Just-War or Pacifism? Where should a Christian stand?

Posted: November 21, 2011 in Arguments, Bible Related, Social Concerns
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Fight or flight? Probably one of the most debated moral subjects of the Bible is in regards to violence. This subject alone has divided the church into a few different denominations. Christian groups like the Mennonites and Quakers refuse to fight based off Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.[1] Most other groups seem to be more willing to engage in warfare, but it seems to be based on relative circumstances church to church and person to person. I myself have struggled with this question ever since I became a Christian. It is, simply put, a large gray area. Can violence be justified or is it never justified? Is killing only wrong when innocence lives are at stake and how do we determine innocence? Can’t one kill to defend themself? Most of life’s questions for a Christian are easily answered in the text of the Bible. But in this realm it is not easily answered.

Common practice for Christians regarding tough subjects like this is a “back to the Bible” mentality, looking at what the first Christians did to model how Christians today should be conducting themselves. In the Roman Army, those that converted to Christianity were asked to no longer kill and instead ask for forgiveness for past killings.[2] Even early Christians that often disagreed with each other such as Origen and Tertullian both agreed in Christians should not enter military service.[3] Sure enough, the first Christians did not enter military service. In fact, the first documented Christians to join military service was in AD 300.[4] And this was only after Constantine, a Christian Emperor, came to power. Not to be ignored is the Roman centurion mentioned in Acts 10 that becomes a Christian yet it is never written that he leaves his profession. One can only speculate if he did or not, and if not, does that suggest his profession was acceptable? This doesn’t settle the matter though, because even though the original Christians did not join the army, it cannot be ignored that it was the pagan Roman army they were not joining. An army that was constantly at war for various reasons. None of which were justifiable for Christians. So is fighting acceptable when justified, or is it never justified for the Christian man and woman?

One of the most influential Christians in American history, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arguably a pacifist, “I never intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, to self-defeating effects of physical violence. But in a day when sputniks and explorers are dashing through outer space and guided ballistic missiles are carving highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can win a war. It is no longer the choice between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence…”[5] And furthermore, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction…. The chain reaction of evil — hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars — must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation.”[6]

Ben Salmon writes of the true nature of Christianity, “Regardless of nationality, all men are brothers. God is “our Father who art in heaven.” The commandment “Thou shalt not kill” is unconditional and inexorable. … The lowly Nazarene taught us the doctrine of non-resistance, and so convinced was he of the soundness of that doctrine that he sealed his belief with death on the cross. When human law conflicts with Divine law, my duty is clear. Conscience, my infallible guide, impels me to tell you that prison, death, or both, are infinitely preferable to joining any branch of the Army.”[7]

But many disagree with this view of the nature of Christianity. “…there are others who wish to argue a philosophy of pacifism based upon the Bible. This is an unconscionable distortion of divine revelation. Whether defensive or preemptive, war is a necessary component of divine justice when evil rears its ugly head. The Bible teaches us that all Christians have a God-given responsibility to take a stand against wickedness for our good and His Glory. We have a right to protect our families and our possessions from murderers that mock the laws of the God of the Bible and exalt themselves.” –David Harrell.[8] It is clear that there is a strong case for both views.

Those who claim Christianity is a religion of pacifism look towards Jesus as the role model. Jesus is the Prince of Peace as mentioned Isaiah 9:6. Was there ever a time he was violent? The only time Jesus used physical force was when he cleaned out the temple in John 2:14-16, in which men were ripping off travelers selling them goods in the temple. Jesus cleared them all out by force. But this is a far cry killing of course. Outside of this one event, Jesus’ life was one of peace. So if we’re supposed to model ourselves off Jesus, and He was a man of peace, love and non-violence, then violence should not be an option for a Christian, right?

Here we come to the one thing that needs to be straightened out. Jesus was not passive. Yes he cleared out a temple with force and he “fought” in other non-violent ways for the souls of men as well. In the Gospel accounts Jesus is constantly confronting religious leaders. Especially in Luke 13:10-17. Author John Eldridge wrote the book “Wild At Heart” to break the image of Jesus being a passive wimp, and to recognize him as the strong warrior figure He is. He writes, “If you’re a leper, an outcast, a pariah of society whom no one has ever touched because you are “unclean,” if all you have ever longed for is just one kind word, then Christ is the incarnation of tender mercy. He reaches out and touches you. On the other hand, if you’re a Pharisee, one of the self-appointed doctrine police… watch out. On more than one occasion Jesus “picks a fight” with those notorious hypocrites.”[9] He writes further, “Christ draws the enemy out, exposes him for what he is, and shames him in front of everyone. The Lord is a gentleman??? Not if you’re in the service of the enemy. God has a battle to fight, and the battle is for our freedom… I wonder if the Egyptians who kept Israel under the whip would describe Yahweh as a Really Nice Guy? Plagues, pestilence, the death of every first born- that doesn’t seem very gentlemanly now, does it?”[10]

