The mainline Christian church in America is the church we couldn't have a war without. It has almost always encouraged America to be warlike: "As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free." Its problem just now is that it feels compelled to disapprove of nuclear war but cannot find a convincing way to do so without also disapproving of the wars of its onward- Christian-soldiers past.
Radical Roman Catholic bishops put the mainline church on this spot. Their influence threatens to subvert patriotic, middle-class, American Christianity. The liberal Protestant magazines have been full of Catholic pastoral statements putting Methodists, Episcopalians and Presbyterians, as well as Catholics, into a logical and theological bind--for two reasons.
One is that the bishops' logic is pacifist; it applies to gunpowder as much as to MX missiles. The other reason is that the mainline churches are the churches of soldiers as much as the of protesters. On theological grounds, the mainline churches cannot afford to cut themselves off from their people. They cannot remain what they are and cast out a right wing as hawkish as Jerry Falwell or a left wing as pacifist as William Sloane Coffin. Even the New Testament church contained both sorts-- Roman soldiers and practitioners of nonviolence.
Prominent leaders in the big churches sound lately as if the church should become a peace church and move, with the Amish and the Quakers, to the margins of American culture. Never have I seen so much display of St. Luke's version of the Beatitudes--the impractical command that we give our property to robbers, our shirts to those who demand our coats, and that we pray for and offer no resistance to those who have hurt us.
Mainline Christians in America have never before supposed Luke's Gospel to require pacifism. Now many of our leaders suggest these words of Jesus require not only pacifism but tax resistance.
At Notre Dame, we had a "patriot of the year" every spring. We gave the Laetare Medal, on the third Sunday in Lent, to an American Catholic leader. The senior class, at commencement, gave the university a giant American flag, and Father Hesburgh blessed it with holy water: "God, country and Notre Dame." It was important to say, and these symbols did, that Roman Catholics, even if the sons and daughters of immigrants were good Americans. We fought at our country's call.
Episcopalians, Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists have their own versions of this religious patriotism. American Protestants grew up singing "God Bless America," and it was a warlike America they sang about.
I see an image from another past that symbolizes the agony that is coming to the American church. The image is the churchyard--the cemetery--by the parish church in Saint Radegund, a farming village in Austria. There rest the ashes of Franz Jagerstatter.
He was one of a very few mainline Austrian Christians who refused to fight for Hitler. His parish priest, bishop, prison chaplain and lawyers tried to talk him out of his refusal. He got no encouragement from any brother or sister Christian; he still refused.
He was convicted of resisting the war effort and was beheaded. His body was cremated, his ashes were buried in a section of the churchyard reserved for soldiers who died in the war. After the war, his name was put on a war memorial in the church. Unless you knew better you would suppose he had been a soldier for the Third Reich.
The agony of the church: the Christians in Saint Radegund did not know what to do with Jagerstatter's ashes! They couldn't ignore them. They couldn't write Jagerstatter out of their history. The reason not to was moral. The church was wrong, and Jagerstatter was right. It was wrong to fight for Hitler. How could you pretend Jagerstatter never existed when he had been right?
Those Christians didn't want to set up a special section for martyrs either; that would have diminished their regard for the brave soldiers who died in the war. Right or wrong, the dead soldiers had been Christians, too. So the parish churchyard holds the remains of 53 of Hitler's Christian soldiers, and one of those Hitler killed.
I see the dilemma of Saint Radegund as a symbol for the agony of the warlike, mainline church in America-- a symbol rather like the crosses churches use to decorate their buildings.