Between the Pew and the Forum

[1] In the classic novel by J.R.R. Tolkien The Lord of the Rings, a mesmerizing epic drama unfolds in “Middle-earth.” The hobbit Frodo Baggins is entrusted with the One Ring and sets out with his friend Sam Gamgee on the quest to destroy the ring and thereby foil the powers of evil. Even if the meaning of “Middle-earth” is debated, the allusion to a place situated “in the middle” carries some analogy to the Christian life. As Frodo and his friend Sam strove their way through “Middle-earth,” so the Christian may be said to be on a pilgrimage with a desired goal. The understanding of the Christian life as a pilgrimage holds profound implication for the Christian’s role and identity in the world. The Christian may be said to be in the world, but not of the world. This identity as a pilgrim is closely related to Jesus’ mentioning of the two swords in Luke 22:38, which has been a constant source of interpretation and differing views in Christian theology and ethics. Throughout Christian tradition this idea of two powers has continuously been debated. During the last few years – not least since 9/11 – the centrality of this question and the practical implications it holds has once again become very clear to us all. If anybody had forgotten that religion and politics had something to do with each other, surely they could no longer be in doubt. However, more important than recognizing that the two are related is the pursuit to deepen the understanding of this relation. This is a challenge not only for professional politicians and policy makers, but even more so for “ordinary” citizens who find themselves between the pew and the public forum.

[2] In the recent case of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena this question seems to have reappeared. The question is not if there should be a distinction between religion and politics, rather the question is how this relation is qualified. For All Saints an important distinction is made between political and partisan. The church acknowledges that it would not be right as a church to take a partisan stance. However, it maintains as part of its self-understanding and history as a “Peace and Justice Church” that Christian faith entails certain moral and theological values that can be presented in a non-partisan way.1 This was part of the background of the sermon – “If Jesus Debated Senator Kerry and President Bush” – delivered on October 31, 2004 by former rector Rev. George F. Regas – a few days before the Presidential election. In the sermon Rev. Regas is careful not to take a partisan stance, and yet he wants to preach about the teachings of Jesus with regard to three issues: war and violence, poverty, and hope.2 In Rev. Regas’ sermon the message is quite clear: Jesus is a peacemaker and as such opposed to any form of war. Further, the rise in poverty in the U.S. during the years leading up to the election also calls for a new awareness of these social issues. Lastly, Rev. Regas consoles his listeners and encourages them never to lose hope for a new America. As presented in the present volume of Journal of Lutheran Ethics, this sermon caused the IRS authorities to initiate a church tax inquiry in order to determine if the All Saints Church could be said to have been involved in political campaigning.3

[3] This inquiry raises several questions. In the present essay, however, attention will be given to ethical issues. The question addressed is whether this sermon could be said to blur a distinction between religion and politics that should be maintained. In discussing this question the focus will be on one of three themes of Rev. Regas’ sermon – namely the pacifist view on war. In doing so I wish to argue that Rev. Regas’ sermon represents a well known classical view on war in Christian ethics – albeit not the only one. Rev. Regas may, therefore, be seen as merely representing such a classical view and therefore by no means intervening in political campaigns and elections. It is worth noting that this question does not address the issue that this was a “sermon,” nor does it discuss the implications of the church as a tax-exempt organization. The question in this essay focuses only on the content and discusses that from an ethical perspective.

[4] In traditional Christian ethics on war, one can distinguish between three approaches – crusades, just war, and pacifism.4 The term “crusades” usually refers to military actions during the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries undertaken to regain Jerusalem from Islamic occupation. The origins are to be found in the concept of holy war which one may find in the Old Testament, where the war is fought with a supposedly God-given righteous cause. Without further questioning or justification the war is undertaken to punish the wicked. During the 11th Century the medieval crusades were developed further and wars were undertaken without any recognition of an overall authority. Interestingly, the point could be made that the war in Iraq could be considered a crusade. This is supported by remarks from President George Bush in the very first days after September 11th, 2001.5

[5] The other position on war is the concept of just war. The just war tradition arose in the 4th Century after the Constantinian establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire. Central to this tradition became the distinction between the “jus ad bellum” and “jus in bello.” For the “jus ad bellum” (i.e. the justice in going to war) central criteria were that the need for war is made only with a just cause, that war is waged out of a right intention and authority, that there is a reasonable hope of success and a peaceful outcome, and that a minimum of harm is done. For the “jus in bello” (i.e. the justice within a war) central criteria are the need to control the harm done by weapons, a need to protect the innocent, a consideration on proportionality and double effect. This just war perspective has played a central role in the moral debate on the war in Iraq. In the present journal the argument has even been made that the war in Iraq could be considered a just war.6 Even if this argument could be made, however, leading bodies within the Christian church held the view that the war on Iraq was not a just war.7

