Billy Sunday was the most famous evangelist in America during the first two decades of the 20th century. Without the aid of loudspeakers, TV or radio, Sunday preached to over 100 million people the classic evangelical gospel that remains familiar to many people today. Repent and believe in Jesus, who died on the cross for your sins, and be saved from eternal damnation. The simplicity of Sunday’s message prompted millions of early 20th century Americans to examine the state of their souls and consider their eternal fates. Yet when it came to conscientious objectors during World War I, Sunday spared no mercy:
The man who breaks all the rules but at last dies fighting in the trenches is better than you God-forsaken mutts who won’t enlist.
Throughout our nation’s history, it’s been an axiom that Presidents lead us into wars, while Christians provide the flags and the crosses. Barring a few notable exceptions—Anabaptists, Quakers, and early Pentecostals—evangelical fervor has often promoted an uncritical nationalism that baptizes American military adventures with religious legitimacy. It’s no coincidence that the setting of Mark Twain’s famous War Prayer —in which Twain delivers a devastating critique of the use of religion to justify imperialism—is a Protestant Christian church. Given the historical record, it may seem the deck is stacked against American evangelicals organizing into a comprehensive peace movement—yet that’s exactly what’s happening.
Enter: Evangelicals for Peace.
On September 14th, a group of Evangelical scholars, pastors, journalists, and activists are gathering together for a summit at Georgetown University to discuss how evangelicals can work together to reduce violence and prevent war. Titled Evangelicals for Peace: A Summit on Christian Moral Responsibility in the 21st Century, the stated goals of the summit are:
• To build and birth a network of evangelical scholars and activists committed to the pursuit of a Biblical, comprehensive, and proactive peace
• To reduce violence, work toward human flourishing, and prevent war
• To mobilize and educate a new generation of evangelicals committed to the pursuit of peace
• To convene a gathering of non-profit and pastoral leaders who are actively working for peace with justice throughout the world
• To give a special focus on peace as it relates to U.S. foreign policy
The vision for Evangelicals for Peace is to educate and mobilize American evangelicals into proactive and comprehensive peacemaking. However, Evangelicals for Peace is not a pacifist-only movement. There are evangelicals in the “just war” camp who agree with many of the stated goals of the summit and want to pursue peace within that paradigm. Rick Love, the co-founder of Peace-Catalyst International, the organization launching the network, who himself is a self-described Just-war theorist leaning towards pacifism, says, “For too long, evangelical theology in America has had the tendency to view peacemaking as a distraction from the ‘pure’ work of preaching the gospel, or as a slippery-slope towards secular humanism. We want to change this paradigm. We want the average evangelical in America to view peacemaking in the same way that they view feeding the hungry or serving the poor—as a demonstration of the good works of the Gospel of the Kingdom.”
It’s been a pleasure of mine to work with Rick Love, as well as the other partner organizations, in thinking through the dynamics of putting this summit together. When it comes to how evangelicals can best draw from the resources of our faith in order to work for peace, many questions naturally arise: questions about the Christian witness to the state, Muslim/Christian relations, the impact of Christian Zionism on U.S. foreign policy, the possibility of Just Peace theory as a middle ground between Pacifism and Just-War theory, the relationship between dispensationalism and peace theology, how the various theological traditions within evangelicalism can create a space for a peace-theology within their existing paradigms.
Very few of these questions lend themselves to easy answers; which is why we need your input. It will take a robust effort to construct an evangelical peace witness to the media, the political powers, and the culture at large, and we need your help to make it happen. We are calling evangelicals from all types of persuasions and agendas to find those areas of common ground where we can work for peace together.
I hope to see you there.