Wednesday, February 20, 2008

christians & the just war?

I've decided to do a little series on issues related to war and peace, and put them in the style of Thomas Aquinas. He was a 13th century theologian whose Summa Theologicae is set up in a very distinct style. He asks a question, gives 3-4 reasons some people believe one direction (but this is actually the opposite of his opinion), then he gives a contrary argument from the Bible or another authority. Then he says, "I reply..." and gives his opinion, and he concludes with stating his replies to the objections in each of the first 3-4 points. It's a good way of laying out an argument briefly and concisely, giving voice to the other side but still stating your own view clearly. So here goes.

Whether a Christian can follow the Bible and be a just war proponent:

Objection 1. Many Christians say yes, we can and should be just war proponents because God desires justice, and as Christians we should always aid in bringing justice to the world.
Objection 2. There is the case of ancient Israel, where God commanded the Israelites to go to war, and they were God's chosen people. Now that Christians are God's chosen people we should fight the wars God asks us to, namely, those that bring about God's desire for justice in the world.
Objection 3. In Roman 13 Paul says Christians should follow our government, and sometimes our government demands us to go to war.
Objection 4. There will always be “wars & rumors of wars,” so we must have a way of choosing which wars to be involved in.

On the contrary, John Howard Yoder (pacifist) & Reinhold Niebuhr (Christian realist) say the Christian Scriptures clearly state that Jesus wants us to always be nonresistant toward evil people. Yoder says we should never be involved in war or the use of violent force, while R. Niebuhr says the Bible is not meant to be taken literally on these matters, because Jesus lived in a different time and place than we do, and so sometimes we will be called to war as the most realistic solution, whether it follows "just war" theory or not.

I reply that it is not possible to follow the Bible and be a just war proponent. The just war theory is not in the Bible and is not based on the Bible--Jesus didn't say, "Turn the other cheek, unless you're being treated unjustly, in which case you can hit back, but only with the amount of force you were hit with..." Pacifism is based on the Christian Scriptures, and if we believe God asks us to follow the Christian Scriptures we should be pacifists.

Reply 1. God desires for justice to happen, but not through our violent actions. We are asked to bring about justice through bringing good news, sight to the blind, visiting people when sick and in prison, and proclaiming the year of the Lord's favor (Isaiah 61:1-2, Luke 4:18-19). Romans 12:17-21 says vengeance belongs to God alone, and to combat evil by staying firmly in the good.
Reply 2. Ancient Israel (whether taken at face value as historically accurate, or taken as a semi-myth meant to teach various truths) was a theocracy, ordered by God. The Israelites were a people chosen by God to enact God's justice in the world. No nation has been given that right today, except perhaps the nation of Israel if it was attempting to live as a theocracy, which it is not. Christians are God's chosen people, but Christ said, "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,' but I say to you, 'Do not resist an evildoer.'" He said, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5). This cannot happen by going to war.
Reply 3. Paul, who wrote Romans 13, is known to have disobeyed his government when it went against his understanding of what God was asking him to do. He was thrown in prison several times for preaching the good news. He submitted to the civil magistrate in that he went to prison without using violence to escape, but he did not follow the magistrate in doing things against God's command. Civil disobedience is, therefore, an important part of being a Christian, and this undoubtedly reaches to the problem of war. The first 300 years of Christians understood Jesus & Paul this way and lived as pacifists.
Reply 4. There will always be “wars & rumors of wars,” but this does not mean Christians must be involved in fighting them. This is like saying, “There will always be people who cheat on the spouses, so I have to decide what is the most justifiable way to cheat on my spouse.” We are instructed to overcome evil by staying firmly grounded in the good (Romans 12:21). If we become evil ourselves, we have been defeated as Christians.


Angelina said...

Dear Friend,

Bruce Bishop suggested I contact you regarding the Quaker Youth Book Project of Quakers Uniting in Publications (, for which we are building a theologically and geographically diverse editorial board. We are still accepting applications from evangelical and Latin American Friends for the editorial board, and I’d like to send you application materials.

