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United Methodism on War and Peace: Embracing the Tension between Optimism and Pessimism

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United Methodism embraces an internal tension in its official statements on war.  The United Methodist Discipline both teaches that war is “incompatible with the teachings of Christ” (¶165.C) and professes respect for “those who support the use of force” under limiting conditions (¶164.I).  Such tensions are an outcome of United Methodism’s democratic polity, but they also reflect deeper sources of denominational identity.  To fill out this claim, it is helpful to locate United Methodism on a continuum of denominational optimism and pessimism concerning Christian interactions with “the world.”

Despite their differences in practice, Lutheran and Mennonite positions overlap in their dour views of the world.  Both agree in emphasizing the intractable nature of sin in the world.  Lutherans then accept their responsibility in the divine order to restrain evil in the world by use of the sword.  Mennonites relinquish responsibility for the world and focus upon manifesting the non-violent Kingdom of God in the social life of the church.

Occupying the middle ground on the continuum of Christian optimism and pessimism, the Roman Catholic position accepts that the world is corrupted by sin, but maintains that human reason has only been injured and not fundamentally corrupted by sin.  As such, it is possible in many situations to think through how to deal with entrenched sin.  This tradition has been the driving force behind most just-war thinking.

On the more optimistic side of the spectrum, we find the Quakers.  Quakers are buoyed by belief in the “inner light” of the spirit in every human being.  This light leads the Christian to the imitation of Christ in non-resistant witness.  This witness can be the mechanism for awakening the light in other persons, and thus bringing transformation to the world.  As such, Quakers share optimism both about the inherent quality of humanity and about the possibilities of bringing justice to the world, but only by non-violent action.

Where then should United Methodism be located in this scheme?  While John Wesley thought of himself as an Augustinian, his emphasis upon God’s grace led to a non-Augustinian optimism about humanity.  All of the world, Wesley taught, was caught up in prevenient grace; that grace which returns to humanity the ability to choose against its sinful inclinations and move toward God.  The upshot is that United Methodism is left with a deep sense of optimism about the possibilities for individual and social perfection, and a correlative sense of responsibility for bringing such perfection about.

Methodism does not have the realism of either the Mennonite or Lutheran position.  It does not expect the world to be fundamentally resistant to justice.  Methodism also lacks the rationalism of the Roman Catholic position.  United Methodists tend not to want to think through engagement with evil lest the compromises of perfection required by such engagement come to appear to be rules rather than exceptions.  Of the denominations treated here, Methodism has most in common with the Quaker tradition.  But Methodism lacks the peace church tradition which absolutely prevents recourse to violence.  The upshot is that the Methodist position rapturously embraces “justice with peace” and then, very-reluctantly, accepts violence when it turns out that justice cannot be achieved by other means.

Given this location, it is not surprising that in the 1980s, when the United Methodist Bishops went to address the crisis of nuclear war, they found the most palatable just-war approach to be grounded in “a strong presumption against violence.”  This position was in large part the product of the work of James Childress, the Quaker moral theologian who had been converted from pacifism by the (more Lutheran) work of Reinhold Niebuhr.

It is also not surprising that United Methodists produce tensions in their own denominational statements on war.  These reflect the underlying tension between Methodism’s optimism about what can be achieved through universally grace-touched human nature, and its correlated feeling of responsibility for bringing about justice in the world.

So, what shall United Methodists do?  I will close with two pieces of advice.

First, be good United Methodists.  The impulse to bring justice by peaceful means is a powerful one.  It is this impulse that leads Methodists to take to just-peacemaking practices like ducks to water.  The world needs people with the motivation and the means to advocate and act for justice prior to the outbreak of conflict.  United Methodists are built for this, and should throw themselves into the work of spreading social holiness to avoid conflict.

Second, United Methodists should learn something from the realism and rationalism of their more pessimistic brethren.  Too many Methodists begin their ministry with grand hopes to change the world only to be crushed when the world resists their efforts.  Methodism must maintain its passion for progressive justice, but it must do so while recognizing that it must steel itself for frequent failure and must think through long term engagement with recalcitrant evil.

Kevin Carnahan (Ph.D., Southern Methodist University) is Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Central Methodist University, Fayette, Missouri. His book, Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Ramsey: Idealist and Pragmatic Christians on Politics, Philosophy, Religion and War (Lexington Books, 2010) was reviewd by D. Stephen Long in Political Theology 12, no. 3 (2011): 477-88.

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Kevin Carnahan is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Central Methodist University in Fayette, MO. He earned his Ph.D. from Southern Methodist University. He is President of the Niebuhr Society and the Book Review Editor for the International Journal of Public Theology. He has written articles for The Journal of Religious Ethics, The Journal of Law and Religion, Political Theology, Philosophia, Studies in Christian Ethics, and PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. He is also the also author of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Ramsey: Idealist and Pragmatic Christians on Politics, Philosophy, Religion, and War (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010). In his free time, he blogs on a wide range of subjects.