A Christian Understanding of the Morality of War

An examination of the Christan ethic of war and the necessity of justice for the maintenance of peace.

In a world of ever-present international conflict, questions persist regarding the moral justification of war and the level of participation Christians should have in armed conflicts.  Christians universally agree that war is a grievous atrocity.  As Arthur Holmes asserts, “To call war anything less than evil would be self-deception.  [. . .] The issue that tears the Christian conscience is not whether war is good, but whether it is in all cases entirely avoidable.” [1]  Christians further debate whether God’s people should be involved in political entanglements at all.  The church is confronted with the question, “Is a decision not to stand and defend our neighbors an act of righteousness, or a sin of omission?”  These and other questions have troubled the conscience of the church since its inception.  By examining the Scriptures relevant to the discussion, considering the underlying hermeneutical principles by which the different traditions interpret these texts, and weighing the theological, philosophical, and political entailments, this article will make an investigation of the two traditions, pacifism and just war theory, which broadly represent the church’s historical positions toward war.  This article will then defend the position that sin, by pervading every aspect of humanity, and the Bible, in offering no suggestion that peace will be attained in the present age, together dictate that in times where peace is interrupted and cannot be restored by non-violent means, Christians have a duty to honor and support their governments’ operations as God-ordained institutions for the administration of order and the protection of the innocent. For the purpose of upholding justice and the preventing of greater evil, Christians should follow the leadership of their sovereign magistrates’ by taking up arms to act as an arbiter of justice for the restoration of peace.

Pertinent Matters to Christian War Ethics

When debating the Christian ethics of war there are a few matters which should be understood to impact the Christian’s potential response.  These issues include the Scriptures applicable to the discussion, the underlying hermeneutical approaches, and the theological and political entailments resulting from the pacifist and just war positions.  These issues will be examined in the discussion of each tradition below, but before entering the discussion it should first be established that all Christian orthodoxy, in some form or fashion, affirms that mankind is depraved, and that evil is a pervasive reality for humanity.  It must second be acknowledged that the Bible teaches that in the end there will be wars and rumors of wars (Matt 24:6-8), and an idealistic perpetual peace, whether sought by virtue or imposed by duty, is not the future the Bible depicts for the entirety of mankind.   “The New Testament does not, in other words, envisage a simple triumph of good over evil in history,” [2] and the tragic character of contemporary history must persuade Christians to take the fact of human sinfulness and the reality of war seriously. [3]  “Though war remains a tragic fact of human life, the ideal we should strive for in national and international affairs is peace with justice.” [4]  Further it must be acknowledged that life in a fallen world will not allow for evil to be avoided in every circumstance.  In each generation, there will arise times of conflict in which Christians will be required to take a conscious stand on the topic of war and peace.

Engaging Pacifism

Believing deadly force is inconsistent with the ethics of Christ, the pacifist position maintains that the community of God’s covenant believers is to be a minority movement[5] called to a spiritual vocation, and a kingdom distinct from the world,[6] for the purpose of offering witness to Christ by honoring the sanctity of every human life. [7]

The first Scriptural encounter which might lead one to adopt the pacifist position is the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” (Exod 20:13).  Many pacifists consider human life to be sacrosanct, saying that each person is of infinite worth and must be treated as an end in themselves rather than as a means to an end to be sacrificed for the sake of goals. [8]  As Augsburger states, “We cannot be involved in anything, whether it is social injustice, violence, war or poverty, which interrupts a person’s opportunities for a full life.” [9]   The pacifist further bolsters their foundation in their interpretation that Christ’s Sermon on the Mount instructs that Christians are to “not resist evil, to “turn the other cheek,” and to “love [their] enemies” (Matt 5:38-48).  The pacifist sees these actions to be carried out literally as acts of obedience to Matthew 5:11-12, a Scripture in which they see Christ instructing His disciples that they are blessed in their passivity in persecution.  Additionally, pacifists will reference texts like Matthew 26:52 in which Christ says, “All who take the sword will perish by the sword,” and He instructs Peter that he should return his sword to its place.  This is clear precept for the pacifist that he should never resist evil in such a way that might result in the use of force.

