As Christians, the question of war should concern us. We seek peace, but do we seek peace through any means possible? Can the use of violent, lethal force be reconciled to the Gospel? This article seeks to explore the Christian relationship with war.
Originally published in the magazine of St. Columba's Church of Scotland in July 2017. Click "read more".
Few questions rattle the Christian mind and spirit as much as war.
On the one hand, we can clearly see the presence of evil in our world and we can sense a moral obligation to confront that evil so that it might be contained or, better yet, eradicated.
But on the other hand, our Lord calls on us to love our neighbors, turn the other cheek, put away the sword, and seek Him in our suffering.
To make matters even more confusing, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob clearly commands conflict throughout the Hebrew Bible and is present with warrior leaders, such as David. And, yet, that same Lord through the prophets sets an ideal in which “nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).
It’s understandable, then, that various Christian traditions have approached war differently. Whereas many traditions have developed notions of a “just war”, others have promoted absolute pacifism. Others, still, have understood war as being something of a “necessary evil” – a sometimes necessary reality within our sinful world.
For those of you who were not aware, I am currently in the process of becoming a chaplain with the United States Navy. Naval Chaplains, in the American armed forces, serve members of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard as well as their families. As such, questions of faith and war have been on my mind for quite some time, and in a very tangible way. They are a critical and foundational part of my ministry.
Beyond the pomp and circumstance of military service and tradition, though, sits an important reality: the military exists for the purpose of warfighting. The military is equipped to do great harm so that our nations and people might be defended by way of physical force, and so that strategic and political objectives might be achieved through the use or threat of violence.
Can such a reality be reconciled to a Christ who says, “Do not resist him who is evil; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matthew 5:39)?
Such a reconciliation is, frankly, not easy. And it is difficult to imagine Jesus Christ leading warriors into combat or selecting targets to be hit by missiles. Nonetheless, I do believe – as a Christian chaplain – that a portrayal of Christ as an absolute pacifist fails to give credit to the depth of Christ’s ministry and God’s work in the world.
One of the most challenging verses of Scripture is, I think, most helpful here. Matthew 10:34 recalls Jesus stating, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” This text should not be understood as an endorsement of war but, rather, as an acknowledgement that followers of Christ must not be passive in their mandate to confront sin and evil. In other words, Christ recognizes that His radical teachings will force His followers to pick sides: are they on the side of God or on the side of evil? Are they living for the Lord, or living for themselves? Understanding humanity’s propensity for sin, as well as the work of evil in the world, Christ thus knew that His teachings would lead to divisions, persecution, estrangement, and conflict. Christ did not shy away from this reality, nor attempt to minimize it.
War is the great embodiment of this Christian reality. While we, as Christians, never rejoice in division or hostility (nor do we seek it), we do acknowledge honestly its reality. War is not a gift of God – nor should be it be understood as a mandate from God – but it can be understood as a consequence of God’s work in separating the just from the unjust: the wheat and the chaff.
This does not mean that Christians should be ambivalent in regards to war. Christians ought not simply shrug their shoulders in blind acceptance of conflict. On the contrary, Christians should weep for the reality of war and pray for the those impacted by it, as well as for the evil that motivates it. We pray that our world might turn to Christ’s saving presence so that division, hostility, and conflict need not be a reality.
In this sense, we might liken war to homelessness. Of course, we pray for a world where everyone has a home and has their basic needs met. We pray that the people of this world might be generous with their resources and control their opulence and greed. Yet, while we pray for that ideal, we also acknowledge the broken reality of our current world and serve the homeless. St. Columba’s, for instance, participates in its night shelter program for exactly these two reasons: 1) the church believes homelessness to be a blight on society and a symptom of our world’s failing to love its neighbors, and 2) the church seeks to actively serve those impacted by the reality of homelessness. In other words, the church operates at the intersection of the ideal and the reality.
In the same way, we as Christians do not like that our world has inside of it evil and hostility. And we pray that many will turn from evil and terror and gross injustice. Yet, while we pray for that ideal, we also acknowledge the broken reality of our current world and confront the forces of evil that exist. We acknowledge that doing Christ’s work in the world necessarily must put in in stark opposition to evil, and that we ae duty and conscience bound to struggle against that evil.
Here is where the great disclaimer must be placed, though. War, if it must be fought, must be fought justly. If we are to engage in violence, we should pray that it only be so that evil in the world might be minimized and so that the oppressed might be freed. We ought not fight for vain personal or national interests, nor simply for self-glorification or national pride. Thus, as Christians, we are to be discerning in matters of conflict. Not all war is just. Not all war is unjust. We should pray for a discerning heart, that God’s Holy Spirit might guide us along the right paths.