War! What is it good for?-Absolutely nothing! War is something that I despise, for it means destruction of innocent lives, for it means tears in thousands of mothers’ eyes. When their sons go out to fight and give their lives. War! What is it good for?-Absolutely nothing!
So begins the number one hit written in 1969, and one of the most popular protest songs ever recorded. It reflected the mounting frustration, cynicism, and anger over the Vietnam conflict (war). Unfortunately, perhaps tragically, we are experiencing a similar growing frustration over the “War on Terror” in Iraq. Also, unfortunately, the nation’s diminishing will to fight and the questioning of the government’s policy in Iraq, is (as it was then) significantly influenced by internal politics.
I was in college during the Vietnam era and served in the army on the cold war side in Germany. I remember well the angry protests from the “peaceniks.” I recently read the surprising results of three Pew Research Center national polls which observe that Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 supported the war in Iraq by 3 to 1 (69%). Yet when the Pew poll surveyed those 65 and older, only 51% supported the war. This disparity reflects the lingering effects of the Vietnam memory. 2
This issue of Areopagus has to do with the Christian or biblical view of war, which is always timely as we consider the history (and future) of mankind. The role of government and the will of the people are inevitably bound together. Oftentimes, Christians miss this connection. We believe that as our nation ponders the future course of the war in Iraq and war on terror generally, Christians need to have a biblical perspective on the subject of war.
War And The Christian
Ideas, philosophies, and values all have consequences. Throughout our 2000 year history, Christians have had a significant impact and influence on both the philosophy and conduct of warfare. Now that we are in the nuclear age where the consequences of war are of huge magnitude, we cannot go to the sidelines and simply let others make policy on matters of life and death. The Christian voice should be heard.
But, the Christian needs to know what his “voice” should be. Do you understand the issues? Can one be a genuine follower of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, and serve in a country’s armed forces and fight in war? What should be the Christian’s response to the suffering, death, and destruction inflicted by war? Is war moral, immoral, or amoral? Are all wars the same morally? When can Christians participate in war?
When should they abstain from participation or protest against a war?
What about Christians fighting against, even killing, other Christians? What guidance, if any, can we gain in Scripture? Does the Bible contradict itself when Jesus says “turn the other cheek. . .love your neighbor. . .love your enemies . . .bless those who persecute you” and when he says “Do not think that I have come to bring peace, but a sword,” and “let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one.” How about when Paul wrote, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, never
avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord ” and then immediately after he wrote, “Live peaceably with all men,” telling us that the government is a servant of God and bears His sword “as an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:1-4). How do we reconcile Jesus’ words, “My kingdom is not of this world,” and the familiar refrain from the “Lord’s Prayer” in which He says, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”?
These are the central questions that confront God’s people as we contemplate the topic of war. But there are others. The Old Testament has many examples of God leading His people into battle against evil pagan nations. These might seem morally justifiable. But, how do we understand His ordering the total extermination of entire populations, including women and children, in some of these wars?
Many Americans and Christians strongly condemn the Muslim doctrine of “lesser jihad, ” or “holy war,” as it is understood and carried out by a significant number of Muslims today. For example, Ahmad Sakr, leader of the Foundation for Muslim Knowledge writes about jihad as being “fighting to defend one’s life, land, and religion . . .Jihad is not a defensive war only, but a war against any unjust regime.” 3
Lebanese scholar, Mahmoud Ayoub, professor of Islamic studies at Temple University writes concerning lesser jihad that the Muslim’s justification for fighting is to “protect those who are weak, exposed, and oppressed . . .to make the world of Allah uppermost,” which means “to insure His will as revealed in the Quran, exemplified in the life of the Prophet Muhammad “4
So what does the Quran and Muhammad’s activities say regarding the conduct of holy war? Speaking of “those who suppress the faith [Islam]”, the Quran commands, “Fight in the cause of God those who fight you but do not transgress limits . . .and slay them wherever you catch them” (Sura 9:120-121). Also, “fight them on until there is no more tumult or oppression and there prevail justice and faith in God” (Sura 9: 123). Other overt Quranic passages, which command Muslims to not just defend but to route out, kill, and terrorize unbelievers who oppress the spread and rule of Islam, are Sura 9:5, 14, 29, 52; 5:17,33; 4:10, 102;
47:4 ; 61:4; 2:244.
Christians rightly criticize Muslim belief in jihad (holy war), but Muslims denounce their criticism as hypocrisy. They point to numerous examples in the Old Testament of God leading His chosen nation of Israel into battle against pagan nations (I Chron. 5:22; Jud. 7- 8; Num . 31; Ex. 23; etc), which sometimes included the intentional extermination of noncombatants, including children (Deut. 7:2, 16; Josh. 6:21-23; 10:40; I Sam. 15:3; Gen. 19:24-25). In addition, many Muslims (and others) point out that the Crusades of eleventh and twelfth centuries, led by the Roman government and medieval Church, is another example of holy war undertaken by Christians.
So I hope you are beginning to understand the serious ness and complexity of the question “What is the Christian/Biblical view of war?” This issue of Areopagus Journal will explore these questions and provide a biblical position on war.
Historically, Christians and the Church have justified, rationalized, restrained, and promoted various views on warfare and its conduct. The expressed views range from the holy war Crusades on one side to pure pacifism on the other. The two most widely held views are the “just war” doctrine and principled pacifism. Each of these two views has some variations within them, but this journal will explore the two most widely held views and examine their biblical support.
