War is one of the oldest ethical questions that have faced Christians. Teaching on war has existed between two poles since the early days of the Church. The early Latin father Tertullian, speaking about the possibility of Christians serving in the military, unambiguously states that "there is no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be due to two masters—God and Caesar."1 Conversely, two hundred years later Augustine wrote, "it is the wrongdoing of the opposing party which compels the wise man to wage just wars."2 The traditions they represent, Christian pacifism and just war theory, have coexisted in the Church, sometimes uneasily, ever since.
Christian pacifism was a significant, though not dominant presence in the early church, as represented by fathers like Hippolytus, Tertullian, and Lactantius, and has remained so ever since.3 The pacifist tradition they helped originate was continued in the Middle Ages by the Waldensians and after the Reformation by Protestant denominations like the Mennonites, Swiss Brethren, and Quakers. In the modern era, reforming figures like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. have powerfully demonstrated the redemptive power of nonviolence to effect social change and publicly model the love of Christ. Christian pacifism "is more than simply approving of peace, which everyone in some sense would do, it is the conviction that the commitment to peace stands higher than any other commitment"4—even the commitment to seek justice.5
The biblical basis for Christian pacifism is centered on Jesus as "the image of the invisible God" (Col 1:15 RSV); he reveals the Father to us (Mat 11:27); he is God in the flesh, the final and greatest revelation of the divine (Heb 1:1-2). "He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power." (Heb 1:3) What is true of Jesus is true of God, and it is through the Incarnation that God has revealed to us both who he is and what it means to be truly human. And what kind of God does Jesus reveal to us? A God who responds to evil with mercy (Luk 15:11-32), who "makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust" (Mat 5:45), who submitted to a horrific, unjust death on the cross, the ultimate demonstration of nonviolent love in the face of evil and an example for Christians to follow (1 Pet 2:21). The Incarnation is the "normative revelation of God" for Christians,6 and a major implication of it is that God is nonviolent.
Further support can be drawn from the teachings of Jesus. The first and most greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, and inseparable from this is the command to love your neighbor as yourself. (Mat 22:34-40) But Jesus expands this command to include not just those we identify and get along with, but our enemies (Mat 5:43-45, Luk 6:35-36). We are to respond to evil, persecution, and violence not in kind, not with violent resistance (Mat 5:39) but with love and mercy. In doing so we are simply following the example of God, who loved us and showed us mercy (especially through Christ) when we were sinners and his enemies (5:8,10). These sharpened teachings are not simply unreachable ideals or general attitudes we are supposed to have; Jesus fully intended for us to obey them just as much as he intended for us to obey his command to love one another.
Commenting on and expanding Christ's teachings, Paul writes, "Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law" (Rom 13:10) According to him, we are called to engage not in physical violence, but in spiritual warfare.7 (2 Cor 10:3-6) We must "Repay no one evil for evil...but overcome evil with good" (Rom 12:17,21). Violence, Christian pacifists argue, is not redemptive; it only leads to more evil, more violence, and so it can never positively advance the causes of justice or mercy. "The only ultimately redemptive response to sin and how it profoundly distorts human social life is, as Paul asserted, to seek to overcome evil with good (Romans 12). The only way successfully to resist violence without simply adding to violence in the world is overtly non-violent resistance."8 (Emphasis the author's)
While I support nearly all of the points made by Christian pacifism and believe that its Christ-centered message of peace needs to be heard more widely, I cannot follow its case to the absolute conclusion that war and violence are never permissible. In this it confuses private duties, in which a Christian is responsible foremost for his own soul, with public duties, in which a Christian, especially a parent or civil authority, is responsible for the protection of those in his care.9 One need look no further than the present situation in Iraq and Syria for an example of a situation in which an exclusive prescription of nonviolence would be impossibly idealistic (i.e. placing moral ideals before people), and for that reason heartless towards the vulnerable facing the real danger of violent persecution or death. For the sake of peace as the most important commitment and to avoid dirtying one's own hands, Christian pacifism is willing to allow death, suffering, and injustice to befall innocents. For the sake of loving one’s enemies, it is willing to compromise on loving neighbors, innocents, and those one may be charged to protect. Christ's teachings of pacifism and nonresistance are a high and vital calling for his followers, but to refuse to fight in the defense of others is to impose those teachings on those who, by and large, are not able to obey them to the utmost. It is to force martyrdom on them. To deny that such difficult choices ever have to be made is simply to deny the pervasive reality of sin in our world.