 The Bible speaks of Jesus in Revelation19:15saying, “Out of His mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron scepter. He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.” This shows the nature of Jesus as one who is not simply passive and gentle, but one who is a warrior. So if we are to model ourselves off Jesus, we cannot overlook this part of his character. Then again, the Bible says, “For we know Him who said, ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ and again, ‘The Lord will judge his people.’ It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews10:30-31). Are we not to imitate this warrior Jesus, but instead wait and leave the fighting to him?

Hitler killed millions, but how many more would he have killed if not defeated in WWII. The atheist communist Stalin is claimed to be responsible for the deaths of 15-20 million people![11] Imagine how many lives could have been saved if he was stopped? Imagine how many Rwandans would have not died if the US stepped in to stop the Tutsis massacre. But we didn’t and 800,000 were slaughtered in less than a month.[12] When genocide is occurring, are we to stand-by and let them continue? How are we to stand before God and explain that we did nothing to try and end their killings? If we end a reign of terror are we not peacemakers? “Blessed are the peacemakers; for they shall be called the children of God,” Matthew 5:9. I don’t think anyone would disagree with the prospect of ending genocide, so ending genocide doesn’t seem to be the contested question here. It’s the method by which we bring about its end.

Dave Hoekema, executive director of the American Philosophical Association, writes on the similarity and difference between Pacifist and Just-War Christians and their theology, “Pacifism and just-war theory reach different conclusions only in a narrow range of cases: both positions insist that Christians must strive always for healing and reconciliation and must act out of love for all, and both traditions unequivocally condemn the reasons—whether nationalism, territorial or economic gain, revenge or glory—for which nearly all wars have been fought. Yet the differences that exist are both theologically and politically significant. Just-war defenders argue that if all means short of violence have failed and organized violence promises to be a limited and effective means of reestablishing justice, Christians may participate in war. Pacifists insist that to resort to warfare, even for a moral end, is to adopt a means inconsistent with the Christian’s calling.”[13]

What is our calling? We are commanded to hate what is evil and cling to what is good (Romans 12:9). In doing so we must take a stand against what is evil in this world and pursue righteousness (2 Timothy2:22). So we must fight, but the question is more appropriately, how should we fight?  In 2 Corinthians 10:4, “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine powers to demolish strongholds.” So it appears our fighting should not be with weapons but with spirit, lining up with pacifist methodology. Jesus blessed the meek and asks us to forgive and love our enemies, turn the other cheek and return good for evil. How can we fight with these instructions?

According to David Harrell, “In every case when Jesus admonished these virtuous attitudes, the issue was always the need for a mortification of pride that inevitably seeks retaliation for personal offenses. Jesus’ passion was to call us to surrender our fanatical commitment to personal rights and vengeance and replace such attitudes with the love of Christ… In fact, war is an extension of capital punishment that God Himself instituted to maintain order and justice. This is well documented throughout Scripture.”[14] Harrell brings up a good point in that we must examine all of scripture, not just the New Testament. Without the Old Testament we cannot fully understand the role of Jesus for mankind. In the same way, we cannot fully understand Jesus’ teachings without understanding the Old Testament as well because Jesus is the son of God, and God does not change (Malachi 3:6; James 1:17). God’s stance on war and violence cannot be in contradiction with Jesus’ teaching, John 10:30.

Genesis 9:6 says, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed.” Exodus21:12states, “He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death.” This is confirmed by Jesus in the New Testament in Matthew 26:52 when Peter pulls out his sword to attack the temple guards that are arresting Jesus. He tells Peter to put away his sword stating, “all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword.” Deuteronomy17:13states that capital punishment is a deterrent to crime, “Then all people will hear and be afraid, and will not act presumptuously again.” 

