Christian justification for war – and arguments for peace

  • Question 142, from Paul, United Kingdom

    How can we tie together the Old Testament God who uses Israel to wipe out other tribes, with the New Testament teachings that seem to suggest Christians should be pacifists? Is it ever okay to use violence?

    [Jon’s note: this is a long answer, so be prepared for lots of reading!]

    While mainstream Christianity has always claimed that the God ‘revealed’ in the Old Testament is the same God who is incarnate in Christ, there have always been some people who have found the difference too great to reconcile. An example would be Marcion (died c.160AD), who distinguished between Yahweh as a ‘cruel, despotic god’, and Christ as the incarnation of the ‘true god’, and was denounced as a heretic as a result.

    However, the issue of whether Christians should be involved in conflict, or use violence, is often precisely an issue because of the difference between the two testaments. There are several viewpoints that justify the use of violence or combat based primarily on the Old Testament, but surprisingly there are also many based on the New Testament too.

    Here are some different arguments advanced for Christians being involved in wars or employing violence:

    War justified in the Old Testament
    God is depicted in the Old Testament as a ‘warrior’, who intervenes to slay Israel’s enemies, e.g. by casting Pharaoh’s army into the sea in Exodus chapter 15, verses 3-4. Liberation theologians often emphasis the exodus from Egypt as God liberating God’s people through the use of violence, with a conclusion that violent liberation can be godly liberation.

    God is referred to as the ‘Lord of Armies’ (often translated as ‘hosts’) over 200 times. This revelation of God’s character may cast doubt on any absolute pacifist position.

    God commanded the chosen people to fight, and to kill, on at least 35 occasions.

    God honoured military leaders, such as Abraham, Moses, David, Gideon, and so on.

    “Thou shalt not kill” does not have to be translated as an absolute. The Hebrew word ‘kill’ here is ‘rasah’ which more accurately means ‘murder’. It may even be that the sixth commandment only means “Thou shalt not kill another Hebrew.”[1]

    War justified in the New Testament
    Many New Testament sayings endorse war, e.g. in Luke chapter 3, verse 14, John the Baptist tells soldiers to ‘be content with your wages’ rather than extort money form people. However he did not instruct them to leave the army.

    Jesus commended the faith of a Roman Centurion in Matthew chapter 8, verse 10, but makes no comment about his rank or profession.

    Jesus also acted violently towards the money-changers in the Temple[2] and did not flinch from confronting his enemies verbally and provoking them.

    Several of Jesus’ parables include references to judgement and execution of the unrighteous[3].

    Jesus’ command of the ‘non-violent’ response to ‘turn the other cheek’[4] is in the context of personal relationships with your ‘neighbour’ and it can be argued therefore has nothing to with pacifism or a rejection of war.

    Jesus accepted the title of ‘Christ’/‘Messiah’ – even though there was a strong link between the belief in a Messiah and a revolution/liberation. While Jesus did not initiate an armed revolt, he equally did not flinch from claiming a term with implications of an armed revolt.

    The Bible uses a ‘soldier’ as a template for life as a follower of Jesus, especially in Ephesians chapter 6, verse 10-20, which implies an endorsement of soldiering as an occupation. It seems unlikely that this analogy would be made if being a soldier was irredeemably evil – there are no comparisons to how the Christian life should be lived drawn from the world of prostitution, crime or hedonism[5].

    The apostolic writings instruct Christians to ‘submit to authority’. In Romans chapter 13, verse 4, the authorities are described as “God’s servants” – God’s “agent of wrath to bring punishment upon the wrongdoer.” If a Christian is commanded to go to war, then that Christian must submit to authority and go to war.

    Additional Biblical arguments allowing for the Christian to be involved in warfare

    It can be argued that “Kingdom ethics” cannot be absolutes in this fallen world. So, for example, within the Kingdom of God it is perfectly possible to ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. But in the ‘real world’ a person may be faced with a choice between protecting the weak and the vulnerable from those who would kill them. A Christian seeking to ‘do unto others’ has to answer the question ‘which others?’ – the aggressor, or the victim?

    Some liberation theologians go as far as saying that while violence is wrong, counter-violence may be right. For example: “God does not wait for the master to decide freely to liberate the slave. He knows that the master will never do that. So, he breaks the yoke and the erstwhile master can no longer dominate… Violence is power that oppresses and makes men unfree. Counter-violence is power that breaks the old which enslaves in order to make men free.”[6]

    The idea of ‘counter-violence’ or revolution being God-ordained, interestingly appears in Martin Luther’s treatise on whether it is acceptable for a Christian to be a soldier. In a section where he stresses how a Christian must take up arms if commanded to by their ruler, who is ‘God-appointed’ (a reference to Romans chapter 13, verses 1-5), Luther says: “Suppose that a people would rise up…and depose their Lord and kill him. That certainly could happen if God decrees that it should, and the lords must expect it. But that does not mean that it is right and just for the people to do it.” For Luther, revolution was always wrong if it was human-inspired, even if it was against a ruler who persecuted believers, but it may still be the means by which God establishes a new order[7].

