Well, perhaps it’s time for me to stir the pot a bit.
Before he left, Rick suggested to me that I might like to post on a couple of specific topics. The first of them, not surprisingly, was Christian pacifism. It’s no secret that Rick and I disagree strongly on this issue. The specific question Rick asked me was this:
There are many that confidently state that Christ is against all war, and wonder openly whether those that support the current war against terror are going against the tenets of Christ's teachings. Can someone who supports the Bush administration's policies of taking the fight to the terrorists be called a follower of Christ?
I think this short paragraph raises a whole host of issues. Three that come to mind would be:
- Is it true that Christ is against all war?
- Is the Bush administration’s current war in Iraq actually taking the fight to the terrorists at all, or is it only tenuously connected with the struggle against terrorism?
- Is it possible for a sincere Christian to (a) support the just war theory, and (b) support the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq?
The second question is beyond my expertise. My relatively uninformed opinion is that the war in Iraq has very little to do with terrorism, but of course I only have to say that and a hundred people will post all sorts of evidence to the contrary – and then a hundred others will produce evidence to refute this – and off we go again, everyone confirmed in their previous prejudices! So I’ll leave that one to the politicos and I’ll concentrate on the first and third questions. I’ll address the first question in this post, and then go on to the third in the next (assuming I survive the experience…).
The question I want to address is ‘Should a Christian be involved in war?’ It is not ‘Should a secular state wage a war?’ Jesus and Paul are not on record as having given Caesar advice as to whether or not he ought to wage war. They are, however, on record as directing Christians to love their enemies and pray for those who hate them.
Christian pacifism flows from our beliefs about God, about Jesus, about the Holy Spirit, and about the call of the Church.
First, Christian pacifism means imitating a God who loves his enemies. This is a core belief of the Christian Gospel. Paul tells us that while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son. God’s response to his enemies was not to blast them off the face of the earth in a pre-emptive strike, but to reach out with the offer of forgiveness and reconciliation through the death of his Son. This offer is made to everyone, even the most unlikely candidates. And Jesus tells us that it is part of our responsibility as Christians to imitate our heavenly Father in this. ‘You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy”. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children 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’ (Matthew 5:43-45 TNIV).
Second, Christian pacifism flows from a commitment to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. When the early Christians called Jesus ‘Saviour and Lord’, they were using terms that were politically loaded in the ancient world. These were official titles of the Roman emperor, but the Christians boldly claimed them for Jesus. In doing this, they were proclaiming that they had an allegiance that came before their allegiance to all worldly rulers and states.
A Christian is a disciple of Jesus – which means that we take Jesus’ words and example as our rule of life. Those words are clear and unequivocal on the issue of our response to our enemies. He told his disciples to turn the other cheek, and if the Roman occupier commanded them to carry a soldier’s pack one mile, they were to take it two miles (Matthew 5:38-42). They were to love their enemies, do good to those who hate them, bless those who curse them, pray for those who mistreat them (Luke 6:27-31). When Peter used a sword to defend him in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus rebuked him and said, “all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).
It is sometimes said, “Jesus had several dealings with Roman soldiers and he never told them to leave the army”. This of course is an argument from silence; we have no idea what he might or might not have told them. However, it is also true that Jesus had dealings with prostitutes, and he is nowhere recorded as having told them to leave their profession. Are we to argue from this that prostitution is an acceptable calling for a Christian disciple?
Third, Christian pacifism is energized by a belief in the power of the Holy Spirit. Saul of Tarsus was an enemy of the Gospel who had participated in the murders of Christians, but the Holy Spirit was able to save him and make him a missionary. What would have happened to the cause of the Gospel if the early Christians had felt it acceptable to defend themselves against his persecution with the sword, and someone had killed Saul of Tarsus before his conversion? How would that have been a victory for the Kingdom of God?
Love of our enemies gives room for the Holy Spirit to work in people’s hearts. Christian pacifism refuses to believe that human resources are all we can depend on. Rather, it entrusts itself to the power of God and lives in obedience to the teaching of Jesus.
Fourthly, Christian pacifism stems from a clear understanding of the distinctive mission of the Church. Christians are Christians first, citizens of their country second. In fact, Peter tells us that we are a holy nation, a people belonging to God, and Paul tells us that our citizenship is in heaven. The Church of Jesus Christ is not called to be involved in the wars the non-Christian world wages against each other. Rather, we are called to be an outpost of the Kingdom of God, living by the standards of that Kingdom even now. Paul spells out for us what that looks like:
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not think you are superior.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay, says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:9-21, excerpts)
I find it interesting that the early Christians almost unanimously interpreted the New Testament as forbidding followers of Jesus to participate in war. For example, the ‘Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus’, dating from about 215 AD, has the following to say about those who wish to become catechumens (i.e. those who are learning to become Christians):
A military man in authority must not execute men. If he is ordered, he must not carry it out. Nor must he take military oath. If he refuses, he shall be rejected. If someone is a military governor, or the ruler of a city who wears the purple, he shall cease or he shall be rejected. The catechumen or faithful who wants to become a soldier is to be rejected, for he has despised God (Hippolytus 16:9-11).
Many other early Christian writers take the same line. Tertullian wrote,
‘the divine banner and the human banner do not go together, nor the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil. Only without the sword can the Christian wage war: for the Lord has abolished the sword.’ (On the Chaplet 11-12).
‘You can not demand military service of Christians any more than you can of priests. We do not go forth as soldiers.' (Against Celsus VIII.7.3 about 240 AD)
‘We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder, and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for ploughshares, our spears for farm tools. Now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness to men, faith, and the expectation of the future given to us by the Father himself through the Crucified One.' (Dialogue with Trypho 110.3.4 about 160 AD)
To sum up: Christian pacifism rests on the example of a God who loves his enemies, on the call of Christians to follow the Lordship of Jesus Christ and put his teaching into practice, and on the power of the Holy Spirit to work in the hearts of the most evil of people and turn them to God. Christian pacifism also takes seriously the call of the Church to be a distinct society with a special mission to bear witness to the Kingdom of God. In the early years of its life, before Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire, this mission was almost unanimously interpreted as excluding participation in war.
No doubt many readers of 'Brutally Honest' will disagree with the position I have outlined here. I’m fine with that, and I will attempt to answer your objections! However, be patient with me – like everyone else here, I have a day job as well, so I may not get to your responses immediately!
Next time I write, I hope to address the second part of the question: Is it possible for a sincere Christian to (a) support the just war theory, and (b) support the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq?