A friend recently brought up the question of war as understood by Christianity. Is a war ever just? Is fighting in a war ever justified? Would Jesus have been a pacifist? My friend took the view that as it is possible to interpret any religion so broadly as to seek to justify completely divergent views, religion should not matter in public discourse involving politics, law, foreign policy, state policy, et al.
There are many dimensions to this question. Let's try to think broadly over some of these:
1. War is a characteristic of the fallen world. It takes human lives, often the lives of innocent people. Is it ever justified?
2. Wars happen in countries which Christians call their home and love dearly. But is a Christian justified in fighting a war?
3. Even if a country declares war for a presumably just cause, wars inevitably create sin in the lives of Christian soldiers fighting them: they foster a hateful attitude towards the enemy, they create loyalties to the state rather than God (even if the state's intentions are presumably aligned with God's), they enable soldiers to kill and thus get used to talking human lives- and this makes for a conscience that will trouble the toughest minds, they coarsen men by their very nature of violence, as well as by the nature of most militaries in the world- the rowdy company, the bawdy jokes, the question R&R practices, and so on. In the light of this, are the armed services a career option for a Christian?
4. Even if a country declares war for a presumably just cause, all actions in a war by any country cannot be justified. It is safe to assume that every country that has fought a war has had to revert to dubious measures to win battles. If a Christian is compelled to go into the armed services, he/she cannot desert the services with honour. But in the light of the above dubious situations, how could he/she remain in the services?
5. War fosters military spending, fueling further wars. It creates, as is in plentiful evidence today, an industry that develops lethal weapons and profits by it- it is in the interests of this industry to create wars or rumours of war and profit thereby. Why should a nation encourage this at all?
You see, five questions. And we've only just begun. The question of Go/No-Go decisions on fighting wars based on a moral understanding is as old as the very first act of aggression, possibly that of Cain upon Abel.On April 20, 1795, James Madison, one of the founding fathers of the US Constitution and fourth President of the United States, wrote,
"Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. . . . [There is also an] inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and . . . degeneracy of manners and of morals. . . . No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare. . . . "
Madison covers almost all these questions and concludes that war is to be most dreaded of all enemies to public liberty.l
A few months ago, I had written a review of the book 'Beyond Opinion' on this blog. In it, in the chapter titled “Postmodern Challenges to the Bible,” Amy Orr-Ewing writes that historically, Christians have taken four options as they understand war, retaliation, justice, and violence:
1. THOROUGHGOING MILITARISM: Any war, anytime, anyplace, and for any cause is just. Christians could work as mercenaries.
2. SELECTIVE MILITARISM: Only war that the state declares is just. Christians could serve as soldiers in their nation's armed forces.
3. SELECTIVE PACIFISM: Only war with which the individual agrees is just. Christians could volunteer to serve in their nation's armed forces for a particular conflict.
4. THOROUGHGOING PACIFISM: No war anytime, anyplace, or for any cause is just. No Christian should ever serve in the armed forces.
Orr-Ewing goes on to ask which of these positions was reflective of the church in its first three centuries of existence? If I remember right, I think Amy mentioned that the early church was inclined towards Option 3- Selective Pacifism. What then may have happened to those who were serving in the Roman army and were Christians? We do not know- they may or may not have quit. In today's world, in most countries, Christians are inclined towards Option 2. This holds true especially in America, as the US sees itself as a city set on a hill- at least many Christians in the US do, and understand that metaphor as being a fundamentally Christian nation.
A cursory reading of the history of wars and rebellions that the US has been directly or indirectly involved in will cast doubts on whether Option 2 is relevant any more in the US. The Amish people of course have always been thoroughgoing pacifists, but then the community's stance on war as its stance on many other issues is a mere blip in American Christian public life.
The four options Amy gives have been discussed onother blogs. Here is a blog that sets out the following explanation:
Before Constantine, the church’s response was entirely as pacifist that allowed Christians converts to stay in the army. Government was seen as the great beast of Revelation 13.