    While God is loving, it is important to remember that God is also portrayed in the Bible as just, and sometimes justice appears violent. In order to bring justice sometimes unjust social institutions have to be torn down in order to rebuild[8].

    However, there are several Christian interpretive viewpoints that seek to establish non-violence and pacifism to some extent, even to the point of ‘absolute pacifism’. These arguments are mainly drawn from the teaching of Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament, but there are a number of ways the Old Testament has been interpreted to promote pacifism too.

    Peace as an ideal in the Old Testament
    Warfare is rooted in humanity’s ‘fall from grace’, away from the perfect image of God. Murder quickly followed the fall as shown in the story of Cain murdering his brother, Abel[9]. This also has a knock on effect in that human beings cannot accurately imitate God’s nature as a ‘perfect warrior’.

    Israel’s role in warfare in the Old Testament was in a unique position where ‘kingdom’ and ‘state’ were combined, i.e. where Yahweh ruled as sovereign over ‘his people’. No modern-day nation state can claim that position.

    The way God chooses to work is different now. War belongs to the Old Testament time period and situation. Human beings now live in the ‘age of Grace’.

    The Old Testament wars of conquest in the land of Canaan might not have been God’s original intention. In Exodus chapter 20, verses 20-23, God promises to send “an angel ahead of you to guard you along the way…My angel will go ahead of you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites and Jebusites, and I will wipe them out.” Later in the same chapter, God promises to use “my terror” (verse 27) and hornets (verse 28) to drive out the people living in the land. However the Israelites are warned not to rebel against this angel (verse 21). Of course, the Israelites did rebel and ended up wandering in the desert for years. Another result of their rebellion was their having to fight wars to claim the land God had promised them. The divinely sanctioned wars in the Old Testament could therefore be interpreted as a punishment from God, not God’s plan for establishing the nation-state of the chosen people.

    Israel’s ongoing warring history was a result of a lack of faith in Yahweh as the warrior who would protect them. The debate surrounding the need for a King is actually about the replacement of Yahweh as King – Samuel warns the people that a result of disobeying God by seeking a King will be war and oppression[10].

    David, while honoured by God, was forbidden from building the Temple because of all the blood he had shed – primarily through war[11].

    There are Old Testament paradigms which show that sometimes a believer must follow a ‘higher authority’, e.g. the Hebrew midwives who disobeyed Pharaoh because they “feared God” (Exodus chapter 1, verse 17).

    It is also worth noting that there are several passages where God fights ‘against’ Israel, allowing defeat in war to humble and punish the chosen people. ‘God’s war’ is thus to be distinguished from the warfare that was conducted by the nation of Israel.

    Compared to other ancient literature the Old Testament does not glorify death in war and there are very few stories about ‘war heroes’ in the Old Testament, certainly compared to Roman or Greek epics.

    There is a sustained criticism of the monarchy in the Old Testament, particularly in regard to their military power. The kingly authority is often contrasted with the holy law, the Torah.

    There are many situations where mighty ‘freeing acts’ are accomplished without Israel going to war – e.g. the Exodus, where God’s power sets the enslaved Hebrews free from a militarily powerful empire. This links into the idea that when the Israelites obeyed God, it was God who fought for them. Several of the prophetic oracles request that the people return to trust in the God who fights on their behalf. Additionally the total destruction of the spoils of war could be interpreted as a sacrificial thanksgiving to God, indicating how Israel’s success in war was based on God’s sovereign provision for the chosen people.

    Many Christians who would argue for nonviolence/pacifism would also add that the Old Testament has been superseded by the New Testament and therefore the directions of Yahweh to the Kingdom of Israel cannot be regarded as normative for those who belong in the new Kingdom of God.

    ‘Peace’ in the New Testament
    It would appear that Jesus’ teachings follow a clear pacifist line. The command to ‘turn the other cheek’ in Matthew chapter 5, verses 39-41 offer a nonviolent response to violence. This theme was developed in the apostolic teaching, e.g. Romans chapter 12, verses 17 and 19-21, and 1 Peter chapter 3, verse 9, which both encourage the believer to resist the urge for vengeance and to ‘repay evil for good’.

