War and Peace: A Review of Relevant Statements by Church Bodies Which Preceded the Founding of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

[1] In the wake of the September 11, 2001 tragedies in New York City and Washington, D.C., and the subsequent “new kind of war” being waged by the United States and its coalition partners, it may be useful to review the statements relating to war and peace from the antecedent Lutheran church bodies of the ELCA. Such a review may help us to determine at least the broad outlines and salient points of view which either reflected or helped to shape the thinking of church members in this critical area of ethical reflection.

[2] War, and the acute ethical problems it presents, were certainly burning issues for the nation during the approximately twenty-five years preceding the formation of the ELCA. America’s involvement in the Vietnamese war was a topic of intense public debate and widespread discontent. Questions of conscientious objection and amnesty were passionately discussed.

[3] The purpose of this review will be to examine the official statements relating to war and peace of The American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America during this period, together with a briefer look at statements of predecessor churches pre-dating 1960, and to offer some ethical reflection and comment on these statements.


1. “War, Peace, and Freedom” (1966)
A. Basic Understanding of War
[4] The American Lutheran Church’s most comprehensive statement on the topic was entitled “War, Peace, and Freedom,” and was adopted by the 1966 General Convention. War was declared to be a denial of God’s central commandment of love, “a consequence of a world estranged from God, a fruit of sinful man’s passions.” Together with injustice and the denial of human rights, war was understood as profaning God’s creation and negating righteousness. While war has always had these destructive effects, the new dimension of modern warfare is that “man now seems to have it within his power through total war to bring this world to an end.”

[5] Even though war was declared to be contrary to God’s plan and purpose, it could still be used by God. “When man’s disobedience brings war, God can transform it into a chastening of sinful, rebellious men and nations that deny His Lordship and defy His demands for justice and mercy.”

[6] While war was understood as wrong – a denial of God’s commandment of love and a consequence of sin – it was presented as sometimes necessary to preserve freedom and prevent the total victory of evil powers in a sinful world: “The price of freedom may be so high as to require war…. it is possible that a nation and its people cannot have peace, security, and freedom. Under some circumstances their only alternatives may be either the peace of surrender to tyranny and totalitarianism or the security and freedom bought by risking and engaging in war.” Or again: “…as a means of deterring aggression, maintaining human liberties, and assuring justice war sometimes may become man’s last desperate resort to prevent the total victory of evil powers in a sinful, fallen world.”

[7] War is least likely to occur, it was asserted, when probable contestants maintain a balance of strength, and when nations are equally sure that their opponents possess not only military power, but also the will to use it.

[8] War was understood as an “emergency use” of temporal power for the maintenance of order and justice. A willingness to engage in war may be a nation’s only means of assuring its independence and preserving its God-given opportunities and responsibilities. War may be the means for defending moral and spiritual values. “The forces of evil may become so fierce that men will rise in moves of desperation to curb demonic powers.”

B. The “Just War” Issue
[9] Article XVI of the Augsburg Confession, which declares that “Christians may without sin…engage in just war, serve as soldiers…” was cited in support of the church’s understanding of war. The criteria by which sixteenth century Christians were willing to judge whether a particular war was just were outlined, with the reminder that these criteria were “understood not as justifying war per se but as giving criteria by which to evaluate the justice or injustice of a particular war.”

[10] It was asserted, however, that the conditions and assumptions which underlay the guidance by which a sixteenth century Christian might judge the justice of engaging in a war rarely prevail today: “Widely circulated propaganda and managed news cut away the foundation necessary for informed and objective decision-making. Total war wipes out any meaningful distinctions between voluntary enlistment and the draft, between bearing or not bearing arms, between combatants and noncombatants, between the fighting front and the home front, between military objectives and total victory. The decision of whether or not to go to war is a corporate decision made by political authorities. No citizen can be excused from the massive mobilization of effort which total war demands.”

[11] In the light of these understandings, the statement sought to balance the legitimate demands of Christian citizens to participate in war, with the legitimate claims of conscientious objection: “It is the Christian’s duty, therefore, as a loyal citizen to obey the demands of his government unless he feels conscience-bound to resist. Not knowing the subtleties of diplomacy and the intricacies of statecraft which brought his nation to the precipice of war, he must trust the soundness of judgment of its leaders. Should he lose confidence in their judgment, their integrity, or the rightness of their course, he must work for changes in his nation’s policies, objectives, or leadership. If he is sufficiently convinced that his nation is on a course hostile to God’s will, the Christian has the right and the duty to resist. As he does so he knows that he must be willing to accept the consequences, both spiritual and civic. Equally as surely must the person who supports and participates in carrying out the policies of his nation examine his own conscience and the moral consequences of his action.”

[12] The counsel of obedience to government in support of a war – except when one must obey God rather than man – was not to be construed as in any sense a denial of the evil of war. “War can be understood as a seemingly necessary last resort to which sinful men and nations turn in their desperation. War cannot, however, be called good, righteous, or holy.”

