Book Reviews

Book Review: “War, Peace, and Violence: Four Christian Views” edited by Paul Copan

The question of what Christians ought to do when it comes to war is one that has a long, deep history of thought in historical theology. It’s one of those questions that can seem incredibly straightforward, depending upon one’s proof texts, only to become increasingly complex as the discussion goes on. War, Peace, and Violence: Four Christian Views attempts to introduce readers to the debates about these questions by providing four major points of view on the topic.

Reviewing a multiview book is always a challenge, as summarizing each point or view is difficult in the limited time of a review. Broad comments are all one can do in this case, and so that’s what I’ll offer. The views presented in the book are a just war view by Eric Patterson, a nonviolence view by Myles Werntz, a Christian realist view by A.J. Nolte, and a church historical view by Meic Pearse. Each author is careful to say their own presentation is not the extent of the type of view they’re presenting. Indeed, each is a typology. This especially seems the case with the nonviolent view, in which Werntz explicitly notes differences from his approach and others related to Christian nonviolence, as well as the vast landscape of possibilities contained within the family of views about nonviolence.

I admit a little bit of confusion over the views of “church historical” and “Christian realist.” The latter seems not much different from a just war theory, basically saying that the realities of the world in which we live mean that we must use violence at times to act justly. The former doesn’t attempt a consensus view of the church on violence, but rather offers a kind of composite of the author’s perspective of at least one strand of historical Christian thought on the topic. Perhaps the sharpest interaction is that of Patterson’s (just war) response to Pearse, in which he asserts that Pearse fails to reference the best historians or theologians on violence and war in Christian history, and then Pearse fires back noting that it’s not his fault Patterson has read different books–continuing on to note that Patterson’s own perspective seems to lean towards only modern American theologizing on the topic (216-217; cf. 197). Because of the limited space in a book like this, though, the point-counterpoint barely had time to get off the ground before it had to be brought to a close. I appreciated later in Pearse’s response his note of the difference between his preferred method–that, he says, of Bonhoeffer as approaching the necessity of violence with repentance and weeping, knowing it is sinful–versus that of Neibuhr, which is a more coldly rational approach. All of that said, there seems to be little at least here to distinguish between those two views, and I suspect it is more my own lack of knowledge on the topic than it is the authors’ fault.

The hardest questions raised are against pacifism, again raised in Pearse’s essay in which he lays out gruesome scenarios that truly did happen and continue to happen. What is one supposed to do when faced with relentless evil and violence with no possible right answer. Pearse notes that the only response is total horror even as one takes action. Yet it seems to simple to face the view of nonviolence with holding up violent questions. Here is where I personally lean into Bonhoeffer myself, seeing that he had a kind of sliding scale of necessity of action, with a strong preference for pacifism that ultimately gave way to violent resistance–despite him still holding it to be sinful (see, for example, this work). While I don’t hold to pacifism, I find it an appealing view, and Werntz did an excellent job noting the different ways it can be presented and thought about.

Just war is one of the simpler to understand positions, but that doesn’t make it the right one or the strongest. However, reading Patterson’s essay may sway some towards his view. He notes that “Christians are called to serve in the time and place where God has put them…” and that could include “fighting on the frontlines to stop genocide” (40-41). But such a view also runs into difficulty, effectively having to go beyond Jesus’s command to turn the other cheek and reason from that to participating in drone strikes on potentially violent targets. I kind of wish some of the others had pressed harder against this position in the responses.

War, Peace, and Violence does a good job introducing readers to the major topics related to Christianity and war. Readers interested in the topic should view it as a good way to pick up discussion and further reading recommendations on the topic.

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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


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