Just War? image

Just War?

It has fallen to me to provide some concluding reflections to the just war/pacifism debate, which Liam and Matt have articulated so well over the last couple of weeks.

To start with, I should probably state my unqualifiedness (?) to write on this topic; I am not a former serviceman, nor a conscientious objector, nor an ethicist, and a number of the regular readers of this blog are. I say that because I don’t want my argument to come across as too confident, as if I am somehow summarising the view of Liam and Matt, or of Newfrontiers, in this post. But with those caveats in mind, I think I’ll come right out and say it: I don’t believe in “just war”. I think Jesus unequivocally taught and modelled non-violence; I think the rest of the New Testament stands squarely in line with him on this, as long as arguments from silence are discounted; I think wars are wrong; I think Christians should renounce violence. Nothing too controversial there, then.

We begin with Jesus. Arguably the most ignored, disobeyed and even ridiculed instructions in the New Testament are in Matthew 5:38-42:

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 the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

There it is, in the founding charter of the new Israel: do not resist the one who is evil, whether they physically attack you, steal from you or coerce you. Obviously, as Liam showed in his second post, this is by no means the only New Testament passage which speaks against Christians responding to violence with violence. Jesus not only talks like this, he also lives like this, and instructs his followers to do the same - and in some of the epistles it is one of the author’s overriding concerns that his readers persevere in suffering injustice and persecution without repaying evil for evil. Even in those where it is a more minor theme, as in Romans, there remain emphatic statements like this (Rom 12:14, 17-21). So why, as Matt rightly argued, has it been the majority opinion of the Western church since Constantine that it is acceptable for Christians to use violence, whether as individuals or as instruments of the state?

I think there are three main reasons. Firstly, various biblical and exegetical reasons have been put forward to challenge the pacifist consensus of the early church fathers. Secondly, there are a host of pragmatic reasons to object to nonviolence as a political method: notwithstanding the Martin Luther Kings and the Gandhis, most people these days simply don’t think that a strategy of uncompromising nonviolence could ever work in practice. Thirdly, it is often argued that, even if violence is undesirable for a Christian, there remain circumstances where it remains a necessary evil. So my aim today is to briefly engage with each of these three arguments.

Biblically, the key arguments in favour of “just war” are predominantly the following, as Matt expressed so crisply the other day. (1) The “very straightforwardly pacifist” nature of Jesus’ ethical teaching is difficult to square with the “clearly non-pacifist” history of the Old Testament. (2) Neither Jesus nor John the Baptist commanded soldiers to lay down their arms, urging them instead to deal justly with others. (3) The rest of the New Testament writers “open the door to the Christian’s participation in the state in general and in military affairs in particular”, by commanding believers to submit to authority (Rom 13; 1 Pet 2), which might include going to war on their behalf. We could also add (4) the apparently positive things Jesus says about “swords” (Matt 10:34; Luke 22:35-38), and possibly also (5) the not-very-pacifist picture of Jesus that emerges from Revelation. Each is worth a quick look.

(1) The non-pacifist Old Testament is the weakest argument by some way, simply because the context of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:38-42 assumes it (“you have heard that it was said”) and then challenges it (“but I say to you”). Saying that Jesus’ teaching against violence is hard to square with the OT is like saying that his teaching against lust is hard to square with the OT. Jesus is raising the bar for the holiness of God’s people; that’s simply how the Sermon on the Mount works.

(2) With one exception, we just don’t know whether or not soldiers were, after repentance and baptism, encouraged to leave the army, and as such the claim that they weren’t is simply a colossal argument from silence. We have no idea whether the centurion in Matthew 8 became a disciple at all, let alone whether he quit his job as a result. The claim made in the ESV Study Bible section on just war, that many in the Praetorian guard became Christians, is a remarkable over-interpretation of Phil 1:13. Nor do we know what happened to Cornelius after his conversion in Acts 10. (We don’t know what happened to the sinful woman who anointed Jesus in Luke 7, either, but we don’t thereby assume that she continued in her life of prostitution or whatever it was!) The exception, which is John the Baptist’s instruction in Luke 3:14, shows at most that John, speaking before Jesus had even been baptised (let alone preached the Sermon on the Mount), did not see a problem with serving in the army - but this certainly does not relativise Jesus’ subsequent clear teaching on the subject. John seems to have had a different view of the coming of the kingdom to his cousin (Luke 7:20), and it is possible (though unprovable) that the forcefulness of its advance was part of this.

(3) Submission to secular authority, as the apostles made clear in Acts 4:19-20 and 5:29, is not required if the secular authority in question is telling you to do something that Jesus told you not to. Besides, the wider context of Romans 12-13 and 1 Peter 2-3 both allude to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5, which indicates Paul and Peter saw a distinction between the state’s role and the Christian’s role, as Liam pointed out.

(4) The sword in Matthew 10:34 is clearly metaphorical, and it seems likely that it is also in Luke 22:35-38, and that Jesus’ response to the disciples after they took him literally (v38) is a rebuke, not a confirmation: “that’s enough!” This makes more sense of the following incident (22:49-53), fits with the similar phrase in Deuteronomy 3:26 (“enough from you!”), avoids the oddity of saying that two swords would be sufficient to fight Rome (?), and is therefore the view of most commentators (see especially Marshall, Green, Fitzmyer, Stein, Wright and the article of Neyrey).

On (5), a longer post may be needed, but Sean’s comment on Matt’s article, following Richard Hays, is a helpful perspective to bear in mind.