C. The Church’s Task
[13] The statement claimed that it is the church’s task to speak relevant counsel to those who confront the questions and tensions of war. Members of the church were called upon to help clarify and shape public policy on the issues surrounding war. Because nations engaged in war typically invoke high moral and ethical principles to justify their position, church leaders need to be careful “lest they be used to give religious sanction or theological justification to a war which is no more than a naked power struggle for material advantage.”

[14] The church, because of its universal nature, has an obligation to rise above the partisanship of nation, race, or class and to offer the gospel of reconciliation. While supporting such of the nation’s goals and objectives as it believes to be in harmony with God’s purposes, and offering a supportive ministry to those in the armed services, the church must also seek to develop alternative ways to deal with conflict. Although the seeds of conflict can never be totally eliminated from this world, the Christian must always work for those things which make for peace.

[15] Specific constructive examples of Christian involvement in peacemaking were suggested. Included were support for such items as cultural exchange programs, development and relief assistance, multilateral reduction of armaments, international control to insure the peaceful uses of outer space, technical assistance to younger nations, and the establishment and support of agencies of international conciliation.

2. The War in Vietnam
[16] America’s involvement in the Vietnamese war was a topic of intense public debate and widespread discontent for more than a decade. The American Lutheran Church addressed itself to the issues of this involvement in statements adopted by the General Convention in 1966, 1968, and 1972.

[17] The 1966 statement entitled “Vietnam Involvement” declared the church to be “uneasy and troubled” about American involvement in the war. This uneasiness related at least in part to a concern that America’s efforts were too exclusively military, without sufficient emphasis on social, economic, and political measures.

[18] While Americans knew, at least in a limited way, something about the death, destruction, and misery inflicted by the war, the statement declared that too little was known about the factors which would support our war efforts. While supporting the stated aims of the war to assist the South Vietnamese people, there was concern that America’s actions might not be in consonance with its stated aims: “We do not want our nation to adopt the tactics of deceit, denial of the truth, trickery, and subversion we find so detestable in some other nations.” The statement expressed appreciation for the American government’s efforts in seeking to negotiate solutions to the war, but concluded by urging church members to study the issues and express themselves to government leaders.

[19] The 1968 statement, entitled “Vietnam 1968,” expressed intensified concern about America’s involvement in the war. It cited the continued diversion of resources from domestic crises and the increased chances of major power confrontation as a consequence of further escalation or prolonged stalemate as reasons for uneasiness. It pointed out that The American Lutheran Church shared a variety of concerns about the war, and then went on to assert: “We do so as loyal citizens, but also as Christians whose first allegiance is to God under whose judgment the policies and actions of all nations must pass. We recognize that military power is necessary for national security. But we believe that the use of military power must be guided by an emphasis on human rights and values, by a desire to provide the stability through which justice and human community can be pursued.”

[20] The statement commended the American government for its unilateral de-escalation of the war, paving the way for Paris discussions, and urged “that every responsible effort be made to secure a cease-fire agreement at the earliest possible date.” It encouraged continued re-examination of American foreign policy. And the statement closed by reiterating the final paragraph of the 1966 statement calling for study, prayer, and repentance.

[21] No statement on America’s Vietnam involvement was issued in 1970. When in 1972 The American Lutheran Church issued a statement entitled “American Military Involvement in Southeast Asia,” it was divided into a majority report and a minority report. The majority report, for the first time, unequivocally condemned the course of American policy and action in Vietnam: “We have come to the conviction that our military involvement in Southeast Asia, however well-intended, has proven to be a tragic mistake. We recognize that incomplete information, managed news, and propaganda hide from us many of the realities of the situation and cloud or distort our vision. We recognize also the complex historical and national policy decisions which led to our nation’s involvement in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, we believe that our nation cannot accomplish its declared goals by destroying the people, the society, and the lands it claims to be helping. The means used are inappropriate to the ends sought. The consequences of further American military operations in Southeast Asia appear to us to outweigh by far the probable good to be won through continuing the conflict. The costs of military involvement – in the death, mutilation, wounds, agony, and heartbreak of persons, in the ravaging and scarring of the environment, in the diversion of scarce and irreplaceable resources from people-serving to people-destroying ends, in the breakdown of the institutions and structures which give moral fiber and strength to a society, in the lack of attention to such urgent domestic issues as poverty, racism, housing, quality of education… – are beyond the limits justice allows. Unremitting military involvement continues the reign of death and destruction abroad and encourages violence at home. It aggravates and perpetuates an insensitivity to people and to human values. In our concern for America’s own honor and America’s own national self-interest we have largely forgotten the people of Southeast Asia who have borne the brunt of the anguish, misery, suffering, and destruction imposed by this long, costly, and cruel struggle.”

[22] Those subscribing to the majority report declared themselves “members of the world-wide Body of Christ, an international community,” and expressed appreciation for the reproof of Christians in other lands. Looking beyond the cessation of fighting, the majority report declared the responsibility of American Christians to participate in the rebuilding of Southeast Asia and in effecting reconciliation.

