Editor’s note: With global migration on the rise and cultural polarization increasing, there is a pressing need for peace among neighbors and nations. In this six-part series, “Lutheran legacy of peacemaking,” we’re exploring Lutheran contributions to the Christian tradition of peacemaking. The series will culminate in the September issue in conjunction with the International Day of Peace (Sept. 21). 

In his commentary on Psalm 82, Martin Luther noted that the first responsibility of the prince (today we use the term “public official”) “is to preserve the peace.” The second, he said, “is to help the poor, the orphans and the widows to have justice and to defend their cause; the third is to defend against force and harm and prevent violence, punish rascals and use the sword against the wicked so that peace will be upheld in the land.”  

Included in Luther’s Spirituality (Paulist Press, 2007), for which I served as co-editor, Luther qualified the third responsibility by saying:  

“It is indeed a splendid and needful thing to build strong cities and castles against one’s enemies, but that is nothing when compared with the work of the prince who builds a stronghold of peace and administers it. … One must keep peace as long as one can, even if one must buy it with all the money that would be spent on war or won by the war. Victory never makes up for what is lost by war.” 

In Luther’s view, political leaders must ensure peace and just laws that enable families to thrive and economies to prosper. A just and effective government doesn’t depend upon the piety of the home, but family values depend upon a well-ordered and just government that protects everyone and preserves the peace. He argued that families and commerce can’t prosper without peace and that the church is challenged to proclaim the gospel when there is no peace.   

In this commentary, Luther insisted that it’s the church’s responsibility—especially that of the pastor—to hold political leaders accountable to their vocation. This is contrary to the views of many in our congregations who feel it’s “political” for a pastor to publicly criticize those in government. For others, however, politics is public morality, and, according to Luther, it’s the job of the pastor to hold public officials accountable.  

“For Peace in God’s World” 

One of the gifts we have as ELCA members is our social statements, which give us guidance as we live out our baptismal promises and callings to strive for justice and peace in the world. The ELCA social statement “For Peace in God’s World” (1995) follows the Lutheran theological and biblical tradition of advocating for “a strong presumption against all war.” The statement adds: “Support for and participation in a war to restore peace is a tragic concession to a sinful world. … [A]ny decision for war must be a mournful one.”  

Thus, while preferring nonviolence over violence, diplomacy over military engagement and deterrence over war, the statement acknowledges that war may be just in exceptional circumstances, especially in defense of a neighbor. According to the statement, the conditions that must be met include: 

“Right intention, justifiable cause, legitimate authority, last resort, declaration of war aims, proportionality, and reasonable chance of success. The principles for conducting war include noncombatant immunity and proportionality. The principles for post-war conduct include showing mercy to the defeated and assisting them to rebuild. Justifiable national and international commitment of forces to armed conflicts depend on adherence to these principles.” 

In order to prevent war and violence, the statement advocates respect for human rights, consistent with a Lutheran understanding of humanity having been created in God’s image: “Human rights provide a common universal standard of justice for living with our differences, and they give moral and legal standing to the individual in the international community.” In order to preserve the peace, the statement asserts, it’s vital that we preserve human institutions, even in their fallibility, that promote human rights, such as the United Nations, the International Court of Human Rights in the Hague and others.  

The social statement is clear that preventing war and violence depends on our church and congregations advocating for aid to other countries and people in need, as well as caring for creation, as so many of our current global conflicts are fought over economic disparities and dwindling natural resources.  

In our liturgies we pray for the peace of the world. As Christians, we pray for peace—God’s peace that passes all understanding—and we know that Jesus commends the peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). As we pray for heavenly peace, God works through the church and through each of us for earthly peace.  

As Luther asked in his commentary: “Why am I so foolish as to narrate the benefits of peace and the injuries of lack of peace? I might as well count the sands on the seashore or the leaves and the grass in the woods. Christ himself compares peace to heaven and says, ‘The peacemakers will be called children of God.’ ” 

Next: In August this series will highlight contemporary peacemakers in the global Lutheran church, including companions from Liberia, Zimbabwe, South Sudan and Colombia.

Philip Krey
Philip Krey is pastor of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Perkasie, Pa., and the Ministerium of New York Professor of Church History emeritus at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.

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