It seems that recently I have seen more posts either for or against the use of violence than I have in a long time. The activity of ISIS and other terrorists around the world as well as ethnic violence right here in the United States both contribute to such debates. However, more than the debates themselves, what troubles me is the dogmatic tone that is often taken mainly (from my perspective) by those who oppose any violence based on the teachings of Jesus. It is this group who seems more adamant that theirs is the only correct (and Christian) position to take. Ironically (again, from my perspective) it is those who support the use of violence when necessary who are more open to allowing others to hold opposing views. I’m not going to define and explain Just War Doctrine here, that can be found elsewhere. I am going to consider the practice of those who hold to Just War as opposed to those who hold to Pacifism, especially as the Bible is used in support.
Christian Pacifists are often in the camp of “Red-letter Christians” or other groups who seem to hold the actual words of Jesus higher than the other words of Scripture, and often to their neglect. Few would deny the authority of the rest of the biblical canon as we have it today, but in their emphasis on the teachings of Jesus, the rest of holy writ is devalued to the point of uselessness. This is convenient for those who hold to Christian Pacifism, since there is so little in Scripture that denounces necessary violence or even promotes non-violence exclusively.
Space here does not allow for a full exposition of Scripture in regard to Pacifism vs. Just Violence (if I can use that term) but a brief survey of the Bible will be helpful. We can look at the Old Testament and see how God led his chosen people, the Israelites, to war; sometimes to eliminate evil, sometimes just to occupy promised land. We also see in the Old Testament how God used other nations to go against the Israelites with violence for punishment and moral development. It cannot be said that the God of the Old Testament was a Pacifist or that he promoted a non-violent approach to dealing with evil. But we obviously do not live in Old Testament times and God’s interaction with his chosen people, his adopted people, and the rest of the world appears to be different both in the New Testament and in the 21st Century. But we can’t set aside other Scripture that teaches that God is the same yesterday, today and forever; that the God of the New Testament is not a new God for Christians but the same God as the God of the Old Testament. We can’t deny that Jesus (who speaks in red letters) is, in fact, the God of the New Testament as well as the God of the Old Testament.
As the world was introduced to God incarnate we were introduced to a different side of God. A God who would rather have men and women come to him because they want to instead of because he forces them to. We see a God who is willing to allow humankind to exercise their free will, even if that means rejecting him. We see a God who would rather solve the worlds problems through a loving, peaceful response rather than through might. But while we get to know this new side of God, we can’t dismiss the other side. He is still the God of the Old Testament. The God we serve today is the same God who was not opposed to violence when used properly and for his will.
Maybe since God is working different angles to reach humankind, he’s changed his mind on violence and has closed the door to that chapter of his existence. Perhaps, but since there is no declaration in Scripture of that nature, we can’t simply make that assumption. Yes, if we focus on the limited words of Jesus to the exclusion of the remainder of Scripture the beginnings of a case for Pacifism could be made, but then we have to deal with Jesus’ affirmation of the centurion -a Soldier- for his goodness. Jesus didn’t tell him to leave the profession of arms but rather used him as an example for others. Ah, but Jesus said that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. That’s true, he said that, but contrary to the use of that statement by Christian Pacifists as a condemnation of warfare, it can be viewed merely as a statement of fact. A fact that warriors know all too well. In context, I can see Jesus urging his first disciples not to take up the sword, not to use warfare to promote the Gospel of peace, but to be ministers of peace and love. That was their calling, to pursue victory through peace instead of through war. That was their calling, but not a universal calling for all of humankind, or even for all who would be Jesus’ disciples. John the Baptist even had an opportunity to denounce warfare when, following his call to repentance, Soldiers asked him what they should do. John didn’t tell them to change professions, to take up peaceful, non-violent living, but rather to be the best Soldiers they could be.
In considering God’s view on violence and warfare, we must not neglect the inspired writings of John in the Revelation. In chapter 19, Jesus doesn’t come preaching love and peace, but rather riding a white horse leading the Armies of Heaven into battle to defeat the nations, to finally vanquish evil for all time. The battles fought by just nations today will never bring a permanent peace, or inner peace, but rather alleviate suffering for a time, helping those who are in need now. But when Jesus comes in all of his glory, the peace he wins in battle will be a lasting peace, the peace and all-enveloping love that he looked forward to while walking this earth.
However, Jesus said much about helping those who are in need but it seems that in an effort to live lives of non-violence, Christian Pacifists elevate their own chosen way-of-life over the actual lives of the most needy. In fact, the thing that bothers me most about Christian Pacifism, is that Christian Pacifists seem to choose to love my enemies more than me. Or worse yet, (at least in practice and/or appearance) they choose to love their enemies more than the poor, weak and oppressed who need us to love them too (Mark 12), who need us to look after them in their distress (James 1), who need us to be their neighbors (Luke 10), who need us to be like the sheep to them (Matthew 25), who need us to accept the ministry and Spirit of Jesus to set the oppressed free (Luke 4). Christian Pacifists seem to place their desire to live in non-violent peace above the lives of those who are being oppressed, imprisoned and killed without an opportunity to enjoy that same peace. Yes, we can “spiritualize” freedom and peace, but to those Christians (and even others) whose heads are on the chopping block, the idea of “love” means more than just hoping for peace around the world, it means bringing peace to them; it means protecting them from harm; it means defeating the enemy, even if it’s on the battlefield.
While few Christian Pacifists actually take their argument to this level (at least in public) the one who staunchly proclaims non-violence and pacifism as God’s declared way, as the only way, is devaluing and in fact, denying the heart-felt call of God on those who serve in professions who justly use violence when necessary and those who are called to support them. In effect, they are saying,
You have misunderstood God’s call on your life.
In making that accusation, they are setting themselves up in a place of judgment of other’s interactions with God. Certainly if Scripture is clear on a subject, it is easier to be dogmatic on another’s misunderstanding of God’s call; for example, the one who feels God has called them to hasten the Church’s entry into Heaven by murdering whole congregations at a time, or the one who feels God has called them to reach out to those trapped in pornography by offering magazines with evangelistic Christian articles and just a little pornography. Scripture is clear on murder and lust, so the faithful Christian can counsel those who have clearly misunderstood God’s call in these cases. But with peace and non-violence not being as clearly defined in Scripture, Christian Pacifists cannot, with any degree of authority, proclaim a Policeman’s, Soldier’s or Chaplain’s call invalid.
But let me ask this question:
Could it be that there are some who are called to peace and non-violence while there are others just as legitimately called to wield the sword in the defense and promotion of peace?
Through the centuries there have been men and women called of God to different vocations, professions and lives of service. There have been priests called to chastity and purity. There have been monks called to poverty and isolation. There have been God’s servants called to singleness. There have been couples called to give up the conveniences of home to go to far-off lands to proclaim the Gospel. There have also been faithful Christians called to bear arms, to serve God by faithfully promoting justice and defeating evil, using just violence if necessary. There have been faithful Christians called to serve in uniform to bring freedom to the oppressed and protection to the weak.
As Christians seeking to be faithful to Scripture, the Church and each other, let’s seek after peace with all that is within us, but let us not deny those who God has called to preserve that peace when others seek to take it away.
If you liked this post, you may enjoy “The Chaplain’s Calling.”