[23] In contrast to the majority report, the minority report expressed its support for American governmental policy in Vietnam. Recognizing, as did the majority report, the complex historical developments leading to America’s involvement in Vietnam and the difficulty of fully understanding the situation because of incomplete information, managed news, and propaganda, the minority report noted that “the President of the United States has the latest of best information on the status of negotiations, prisoners of war, of the air support necessary to protect the South Vietnam military.” It commended the president for winding down the war, and requested that he negotiate a complete end to the war that would maintain the honor and integrity of the country and facilitate the return of our prisoners of war as soon as possible.

3. Conscientious Objection
[24] Because of the nature of the debate about America’s involvement in the war in Vietnam, conscientious objection was an important issue. The matter of selective conscientious objection was of particular significance because those who objected to participating in a particular war, but not to participating in all wars, had no legal option for exercising their convictions.

[25] The 1966 statement on “War, Peace, and Freedom” had reiterated the responsibility of Christians to assume the duties of citizenship, including the bearing of arms in a “just war.” It recognized, however, that pacifism was also a respected Christian option, and offered support to its members who objected to participating in war because of the dictates of conscience.

[26] The statement went on to declare: “The American Lutheran Church appreciates that government recognizes the demands of conscience and provides alternate channels by which he whose conscience forbids him to bear arms may serve the needs of his country. The American Lutheran Church respectfully asks that the pertinent provisions for alternative service be applied to those of its members whose conscience impels them to refuse the bearing of arms and commends to its members who are conscientious objectors those alternatives for fulfilling the responsibility of citizenship. It recognizes its duty to ministry spiritually to the conscientious objector as well as to him who for conscience sake bears arms for his country.”

[27] In 1968, only the final paragraph of a proposed statement on “Selective Conscientious Objection” was approved: “For its own part, The American Lutheran Church urges its members, and especially its pastors, to counsel with and stand by those who conscientiously object to military service as consistently as they counsel with and stand by those who for equal reasons of conscience serve in the armed forces. It warns against attempts to judge a person’s patriotism or his Christian faith by his willingness or unwillingness to render military service.” The principle of selective conscientious objection was still not explicitly recognized or approved.

[28] Not until 1970 was the principle of selective conscientious objection explicitly approved by The American Lutheran Church. In its statement on “National Service and Selective Service Reform,” the church noted that the Congress had provided for alternate service in the case of conscientious objectors who refused participation in any war on religious grounds. Such provision was understood as affirming the “validity of religious training that forms the conscience” and as recognizing “that a democracy must protect the personal integrity of its citizens.”

[29] The statement continued: “We believe it is time now to amend the Selective Service Act so as to provide alternate forms of national service to those who object to war on moral and philosophical grounds other than specifically religious considerations. In addition we believe it is time also to amend the act to provide alternate forms of national service to those who object on religious, moral, and philosophical grounds to participation in a specific war.”

[30] As a basis for this position, the statement expressed the view that “few judgments of conscience can be made categorically, applying in all times and in all places. Most such judgments are made in reference to particular situations, in light of dominant moral values.”

[31] A 1982 statement entitled “Mandate for Peacemaking” included among a list of policy concerns the following: “The American Lutheran Church repeats its call to the government that selective objection to combatant military service, based on a conscientious following of the just-war ethic, be given legal status.”

[32] A 1984 statement entitled “Human Law and the Conscience of Believers” dealt with civil disobedience in a wider variety of contexts. In relation to U.S. military policies, the statement observed that selective participation/objection “is the obvious consequence of adherence to the official Lutheran ethic of peace and war, the just/unjust war criteria.” The statement examined issues pertaining to paying taxes used for military purposes, and protesting military preparations and other military policies. In relation to these and other issues, the statement indicated that disobeying civil law should be done only as a last resort, nonviolently, and with willingness to pay the required penalty.

4. Amnesty
[33] What about those – usually selective conscientious objectors – for whom no legal avenue for expressing their convictions had been available, and who had chosen exile, desertion, or imprisonment? By 1972 the issue of amnesty was a part of the public debate, and The American Lutheran Church adopted a statement entitled “Amnesty in Perspective.”

[34] After defining amnesty as “a setting aside of an indictment for offenses connected with war,” and after providing a general historical backdrop for the current discussion, the statement rehearsed the reasons commonly advanced for and against the granting of amnesty. A general understanding and perspective on amnesty was then offered: “Amnesty has been granted as a matter of public policy when pardon for political offenses has been deemed more expedient for the public welfare than prosecution and punishment. A government grants amnesty in an effort to restore good will, to recover mutual trust, to foster a sense of shared national purpose, and to reconcile divided factions among its citizens.”

[35] The concern of Christians, the statement asserted, “is focused on understanding, acceptance, and reconciliation among American citizens who disagree about the Vietnam war.” Without committing itself to a position – either in favor of or in opposition to amnesty – the statement stressed the need for reconciliation. It quoted the text of a statement adopted by the Lutheran Council in the U.S.A. entitled “Toward Reconciliation” which urged loving concern both for those who conscientiously participated in the war and for those who for reasons of conscience had refused to participate.

5. “Mandate for Peacemaking” (1982)
[36] The 1982 statement entitled “Mandate for Peacemaking” sought to lay the groundwork for a church-wide emphasis on peacemaking that was envisioned to last for a minimum of five years. It held up the biblical call to peacemaking as a fundamental responsibility of the church.