It was not until the time of Augustine (354-430 AD) that “just war theory” began to be articulated as he faced the Donatist controversy. “The primary disagreement between Donatists and the rest of the early Christian church was over the treatment of those who renounced their faith during the persecution of Roman emperor Diocletian (303–305)” (Wikipedia).
It was Augustine who applied Paul’s teachings in Romans 13 to those living under Christian ruling authorities.
If the early Christians were pacifist but were allowed to stay in the army, there are more questions that need to be faced squarely. Did these Christians fight wars? It would seem logical to believe that they did. Rome was an empire after all, and constantly deploying armies to quell unrest and hold out against the Huns who later laid siege to Jerusalem in AD 70.
The above blog also gives these broad ideas:
1. Atheist ideologies have led to more deaths and wars in the 20th century than in the previous centuries “wars of religion” combined.
2. War in the Old Testament is always limited in scope. See Deuteronomy 20 and 1 Samuel 15.
3. God’s judgment on rulers and nations stands today as well. We cannot trust in our military might. We must give God permission to go before us, and indeed He does.
4. Jesus never gave approval to violence. His ministry challenged the allegiances of every person. His teachings did not only apply to the “religious side” or “private world” of his hearers.
Matthew 5:44 “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”
Matthew 22:21 “Give to Caesar what is Caesar”
Matthew 26:52 “Put your sword back in its place”
John 18:36 “My kingdom is not of this world”
John 19:11 “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above”
1 Peter 2:21 “To this you were called . . . “
Let us try to answer our questions. These are what seem probable to me; I'm not concluding on these bases for good.
Answer 1. The only argument for war that could exist is the argument from choosing a lesser evil. Jesus asked us to turn the other cheek. This holds true for an individual. Does it hold true when you are protecting someone else's life? If a marauder came into your house and threatened your daughter's life, is it wrong to defend yourself with violence? This argument points to the fallenness of the world in whcih the Christian needs to live, despite his having "died" to the world in Christ. The only example of Jesus physically fighting injustice is of course that of his driving out the money changers and the merchants from the temple. Although Peter's use of a sword at Jesus' arrest was rebuked by our Lord, Jesus still tolerated his carrying out a lethal weapon like the sword. From these examples, it would seem that there may be situations in which a "just war" may be demanded of leaders in power.
Answer 2. If war is an option at all, then a Christian who has validated his reasons with the Bible is justified in fighting a war that he believes is for a just cause. He may be deluded, but judging by his convictions, he is justified. Thus Amy's Option 2 would seem to be right choice for a Christian.
Answer 3. Every military fosters a dark environment and this is to be considered seriously by Christians. I guess the same is true for many other environments, like secular college campuses; but the armed forces create an environment of looser sexual morals and a hardened view of battle.
Answer 4. It is true that no war has been completely clean. But this is equally true of every work situation. The Christian is faced with both individual and corporate choices that go against her convictions. The only answer to this is that the Lord intends for us to do the right things, nothing less. We often fail because we are afraid to pay the price. I have often failed inmy work situations because I was cowardly enough to evade the consequences. I do no think that this could be a reason for a Christian not to fight a just war.
Answer 5. Yes, wars often are not simply responses, and if they are they do not remain that way for long. They engender more wars, more wasteful public spending, create a defense industry that in turn promotes wars. War is a monster that feeds on itself and creates worse progeny. A good leader who declares a just war can easily turn into a monster whose legacy involves perpetuating wars, creating new enemies and laying waste to public finances.
I have another point to add. In our brief time in Dallas, TX in 2005, our church paused to remember 9/11 on its anniversary. We prayed that those who perpetrated the events may be brought to justice, but we also prayed that they would receive mercy from the Lord and would come to know Him and confess Him as their Saviour. This paradox of justice and forgiveness is Biblical- and only Biblical. We do not seek to stifle one to prosper the other. A Christian serving in the amred forces would do well to remember that, although in such an environment it is far easier to hate than to love your enemies.
I would happy to receive any comments on this article.