Discussing war with teens

Jen Bradbury
May 06 · 5 min read

In Lent, as we discussed the story of Jesus' arrest, my students were intrigued by Jesus' command to Peter to put away his sword because “all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”

Immediately, students began asking about what this verse meant in the context of war.

Does this mean Christian shouldn't fight in the military?
Does this mean that if we're a Christian nation, we shouldn't go to war?
What about people who say they're fighting for God? Is that even possible?

When combined with my belief that it's important to discuss controversial topics with students, their questions prompted me to scrap a previously planned discussion in favor of inserting a discussion on war into my ministry's calendar.

I began this conversation by asking students to move to an area in the room that best described their belief about war:

War is always wrong.
War is mostly wrong, except in extreme cases, like genocide.
If someone attacks you, war is an appropriate response.

The division of students around the room quickly showed their diverse opinions, something that became even more readily apparent the further we dove into our discussion. At one point, I asked a question and every hand in the room shot up – students eager to vocalize their opinion and maybe just maybe, learn from one another.

As our conversation continued, among other things, we discussed the doctrine of just war. After explaining it's basic tenets, we wrestled with whether or not the United States' War on Terror was just. As we did, I posed the question, "Do you think, in an age of terrorism, the just war doctrine is still relevant?" 

That's when one of my students said, “I think it's even more relevant now, when we don't know who the enemy is.”

So simple, profound, and true.

At the end of the evening, I think more than anything else, students saw how complex and confusing this issue is; How it's better defined in shades of gray than in black and white.

And don't get me wrong, there is value in this realization. Even so, given that cognitively, teens are still just beginning to learn to think abstractly, leaving an issue unresolved can be difficult.

So on this night, we concluded our time together by doing what Christians have, for centuries, done in uncertain times. We turned to God in prayer.

I shared with students the staggering number of the world's countries that are currently engaged in conflict. Then, I gave each student a description of a country in conflict and asked them to write a prayer for peace in that country on white (the color of peace) crepe paper.

We then closed with a short, responsive prayer for peace. As part of this, students read the prayers they wrote for conflicted countries around the world.

In so doing, this prayer became a tangible, concrete act in an otherwise abstract world.

On a night in which life felt heavy and dark, this prayer also became a beacon of light and of hope.