Should a Christian fight or not

On Sunday evening, a good friend of mine was driving me back home when we engaged in a discussion on the Just war theory, whether it was ever appropriate for Christians to fight or whether pacifism was the only seating place for the believer. The conversation arose from a discussion about John Stott on how he changed his position from being a pacifist to a believer in the just war theory (please correct me if I’m wrong). It is critical to mention here that pacifism and the just war theory are asking two different questions. Pacifism focuses on the individual while the just war theory focuses on the governmental usage of force to promote justice and scripture evidently is used to support both cases.  Also, the relation between the Church and State are to be distinguished because both are giving two different responsibilities by God and one is strictly giving the role of unrelenting pacifism, e.g. sermon on the mount, Luke 23:24, Romans 12:14-20. And the state I believe to be giving the role of Justice because the Just-war theory ‘attempts to limit both resort to war and the conduct of war to what justice allows. As an application of Christian love it gives priority to reconciliation, and seeks to prevent just punishment of an aggressor from deteriorating into vengeful retaliation’ New dictionary of Christian ethics & Pastoral theology, pg 527. The crux of the conflict between pacifism and the just war theory is should a Christian fight or not?

Should a Christian fight or not?

Pacifism literally means peacemaking. ‘Blessed are the peace makers, for they will be called Sons of God’. Pacifism refuses to sanction wars or any participation in warfare, it says with Origen (an early church Father), that ‘we no longer take sword against a nation, nor do we learn any more to make war, having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our commander’ (Against Celsus 5.33). Other early church fathers echoed Origen’s perspective and adamantly claimed that Christians are forbidden to join the army and if you was already a soldier when converted then you are forbidden to engage in warfare. Another example used to promote the cause of pacifism for Christians in all spheres is that of when Christ disarmed Peter when he emotionally cut off the ear of the soldier when Christ was betrayed by Judas. Jesus clearly showed that his disciples were not to fight even though their master was being falsely arrested and if we are not to fight for our master then we ought not to use violence in any situation.  But is it always wrong for the Christian to fight? Advocates of the Just war theory, particularly  developed by Augustine which witnessed the demise of pacifism which dominated early Christianity propagated that Christians are to respect governmental authority and governments are given the authority by God himself to punish evil. So, although the Christian is to turn the other cheek, the government is to issue justice in the form of punishment which glorifies God as governments are fulfilling their role in which they were established for. ‘For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong…but if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God‘s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer’, Romans 13:3-4. Therefore, if a Christian is in a position of authority, should he turn the other cheek, relinquish his role or should he fulfil his responsibility as being an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer? As it was established in the first paragraph that pacifism and the just war theory addresses different questions, so we can say with John Lasserre in his book War and the Gospel, p.132 that ‘God has charged the church with the duty of preaching the gospel, and the state with the duty of ensuring the political order; the Christian is both member of the church and citizen of the nation; as the former he must obey God by conforming to the political ethic of which the state is judged….’. So, are both views reconcilable?

John Stott in the Cross of Christ comments that ‘Christians must struggle with the dilemma and not try to polarize over it. Just war theorists tend to concentrate on the need to resist and punish evil, and to overlook the other biblical injunction to overcome evil with good, and to forget that according to scripture evil deserves to be punished. Can these two biblical principles be reconciled? Christians will at least stress the need to look beyond the defeat and surrender of the national enemy to its repentance and rehabilitation. Then the so-called ‘politics of forgiveness’, developed by Haddon Willmer, is relevant here. David Atkinson sums up this emphasis well:

Forgiveness is a dynamic concept of change. It refuses to be trapped into a fatalistic determinism. It acknowledges the reality of evil, wrong and injustice, but it seeks to respond to wrong in a way that is creative of new possibilities. Forgiveness signals an approach to wrong in terms, not of peace at any price, nor of a destructive intention to destroy the wrongdoer, but of a willingness to seek to reshape the future in the light of the wrong, in the most creative way possible’. (The Cross of Christ, pg 357-358).

Conclusion

As our conversation drew to an end, I emphasised that the individual Christian must work according to one’s conscience although being rooted and grounded in scripture and also that situations differ and context is of major importance. The Church is given the role of pacifism e.g. if the church was to be attacked, bombed, targeted, etc.. we are not to retaliate ‘for we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered’, but if the state was to be attacked, then the bearers of justice are to lift their hands and if God as appointed Christians in such roles of authority then they must carry out their duties in love with no hint of retributive vengeance but of justice and seeking to establish peace and saving as many lives as possible for even our Lord Jesus is coming, yea, he his coming to Judge the world and to put away his enemies.

I have only touched briefly on some of the issues.

K.Oni

Comments

  1. Hey, I enjoyed reading this - thanks for linking me to it.

    I just want to point out a couple of things about it though. In your opening paragraph you write:

    "It is critical to mention here that pacifism and the just war theory are asking two different questions. Pacifism focuses on the individual while the just war theory focuses on the governmental usage of force to promote justice and scripture evidently is used to support both cases."

    I don't think I'd agree with that and I would have thought that some on both sides of the argument might also disagree. For instance, some pacifists think that all violence is utterly wrong and should not allowed either in individual contexts or by the state. In fact, most pacifists I know think this way. And some just-war theorists (like me) think that in certain cases violence by the state and by the individual can be not only acceptable but is an absolute moral necessity.

    Jesus' teachings, particularly on the Sermon on the Mount are open to a wide variety of interpretations; 'Blessed are the peacemakers' is not 'blessed by the peacemakers only by peaceable means'. In a broken world that has not yet submitted to the Prince of Peace, sometimes, I would argue, peace must be attained by force.

    I'd also like to stress that in my mind retaliation and defence are two very separate things. I agree that we should not retaliate if, say, someone humiliates us by striking us on the cheek. But Jesus doesn't explain what to do if someone is beating you (or someone else) half to death. It might be contended that he perfectly well illustrated what to do if people are beating you to your death by going to the cross, but that is not a clear cut case: Jesus came to earth for that very death and what it would achieve, and at best our own death can only be a witness to it. But even then that is rare; most violence occurs for other reasons. Jesus asked not to be defended by violence or by any other manner (e.g. legions of angels) because of his particular purpose in his submission to death. The victory he was going to achieve was based upon the power and wisdom of God, not by earthly might, and that had to be seen very clearly. Jesus' submission was not a renunciation of violence but a demonstration that the power of salvation does not come from men but from God. So Jesus' example here is somewhat unclear for us on this question.

    I think that as Christians we need to chose our battles and the reasons for fighting them carefully. Pursuing, as you say, reconciliation and relationship, is what the gospel is all about. But these are principles that cannot be universally applied. For example, if someone at work develops a grudge against me and starts harming me in various ways, either by abuse or gossip or something, I think I'm called to love him back and not retaliate, and pray that there is reconciliation. But if some stranger breaks into my house at night and tries to hurt my wife or daughter, there is no issue of relationship here: I have my family to protect and I can tell you as a husband and a father I would be extremely energetic in doing that. And anyway, even if I did have a prior relationship with that person, it would be momentarily forgotten as I used every means possible to defend my family. I would also expect others to do the same for my family, as I would for theirs. And this is not violence for the sake of pride or some other sin: this is protecting those who are being attacked. There is a big difference, and I think Jesus is talking about one but not the other.

    Anyway, I need to get back to work! Keep up this writing and thinking: it's good stuff, even if I don't agree on every point!

    Cheers,
    Peter

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