformation as “undoing” just war theory, and American readers may find his claim that Gospel peace is “increasingly moving from the margins to center stage among Protestant denominations” (123) difficult to reconcile with resurgent American Evangelical nationalism.
Many just war advocates will, of course, argue that Megoran’s vision of Gospel peace is noble but unrealistic. The world is mired in sin. Are we to stand idly by while innocents suffer? Does not the New Testament itself (in passages like Romans 13) provide a mandate to governments to exercise the sword to punish evil and establish justice? Megoran anticipates such objections with an appeal to his own identity: “I am not an academic theologian or minister but … a political geographer who is also a follower of Jesus” (xv). For Megoran, who specializes in studying Cold War conflicts in Asia, the Middle East, and Scandinavia, the inchoate and intricate reality of territorial, economic, and ethnic conflict is more messy than the world conjured by just war theorists. Wars are never simple contests of good and evil; there are no neutral parties intervening with unalloyed motives on behalf of the innocents. He thus undercuts the idea that just war is the sensible, moderate, grown-up option, located somewhere “between pacifism and jihad” (to quote the title of J. Daryl Charles’s 2005 defense of just war). It is just war theorists who need to read more Machiavelli and Kissinger. As for Romans 13, the “warrior’s proof text,” Megoran observes that it looks unlike any “theory of the state” that he has ever encountered as a political scientist. Paul is no first-century Thomas Hobbes delineating the powers of the state, but is instead providing pastoral advice to Christians likely to find themselves at the sharp end of a Roman imperial sword.
Because he is not a moral philosopher, Megoran eschews discussion of the finer points of just war theory itself. Indeed, he is concerned more with the reflexive, and often unsystematic, support of war among Evangelicals than he is with a tradition whose scholarly advocates tend to come from the Roman Catholic or mainline Protestant traditions. Critics may therefore feel that the book does not fully account for the moral nuance of the just war tradition. Indeed, Megoran’s foundational reason for rejecting just war thinking—that it is unbiblical and thus a departure from sola scriptura—will likely strike some just war advocates as simplistic and even fundamentalist. In fact, his desire to anchor Gospel peace in very traditional Evangelical tenets (his heroes tend to come from the Evangelical Calvinist wing of British nonconformity, such as Martyn Lloyd-Jones, G. Campbell Morgan, and Charles Spurgeon) means that his theological tone will even at times make his pacifistic co-belligerents on the “Evangelical left”—Shane Claiborne, Tony Campolo, Ron Sider, Jim Wallis, et al—wince. Nevertheless, it is his consistent appeal to first principles that in the end makes Megoran more convincing and coherent than the somewhat theologically and rhetorically uneven contributions to Tripp York and Justin Bronson Barringer’s edited collection of essays A Faith Not Worth Fighting For: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Nonviolence,2 even though there is considerable overlap of argument and a shared agenda to sell peace as a non-negotiable for Christians who desire a radical, counter-cultural faith.
In critiquing just war theory for failing to recognize the realities of geopolitics, Megoran also offers a more convincing answer to the classic question “but what about Hitler?” than that provided in Robert Brimlow’s What About Hitler? Wrestling with Jesus’s Call to Nonviolence in an Evil World.3 While Brimlow argues that the Christian must, out of counter-cultural fidelity to Christ, oppose war despite the self-evident evils of the “real world,” Megoran contends that it is precisely wide-eyed knowledge of morally-ambiguous reality that must lead one to embrace Gospel peace. He therefore places the Second World War in its historical and geopolitical context to propose that the conflict was no simple “good war” against the tyranny of Nazism, but was rather the outworking of the industrial-imperialist logic that drove its seven principal belligerents to vie for world dominance by waging war in ways contrary to any just war criteria. Both “Them” and “Us” are stained with sin.
Megoran believes that his deconstruction of the Second World War provides a paradigm by which one can analyze all wars. This is helpful in so far as the Allied powers still draw on the moral capital accumulated between 1939 and 1945 to justify the rightness of their wars. However, it would have been beneficial if he had provided further delineation of the general principles at work in geopolitics to help the reader make the leap to other modern contexts. In particular, ISIS has muddied the water between a hostile state and an international criminal conspiracy. For this reason, Megoran should also have dealt more generally with the complex question regarding whether those who reject war must also reject police power.
Nevertheless, this is a provocative and timely book. The central prophetic punch is to ask whether Evangelical Christians really mean what they say when they claim that Jesus is the only way to achieve victory over sin and death. “Do we believe that, or would we add, ‘But if that should prove inadequate [we should] butcher as many of our enemies as quickly a possible before they get us first’?” (197). In these days of the (white American) Evangelical-Trump alliance, this is an incisive question with implications well beyond the issue of warfare. Indeed, while many Evangelicals loudly lament the secularization of contemporary society, Megoran leads the reader to wonder whether it is Evangelical Christianity itself that is in most need of the de-secularizing power of the Gospel. Megoran’s book models how Christian scholars, by harnessing their disciplinary expertise to a pastoral and missional agenda, might play a vital role in the re-evangelization of Evangelicalism.
Cite this article
- Preston Sprinkle, Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2013).
- Tripp York and Justin Bronson Barringer, eds., A Faith Not Worth Fighting For: Addressing Commonly Asked Questions about Christian Nonviolence (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2012).
- Robert Brimlow, What About Hitler? Wrestling with Jesus’s Call to Nonviolence in an Evil World (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006).