[37] The statement confessed the church’s own brokenness, and declared: “We confess that we have too often succumbed to a feeling of helplessness concerning wars, threats of wars, and the incessant making of tools of wars. We confess that our sense of helplessness has numbed us too often into silence about the politics of peace and war. We confess that we have unbiblically limited the parameters of peacemaking to peace between God and humanity or peace among persons in primary relationships. We confess that we have not made essential, to our theology or our ministry, the tasks of peacemaking among nations, curbing the arms race, and establishment of international justice.”

[38] The statement discussed the increasing sense of insecurity and peril to which the world is being led by escalation in nuclear weaponry. It took note of the possibility, even through miscalculation, of annihilating humankind. It declared that “there is no national security without global security. And there can be no global security without serious progress against poverty and economic injustice.”

[39] Pointing out that Lutherans have historically been part of the just/unjust war tradition, the statement asserted: “The just/unjust war ethic does not excuse believers from the rigor of ethical thinking and decision-making on war and peace. Just-war thinking explicitly rules out the option of unthinking compliance with whatever policies a nation’s political and military leadership happens to be offering the people at a given time.”

[40] A key paragraph of the statement rendered the judgment that based upon either pacifism or the just/unjust war ethic, use of nuclear weapons can never be justified: “Many of us on the basis of the traditional just/unjust war ethic believe that any use of nuclear weapons is unjustifiable, a position usually known as ‘nuclear pacifism.’ Others of us approach all questions of peace and arms from a position of traditional pacifism, believing that the use of armed force of any kind can never be justified. We are brought to that position by our biblical understanding and in recognition that pacifism was a dominant tradition among early Christians. From either pacifism or the just/unjust war ethic, we share a belief that nuclear warfare is immoral. Yet our nation’s present commitment to the doctrine of deterrence assumes the production and deployment of nuclear weapons, and the threat to use them is implicit in the deterrence theory. Our ethical dilemma is that weapons whose use cannot be justified are needed to sustain the balance of fear in which nuclear warfare has been prevented for more than three decades. That ethical dilemma will remain until the nations can agree to eliminate nuclear weapons from the earth.”

[41] The statement further asserted that “The American Lutheran Church declares its judgment that any use of weapons of mass destruction is immoral on the basis of the criteria for waging a just war.”

[42] The statement concluded with a series of recommendations for individuals and the institutional church to engage in the process of peacemaking.


1. Conscientious Objection
[43] The matter of conscientious objection was the first issue relating to war and peace that was addressed by the Lutheran Church in America. In 1964, the Executive Council of the church adopted a resolution encouraging conscientious objectors, prior to the time of their registration for selective service, to state their position in writing to the president of their synod and the secretary of the church. Pastors were encouraged to be supportive of such persons.

[44] In 1968, a social statement entitled “Conscientious Objection” was passed, specifically supporting selective conscientious objection as a legitimate ethical choice. It declared: “Lutheran teaching, while rejecting conscientious objection as ethically normative, requires that ethical decisions in political matters be made in the context of the competing claims of peace, justice, and freedom. Consequently, one need not be opposed to participating in all forms of conflict in order to be considered a bona fide conscientious objector. It is in responsible grappling with these competing claims that a person should consider participation or nonparticipation in the military.”

[45] The statement asserted that the moral considerations that are involved in the stand of conscientious objectors have a positive influence on the whole of a society. It therefore stated the judgment that “the ethical sensitivity and human concern represented in conscientious objection have a value that far outweighs any potential risk to security involved in granting legal exemption. It is better for the general well-being that the conscientious objector be given more than the stark choice between compromised integrity and imprisonment.” It was stated, however, that legal exemption for conscientious objectors is a privilege, not a right.

[46] The statement affirmed: “This church stands by and upholds those of its members who conscientiously object to military service as well as those who in conscience choose to serve in the military. This church affirms that the individual who, for reasons of conscience, objects to participation in a particular war is acting in harmony with Lutheran teaching.” And again: “In the best interest of the civil community, conscientious objectors to particular wars, as well as conscientious objectors to all wars, ought to be granted exemption from military duty and opportunity should be provided them for alternative service, and until such time as these exemptions are so provided, persons who conscientiously object to a particular war are reminded that they must be willing to accept applicable civil or criminal penalties for their action.”

[47] The statement also declared that all conscientious objectors “should be accorded equal treatment before the law, whether the basis of their stand is specifically religious or not.”

[48] The basic points of this position on conscientious objection were reaffirmed in the statement on “Peace and Politics,” adopted in 1984.

2. Vietnam Involvement
[49] In 1966, the Lutheran Church in America adopted a statement entitled “Vietnam.” The statement was fairly general in nature. It took note of the mounting number of dead and wounded on both sides of the conflict. It noted also the continued escalation of military commitments, and the vast destruction of natural and developed resources.