This may seem confusing because the OT also states in Exodus 20:13, “Thall shall not kill.” But the Hebrew word used in this passage literally translates into, “the intentional, premeditated killing of another person with malice; murder.”[15] So murder is wrong. But is war murder? God ordered the Israelites to go to war in 1 Samuel 15:3 and Joshua 4:131 Samuel 15:18 says, “Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites; make war on them until you have wiped them out.” Samson was used by God to fight the Philistines that had taken overIsrael. So obviously God is not against all war or else why would He command it? It seems that it is not killing in the broadest sense that is wrong, but murder that is wrong.

But if we fight with weapons, aren’t we denying Christ’s call for us to love everyone, even our enemies? We as Christians are to love everyone! As St. Macary said, “If a man loves all men passionately, but says only about one man that him he cannot love, the man who says this is no more a Christian, because his love is not all embracing.”[16] To clarify this, Communist prisoner Richard Wurmbrand writes, ““But Christians are more than just mere men; they are children of God, partakers in divine nature. Therefore, tortures endured in Communist prisons have not made me hate Communists. They are God’s creatures, how can I hate them? But neither can I be their friend. Friendship means one soul in two breasts. I am not one soul with the Communists. They hate the notion of God. I love God.”[17]

 I think this points out that we are to not hate our enemies. In not hating them we are loving them. Is it possible to fight an enemy without hatred of them? Is it possible to fight an enemy if you love them? One thing for certain is that it is possible to love another, while not submitting to them. To love thy enemy does not mean to not resist them. Though pacifists argue that pacifism is not passivity, and that it can and should be a force of resistance. That is, resistance that does not incorporate violence. Case in point; Ghandi’s protests inIndiaand Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s fight for civil rights. Though one may make the argument that not all “fights” can be won with pacifism, as the success stories mentioned are related to rights and liberty struggles, not mass murders and genocide. With that, when all options are exhausted, war must be utilized.

What would happen if Christians never resisted or fought back? After all, the world is filled with sin and evil and not everyone will come to Christ. As Wurmbrand writes, “I am not so naïve as to believe that love alone can solve these problems. I would not advise the authorities of a state to solve the problem of gangsterism only by love. There must be a police force, judges and prisons for gangsters- not just pastors. If gangsters do not repent, they must be jailed. I would never use the Christian phrase about ‘love’ to counteract the appropriate political, economic, or cultural fight against Communists and other tyrants, who are nothing but gangsters on an international scale. Gangsters steal a purse; they steal whole countries. But the pastor and the individual Christian have to do their best to bring to Christ rebellious nations- whatever crimes they commit- as well as their innocent victims. We have to pray for them with understanding.”[18] Wurmbrand brings up the need the for prisons, judges, and police. These are requirements for justice and enforced law. Something which many argue cannot be enforced without the threat of force.

David Harrell writes, “Love cannot exist without law, and law cannot exist without the sword.”[19] Harrell brings up a good point. Peace requires justice. And justice cannot prevail without strength as there will always be those who commit to injustice. The concept of justice is something that Martin Luther King Jr. declares is a necessity to peace, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension: it is the presence of justice.”[20]

Justice and law can be enforced without hate, which is exactly what Christ commands us to do. The Christian is to not hate. As Wurmbrand writes, “Only love can change the Communist and the terrorist… Hatred blinds. Hitler was anti-Communist, but one who hated. Therefore, instead of conquering them, he helped them win one-third of the world.”[21] And, ““We must love our neighbors as ourselves. Communists and other persecutors are our neighbors as much as anyone else.”[22]

I still can’t help but ask the same questions though. Can war be waged without hate? I think it can. But can it be waged out of love for the enemy? Wurmbrand brought up an important argument, that not everyone will accept Christ, and not everyone will turn to good. We have to continue to love even those that will always remain an enemy. And if this is the case, does pacifism work? This brings a divide amongst pacifists and non-pacifists Christians in that we must question the nature of man. Ghandi questioned this himself, “If love or non-violence be not the law of our being, the whole of my argument falls to pieces”[23] In other words, if man is not inherently good, than pacifism will never succeed. This is an easy part for Christians which believe that through the fall of man, man is inherently evil at heart, needing the grace of God.

