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Should Christians ever go to war?

THE Christian response to war has been a broad spectrum, ranging from absolute rejection of war to full participation, with the proclamation of divine blessings and authority.

The spectrum includes the following: pacifism, non-resistance, just war, preventive war, and crusade. Each view has several permutations and variations, as well as strengths and weaknesses.

How can anyone ever justify war from a Christian perspective? Doesn’t God command His people never to commit murder or kill another human being? (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17). Don’t we hear in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God?” Doesn’t Jesus teach in that same Sermon, “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39)? Is this not a command to non-violence? And doesn’t the Bible repeatedly call God, the “God of peace”?

In light of these Scripture passages, some Christians advocate pacifism. They argue that the violence of war is totally inconsistent with the law of love Jesus preached and embodied. Myron Augsberger expresses the sentiments of many a Christian pacifist when he asks, “How can we kill another human being for whom Jesus died?” Pacifists urge Christians to follow the example of Jesus who refused to sanction violence but preferred instead to suffer on the cross. They argue that violence is the result of our idolatrous attachment to property, which must be defended at all cost.

The problem with the pacifist view is that it misidentifies the morality of the individual as justification for the morality or behaviour of the state. What do I mean? The teachings of Jesus regarding “loving one’s enemies” and “turning the other cheek” were meant to discourage revenge. They have to do with the morality of the individual and do not directly apply to the actions of the state.

If Christians were meant to be pacifists one would expect to find a command or a directive in Scripture to that effect. None, however, can be found. When soldiers approached John the Baptist and asked him, “What should we do [to be pleasing to God]?”, John did not condemn war or participation in war, but instead warned them against extortion and greed (Luke 3:14).

The Bible and Christian tradition present the absolute character of the “law of love”, taught and embodied by our Lord, and yet, at the same time, they recognise the universality of human sin. The Bible recognises the sinfulness of war, that it is always a manifestation of the fallen human condition.

Yet, some wars may be necessary, because they may prevent even greater evils from being perpetrated. No other Christian writer has expressed this more compellingly and forcefully than the great Reformer, Martin Luther: “What men write about war, saying that it is a great plague, is all true. But they should also consider how great the plague is that war prevents’ (Luther’s Works 46:96).

The Christian philosopher, Arthur Holmes, has articulated the tenacious issue that confronts the Christian succinctly and eloquently:
“To call war anything less than evil would be self-deception. The Christian conscience has throughout history recognised the tragic character of war. The issue that tears the Christian conscience is not whether war is good, but whether it is in all cases avoidable.”
It was the 5th century theologian, Augustine of Hippo, who conceived of the just war theory in response to this challenge. According to him, a just war:
1. Must be waged for self-defence, rather than conquest, plunder, or political aggression;
2. Must be initiated by the proper authority, i.e., a lawful government, rather than an angry mob;
3. Must be fought with the right intention: peace. It should not be fought in order to gain land, wealth, power, etc.;
4. Must have a reasonable chance of success;
5. Must use means proportionate to the goal. If, for example, the goal is to liberate an oppressed people, it makes no sense to destroy cities in the process.

From these principles, the “just war” theory gradually embraces seven principles or criteria, all of which must be met if a war is to be deemed just. The first five apply to the nation that is “on the way to war” (jus ad bellum), and the final two to the nation “in the midst of war” (jus ad bello). Space allows only the briefest exposition of these principles.

1. Just Cause. All aggression is condemned in just war theory – only defensive war is legitimate.
2. Just Intention. The intention behind the war must be just (or right): it must be waged to secure fair peace for all. Revenge, economic gain and ideological supremacy are all illegitimate reasons for war.
3. Last Resort. War must be the last resort, only when all other means of diplomacy and economic pressure have been exhausted.
4. Formal Declaration. The war in question must be initiated only after a formal declaration by properly constituted parties is made.
5. Limited Objectives. The war must be waged in such a way that once peace is achieved, hostilities must cease.
6. Proportionate Means. Combatant forces of the opposition forces must not be subjected to greater harm than what is needed to attain peace.
7. Non-combatant Immunity. Military forces must respect individuals and groups not participating in the conflict (civilians, peacekeepers, journalists, etc) and must abstain from attacking them.

Difficult for a Christian to call any war just

The interpretation and application of these principles are, in reality, never clear-cut and easy in modern warfare.

Wars are first waged in human hearts before they are fought in the battlefields of the globe. It is difficult for a Christian to call a war – any war – just. However, it should also be pointed out that the just war theory does not try to justify war. Rather, it attempts to prevent war and to bring war within the limits of justice. It attempts to rein in and contain the evils of war.

‘Doesn’t God command His people never to commit murder or kill another human being? (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17). Don’t we hear in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God?” … And doesn’t the Bible repeatedly call God, the “God of peace”?

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.
This article was originally published in the Methodist Message.