[50] The statement declared that “attempts to bring easy answers to so complex a set of problems may only complicate them. Neither extended war nor immediate unilateral withdrawal by the United States seems to answer the problem. Continuance of the present limited war seems to be no solution. Consequently, it is important that every effort be made to bring all parties to the conflict toward a stance of openness and flexibility with a readiness to respond to whatever beginnings of solutions may emerge.”

[51] The statement called upon its congregations and members “to engage in intensive study and free discussion of the Vietnam question, bringing to bear Christian insight upon all aspects of this crisis.” It also pledged the Lutheran Church in America to continued works of mercy, relief, and rehabilitation through international church agencies.

3. World Community
[52] In 1970, the Lutheran Church in America adopted a statement entitled “World Community: Ethical Imperatives in an Age of Interdependence.” The statement underscored the need to recognize the oneness of the human family, and drew conclusions from that fundamental reality in a technological age. It asserted: “The technologies of communication, transportation, and weaponry are drawing humanity into an increasingly intimate neighborhood where the action of any nation or interest can lead to instantaneous and irreversible consequences for all. People are beginning to sense that if they do not soon devise some means of living together they will surely perish together.” Reference was made to the threat of massive extinction through nuclear holocaust or general pollution of the environment.

[53] In light of the current globalization of technology, the statement urged support for “transnational structures of law and authority within which human enterprise can be regulated to the benefit of all and disputes be settled peacefully.” It specifically encouraged support for the United Nations in its efforts at peacemaking and development.

[54] A broader understanding and definition of national security was urged. “It is clearly time for a rethinking of the meaning of national security. In view of the overkill capacity now possessed by the super-powers, national security can no longer be defined in terms of either nuclear superiority or even nuclear stalemate. The common threat which such weapons hold for all humanity teaches that their continued development can only undermine security. It is now necessary both to create an international legal framework within which arms control can be brought about and to help nations perceive that their safety must be conceived in more than military terms.”

[55] The key paragraph in the statement made the following assertion: “The classical Christian tradition takes full account of the human tendency to destructive aggressiveness and the component of force required by political authority for the purpose of maintaining peace within and among nations. At the same time, it recognizes that any true and lasting peace cannot be purely the maintenance of existing power relationships. Indeed various aspects of the existing power relationships may help to sustain and contribute to the maintenance of dehumanizing and unjust structures that stagnate and resist the growth and development of human rights and justice. True peace must include justice for all; and violence can often be a symptom of unrealized justice. In such cases violence must not be merely viewed as a break from orthodox dissent but also as a manifestation of frustration and despair experience by oppressed people. Peace will be established not through the suppression of human aspirations but rather through the provision of structures within which they can flourish. In addition, this suppression in contrary to the freedom given to everyone and can only result in sowing the seed of greater disunity and ultimate violence and destruction. The history of free people reflects a tradition of liberation. This grants people the strength, freedom and right to challenge oppressive systems in their struggle for justice and social progress.”

[56] The statement urged mobilization of support for increased aid policies which would provide a greater degree of justice to the developing nations. It urged the removal of unfavorable terms of trade for the poorer nations.

[57] Finally, the statement recognized a special role for the church as an institution that transcends race and nations to facilitate communication across walls created by political and ideological division.

4. Peace and Politics
[58] The Lutheran Church in America’s most comprehensive statement on war and peace was adopted in 1984 and entitled “Peace and Politics.” The statement was occasioned by the threat of nuclear war and the policy of nuclear deterrence. It declared nuclear war to be morally unthinkable as a crime against humanity.

[59] It described current political thinking about nuclear deterrence, but indicated that “the deterrent use of nuclear weapons may be endangered by the development of smaller weapons of more limited destructive capacity or the prospect of an arms race in outer space.” It was feared that the possibility of “limited” nuclear war-fighting could weaken the will to prevent nuclear war. “Negotiated arms control and reduction, seeking a stable deterrence at the lowest possible level of risk are principles regarded by many in the strategic community as vital to keeping the peace.”

[60] The statement decried the fact that there was no effective will to halt or control the worldwide proliferation of nuclear weapons or the international traffic in conventional arms. The challenge was “to fashion a security which will ensure and policies which will guarantee the survival of the human family and the possibility of a life that is both safe and just.” Nonviolent ways must be found to manage and move beyond the deeply rooted antagonisms which divide people and states.

[61] The statement declared inner peace to be gift from God, and peace in the world as God’s will. War, at its root, was seen as a consequence of the disorder of sin which infects the human family. This was seen as the root cause of aggression, economic exploitation, racial and national pride, the desire for revenge, and other “external” causes of war.

[62] Estrangement and enmity among persons and nations were seen as nurtured by fear. “Having claimed for itself a privileged position, a nation or group lives in fear of those whom it has suppressed or excluded. Racists fear those whom they have declared inferior; exploiters fear their victims; nationalists fear national enemies; totalitarian rulers fear the free; and religious fanatics fear heretics and infidels. Moreover, the weak and victimized fear the strong. Fear often breeds hatred, and hatred, violent aggression.”

[63] The statement declared that “aggression and its consequence, vengeance, are violations of the will of God.” Nevertheless, God’s presence was seen in the political work of peace. Temporal peace is the work of God’s preservation, and Christians are therefore summoned, along with others, to work for peace.

