I occasionally see this bumper sticker: “War is not the answer.”
I always think to myself, “Well, it depends on the question, doesn’t it?” I mean, if I ask “What is a good thing to do around a campfire,” then obviously “war” is not the answer. But if I ask, “How do we stop the Nazis?” I doubt that holding hands and singing Kumbaya is the answer, either.
Christians are tasked with “turning the other cheek” and forgiving those who persecute them. From the cross, Jesus said, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34) When the first Christian martyr, Steven, was stoned to death, he said the same thing regarding those who were killing him: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60).
Jesus warned his disciples on more than one occasion “you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death.”(Matthew 24:9) And, “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another.” (Matthew 10:23). Later, after the resurrection, members of the early church found themselves suffering persecution and did as Jesus encouraged them to do when faced with it: they ran away (Acts 8:1, 11:19).
Christians face martyrdom only when they are unsuccessful in getting away. They are never encouraged to seek it out.
So a question: should Christians believe that war is never the answer? When ISIS murders twenty-one Christians by decapitating them, should Christians simply mourn the deaths and remember their families in prayer? Should they only offer aid and condolences when possible, and simply continue trying to run away? Should they discourage military action against ISIS and other extremists?
Many Christians would say yes. They would argue that pacifism is the only proper response.
But I do not agree.
So how can I even call myself a Christian, then?
How can I, as a Christian, embrace both “turning the other cheek” and arguing for war? Jesus’ words of Matthew’s Gospel seem rather clear and don’t seem to leave any space for violence:
“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. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
“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, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:38-48)
Likewise Jesus’ statements about forgiveness, and his criticism of Peter during Jesus’ arrest are not ambiguous: “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. (Matthew 26:52). The arguments of the pacifists seem to rest on firm ground. How can I disagree with Jesus?
And yet, I still find myself unpersuaded by Christian pacifism and do not agree that Jesus’ words mean that war is impermissible.
How come? Primarily because I make a distinction between what is permissible as an individual versus what is permissible for a government—for Jesus’s words are given to his disciples as individuals, not the government of Judea or Rome. And I believe that Jesus and the Bible likewise make that sort of distinction. And what is enjoined of an individual versus what is permissible collectively are not always identical. There is a difference between a lynch mob and a jury. If I take money from my neighbor, I’m a thief. If the government does it, it’s taxation. The apostle Paul points out that the state has, in fact, been granted the sword:
For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. (Romans 13:3-5)
The apostle Peter, likewise, makes a similar argument:
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every authority instituted among men: whether to the king, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. (1 Peter 2:13-14)
This, along with several other passages from the Bible, both New Testament and Hebrew Bible, is why, in Christian tradition, the concept known as “just war” exists.
The problem, of course, is who is to say whether a war is actually just? It is difficult to lay out an objective checklist that everyone would agree with. Unanimity of opinion is not possible; we aren’t talking mathematics. And as with anything involving human beings, human fallibility, human emotions, the just war concept is a concept so easily twisted, so easily abused, that many might be tempted to deny that it is a workable concept at all and that we’d be better off erring on the side of pacifism no matter what. War is not the answer, the pacifists will insist. But I continue to disagree. I believe it really does depend on what the question is. To look back at questions from the past, what was the answer to the rape of Nanking by the Empire of Japan? How about Nazism? I don’t think that war is inherently and always the wrong answer. As the saying goes, “some people just need killing.”
I do not believe that the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible argue for a pure pacifism any more than it argues only for war. In fact, peace is always preferred. But God also recognizes the “hardness” of the human heart. Divorce is not an ideal solution; no one in their right mind would argue that it is a glorious and wonderful thing. But given the reality of the human condition, it is sometimes sadly necessary. If human beings were angels, there would be no need of courts, no need of police, no need for jails. Such things are not ideal, but they are nevertheless necessary given the reality of human behavior.
Monsters such as al-Qaida, Boko Haram, ISIS, Hamas, and Hezbollah are not going to be negotiated into harmlessness. The murder of Christians, Jews, Yazidis and Muslims by the Islamist extremists will continue unless concerted action is taken against them. All individual Christians can do is flee, or endure martyrdom; but to stop such crimes against humanity, God has instituted government. He gave it the sword. I believe it should sometimes swing it.