Should Christians be pacifists or does God sometimes call us to engage in war? This is an ancient and hoary debate, among Christians, that has been with the church since pacifism became more acceptable. Can you imagine a debate about pacifism when the Muslim horses were overrunning Christian lands, which lead up to the crusades?
Now, with ISIS and other Islamic enemies rampaging against Christian communities in the middle east, this old debate has become more important than ever. I am hearing leading Christian voices calling on all nations to bring just war against radical Islam/ISIS. We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but what should we do when the demons use mankind to wage war against mankind?
This debate hits home for me, because I have family who serve in the military. Even in the scriptures, the stories I love to read are in Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, 1st and 2nd Samuel, The Chronicles, The Kings, but in them are contained much warfare, bloodshed, and conquest. On top of that and somewhat on the other side of it, is the fact that I personally partially adopted the philosophy of pacifism and anti-nationalism as a young teen. It seemed to me, at the time, that no flag or country should have my allegiance, because the commandment is to have “No other god (majesties) before me.” So, I concluded that pledging allegiance to the flag of the USA was tantamount to idolatry. Also, if the nation did not deserve my allegiance than I had no moral obligation to defend her, hence the pacifism. Upon later review of my inner heart, I realized that is was not loyalty to God which motivated me, but rather rebellion against social norms. Oy! Such is the case with most teenage angst, I guess.
I am a biblical literalist. Which means I take a high view of scripture, and when it speaks literally about God, miracles, creation, etc I think that what it says is true. When it speaks poetically about God, miracles, creation etc, I also think it is true. Albeit, in a different way. I read poetry as poetry; metaphor as metaphor, narrative as narrative, and doctrine as binding; but it is all God’s Word. When I have evidence to believe the bible is clearly teaching something, I absorb its meaning, live by it, and change my opinions to agree with its precepts.
That does not mean that I am always right. And, it does not mean that I always think my interpretation is the authoritative , only, and normative view to be held by all Christians. When I come upon a compelling reason to change my mind, I try to prayerfully do so. That said, I believe that most of the things I believe are right, only, and normative for all Christians (especially when it comes to foundational doctrines like the Person of Christ), but by no means all.
This is why we have Scripture and the Tradition. The Tradition is a pastoral tradition (one might almost say rabbinic tradition) of what Christians have taught and believed is the actual meaning of the Scripture. There is much debate on almost every doctrine, but there are clear boundaries about what is “in” (acceptable belief) and what is “out” (belief which we collectively deem as error or harmful). This is called ORTHODOXY! It is my solid and firm hope that Orthodoxy (correct beliefs and legitimate praise) will always produce Orthopraxy (right actions/spiritual disciplines).
Within the boundaries of Orthodoxy some Christians have determined that, based on Jesus’ Teaching, all Christians must abstain from violent resistance-pacifism. This tenet, they would argue, is based on the clear teaching and non-violent example of Jesus and his Apostles, which we can see demonstrated for us in the New Testament. Violence is the domain of Satan’s followers, not Jesus’. And, even though we see plenty of examples of God’s violence against infidels, and Jesus’ driving off and even whipping those making the temple into a den of thieves, the overall message of the Lord is to “love the Lord your God, love your neighbor as yourself, and love your enemies”. So, Christians are supposed to eschew violence.
When a debate is cloudy, or I don’t know which side I come down on, for me, it is helpful to survey the teachings of the early church fathers. Since they are the oldest sources, this makes them the closest contemporary commentators to early christian thought and practice. For me, their council holds great weight, because the farther you move away from the event (or in this case date of authorship) the more diluted people’s memories and interpretations become. This is another reason why I place such a premium on the Tradition, including the early church fathers and church historians from the first 4 centuries AD.
C.S. Lewis once wrote an essay entilted, “Why I am not a pacifist”. Among the strong points he makes, the one which informs my own thought is this: (summation by Zach Kincaid on CSLewis.com) “First, war is very disagreeable in everyone’s point of view. The pacifist contends that war always does more harm than good, that every war leads to another war, and that pacifism itself will lead to an absence of war, and more, a cure for suffering.” Therefore pacifism is the greatest good. War would not be a greater good, even if it preserved the innocent life, toppled a godless or totalitarian regime, or freed a race of men from slavery. It can only be a greater good, if it does more good than harm. The basic gist of the essay is that pacifists cannot show that pacifism is the greatest good, they simply take it for granted. Since it cannot be shown, and since strong and weighty arguments can be made against that (not to mention the commentary of the early church fathers, and lack of outright prohibition from our Lord), Christians should not feel compelled to be pacifists.
Here is what the Tradition shows us:
+Cornelius, an early convert to the Way, was a Centurion in the Roman Military, and yet, the Apostles did not ask him to give up his rank, legion, or sword.
+Paul proclaims that governments use the sword as God’s messengers of justice against the wicked.
+None of the early fathers spoke against being in the military or just war, when you read their comments in context.
+It boils down to what does scripture really say (Old Testament and New), not what do we want to construe it to say.
I think that it may be possible that some Christians may be called to personal pacifism, which is to say they have a God given moral obligation to refuse to defend themselves no matter what. But, I cannot say that I believe God has commanded or given a moral obligation to any Christian to stand by and abide violence inflicted on others. When it is self defense that is rejected, I think that can be acceptable. When it is the refusal to defend others, that is cowardice.
As Christians we find our identity in the person and character of God. God is a provider. God is a protector. Sometimes that means God is violent. Violence is a part of who He is. Let that sink in a moment. It cannot be denied. God is good, and, also, God is violent. Especially, when the violence he enacts, will minimize evil to its smallest possible quantity. And, especially when he seeks to preserve peace, his covenant people, and the collective good of humanity.
Whereas, I want to give sincere Christians the right to remain pacifists, if their consciences bear them clean witness. I do not see how any Christ avowing, Holy Spirit filled believer, can be a passive bystander, while wickedness is being perpetrated. If, a christian sees someone break into his neighbors house, he has a God given duty to act. If, he sees a man mercilessly beating a woman or child, he must get involved. If he can prevent evil, even if that means getting his hands dirty or shedding some blood, he has an obligation to do so. Even if the only violence he allows himself is to pray to God, every Christian is mandated to overcome evil with good.
*facts have been borrowed from excerpts of a the book “When IS It Right To Fight?” by Robert Morey. Please read a more complete presentation of the facts at this link->
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