Please forgive this comment on your blog — I haven’t been able to find an e-mail address. My e-mail is I hope we can connect.

Thanks for your time.
Angelina Conti

Robin M. said...

I'd like to reprint this in our meeting's newsletter. Would that be okay with you?

Robin Mohr
San Francisco Monthly Meeting

cherice said...

Sure, Robin, that would be great if you want to print this in your newsletter. I hope it's helpful to you and those in you meeting!

Scean said...

Just war or not just war?
Many leaders simply arnt qualified to say what is just and what is not, because many of them simply are not "just" people.
If I used your above reasoning then Christians should not be policeman, security guards or soldiers. Also I really don't think that God when he said turn the other cheek, meant stand there while you are beaten to a pulp, or someone else is and do absolutely nothing.
There is little written history about the first 300 years of the church.
and we should not just look at what the church says, look instead at what God in the Bible says.
Yes it is sad when God and the church disagree but it happens a lot, look at many of the modern day AOG churches, bad or perverted doctrine seems to be their specialty. (Perhaps they have a shortage of Bibles)

When the Roman soldiers enquired of John the Baptist

"Because of John's preaching, these soldiers realized that their lives weren't acceptable to God And they wanted to know what they needed to do to get right with God. John didn't tell them to leave the Army and get a more godly job. John didn't tell them to refuse to use their weapons against the enemies of their country. Instead, John the Baptist told them not to use their positions of authority to extort money from the people. And he told them not to bear false witness against anyone, to be content with their pay and not try to supplement it illegally.
The first gentile convert was a Roman solider. He was not told to stop being a solider before or after conversion."
The Roman soldiers were not pacifist.

XYZ123 said...

Scean's logic is flawed...

Scean states, "John didn't tell them to leave the Army and get a more godly job. John didn't tell them to refuse to use their weapons against the enemies of their country."

The Roman soldiers were not Christians. Whatever John told the soldiers is irrelevant to those who follow Jesus as Lord and who call Jesus master.

Jesus is our rabbi, not John the Baptist. Jesus is our Lord, not John the Baptist. We are to follow Jesus, not John.

The Roman soldiers here could have been serving as nothing more than body guards to the Jewish tax collectors. Roman soldiers covered a wide range of duties.

Roman soldiers would have been the ones to perform the dirty work of the Caesars, including arresting, imprisoning and executing the Christians. So Scean, you want to tell me that following Christ includes arresting, imprisoning and seeing to it that your brethren in the faith are martyred?

Scean goes on to inform us, "The first gentile convert was a Roman solider. He was not told to stop being a solider before or after conversion."

You have no idea what Cornelius was told after his baptism. The woman who anointed Jesus with costly ointment was a prostitute, but she was never told to stop selling her wares. Using your logic we can therefore assume that prostitution is a profession agreeable with a follower of Jesus since she was never rebuked or instructed openly.

Scean posits, "The Roman soldiers were not pacifist."

But early Christians were pacifist. The historical records proves this. Just because some Christians prefer to serve Caesar rather than God doesn't negate the call to put away the sword, and as Jesus said, "Follow me."

he is Jason said...

There are some good ideas coming from both sides of this argument. But there are a couple things which I have to take issue with.

First, I'm curious where does it say in scripture that Christians have become the chosen people. I always thought that Israel was the chosen people regardless of time, place or their actions.

Second, there seems to be an idea going around that pacifism equates to non-action. This is definitely not the case. While I wouldn't say that Christ is against standing there and getting beat to a pulp (nor was Stephen, Justin, Ignatius or pretty much any of the other apostles before them) I would say that there are some situations where the least of these are being attacked and physical intervention is necessary. Being a pacifist and seeking peace necessitates an imagination, especially when others lives are on the line. We see this as Jesus kneels to draw in the dirt.

Finally, as much as I would like to say that being a pacifist is mandated by the Second Testament, I would like even more to say that the idea that underlies the entire section of the Christian Scriptures is that we are to conduct our lives with a servants attitude of self giving love.