The first article, “War and Peace and Political Wisdom: Just War Moral Reasoning Reconsidered” is written by J. Daryl Charles, professor at Union University. Charles builds a case for the “just-war” perspective stating that it “is not first and foremost about military tactical strategy, nor is it about justifying war fare that has been undertaken,” but it “is a morally guided approach to statecraft that views ‘peace’ as a result of just relationships.” I encourage the reader to make sure the footnotes to Charles’ article are read and studied as they provide significant elaboration on his thesis.
Second, ARC’s Steve Cowan contributes a short survey of “War in the Old Testament.” He shows that the ancient Israelites believed in just war doctrine despite appearances to the contrary.
Our third article, “Does the Bible Teach Pacifism?” is by Todd Wilson, pastor of Grace Covenant Church. Wilson begins by presenting the passages and arguments used by many pacifists such as Anabaptists, Mennonites, Amish, and Quakers. He follows with a critical response to those interpretations. Wilson concludes that while disagreeing with the pacifist interpretations, he does “agree with their spirit” of aversion to war.
For additional study, I recommend the book, War: Four Christian Views, edited by Robert Clouse, published by IVP (1981). It presents a point/counter-point approach and covers the two main perspectives, but adds two additional modified views on those two perspectives.
Recently, I saw two humorous examples that summarize the two main positions on war. One was a recent edition of the satirical comic strip, Non Sequitur. In the comic strip, one figure asks another to clear up his confusion about current religious wars. The other responds, “OK, one group of followers willingly sacrifices themselves to blow up people who follow a different religion… The other group of followers, who are willing to commit all their resources to launching overwhelming military force, strikes in retaliation… (and a third group is) willing to blow up the entire planet.” The first figure responds, “And why are they doing these thing to each other?” He answers, “To prove which one is the true religion of peace.”
I saw the second example as I was driving the other day. I pulled up behind a care with a bumper sticker that read, “Except for ending slavery, fascism, Nazism, and communism (almost), war has never solved anything!”
Early in this article, I raised a number of examples demonstrating the complexities of the question of how or whether war is compatible with the Christian life. I believe that the articles we’ve included adequately respond to those issues. But one issue that is not answered directly is the alleged congruency of Islamic jihad and God’s “holy war” in some Old Testament accounts. These accounts refer to God’s directing His nation in defensive and offensive warfare against other nations. While there are certainly some similarities between Jihad and the “just war” doctrine, as it is understood by most Christians, there are also radical differences.
The Bible’s truths are revealed progressively, eschatologically, in time-space-history. He manifests His nature in the outworking of human history. We see fallen man motivated by sin to selfishly dominate and subdue the earth, and we see God’s nature of righteousness, justice, holiness, law, mercy, love and grace manifested in punishment, restraint, patience, and redemptive acts.
He began with the elect holy nation (Israel) but reveals that, even then the truly elect (the Church) was a spiritual body. His Old Testament revelation foreshadowed the ultimate manifestation of Jesus and His holy nation – His Church (I Pet 2:4-10).
The holy nation today is spiritual with physical implications but it is not a physical, fleshly theocracy like Islam. Christianity holds to a distinction between Church and State. There is no such distinction in true Islam. The weapons of our spiritual kingdom’s warfare are not physical but spiritual for the “tearing down of strongholds” (2Cor. 10:4-5). Our battle is to bring the life-saving gospel to the nations in both word and charitable deeds. Orthodox Islam does seek to convert first by persuasion and then by force. But nevertheless, in Islam, force is mandated if persuasion is not effective. The Christian does not see forced conversion as an option.
Nevertheless, the majority Christian view is that the state has the right and obligation to administer justice against heinous crimes -just war, capital punishment, imprisonment – within Biblical parameters, and that the Christian may participate morally in this function of the state. This just war tradition will be explained and defended in this issue of Areopagus Journal.
One error is to evaluate God’s war actions in the Old Testament by our fallen human dispositions. Compared to the purity, love, righteousness, mercy, and patience of God, humankind’s rebellion and its damaging effects of sin are so heinous that no one deserves to live. In light of this, we can see that God’s order to annihilate all Canaanites served both as justice on their sins and as a protection of Israel and her calling to bring in our Messiah. Comparatively, this is far less significant than God’s direct annihilation of the entire human race but for a few (Gen. 9). These actions were both deserved and yet served as a gracious “wake-up call” to all mankind. It is a picture of the coming final judgment. Though severe, the destruction of the Canaanites made possible the salvation of the world.
War is an unfortunate reality in this age. But Christians know that there is a final battle that the Lord himself will bring. Then all weapons will be turned into plowshares and war will be no more (Is. 2:1-4; 65:17-25; Rev. 21 & 22).
1 “War,” lyrics by Edwin Star.
2 Anne Scott Tyson, “Antiwar views split among generations gap,” Christian Science Monitor (Nov. 6, 2002).
3 Ahmad Sakr, Understanding Islam and Muslims (Lombard, IL: Foundation for Islamic Knowledge, 1990), 17-18.
4 Mahmoud Ayoub, Islam Faith and Practice
(Markham, Ontario: Open Press, 1989), 196-197.