Christian pacifism also runs into some exegetical difficulties. It ignores Jesus' propensity to use hyperbole to accentuate his moral teachings; for example, I know of no one who has ever applied Matthew 5:29-30 literally and mutilated themselves to avoid sinning. Likewise his command to hate one's father and mother (Luk 14:26) is qualified by (among other things) his act of compassion on Mary from the cross in John 19:26-27, as well as Paul's command to provide for one's family (1 Tim 5:8). Its flat definition of Jesus as the "normative revelation of God" wanders dangerously close to Marcionism when it allows this reality to invalidate the depictions of God as blessing warfare in the Old Testament, reiterated in Heb 11:32-34. In context, its use of Romans 12 and 13 is also somewhat ambiguous: the justification for Christians not avenging themselves is not God's unwavering mercy but his self-declared monopoly on vengeance (Rom 12:19), and in Romans 13:1-7 Paul describes governing authorities as instituted by God, bearing the sword to execute his wrath (as a proxy) on the wrongdoer.
Thus even in the biblical support for Christian pacifism are found the seeds for just war theory, which holds that while war is evil, it may be permissible in certain circumstances. Augustine was the first to articulate the rationale that since the state is God's servant, appointed to bear the sword against wrongdoers (Rom 13:4), there are cases in which war (and capital punishment) can be just, in congruence with the examples of the Old Testament.10 Nonetheless war remains at best a lamentable necessity, an evil made permissible only by the presence of worse evils.11 The Scholastic theologian Thomas Aquinas built on the teachings of Augustine, going into more detail on the specific criteria that make a war “just” and reiterating that the aim of war is the restoration of peace and justice to the social order.12 The early reformers (except the aforementioned proponents of pacifism) continued to uphold the just-war tradition.
Just war theory distinguishes between at least two sets of criteria. Jus ad bellum criteria evaluate whether or not a given war is justifiable and include things like declaration by a competent authority, a just cause, proportionality of the means of war, exhaustion of peaceful means of resolution, and probability of success. Jus in bello criteria, including proportionality of force and discrimination of targets, are intended to minimize the evils of a war already in progress and avoid dehumanization of the enemy.13 Unlike Christian pacifism, just war theory does not hold that war always necessarily creates a worse evil than it overthrows, or that violence against a military opponent necessarily leads to hatred. It is possible to love one's enemies while using force to stop them from harming others, remaining ready (even eager) to lay down one's arms when peace is declared. God himself faces the same challenge of honoring and loving us (as his sacred image-bearers) even as we persist in destroying each other.
Just war theory enjoys plenty of biblical precedent, especially throughout the Old Testament, which presupposes that warfare can be legitimate. Abraham gets into a skirmish to rescue his nephew Lot (Gen 14:13-16), and is presented as an example of faith in the New Testament (Rom 4:11-12, Heb 11:8-30). The same can be said of Joshua (cf. Heb 11:30), the judges, and David (Heb 11:32-34), who are praised for their faith, including their willingness to fight in the name of God. In the New Testament, John the Baptist (Luk 3:14), Jesus (Luk 7:2-9), and Peter (Acts 10:1,24-48) have encounters with soldiers, in which we receive no hint that their profession is inherently sinful. As previously mentioned, in Romans 13:1-4 Paul states that governing authorities are servants instituted by God, appointed to bear the sword against wrongdoers. In John's apocalyptic vision Christ is depicted as one who "it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war." (Rev 19:11) "While the warfare in question is spiritual, nevertheless the suitability of the war metaphor implies that the activity itself is not a violation of the purposes of God. By way of contrast, God is never described as a 'harlot' or in terms of other occupations that are by their very nature immoral."14
Yet the logic of just war theory must not be taken too far. If overapplied, especially as a set of criteria for evaluating whether a given war is a "just" war, it risks becoming a moral "free pass" for war and killing, declaring them to be "good" when (as the destruction of God's image) they remain anything but. Just war theory can even end up sanctioning an implicit "end justifies the means" philosophy: if the end is considered to be "just", the horrors of war are declared "righteous". The Latin word iustus that is translated to "just" here should probably be taken to mean more "lawful", "legal", or "legitimate" in this case than positively "righteous", as is the connotation of the Greek dikaios. The point of Christian pacifism that violence is never redemptive is somewhat true; besides its destruction of the image of God, all war can do is prevent a greater evil or injustice by way of a (hopefully) lesser; this must not be confused with the actual creation of goodness or justice.