Seeing the Bible as moving along a trajectory of progressive revelation, in which God reveals His will more clearly with passing time, the pacifist typically arrives at her position by an underlying hermeneutic that stresses a discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments.  This hermeneutic views the New Testament as superseding the example of the Old in such a way that justice is now superseded by a new law of love. [10]  This view of the law of love dictates that God no longer desires a geographical theocracy but a spiritual kingdom, and therefore warrants no taking of life or land by force, but desires the advance of His kingdom by the means of the gospel.

The pacifist reasons that non-violence is the appropriate response to evil because the weapons of God’s kingdom are spiritual, and not earthly. [11]  The pacifist expresses a genuine biblical desire for world peace, and hopes that whether by faithfulness, example, rationality, social contract, or non-violent resistance a greater peace might be achieved.  While it might not be the direct contention of any notable pacifist, Reinhold Niebuhr contends that pacifists imply “the Church’s failure to espouse pacifism unanimously can only be interpreted as apostasy, and must be attributed to its lack of courage or to its want of faith,” and further that pacifists see justice by means of violent intervention as rarely executed apart from sinful motives. [12]  A pacifist, Augsburger confirms the latter point by insisting that Christians typically fight wars for the purposes of nationalism, protecting property, for the achieving of Christ’s goals through force, and out of desire for power.  It is Augsburger’s contention that the Christian should take seriously Jesus’ commands to be content and to serve and sacrifice for the sake of character, for fidelity to the heavenly kingdom, and for the church’s witness to Christ, all of which are more valuable than power or material goods. [13]

The pacifist position entails that Christians must practice absolute non-resistance, and under all circumstance remain non-violent.  Christians are therefore only reasonably able to serve the government in positions in which they can perform the functions of office without compromising their pacifist ethic. [14]  For some pacifists this has meant a complete inability for any political involvement, and for others, it has excluded them from serving in positions such as police officer, mayor, judge, and any other force-executing role. [15]

In Defense of the Just War Theory

Contrary to pacifism the just war theory considers that while war is assuredly evil, it is sometimes biblically appropriate to fight for the sake of restoring peace.  Just War theory postulates that “under some circumstances the Christian should participate in war for the sake of the preservation of justice.” [16]  Rarely one to mince words, Luther was convinced that “without armaments peace cannot be kept; wars are waged not only to repel injustice but also to establish a firm peace.” [17]

A proper exegetical understanding of the sixth commandment is a helpful beginning toward understanding the Bible’s teaching that there is, in fact, a time to kill, and a time for war (Eccl 3:3, 8).  In the common historical rendering, “thou shalt not kill,” the Hebrew word ‘ratsach,’ translated in the King James as ‘kill,’ does not, in fact, share the same meaning as the English word ‘kill’ in the broad sense.  ‘Ratsach’ rightly understood is something closer to ‘manslaughter,’ personal vengeance, or personal negligence.  This becomes clearer when one considers that both the Old and New Testaments command the exercise of capital punishment by the will of God (Num 35:30, Rom 13:4).  This demonstrates that there are indeed biblical circumstances in which life is not considered so sacrosanct that it should never be taken, and there are circumstances in which it is lawful to kill.  Arthur Holmes further delineates that because Romans 13:1-7 grants that the governments use of lethal force “may be used to resist criminal and violent attacks from within a country or community, by implication it may be used to resist criminal and violent attacks from without.” [18]  Thomas Aquinas expresses his agreement with this reasoning saying of Romans 13:4, “He beareth not the sword in vain:  [. . .] it is their business to have recourse to the sword of war in defending the common weal against external enemies.  Hence it is said to those that are in authority (Psalm 81:4):  Rescue the poor:  and deliver the needy out of the hand of the sinner.” [19]  Augustine, speaking to whom should wield power to make a pronouncement of war professes, the “power to declare and counsel war should be in the hands of those who hold supreme authority.”  As Peter exhorts in 1 Peter 2:14, the just war theorist obeys God by submission to government authority, and in this case by leaving such punishment of evil to the Lord’s ordained human institutions.

