Christian approaches to war in the light of the biblical command not to kill

imageA public address by Rod Benson, 12 March 2009

Thank you for the kind invitation to address this gathering of the Council of Christians and Jews in what is a very beautiful Sydney building, the Great Synagogue.

It has not escaped my notice that, two days after the Rudd Government reversed the previous Government’s policy and allowed Australian foreign aid to be used to fund overseas abortions, and two days after five of the world’s most notorious terrorists declared in court documents that the tragic events of 9/11, in which approximately 3,000 innocent civilians died, were “the great legitimate duty in our religion … our offerings to God,”[1] we have come to discuss the practice of war in the light of the biblical command “You shall not kill.” I shall be speaking as a Christian.

Is it ever right to engage in a war, or a legitimate armed intervention? A Christian is a citizen of this world and of the world to come (Php 3:20; 1:27). When these two commitments are in conflict, as occurs from time to time, which one takes precedence? Do I follow conscience or country? Scripture or state? Christ or Caesar?

In his book, Living By the Sword? Anglican bishop Tom Frame declares that there is

a wide range of circumstances in which force can and must be used, and that the ends for which this force is used impart to military service a certain nobility and morality that is not discounted by the regrettable and tragic circumstances that prompt it …

War can never be abolished, or armies be made redundant, while there is human sinfulness – and the obligation to resist evil remains. To say that there will be times when force is needed does not discredit or cancel out the call to work for the transformation of unjust structures or the responsibility to chastise those who resort to force without adequate justification, or who justifiably resort to force but use excessive amounts, or who apply it for the wrong reasons. Knowing the time and the place in which the ‘sword’ can or ought be drawn will continue to determine whether its use will bring humanity nearer to heaven or to hell.[2]

Christians in general, Protestants in particular, and perhaps especially Baptists such as myself, have a high regard for Holy Scripture. We listen to what we understand God to be saying to us through “the Word of God written,” including the Torah, including the Decalogue. And we place this witness, these truths and rumours of Truth in the context of the whole of Scripture and of our tradition and experience.

But our attitude toward war – toward armed conflict – is not usually primarily shaped by biblical principles but by our family history, our parents’ religious and moral views, our own sense of national pride or patriotism, our sense of debt or duty to our country, or even by a desire to engage in military combat in order to gain experience of the world, or personal status or glory, or to relieve what we perceive to be the boredom and meaningless of modern living.

How Christians think about war is also related to our views about philosophy and politics, regardless of how well informed or ill-defined or carefully weighed those views may be. It is linked to our perspective on whether a Christian may use force to bring about just changes.

Or we simply do not think critically about ethical issues like war.

While the Bible never glorifies warfare, armed conflict features regularly in its pages. We may think of the Old Testament as celebrating war and the New Testament as celebrating peace; or the Old Testament God as vengeful and vindictive and the New Testament God as gracious and genial.

Or we may identify war in the Old Testament as holy war, while we feel the New Testament supports pacifism, and church history after Constantine and Augustine advocates the higher good of just war.

Or within Old Testament history we may discern an early warlike ideology that gradually gives way to the more progressive and pacifist views of the eighth century prophets.

But the reality is more complex. For example, Ex 20:13 declares “you shall not murder”; but Gen 9:6 seems to give clear justification for murder. Ex 14:13 articulates a preference for pacifism, but Ex 17:8-13 describes divinely approved warfare.

In Lk 3:14 John the Baptist receives some soldiers as converts to his movement. He asks them not to misuse their military power.

In Mt 10:34 Jesus says, “Do not suppose I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Yet in Mt 26:47-52 Peter uses a sword to wound an opponent who is trying to arrest Jesus, and Jesus orders Peter to put his sword away.

In Romans 12:17-21 Paul teaches that a Christian should not repay evil for evil, should live at peace with everyone, and when confronted by an enemy should offer him food and drink.

Yet the next seven verses (13:1-7) provide the strongest biblical support for the submission of the individual citizen to government.

The Old Testament presents a complex perspective on war. Narrative and propositional passages often appear to support militarism and pacifism. The New Testament presents a somewhat different perspective. Jesus is the Prince of Peace (cf Isa 9:6) who came to establish a society and commend a lifestyle characterised by shalom.

Jesus chose as his weapon not a sword but a cross. He fulfilled his God-given mission not through war against the Romans, nor through violent overthrow of religious opponents, but through pacifist teaching, nonviolence and martyrdom.