Dave said...

I'd like to say thanks for writing this. I found this when I was researching the idea of "just war" and its relation to the Quaker concept of pacifism. As a Roman Catholic, I am taught to subscribe to what is written in the Catechism which sets up the "conditions" for just war. These conditions relate directly to the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas. Somewhere along the line Catholics (including Aquinas) forgot to read the part gospel of Christ which clearly states the pacifist point of view. If our Lord and Savior is an advocate for peace without justifying wars, then it seems we should be as well. I'm not sure what is confusing about this. If we are to be Christians, we are not to wage wars under any circumstances, period. Thanks again for your well-written point of view.

Anonymous said...

An interesting discussion helping me understand the Pacifist view as I am researching an essay on 'Just war theory'.

XYZ123 is right that John the Baptist is not Jesus, but if his words were not important, why were they included in scripture?

A question on the Love and Justice issue? Jesus did say to turn the other cheek, but does that mean that we should not intervene when someone beside us is being beaten? How are we to love our neighbour if we are to stand by and watch them getting up & killed for doing nothing ( I wish that Jesus had the good Samaritan witnessing the robbery instead of just coming across the victim).

Finally, actions often speak louder than words, in all four Gospels Jesus uses clear coercive force to clear the temple - how does the pacifist view integrate this gospel episode?

cherice said...

Thanks for your questions, thisjarofclay. I hope your paper goes well! My response to the comment about the Good Samaritan story is that we wouldn't just stand by and let someone get beat up, we would try to stop it without using violence. Check out Christian Peacemaker Teams' work, They practice "getting in the way," whether that's physically or through changing laws or through simply being a witness that will report others' actions, which tends to tone down others' violence.

Re: the temple cleansing, nowhere does his passage say (or imply) that Jesus used force on the people. He made a whip of cords and cleared out all the animals, which would make that kind of work possible.

Hope that's helpful!

Anonymous said...

I disagree that Jesus did infact use force to clear the temple.

"Then he entered the temple area and began driving out those who were selling." (Luke 19:45 NIV). Luke makes no mention of a whip.

The greek word translated 'to drive out' is ἐκβάλλω (a word which according to BDAG & Louw-Nida [Greek Lexicons] in this situation indicates a use of force.

I also believe that as John uses the masculin pronoun for 'all' (John 2:15) that he is refereing more to the people selling and not just the sheep & cattle.

I do not intend to appear argumentative but rather am trying to let the text speak for itself without putting my own personal slant on it.

cherice said...

I guess without studying the Greek of this passage in tremendous depth at the moment (I just gave it a cursory look), I wouldn't say that the ekballo necessarily had to be violent. He is not holding a gun to anyone's head. I would say that this is more like "casting out" a demon, as this word is often used elsewhere. Luke also uses it to mean "to take out," as in the log in your eye or a coin from the purse of the Good Samaritan; or "to send out" as in the Lord of the harvest sending out workers. There are many uses of this word, and I would suggest that the authors of BDAG and Louw-Nida are as much in danger of reading their own beliefs and preconceived ideas into the text as we are, try as they might not to.

I agree, this is a difficult passage for pacifists. And yet I can't imagine Jesus using physical harm to get the people out of the Temple. I can see him using the strength of his person, both his physical presence and words as well as perhaps some shoving, but there is nothing in this passage that leads me to believe he was threatening anyone's life, or even threatening to injure anyone. He clears the Temple out of righteous anger. Anger is not a problem, and expressing it is not a problem. He is basically calling them to account for something they probably have an inkling is not appropriate anyway.

I'm not sure if that will be an answer you can feel like clears up any question you may have, but I'm not sure there's any way to clear up such questions. No matter what your position on this issue, there are passages to call it into question. I think that's where going to God and immersing ourselves in the present Spirit is the only answer. We can hear from God about God's nature and desires for our actions. It will be reflected in the teachings of scripture, but we can't understand scripture without knowing and listening to God.