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Justice

How War Threatens Religious Freedom: A Christian Reflection

July 19, 2019 by

The following is an edited version of a talk given on July 19, 2019, at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, as part of The Impact of War on Religious Freedom, a conference co-sponsored by The American Conservative and The Committee for Responsible Foreign Policy.

Countries at war depend on the allegiance of their citizens and their armies to the state, drawing on their allegiance to nation and culture. Before any shots or missiles are fired, there is a battle waging for loyalty, for hearts and minds. That is why people of faith who put their ultimate trust in God rather than their state or its rulers will always experience increased persecution during wars and conflict. States at war demand ultimate allegiance: they demand the sacrifice of the lives and consciences of their citizens, and cannot tolerate those whose highest allegiance is elsewhere. History shows us that religious freedom along with truth are the first casualties of war, the canary in the coal mine whose death signals the presence of noxious gas.

War brings death; war brings suffering; war brings persecution. That is why we hate war. Peace is the opposite of war. What is peace, and where does it come from? Peace is a virtue beyond pacifism or opposition to war. Peace, Shalom, is the heart of God; it is the heart of Jesus. On the evening before his death, Jesus promised his disciples: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives” (John 14:27). This is not a passive or static so-called peace, but something fruitful and busy, the harmony of mutual love in a family that brings forth children, the harmony of friendship in a community that builds and plants and celebrates together.

A conference on War And Religious Freedom in DC, 2019

God’s original plan for peace is found in the very beginning of the Old Testament, in the book of Genesis: “And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth’” (Gen. 1:28). But just three chapters later, after the Fall, that peace is broken. Cain, the first son of Adam and Eve, murdered his brother Abel out of envy. “God said, ‘What have you done! The voice of your brother’s blood is calling to me from the ground’” (Gen. 4:10). Blood, the symbol of life, cried out to God from the ground, condemning war. Man is made in the image of God, and God’s image is defiled by the shedding of blood.

Many if not all people of faith believe in and long for peace. Jesus taught in his Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matt. 5:9). Some believe that peacemaking is best served by defending justice and order through strength and might. Others sincerely believe that following Jesus means countering violence with love and non-resistance, taking literally the words of Jesus from the Gospels such as in Luke 6:27–29: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also.” Jesus loved and affirmed the Roman centurion’s faith (Matt. 8:5–13), but exampled a life of meekness and humility that was willing to suffer wrong rather than fight back.

Jesus lived a life of meekness and humility and was willing to suffer wrong rather than fight back.

The early followers of Jesus lived a life of peace and justice, sharing their possessions and rejecting violence. The second century Christian apologist Aristides said, “Whatever Christians would not wish others to do to them, they do not to others. And they comfort their oppressors and make them their friends; they do good to their enemies. . . . Through love towards their oppressors, they persuade them to become Christians” (Apology, 15).

These practices were related to, and grew out of, their refusal to give their highest loyalty to the state. The Roman emperors would have allowed Christ to take his place in the pantheon of lesser gods, would have allowed Christians to live in peace – if only they had acknowledged the preeminent authority of Caesar, being willing to proclaim Nero divi filius, the Son of God. But this they would not do. Instead, they insisted on reminding the ruling authorities that they had no authority by right of their own blood, but only the authority which God had given them; that they too were merely men, and under his authority. And they refused to participate in the festival days which marked the Roman year, ceremonies reaffirming a Roman’s highest loyalty to the state, and to the person of the emperor.

For this refusal, many Christians faced persecution and horrible deaths by sword, by crucifixion, and by wild beasts.

By the sixteenth century, the church was firmly attached to the power of the state. This remained true of the churches of the Magisterial Reformation, even after they broke away from the Roman Catholic Church. But some dissenters went further, believing that the church should refuse to be entangled with secular authorities at all. One of these groups, the Anabaptists, professed a literal interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount, which precluded taking oaths, participating in military actions, and participating in civil government. An early leader of this group, Conrad Grebel, wrote in 1524: “True Christian believers are sheep among wolves, sheep for the slaughter. . . . Neither do they use worldly sword or war, since all killing has ceased with them.”

The Anabaptists witnessed, in this way, to the life of the kingdom to come, and witnessed as well to freedom of religion and the separation of state and church at a time when these things were unheard of. That public witness often cost them their social standing, their livelihood, and even their lives at the hands of both Protestant and Catholic governments.

The Anabaptists witnessed to freedom of religion and the separation of state and church at a time when these things were unheard of.

The Hutterites stemmed from the Anabaptists, emigrating to the United States and Canada from Europe in the nineteenth century. In 1918, four Hutterite brothers from South Dakota, Jacob Wipf and David, Joseph and Michael Hofer were imprisoned at Alcatraz for refusing military service in World War I, and for refusing to put on a military uniform or do any work for the government, as a matter of conscience. Joseph and Michael Hofer died in late 1918 at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, due to mistreatment and the harsh conditions of the imprisonment. Subsequent to these and other stories of harsh treatment of conscientious objectors, our Congress approved a bill allowing for conscientious objectors to be assigned to “work of national importance” under civilian direction, thanks to a strong lobby of churches. During World War II, Civilian Public Service camps housed thousands of conscientious objectors who, for their alternative service, built dams and roads, fought forest fires, replanted woodlands, volunteered as subjects of medical tests, and cared for patients in mental asylums.