Consider Matthew 26:47-52. Jesus has just celebrated the Last Supper, knowing that Judas has left to betray him. He walks to Gethsemane to pray. Judas arrives to do his business, to betray his Master, accompanied by a mob armed with swords and clubs.

Peter steps forward, swings his sword, and severs the ear of the nearest thug. Jesus heals the wounded man, and says to Peter, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (v 52).

Is Jesus advocating pacifism? Is he endorsing a lifestyle of complete nonviolence? When Tertullian declared in relation to Matthew 26:52, that “The Lord, in subsequently disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier,” he was arguing on philosophical or moral grounds, not on biblical grounds.[3]

As Matthew has it, Jesus did not disapprove of Peter carrying a sword. He disapproved of its unjust use. The moral question of using a sword (or catapult, or gun, or tank, or long-range bomber, or ICBM) in order to kill people on behalf of the state is of central importance to an ethics that is Christian, and to the moral formation of those who choose to follow the teaching and example of Jesus.

Historically Christians have made six responses to the issue of militarism, or armed intervention, or war:

  1. crusade: “this is God’s holy war!” (i.e. religious zeal)
  2. national interest war: “my nation, right or wrong!” (i.e. patriotism)
  3. just war: military conflict justified on a case-by-case basis according to predetermined ethical criteria.
  4. non-resistance: participation in military conflict as a non-combatant (e.g. ambulance, chaplaincy)
  5. pacifism: nonviolence based on the general principle that all war is wrong and should not be supported by a Christian.

Many sound reasons can be given as to why these views have persisted so strongly over such a long period. I would suggest that most thoughtful Christians today, perhaps uncritically, support the just war position. They distinguish the biblical teaching that a Christian should be an advocate of peace from the God-given duty of government to restrain and punish evil. At the same time, many would want to promote, or at least consider, a sixth response – that of just peacemaking.

Just peacemaking is viewed by Baptist ethicist Glenn Stassen as an alternative to the common choice made by many people of faith between pacifism and just-war theory. It is a multi-disciplinary approach to peace which includes practices such as:

  • sustainable economic development
  • advancement of human rights, democracy and religious liberty
  • working with emerging cooperative forces in the international system
  • cooperative conflict resolution

Just peacemaking seeks effective ways to restore a just and enduring peace before opposing parties (whether individuals, tribal groups or nation states) resort to the last resort and begin killing each other. In my view, this approach needs wider publicity and more practical support at every level.

At the end of the day, Christians do not agree on the best approach to war. The just war approach seems to me to provide a close fit with the range of biblical teaching on peace and conflict, while taking seriously the ethical issues of modern combat and defence.

But the just war approach does not adequately speak to the new challenges of nuclear war, or religiously based terrorism of the kind we have seen since September 11, 2001.

We do not live in an ideal world but in the real world. There needs to be a place reserved within Christian ethics for hard-nosed realism and pragmatism as we approach sensitive discussions and ethical responses to issues of armed intervention and conflict.

I want to conclude with a quote from the book, Christianity and Power Politics, published in 1948 by Christian realist theologian and ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr:

It is a terrible thing to take human life. The conflict between man and man and nation and nation is tragic. If there are men who declare that, no matter what the consequences, they cannot bring themselves to participate in this slaughter, the Church ought to be able to say to the general community: We quite understand this scruple and we respect it. It proceeds from the conviction that the true end of man is brotherhood, and that love is the law of life.

We who allow ourselves to become engaged in war need this testimony of the absolutist against us, lest we accept the warfare of the world as normative, lest we become callous to the horror of war, and lest we forget the ambiguity of our own actions and motives and the risk we run of achieving no permanent good from this momentary anarchy in which we are involved.[4]

Thank you.

[1] “We are terrorists to the bone,”, 10 Mar 2009.

[2] Tom Frame, Living By the Sword? The Ethics of Armed Intervention (Sydney: University of NSW Press, 2004), pp. 23, 243.

[3] Tertullian, “Treatise on Idolatry,” in J. Helgeland et al., Christians and the Military: The Early Experience (London: SCM Press, 1987) 23.

[4] Reinhold Niebuhr, “Why the Christian Church is not pacifist,” in Arthur F. Holmes (ed.), War and Christian Ethics: Classic and Contemporary Readings on the Morality of War (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005), p. 313.

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