Both just war theory and Christian pacifism, when applied alone, have parallels with the kind of theodicy David Bentley Hart calls out for trying to make evil and suffering morally intelligible.15 The latter has echoes of a "greater good" theodicy: we are right to allow evil and injustice to occur in the short term for the sake of a longer-term good that cannot come about any other way. The suffering of innocents at the hands of the unjust is perversely necessary for the sake of the justice which, it is thought, can only come about through nonviolence. Conversely, just war theory can paint killing as "right" if it prevents a worse evil from occurring, which is dangerously relativistic. How can the Christian equally, consistently condemn and fight against all violence and injustice—both that within himself and that committed by others?
This tension is real, a consequence of the fallen world in which we live, and it is tempting to resolve it by simply adopting either a total pacifism that denounces all war as evil or a doctrine of "holy war" that makes (just) war into a positive norm. But the tension is an integral part of a truly biblical approach to war. Just (or perhaps "justifiable", or "permissible") war theory is good when it acknowledges that war is an evil and seeks to make it less so, and that any doctrine of war can only ever be a concession to human sinfulness. Yet war may be a necessary evil.16By pretending that we are already entirely free from war, we may unwittingly become culpable in even worse evils: Fr. David Alexander, an Orthodox chaplain in the U.S. Navy, says that "To fail to defend the innocent is paradoxically consenting to their elimination and extermination."17
Yet still more, the Christian pacifist tradition is needed as a voice of compassion and restraint even on our cautious dealings with war, a reminder of the potential of human sin and weakness to twist even the best intentions into dehumanizing atrocities. If just war theory is a concession to the reality of sin and human weakness, the voice of pacifism rings from a coming age without sin in which war will truly be obsolete—an age in which we within the Church already dwell, and into which we beckon all who will come in the name of the Lord (cf. Rev 22:17). Unlike just war theory, pacifism truly represents God's loving design for how we are ultimately made to live; any participation in war, even with the best intentions, falls short of this vision. In this evil age, sometimes it is necessary to fight; but as Christians, let us fight as those who have renounced violence (cf. 1 Cor 7:29-30), as ready and waiting to lay down our arms at the first chance of peace, as those looking forward to the final banquet where we will enjoy communion not only with our God and our neighbors, but with our enemies.
- Tertullian, On Idolatry, XIX, < http://newadvent.org/fathers/0302.htm> (11 April 2015).
- Augustine¸ The City of God, XIX.7, < http://newadvent.org/fathers/1201.htm> (11 April 2015).
- John Jefferson Davis, Evangelical Ethics (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 2004), 242.
- Ted Grimsrud and Christian Early, "Christian Pacifism in Brief," Peace Theology, < http://peacetheology.net/pacifism/christian-pacifism-in-brief/> (14 April 2015).
- Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 243.
- Grimsrud and Early, "Christian Pacifism in Brief."
- Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 243.
- Grimsrud and Early, "Christian Pacifism in Brief."
- Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 246.
- Augustine, The City of God, I.21.
- Augustine, The City of God, XIX.7.
- Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 247.
- Kevin Allen, "Orthodoxy and War," Ancient Faith Radio, 11 August 2013, < http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/aftoday/orthodoxy_and_war> (7 April 2015) and Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 248.
- Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 250.
- David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 44,61.
- Fr. Stanley Harakas, “No Just War in the Fathers,” In Communion, 2 August 2005, < http://www.incommunion.org/2005/08/02/no-just-war-in-the-fathers/> (15 April 2015).
- Allen, "Orthodoxy and War."