[64] War was understood to be a last resort, and was subject to the usual restraints of just war thinking: “The legitimate use of deadly force stands under God’s command of love for the weak in the deterrence of aggression, and love for the enemy in the case of hostilities. The discernment of love in such cases is filled with ambiguities, and requires the full participation of the citizenry in critical reflection and moral discourse. The lawful possessors of the means of deadly force are often tempted to employ them in ways which by virtue of being premature, disproportionate, or indiscriminate are unjustifiable. To be justifiable, the application of military force must be undertaken as a last resort and only by legally constituted authority; and it must be waged in a way that is proportionate to the wickedness to be resisted and respectful of the noncombatant civilian. A Christian may evaluate any war in terms such as these, and must decide conscientiously whether his or her participation is ethically justifiable (Augsburg Confession XVI). We recognize the profound ambiguities which members of the armed forces often face in this regard, and support them in the conscientious exercise of their office.”

[65] Since all are sinful before God, the statement asserted “that no nation enjoys a special righteousness or possesses the divine authority to rule over others; that human accountability is ultimately to God alone; and that earthly power itself stands responsible to God under justice.” While there can be no illusion about the possibility of establishing permanent peace or a perfect society, war should never be understood as inevitable. In particular, the statement declared several key judgments:

[66] “We declare without equivocation that nuclear war, with its catastrophic devastation of the earth, is contrary to the good and gracious will of God for the creation. Accordingly we condemn the notion of ‘winning’ a nuclear war, and any military policies or rhetoric which may be predicated on it. We judge nuclear policies of either superpower intended to achieve the capacity for a disarming ‘first strike’ to be inherently destabilizing and evil. An actual first strike would be the most inhuman form of aggression imaginable. A retaliatory strike solely for the purpose of revenge would be no less outside the limits of common morality.”

[67] The notion that the conflict between the nuclear superpowers was an apocalyptic struggle between absolute Good and absolute Evil was condemned. To absolutize the differences between the political values of Western and Eastern systems of government was declared to be “theologically heretical and politically irresponsible.” All notions of national messianism were rejected.

[68] Arms control agreements were encouraged, “especially agreements which forestall the shifting of the arms race to destabilizing new technologies and areas, such as outer space.”

[69] Security was understood to be tied to justice on a global scale. “We affirm that there is no national security without global security. And there can be no global security without serious progress against poverty and economic injustice. Justice and security go hand in hand; without one, the other cannot long endure.” And again: “Political democracies must demonstrate their commitment to freedom and social justice in both their domestic and their international policies.”

[70] Christians were called by the statement to a vocation of peacemaking: “As members of the ecumenical community of faith, transcending time, place, nationality and culture, Christians are challenged to bring to political work a perspective not limited to narrow self-interest. They are challenged to assist the civil community to perceive its security and well-being as interwoven with the security of all people everywhere. As people who understand themselves to be stewards of God’s gifts, Christians are challenged to teach, by word and deed, that the gifts of life in community are a trust to be cared for and handed on to succeeding generations.”


[71] Prior to the formation of The American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America, antecedent church bodies had no history of carefully crafted and deliberated statements on social issues. At best, there were isolated convention resolutions responding to particular issues of the time. The most salient of these will be briefly noted below.

1. United Lutheran Church in America
[72] In 1922, the United Lutheran Church in America declared that nations, no less than individuals, are bound by the moral law and are responsible to God for their actions. It also declared that the maintenance of great standing armies and navies was an appalling waste of economic resources and a menace to peace.

[73] In 1924, the convention asserted that nationalism and internationalism are not mutually exclusive, and that patriotism and love of other nations are complementary. It likewise affirmed the concept of a just war. In 1936, the convention urged the removal of munitions manufacture from private industry. In 1952 it recommended that the U.S. work to bring all armaments under international regulation and control.

[74] On the basis of just war thinking, the right to conscientious objection was affirmed by conventions in 1940, 1944, and 1946. The 1940 resolution declared that the individual’s right to conscientious objection on the basis of the evangelical freedom of conscience “does not imply the church’s approval of such conscientious objection but does proclaim its devotion and respect for the Scriptural principle of the supreme moral responsibility of the individual conscience.” The 1944 resolution authorized the Board of Social Missions to establish a fund to support its members who are in camps for conscientious objectors. The 1946 resolution urged the granting of amnesty and restoration of civil and political rights to all men imprisoned because of conscientious objection to war.

[75] A 1942 resolution, in contrast to nearly all other official statements or resolutions on the subject, declared that “men will never get right with each other until they have first gotten right with God.” And again: “If enduring peace is to come to mankind it can come only to men and through men who are wholly dedicated, through faith in Christ, and by the power of His Holy Spirit, to righteousness and good will.” Or again: “The Church is confronted by an unparalleled opportunity to mold the new age after the pattern of the Kingdom of God.”

[76] Another resolution in 1944 gave support to the development of international institutions to maintain peace with justice. It encouraged international economic cooperation, and the achievement of a just social order within each nation.