Practically, the most common objection to (what appears to me to be) the plain sense of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5 is simple: the Nazis. Within seconds of implying that Jesus actually wanted his followers not to resist evil, and to turn the other cheek, and not to respond to violence with violence, the universal trump card of National Socialism is almost invariably played. “But if we did that in the 1940s, then where would we be now?” Or, “my grandparents sacrificed their lives to give us freedom. Are you saying they shouldn’t have?” Or, “so was Bonhoeffer wrong?” Or, as I had the other day from a good friend, “a guy I know was on the third truck into Belsen. If ever there was an argument for intervening to stop injustice ...!” And so on.

So let me make a couple of things clear. Firstly, one of my grandfathers won a Military Cross in France, and the other was in a Japanese POW camp for four years, so I’m not speaking as a fourth generation conscientious objector, nor as someone who disparages the sacrifices and courage of others. Secondly, intervening to stop injustice, and sacrificing our lives for the freedom of others, are profoundly noble things that Jesus both did, and emphatically commended to his followers. Thirdly, the state has a responsibility to protect its citizens, and at times, this may involve using violence (Rom 13:1-7). Fourthly, however, the question addressed by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is not whether sacrifice is wrong, or whether intervention to stop injustice is wrong, or whether the state can use arms; it is whether a follower of Jesus should use violence or not. And fifthly, I’m not sure that the appeal which is sometimes implicit in this conversation - “of course Jesus said that then, but these days, we have really really bad people, like the Nazis” - is quite fair. Jesus spoke from a hillside in an occupied territory, with a Roman garrison just around the corner, three years before being crucified for insurrection, and forty years before Titus set Jerusalem on fire and wiped Israel off the map for nineteen centuries. The Nazis were unspeakably appalling, but even they didn’t usually crucify people. If anyone in history understood the realities of the world, and the horrendous possibilities that could result from renouncing violence, it was Jesus of Nazareth, and I love that about him. So I don’t think it works to say, “yes, Jesus said that, but it’s not really practical these days”. Frankly, it never was.

What, then, of the idea that violence is wrong, but a necessary evil sometimes? Many of us have come across the hypothetical scenario that involves you, your child and the axe murderer, or some suitably implausible equivalent. The axe murderer is charging at your child, axe raised high, and you have some weapon to hand which would stop him in his tracks. Do you use it? Even many who are pacifist when things are abstract are prepared to use violence as a last resort when things are made more personal. But if your answer to that question is yes, the interlocutor says, then why not substitute the Nazis for the axe murderer, and Belgium for your child? And if you do that, then haven’t you effectively argued for just war in exactly the way Augustine did?

Not so fast. Firstly, there are some who would answer in the negative to the axe murderer scenario in the first place: no, they say, they would not use violence to defend their child, although they would happily put themselves in the firing line instead. I can’t claim to be with them on this one - my responsibility to protect my family, which I see as God-given, would make knocking them out with a candlestick (can you tell I used to play Cluedo?) the lesser of two evils - but I want to acknowledge the existence and consistency of that position. Secondly, there are of course clear differences between my children and Belgium: moral proximity to, God-given responsibility for, confidence of success without causing collateral damage, and means of defence (defending Belgium requires killing someone, while defending the child does not). Collapsing the two into one another is a clever rhetorical tactic, but does not do justice to the nuances of the situation - and if we make the all-important third move, from axe murderer to Nazis to (say) Iraq in 2003, then we may delude ourselves in imagining that the Nazis are somehow representative of all potentially hostile nations, and thereby make the axe murderer scenario even less appropriate. Few conflicts can be so clearly divided into goodies and baddies.

But thirdly, and much more importantly, the fact that violence may, in extreme circumstances, be a necessary wrong does not alter the fact that it is a wrong. It is one thing to say that, in a particular situation, violence might be the lesser of two evils, but quite another to say that it can in certain circumstances be “just”, and still another to argue, on the basis of this, that pacifism is impractical and/or unbiblical and that Christians need not worry about fighting for their country. (When George H. Bush said, after the first gulf war, that the US forces were acting as a light to the world as Christ ordained, it should have been a wake up call for all of us.) As we said a few months ago, some things can be wrong, and you have to do them anyway, as any pastor who has been confronted with a complex marital situation knows very well. But the proof of the “just war” pudding is in the eating, and my observation would be that too many Christians are prepared to act violently, whether in war or in MMA, without questioning whether or not it is Jesus-like.

Another Nazi analogy may make the point. The SS burst into a house where you are illegally hiding Jews, and ask you if you know where they are. Do you tell the truth? Almost everybody would say no. But would we thereby develop a doctrine of “just lying”, with a variety of criteria used to establish the circumstances in which lying was just? Perhaps some would: but if, a few years down the line, this led to many Christians taking up employment in organisations for which lying was the chief purpose, on the basis that they would only be forced to tell “just lies”, would we not be somewhat perturbed? Or if there was a section at the back of the ESV Study Bible in which thoroughgoing truth-telling was depicted as very much second best to “just lying”? Or if those who conscientiously objected to lying when the state told them to were regarded by fellow Christians as woolly idealists at best, and cowardly yellowbellies at worst? Or if (to use a personal example) preachers were collared and asked to explain themselves after teaching that Jesus was anti-lying?

I’ve found the exchange of posts on this issue over the last few days incredibly stimulating. I am really grateful to Liam for kickstarting it, and to Matt for giving such a wise list of observations on both sides. But though I respect both arguments, and think they have been well expressed here, I can’t pretend to sit in the middle. I think Jesus urged nonviolence, rather than “just war”, and that if violence should ever be used - which is questionable - it should be understood, like lying and divorce, as a tragedy which Jesus spoke against. The lesser of two evils, however necessary it is thought to be, is still evil.

This post forms the fifth and final part of a short series on violence and pacifism.

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