[6] The last position is the pacifist. In the early church this position seems to have held a central role. The emphasis on peacemaking in Jesus’ teaching was central to his message and conveyed to his disciples as a central calling (Matt. 5:9). Within the pacifist position one can, however, differentiate between principled, pragmatic and selective pacifism. Principled pacifism is focused on an interpretation of Jesus’ ministry and firmly believes that only non-violence can beget non-violence. The pragmatic pacifism acknowledges the ideal of pacifism but appreciates that certain consequences and conditions need to be taken into account. Finally, selective pacifism would consider war-fighting only in exceptional cases. Thus, the pacifist position would be one among other options in Christian ethics when reflecting on war. As with other wars, the war on Iraq could also be criticized from this viewpoint. Such a critique could hardly be called political, even if it has political implications. The critique would merely be an example of a Christian ethical position on war.8 Viewed in this light, Rev. Regas’ sermon could simply be seen as an example of a classical Christian ethical position – namely principled pacifism.

[7] So from an ethical perspective Rev. Regas’ sermon is definitely a standpoint worth consideration. But it is not the only one. From a Christian ethical perspective one could also argue for other views. But Rev. Regas’ position deserves serious consideration in its deep commitment to the teachings of Jesus. It is a profound and passionate advocacy of a pacifism which holds deep roots in the New Testament. It is a voice which too often is silenced in the turmoil and pragmatics of everyday politics. Rather than silencing such a voice we need to listen closely to the prophetic message it holds. Therefore, when All Saints differentiates between the political and the partisan in press releases, I would like to suggest another distinction – a Christian ethical position with political implications. This is what Rev. Regas represents, as I read his sermon. The sermon is not necessarily political or partisan. Rather, it may be read as a sermon on Christian ethics with regard to social issues such as war. One could hardly question the responsibility of a pastor to raise such issues. Even if one would disagree with the strong emphasis on pacifism it couldn’t be questioned that this is a classical position in Christian ethics and as such in no way a political stance. Seen in this light the sermon by Rev. Regas is merely an attempt to remind the congregation to remain faithful to their calling and pointing out his understanding of a Biblical teaching on war.

[8] So even if many of us would recognize our own experiences of the ambiguities of human experience in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, when he speaks of our partial understanding of God’s glory before the eschaton (1 Cor. 13, 12),9 it is still important to maintain space for the legitimacy of more radical views. In 1979 the American songwriter Bob Dylan released the song “Gotta Serve Somebody” on the album Slow Train Coming.10 In this song Dylan captures some of the radical nature of the Biblical narratives. There is no neutral place or sphere. There is no place in between, no neutral “Middle-earth.” You will always serve somebody. You must take a stance. Even if this message is provoking, it seems to be in line with Rev. Regas’ sermon. We are called to take a stance. This is a stance we are called to take all the time – even a few days before a presidential election. As Christians we are called to bear witness to the calling which has been bestowed on us. This may be done in various ways-including that of taking the pacifist position. A strong argument could even be made for this position as being particularly suitable for bearing Christian witness. From a Christian ethical perspective it can hardly be said to be a problem that the congregation of All Saints was reminded of this as they pondered the relation between the pew and the forum.

End Notes

1 Cf. e.g. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, One Volume Edition (Houghton Mifflin, 1999) apart from numerous other editions.

2 All Saints Church, Press Release, November 16, 2005,

3 “If Jesus Debated Senator Kerry and President Bush”, A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. George F. Regas, Rector Emeritus, October 31, 2004,

4 IRS Letter to All Saints Church, June 09, 2005,

5 In the following I rely on R. John Elford, “Christianity and war”, in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Ethics, ed. Robin Gill (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 171-182.

6 In the article by James Carroll. “The Bush Crusade”, The Nation, September 20, 2004, this view is developed further and discussed critically.

7 Brian Stiltner, “The Justice of War on Iraq,” Journal of Lutheran Ethics, Volume 3, Issue 6, June 2003,

8 One example of this is the Vatican’s strong critique of this war. See e.g. Mark and Louise Zwick. “Pope John Paul II calls War a Defeat for Humanity: Neoconservative Iraq Just War Theories Rejected”. Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXIII, No. 4, July-August 2003,

9 As a recent example of the pacifist position in Christian ethics, see e.g. the article Stanley Hauerwas, Linda Hogan, and Enda McDonagh, “The Case for Abolition of War in the Twenty-First Century,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 25, 2 (2005): 17-35.

10 For a Christological reading of the concept of the secular in Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Milbank, see Ulrik B. Nissen, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Ethics of Plenitude,” Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 26, 1 (2006) (forthcoming)

11 Bob Dylan. Slow Train Coming, Recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, Released Aug 20, 1979.