[77] In 1944 and 1952 the United Lutheran Church in America took stands against universal military training. In particular, it objected that a permanent system of universal military training would, because it tends to emphasize a militaristic spirit, undermine the nation’s democratic and moral standards. In 1952 it declared that “the experience of other nations has been that universal military training results in the establishment of a military clique in government and social life that has often proved subversive of democratic values.”

[78] A 1950 resolution by the United Lutheran Church in America Executive Board declared war to be evil “at its roots and in its fruits,” and asserted that “the Christian, therefore, seeks war’s abolition, seeing in every war a violation of the spirit and teachings of Jesus.” “God’s love for all men implies a world-wide community in which each man seeks the good of all.” It declared that the Christian emphasis on repentance and forgiveness forbids retaliation and vengeance.

[79] A 1960 resolution dealing with the problem of nuclear weapons encouraged Christians, constrained by the love of God in Christ, “to join with others in working for the abolition of war and for the extension of peace, justice and freedom among the nations.” Recognizing the special ethical problems posed by the development of nuclear weapons, the resolution declared: “No nation is justified in the use of weapons of such magnitude as would result in the total destruction of human life. At the same time we recognize that the dilemma posed by the availability of these weapons can be resolved in abstraction only at grave risk…. The dangers inherent in the nuclear-space age will be decreased in proportion to the effectiveness of agreements for the cessation of nuclear weapons testing and the reduction of national armaments under international inspection and control.”

2. Augustana Lutheran Church
[80] In 1941, the Augustana Lutheran Synod declared its respect for the position of the conscientious objector. “We believe the government should not violate the Christian conscience by seeking to compel conscientious objectors to engage in combatant military service. We ask exemption from all forms of combatant military service for all conscientious objectors who may be members of the Augustana Synod.”

[81] In 1946, the church declared that lasting peace needed to be built on spiritual foundations. “We appeal to all men of good will and who believe in spiritual values and forces to work together for an order of justice and humanity.” The church’s special responsibility was to promote a ministry of reconciliation.

[82] In 1948 the Augustana Synod viewed “with great concern” proposals for compulsory peacetime military training. In 1952, the church commended its members who helped to defeat the Bill for Universal Military Training.

[83] A 1956 resolution called upon our government “to make use of the United Nations in resolving difficult tensions wherever they may threaten world peace; to insist that our western allies recognize the rights of colonial peoples to liberty and self-government; to work progressively toward universal disarmament, including an international agreement to ban the use of atomic weapons; and to take steps to bring about an end to the present practice of drafting young men for the armed services during peacetime…”

[84] In 1957 the church rejected a national policy of “acquisition of strategic military bases around the world, the building of powerful military alliances, and the consequent subservience of peoples out of fear of military and commercial might, and… we propose to further human welfare everywhere in the world by helping men in all places to achieve the ends of justice and liberty under law and elimination of the tyranny of base and cynical despots, and likewise an elimination of the tyranny of hunger and disease in less-favored parts of the world…”

3. American Lutheran Church
[85] In 1960, the Board for Christian Social Action of The American Lutheran Church, in the statement entitled “The Christian in His Social Living,” stated that “our nation’s policies, domestic as well as foreign, should be designed to further purposes consistent with the well-being of the whole family of peoples and nations. In the long view her true ‘national interest’ is best served by advancing the ‘international interest,’ the common well-being of the whole community of nations.” [Note: Most convention actions of The American Lutheran Church were not available to this author for this review.]


[86] Most of the statements and resolutions examined were “occasional” rather than “theoretical” documents. That is, they were written in response to occasions or circumstances that were felt to require some ethical response, rather than providing a theoretical ethical treatment of an issue. Topics like conscientious objection, participation in the Vietnamese war, and the nuclear threat were dealt with because they were topics of intense public discourse.

[87] The two most “theoretical” statements dealing with war and peace were The American Lutheran Church statement in 1966 entitled, “War, Peace, and Freedom,” and the Lutheran Church in America statement in 1984 entitled “Peace and Politics.” Both of these statements dealt in a more comprehensive and theoretical way with ethical reflection on war and peace. It is interesting to note that in The American Lutheran Church the more comprehensive statement preceded its more occasional pronouncements, whereas in the Lutheran Church in America the more comprehensive statement was adopted later in its history.

[88] Throughout the statements and resolutions, just war thinking was understood to be normative for Lutheran ethical reflection. At a number of points, reference was made to Article XVI of the Augsburg Confession. War was understood to be always wrong but sometimes necessary to prevent even greater evil. Several of the statements recited the usual conditions associated with just war thinking to judge or limit a particular war. At the same time, there was some recognition that the principles of a just war cannot always be easily applied to modern wartime conditions.

[89] In some areas, there was a gradual development and refining of the positions taken by the churches. There never was any question, for example, about the churches’ support for conscientious objection. But selective conscientious objection was not specifically endorsed by The American Lutheran Church or the Lutheran Church in America until 1968, even though it would seem to be an obvious conclusion to be drawn from the confessional reference (Augsburg Confession, Article XVI).

