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Is war ever justified?

Author: Peter Ballard

"You have heard that it was said, `Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also."


"You have heard that it was said, `Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," Jesus, (Matthew 5:38-39,43-44, NIV)

The words of Jesus seem crystal clear. He calls his followers to refrain from fighting enemies under any circumstances. Surely, then, he calls his followers not to participate in war. How can one participate in war and yet "love ones enemies" and "not resist an evil person"? However, throughout history, the majority of Jesus' followers have not taken this command literally. They have found ways to justify taking part in war.

Until recently, I was in that number. Then, late in 1998, I read an article by Alan Walker in the Australian Christian magazine "On Being  Alive", which challenged my view. Walker pointed out that the earliest Christians _did_ take literally Jesus' call to pacifism, and refused to join the Roman army. Theologically, the turning point came in the fifth century when Augustine of Hippo formed the doctrine of "Just War". Since then, countless wars have been rationalised by Christians as being "Just Wars". Walker's thesis was simple: the church must do away with the "Just War" doctrine. There is no such thing. The words of Jesus preclude it.

Walker's article led me to examine the traditional theological arguments against pacifism. To my surprise, they are very weak. Let me take you through these arguments:

Argument 1: "What about war in the Old Testament?"

Response: It is clear enough that the New Testament brings in a new era in humankind's dealings with God. Jesus' commands about loving our enemies were so radical because they were new.

Many Old Testament practices are superceded in the New Testament. So we cannot use the Old Testament alone for forming our doctrine of war.

Argument 2: "Jesus used war in a parable (Luke 14:31-33)"

(I have seen this argument seriously used)

Response: You might as well say that the parable of the "shrewd" manager (Luke 16:1-8) endorses dishonesty, or that the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) endorses irresponsible living. Jesus told parables to make a certain point, and the parable of the Luke 14:31-33 was certainly not about the rights or wrongs of war.

Argument 3: "What about soldiers in the New Testament?"

In at least three cases soldiers are followers or potential followers of Jesus: the soldiers who came to be baptised by John the Baptist, the centurion who had great faith (Matt 8:5-13, Luke 7:1-10), and Cornelius (Acts 10). In no case is there a hint that they are involved in an immoral occupation, in the same way that (say) prostitutes are. In response, we note that in none of these cases were they fighting battles. Soldiers also fulfilled peacekeeping roles, akin to modern police, and this was more than likely the case in all the instances mentioned. So this case does not carry much weight when compared to several clear passages of teaching.

Argument 4: "But Jesus was using hyperbole!"

Response: While it is true that Jesus uses much hyperbole in the Sermon on the Mount, it is not at all clear that this passage does. Hyperbole is deliberate exaggeration to make a point. So if this is hyperbole, what is the actual point Jesus is making? I can see no point except "love your enemies" and "do not resist an evildoer". But an even more telling answer is the fact that the same teaching turns up in other places in the New Testament. Not only do both Matthew and Luke record it on the lips of Jesus, but both Paul (Romans 12) and Peter (1 Peter 3) have basically the same commands: to not resist an evil person, and to love our enemies. These are in straight teaching passages, there is no hint of hyperbole. Since they agree very closely with Jesus commands (without going quite as far, but they do agree in general tone), I see no reason not to also take Jesus' words at face value.

A related argument (which we might call 4a) is that Jesus' commands in the sermon on the mount are for a different dispensation: they were only for the Jews. While I reject this form of dispensationalism, in the case of pacifism this argument can also be dispelled by pointing to the similar passages in Romans and Peter (see above) which, even the dispensationalists would agree, are teaching for the Christian church.

Argument 5: "Paul in Romans 13 says we must obey the State."

This is perhaps the most common objection to Christian pacificism, and always turns up in some form in arguments against it. It was an argument I agreed with for many years. The response is so obvious it is a wonder I never saw it before:

Response: Since when did the laws of the State take precedence over God's laws? Christians have always responded to unjust laws in the way the apostles responded in Acts 5:29: "We must obey the laws of God, not men". If the law of the state conflicts with God's laws, we are called to disobey the State!

Evangelical Christians have no hesitation in saying that we should go against State laws on issues such as abortion or racism. So why not war? Why not say, "Sorry, we believe that God says that we must not fight our fellow human beings"?

Non-Biblical Arguments: There are other arguments against pacifism, but these are not biblical ones. This does not make them wrong. For instance, the New Testament does not consider the case of Christians being in majority in a country. But since the arguments are non-Biblical, let me provide my own non-Biblical answers - which, I think reinforce my belief that we should follow Jesus' teaching.

Argument 6: "What about conducting war to defend one's country?"

The problem is: what is one's own country?

In Northern Ireland, both Republicans and Unionists passionately believe that Northern Ireland is part of their country. In Palestine, both Israelis and Palestians believe that the same part of land is "theirs".

In Kosovo, the ethnic Albanians fight for self-determination of "their" land, while Serbians claim that Kosovo is part of Serbia.

If was ever breaks out again in East Timor, there will be a group fighting to stay a part of Indonesia, fighting against a group who equally believe that the same land should be independent.

Almost any war can be justified as defending someone's country.

Argument 7: "What about war to curb great evil?"

Response: Apart from the reality that just about any war is portrayed as justified in this way; there is also the reality that going to war against a so-called "evil" regime will may inflame the situation.

In the recent Kosovo war, the Serb atrocities against ethnic Albanians greatly increased when NATO began interfering.

So I believe that, just as Jesus calls all people to follow him, so he also calls all people to renounce war as a legitimate action. First and foremost this is a call to Christians - those who claim to follow Jesus - to take the lead.

Let me add that I do not mean to belittle the countless courageous men who have fought in wars, sacrificially, believing their cause was noble.  In fact, I am criticising no one. I am just asking us all to look at the teaching of Jesus and ask: have we honestly followed his teaching?

Peter Ballard


[personal opinions only]


I agree with all of this, except for one omission. A strict pacifist would put this in the 'reductio ad absurdum' category: When someone attacks another who is defenseless, what am I to do? Specifically: what should I do when someone attacks my little daughter, and cannot be dissuaded except by force? And can this analogy be 'writ larger' to take in a whole population? My own gut feeling is that the response I've heard from pacifists 'I hope I would never be in that position' can be labeled as impossibly idealistic at best or selfish/spineless at worst.

Rowland Croucher.

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Related articles can be found in:

Martial Arts: Self Defense