    In addition Jesus’ command in Matthew chapter 5, verse 39 (“Do not resist one who is evil”) can be translated as ‘do not use evil methods to overcome evil’. This removes the justification for war as a ‘bad’ means to a ‘good’ end.

    Furthermore, the command to ‘love your enemies’ means to love those who are unlike you, thus imitating the unconditional and universal love of God.

    Jesus specifically spoke against the use of the sword[12] and turned his back on leading an armed rebellion[13].

    Military metaphors in the New Testament are precisely that – metaphors. Hence Paul explicitly states that Christian warfare is “spiritual” in 2 Corinthians chapter 10, verses 3-4.

    Jesus reinterpreted the political, revolutionary messianic expectation of his times in a non-political, and, more impressively, in a non-violent way. When Peter ‘confesses’ that Jesus is the messiah in Mark chapter 8, verse 29, Jesus then begins to talk about how the messiah must suffer and be killed (verse 31). This different view of what messiahship entails prompts Peter to ‘rebuke’ Jesus (verse 32), which in turn led to a rebuke for Peter for having in mind the “things of men” instead of the “things of God” (verse 33). Jesus then calls on the crowd to take up their crosses (verse 34) – again rejecting the idea of a messianic kingdom established by revolution.

    Jesus’ ‘messianic response’ to the Roman occupiers was to offer love and grace to them, e.g. in the healing of a Centurion’s servant in Matthew chapter 8, verses 5-13.

    A final note: the “Just” War
    Sometimes in ethical or Christian discussions of whether war is acceptable the concept of a ‘Just War’ is mentioned. Although it is not directly based on the Bible, it is worth mentioning the classical concept of the Just War here.

    Broadly speaking a war is deemed ‘just’ based on two elements – when it is right to go to war (jus ad bellum), and what it is right to do in war (jus in bello). Conditions for when it is ‘just’ for a nation to go to war include the following:
    1) War must be a response to aggression or for a just cause
    2) War must be initiated by legitimate authorities
    3) It must be a last resort
    4) There must be a formal declaration of war
    5) There must be a reasonable hope of success

    However, for a war to be considered just once it has started, the following characteristics are usually highlighted:
    1) The means should be proportional to the end it is aimed at (i.e. the war should not be fought in such a way that it is a greater evil than the evil it is being fought to remedy)
    2) That ‘the innocent’ (i.e. civilians) are not targeted

    It can be safely said that in most wars ever waged, if not all, these conditions have not all been met, and in many wars none of them have been met. In addition from a Christian perspective, many of these conditions are subjective – who decides what level of aggression qualifies as a legitimate level to respond to by declaring war, for example? Where there is historical distrust between nations, both sides are quick to accuse the other of aggression, and therefore justify their violent response.

    In conclusion
    Accounts of divinely ordained warfare in the Old Testament will probably always be problematic to Christians seeking to live according to Jesus Christ’s ‘kingdom ethic’ which values peace and promotes nonviolent responses to violence. There may be cases when an individual Christian will feel compelled to resist evil, or to protect the victims of aggression. Clearly the Christian ideal is for such resistance to be non-violent, where possible. However, Christians can (and do) justify the use of violence, as seen above, and those justifications may be based on the New Testament, as much as the Old Testament.

    Notes and references
    [1] Slavery, Sabbath, War & Women by Willard M Swartley, Herald Press, 1983, p.101
    [2] See Matthew chapter 12, verses 12-13; Mark chapter 11, verses 15-17; Luke chapter 19, verses 45-46; John chapter 2, verses 13-17.
    [3] See Matthew chapter 21, verse 41; Luke chapter 19, verse 27
    [4] Matthew chapter 5, verse 39
    [5] This argument is advanced by Loraine Boettner, cited in Swartley, op.cit, p.100
    [6] Rubem Alves, quoted in Swartley, op.cit, p.107
    [7] Luther: Whether Soldiers, too, can be Saved, part 11, as reprinted in A Textbook of Christian Ethics, by Robin Gill, T&T Clark, 2nd ed 1995, p.296 (this book includes Luther’s entire treatise, pp 292-304)
    [8] See Jeremiah chapter 1, verse 10
    [9] Genesis chapter 4, verse 8.
    [10] 1 Samuel chapter 8, verses 6-18
    [11] 1 Chronicles chapter 22, verse 8.
    [12] Matthew chapter 26, verse 52. See also John chapter 18, verse 36.
    [13] John chapter 6, verse 15 implies the ‘people’ wanted to declare Jesus as ‘king’ at the head of a messianic rebellion.

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