My church community, the Bruderhof, was founded by Eberhard and Emmy Arnold in Germany in the aftermath of the World War I. Eberhard was a theologian with a PhD in philosophy, and was a popular speaker and writer. He spent two weeks at the Eastern front as a supply driver before being discharged for poor health (he had tuberculosis). Wishing to continue his service to his fatherland, he volunteered in a military hospital. The stories he heard from wounded soldiers convinced him that a follower of Jesus Christ cannot, in good conscience, participate in war. The church community he began was to be an alternative to capitalism, militarism, and power politics. In June 1920 he published the following “Call to Love”:

We do not judge those who make use of violence. But we want to serve the spirit of love, which will one day supersede all force.… Driven by the living spirit of Christ, we vow our allegiance to the kingdom of love and friendship. We resolve to join in working for the transformation of society and for forging bonds of peace between all nations.

Eberhard identified with the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century, and had joined his new congregation to the Hutterite Church, becoming an ordained Hutterite minister in 1930.

When Adolf Hitler came to power early in 1933, my great-grandfather began speaking out against his oppressive policies. He was in touch with others who opposed Hitler, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Niemoeller, and Karl Barth, a longtime intellectual sparring partner. But rather than respond with violence, he believed he was called to testify to the Gospel of Christ, even to the Nazis. Hoping to reach Hitler’s ears, he addressed Nazi officials on March 26, 1933, saying:

We respect your task, your mandate. We do recognize it. You are the government we have to acknowledge. However, there is a higher mandate, to place the service of perfect love, the service of community, of unity, right in the midst of disruption. Do accept this service also for yourselves, so that you allow yourselves to be reminded of the ultimate goal over and against your own mandate of judgment. This ultimate goal is the Kingdom of peace and unity, which is lived and represented already here and now by the church of Jesus Christ.
And in this sense we want to appeal to you: Allow us to live in this country governed by you, as a church which has quite a different mandate, namely, to represent the ultimate meaning and point to it, over against your governmental authority, as well as your jurisdiction.
You men of the government, you must receive this in your hearts, so that this goal may not vanish from your hearts. Therefore allow the communities that live in this way, and on this basis reject private property, juridical action, and the use of armed violence, to live in this land. It will be beneficial to this country.

There was, he was saying, an authority above that of the Nazi state, and it was to that authority that his highest allegiance belonged. And he called his hearers as well to make that authority their own highest authority, to remember the goal of the Kingdom.

If we treasure the right to believe, to speak about and live out our faith publicly, we should do all we can to resist the slide to war.

Once again, this refusal to burn incense to Caesar had its predictable effect. In November of 1933, the Bruderhof community house was raided by the Gestapo storm troopers. All the residents were interrogated, and the place was searched for weapons. By the grace of God, they were not shot or shipped to concentration camps, but allowed to remain in Germany for another three years until April 1937, when the Gestapo returned to forcibly dissolve the Bruderhof, confiscating all their property, arresting three of the leaders, and giving the others twenty-four hours to leave the country or be imprisoned. Before that, Eberhard Arnold had died in a hospital from sepsis after surgery for a broken leg. A day before he died, he had shouted loudly in feverish delirium, “Has Goebbels yet repented?!”

Today, persecution of Christians has reached a peak unprecedented in history. In the words of an editorial from the London Times:

Across the globe, in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa, Christians are being bullied, arrested, jailed, expelled, and executed. Christianity is by most calculations the most persecuted religion of modern times. Yet Western politicians until now have been reluctant to speak out in support of Christians in peril.

The alarming scope of this global persecution has been documented in a recent report for the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office by the Bishop of Truro. The recent Easter church bombings in Sri Lanka, the anti-blasphemy cases in Pakistan, the anti-conversion laws in India, the blatant persecution of Christians in North Korea, China, Indonesia, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Nigeria send a reported eleven Christians to their death every day. But religious persecutions are not only limited to Christians. The Muslim Rohingya community in Myanmar, India, and China has suffered terribly, as have the Yazidis in Iraq. The level of persecution appears to be directly proportionate to the instability and violence in any given region.

The flourishing of society, family, and community is dependent on freedom. Religious freedom, the freedom to believe, to live out faith and conscience is the linchpin of all freedom, because it is the freedom that says that there is an authority above the state that commands our first loyalty – an authority to which the state itself is subject. States that respect this right are robust and strong leaders in a free world. War has a devastating effect on religious freedom. If we treasure the right to believe, to speak about and live out our faith publicly, we should do all we can to resist the slide to war. The Christian has a special mandate, to love our enemy and do good to those who persecute us. Time and again throughout history, faithful Christians as well as other religious people have posed a threat to absolute governments in their allegiance to God over state. Faith, in particular a living faith in Jesus Christ as King, will challenge and provide a voice of conscience to society, but it does not threaten the just authority of government. Religious freedom can and should strengthen the foundation of a free government and should be supported and nurtured in America and all free nations.


J. Heinrich Arnold is a father and grandfather, as well as a pastor, physician assistant, teacher, and musician. He lives at Woodcrest, a Bruderhof in Rifton, New York. Follow him on Twitter: @JHeinrichArnold. Comments

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  • I am an 83year old life-long Lutheran: old enough to remember WWII

    Dolores Palmer