[90] Development of the churches’ thinking can also be clearly seen in their pronouncements relating to the war in Vietnam. In 1966 The American Lutheran Church, for example, described itself as “uneasy and troubled” about America’s involvement in that war. In 1968, the uneasiness seems to have intensified. But in 1972 the majority unequivocally pronounced the judgment that the war was a “tragic mistake,” and did so on the basis of usual just war criteria.

[91] The Lutheran Church in America’s 1966 statement on the war in Vietnam was fairly general in nature, calling for its members to engage in study of the issue, and to bring Christian insight to bear. No further statements on Vietnam were issued in the Lutheran Church in America. This raises the question of how the internal dynamics of The American Lutheran Church and Lutheran Church in America may have differed, creating such different outcomes. Certainly both churches subscribed to essentially the same ethical framework of the just/unjust war. Why was one church able or willing to draw conclusions from this ethical framework which the other was not able or willing to draw? Perhaps this example points to the difficulty of dealing adequately with some ethical issues in social statements that require adoption by national conventions or assemblies. At a more profound level, it raises questions about the teaching authority of the church – what it consists of and how it is exercised.

[92] In another area, that of nuclear armaments, both The American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America were unequivocal in their ethical judgment that on the basis of just war criteria nuclear war could never be an ethically acceptable option. Both churches declared themselves, in essence, as nuclear pacifists. Such unequivocal statements gave testimony to the churches’ ability to take a stand against prevailing policies, rather than providing ethical justification for such policies.

[93] Throughout the statements and resolutions there is a positive view of government as ordained by God to curb evil and promote justice and peace. Government is also seen as accountable to a moral order, however. And some of the statements, notably and especially The American Lutheran Church’s 1972 statement on the Vietnam war, express considerable distrust of government. At numerous points, the statements declare that the Christian’s ultimate allegiance is to God alone, and that this transcendent allegiance provides the freedom of conscience to resist unjust claims upon the individual. It is in this context that the statements and resolutions frequently declare their support for dissent – not on the basis of democratic political rights but on the basis of evangelical freedom of conscience. It is also noteworthy that the churches regularly indicated their support for minority voices, even when the majority did not happen to agree.

[94] Nearly all of the statements and resolutions had what might be termed a “realistic” understanding of the use of force in an imperfect world and a non-utopian view of what might be accomplished in terms of justice. A blatant exception was the 1942 resolution by the United Lutheran Church in America declaring that proper relationships between people are absolutely dependent on a right relationship with God, that enduring peace can only come about through those who have faith in Christ, and that the church should seize the opportunity “to mold the new age after the pattern of the Kingdom of God.” This resolution seems totally out of character with the other statements because of its un-Lutheran failure to recognize the legitimacy of civic righteousness on the part of all people of good will, its failure to account for the civil use of the law to promote justice, and its triumphalistic vision of establishing the Kingdom of God in a sinful world.

[95] A key feature of many of the statements was their emphasis on the limited capacity of military action to effect genuine or lasting solutions to international or global problems. While war was understood as a sometimes necessary evil, there was regular recognition that genuine peace and security could only come about through measures that would bring fuller measures of economic justice, especially to the lesser developed nations. Rather than relying on force, the statements therefore pointed in the direction of dealing with root causes as the way to secure peace and security. In this regard, there was a frequent endorsement of transnational organizations and structures, such as the United Nations and arms limitation agreements.

[96] It is obvious that the churches saw their role in relation to issues of war and peace to be that of clarifying issues, and providing instruction and counsel to their members. On a number of occasions they also saw their role as that of advocacy. This can be seen, for example, as early as the 1940s when the United Lutheran Church in America and the Augustana Synod advocated against universal military training. The churches also saw a role for themselves in providing aid to the victims of war, and assisting in efforts at reconciliation. They understood that as part of the universal and transnational church, they had obligations for ethical judgments that transcend national self-interest. And they likewise recognized their responsibility to help promote reconciliation.

[97] In a time when “a new kind of war” is being waged against international terrorism, this historical survey can provide some pertinent clues for contemporary ethical reflection. Consideration of the limitations of military force and the need to examine root causes for conflicts is certainly relevant. The traditional criteria for a just war need to be re-examined in the light of current realities. The right of dissent based upon conscience needs to be guarded in a time when heightened patriotism may stifle such dissent. There needs to be both widespread ethical discussion and also the possibility that the church can, however fallibly, declare its judgments on national policy. The church’s transnational character and transcendent allegiance may place it in a unique position to make its contribution to an ethical critique of the current crisis.

Documents Noted in Text

The American Lutheran Church
– Amnesty in Perspective (1972)
– Human Law and the Conscience of Believers (1984)
– Mandate for Peacemaking (1982)
– National Service and Selective Service Reform (1970)
– Vietnam (1968)
– War, Peace, and Freedom (1966)

Augustana Lutheran Church
– International Affairs (1937-1957)

The Lutheran Church in America
– Conscientious Objection (1968)
– Peace and Politics (1984)
– Vietnam (1966)
– World Community: Ethical Imperatives in an Age of Interdependence (1970)

United Lutheran Church in America
– International Affairs (1922-1960)