Contrary to the passages referenced by the pacifist to suggest the proper Christian position is one of non-resistance, the just war theorists call upon verses like John 2:15 in which Jesus drives out the money changers by use of a whip.  Just war theorists also point out that Christ says He “came not to bring peace but a sword” (Matt 10:34), and says, “Let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.” Responding to the pacifists interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount John Jefferson Davis asserts “The actions of Jesus Christ himself and of the great apostle to the Gentiles clearly indicate that the sayings on turning the other cheek are meant to promote an attitude of nonrevenge [sic], rather than the posture of a ‘doormat’ for abuse.” [20]

Recounting the hall of fame of the faith in Hebrews 11, the writer of the epistle asserts in verses 32 to 34 that Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets, “through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, became mighty in war, [and] put foreign armies to flight.  The epistolarian plainly calls their courageous enforcement of justice by means of war acts of faith.  Interpreting Matthew 5:9 in light of the Epistle to the Hebrews would suggest that one who brings about peace by the upholding of justice is blessed for faithful service, as Matthew 5:9 does not say blessed are the peaceful, but says blessed are those who bring about peace.

Seeing a continuity between the Old and New Testaments, and acknowledging a standard and unchanging morality for all people, “the just war theorist . . . is apt to see the law of love in the Old as well as the New, so that the New fulfills, reinforces and interprets the Old rather than superseding it.” [21]  The just war ethic sees the spirit of justice as being an integral part of the law of love and acknowledges that love requires justice for the maintenance of order and the keeping of peace.  This hermeneutic sees the teaching and example of the Old Testament as intimately relevant for Christians today, holds stronger concord with canonical biblical theology, and makes better sense of the entirety of the biblical metanarrative.

Borrowing from the prior work of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas developed an early outline by which the morality of war could be judged, positing that a just war meets three necessary demands:  proper authority, just cause, and just intent.  First, war must be waged by the sovereign governing forces whom God has granted authority.  “It is not the business of private individuals to declare war,” or “to summon together the people.”  Second, Aquinas references Augustine’s view that a just war must be one that avenges wrong or punishes a nation or state for refusing to make amends for wrongs.  Third, a just war requires a rightful intention, namely the advancement of good, the avoidance of evil, and the securing of peace. [22]  Later thinkers have made useful additions to these criteria among which is the idea that uses of force are to be employed only to the extent necessary to restore peace and no more. [23]

In direct contrast to Augsburger’s contentions about war primarily being waged for unrighteous motives, Luther contends that war is nothing other than the punishment of wrong and evil, and asks, “Why does anyone go to war, except because he desires peace and obedience?” [24]  Augustine agrees saying, “We do not seek peace in order to be at war, but we go to war that we may have peace.”  Hence it is the position of the just war theorist never to instigate conflict, but only to defend against conflict for the purpose putting an end to war.  The just war theory further reasons that if all ethical wars must be defensive wars, then universal adherence to the ethic would result in no war.  In conceding instances for defense, the just war theory, where necessary, allows for small misfortunes for the sake of preventing great ones.[25]  The just war theory, however, considers its function to be more than merely an arbiter of justice, but also an ethic by which wars are judged, regulated, and potentially prevented. [26]

Believing that the Bible’s cultural mandate instructs that it is the task of the church to make inroads into the secular world for the transformation of the corrupt and the redemption of brokenness, the just war position encourages Christians to pursue full participation in governmental functions including legislation, law enforcement, and military action. [27]  The just war hermeneutic believes that more is required biblically of the Christian than to bear witness to Christ in passivity.  Just war calls Christians to resist committing sins of omission – standing by in times of grievous evil, and to instead be prepared to defend innocent lives by seeking justice for the sake of compassion and love.  “To let violence and aggression go unchecked does not eliminate the evil, nor does it leave [the Christian] unimplicated if [they] could do something about it.” [28]  The just war theorist clearly identifies circumstances in which inaction results in significantly greater atrocity, and believes in some cases inaction is a greater evil than military action.