But this argument can go both ways. As Hoekema points out, “…realism about human nature cuts two ways: if it undermines a pacifism based on optimism, it also undermines the assumption that weapons of destruction and violence intended to restrain evil will be used only for that purpose. The reality of human sinfulness means that the instruments we intend to use for good are certain to be turned to evil purposes as well. There is therefore a strong presumption for using those means of justice that are least likely to be abused and least likely to cause irrevocable harm when they are abused. An army trained and equipped for national defense can quickly become an army of conquest or a tool of repression in the hands of an unprincipled leader.”[24] Ironically though, just such a leader, Joseph Stalin made the following statement about pacifism, “It would therefore be a mistake to think that “pacifism” signifies the liquidation of fascism. In the present situation, “pacifism” is the strengthening of fascism with its moderate, Social-Democratic wing pushed into the forefront.”[25]

So has anything been concluded? Or are we just left with more questions that we originally had? Here are the conclusions I reached: The nature of God and Jesus is one of a warrior that fights evil and upholds what is good. As Christians, we must rescue the souls of men and love all people, but we must prohibit them from harming innocent lives as well. We are not to be passive, but resist tyranny. The methods by which we resist encompass acts of love, mercy, forgiveness, but if these options alone do not do and our only remaining option is warfare, than we must engage in warfare. To say Jesus would never condone warfare is to deny God’s call to arms throughout the Old Testament, of which Jesus and God cannot be in contradiction. The only gray area left, is under which circumstances of which we should engage in war. And unfortunately this is where we are tested morally amidst the gray. But do not be mistaken, there will be times where we will need to engage in warfare, as there have been plenty of times in the past. As written in Ecclesiastes 3:8, “There is a time for war, and a time for peace.”


[1] Lang, J.S., (1999) “1001 Things You Always Wanted to Know About the Bible,”New York: Thomas Nelson Inc., Pp. 361

[2] Hoekema, D., “A Practical Christian Pacifism,” www.religion-online.org

[3] Hoekema, D., “A Practical Christian Pacifism,” www.religion-online.org

[4] Lang, J.S., (1999) “1001 Things You Always Wanted to Know About the Bible,”New York: Thomas Nelson Inc.,  Pp. 362

[5] “Social Justice and the Emerging New Age” address at the Herman W. Read Fieldhouse,WesternMichiganUniversity, (18 December 1963).

[6] King, M. L., (1967) “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?”

[7] As quoted in Finney, T. (1989) “Unsung Hero of the Great War: The Life and Witness of Ben Salmon,” pp.118-119.

[8] Harrell, D. (2005) “Out of the Depths; A Survivor’s Story of the Sinking of the USS Indianapolis,” Xulon Press, Pp. xvii

[9] Eldredge, J., (2001) “Wild At Heart,” Thomas Nelson Inc.,Nashville, pp. 24.

[10] Eldredge, J., (2001) “Wild At Heart,” Thomas Nelson Inc.,Nashville, pp. 25.

[11] Naimark, N. M., “Russia, Stalin’s Crimes, and Genocide,” History News Network, www.hnn.us

[12] Ford, A. (Dec  9th, 2008) “A Brief History of Genocide,” www.time.com

[13] Hoekema, D., “A Practical Christian Pacifism,” www.religion-online.org

[14] Harrell, D. (2005) “Out of the Depths; A Survivor’s Story of the Sinking of the USS Indianapolis,” Xulon Press,  Pp. xvii-xix

[15] “What does the Bible say about War?” www.gotquestions.org/war-Bible.html

[16] Wurmbrand, R. (1967) “Tortured For Christ,” Living Sacrifice Book Company,Bartlesville,  pp. 54

[17] Wurmbrand, R. (1967) “Tortured For Christ,” Living Sacrifice Book Company,Bartlesville,  pp. 54

[18] Wurmbrand, R. (1967) “Tortured For Christ,” Living Sacrifice Book Company,Bartlesville,  pp. 146

[19] Harrell, D. (2005) “Out of the Depths; A Survivor’s Story of the Sinking of the USS Indianapolis,” Xulon Press,  Pp. xix

[20] As quoted from Oates, S.B. (1982) “Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

[21] Wurmbrand, R. (1967) “Tortured For Christ,” Living Sacrifice Book Company,Bartlesville,  pp. 59

[22] Wurmbrand, R. (1967) “Tortured For Christ,” Living Sacrifice Book Company,Bartlesville,  pp. 145

[23] As quoted in Merton, T. (1964) “Gandhi on Non-violence,” Pp. 24

[24] Hoekema, D., “A Practical Christian Pacifism,” www.religion-online.org

[25] Stalin, J. (1924) “The Period of Bourgeois-Democratic Pacifism”

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