Conclusion

By the clear evidence of the pervasiveness of sin in society, and the Bible’s plain warning that war will persist until the end of the age, it is reasonable to deduce that the Bible implicates Christians, in circumstances where peace is interrupted and cannot be restored by non-violent means, to honor and support the government in its God-ordained role as sovereign keeper of order and protector of the people.  Further, despite just war theory being the predominant view of the historical church, it remains the responsibility of just war theorists to both protect and celebrate the lives and views of their pacifist brothers and sisters.  As the church is one in body, we are supported and edified by one another, and the witness and perspectives of those who do not think exactly as we do are helpful in keeping us from venturing too far in any direction.  The crusades stand as historic evidence of the pitfalls of a Christian mentality overly comfortable with the practice of war. The pacifists’ desire for peace and love are undeniable and should provide encouragement to the church to continually reexamine our position.  Ultimately, the Scriptural, hermeneutical, and rational evidence demand Christians to embrace a position that takes both peace and evil seriously.  While the just war theory is subject to the judgments of fallible men, and will never be a perfect practice, it remains necessary that Christians stand prepared to support the civil magistrate as the God-ordained institutor and maintainer of civil order.  A failure on the part of Christians to honor this duty for the sake of avoiding a small atrocity can ultimately lend itself to the permission of a great one.  As John Stuart Mill said, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing.”

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Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer from Houston Texas – a husband, father, preacher, and Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

 

 

 

 

[1]Arthur F. Holmes, “The Just War” in Robert G. Clouse (ed.) War:  Four Christian Views (Winona Lake, IN:  BMH Books, 1986), 117.

[2]Reinhold Niebuhr, Christianity and Power Politics (Hamden, CT:  Archon Books, 1969), 4.

[3]Ibid, chap. 1.

[4]Arthur F. Holmes, War and Christian Ethics:  Classic and Contemporary Readings on the Morality of War (Grand Rapids, MI:  Baker Academic, 2005), 6.

[5]Myron S. Augsburger, “Christian Pacifism,” in Robert G. Clouse (ed.) War:  Four Christian Views (Winona Lake, IN:  BMH Books, 1986), 85.

[6]Menno Simons, “A Reply to False Accusations,” in L. Verduin (trans.) and J. C. Wenger (ed.) The Complete Writings of Menno Simons (Harrisonburg, VA:  Herald Press, 1956).

[7]Herman A. Hoyt, “Christian Pacifism,” in Robert G. Clouse (ed.) War:  Four Christian Views (Winona Lake, IN:  BMH Books, 1986), 43.

[8]Immanuel Kant, “Perpetual Peace,” in Lewis White Beck (ed.) On History (New York:  MacMillan Press, 1963).

[9]Augsburger, “Christian Pacifism,” 96.

[10]Arthur F. Holmes, “A Just War Response to Nonresistance,” in Robert G. Clouse (ed.) War:  Four Christian Views (Winona Lake, IN:  BMH Books, 1986), 65.

[11]Simons, “A Reply to False Accusations.”

[12] Niebuhr, Christianity and Power Politics, 3.

[13]Augsburger, “Christian Pacifism,” 87-92.

[14]Augsburger, “Christian Pacifism,” 89.

[15]Holmes, “A Just War Response,” 69.

[16]John Jefferson Davis, Evangelical Ethics:  Issues Facing the Church Today (Phillipsburg, NJ:  P & R Publishing, 2004), 246.

[17]Cited in Ewald M. Plass, compiler, What Luther Says (Saint Louis:  Concordia, 1959), 3:1428.

[18]Holmes, “A Just War Response,” 69.

[19]Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas (Westminster, MD:  Christian Classics, 1981), 2.2.40.

[20]Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 244.

[21]Holmes, “The Just War,” 124.

[22]Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 2.2.40.

[23]Holmes, “The Just War,” 123.

[24]Martin Luther, “Whether Solders, Too, Can Be Saved,” in C. M. Jacobs (trans.) and R. C. Shultz and H. T. Lehman (eds.), Luther’s Works Vol. 46 ‘The Christian in Society’ (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1967).

[25]Ibid.

[26]Holmes, War and Christian Ethics, 4.

[27]Holmes, “The Just War,” 124.

[28]Ibid, 118.