No Christian—and for that matter, “no soldier worth his salt” (as General Schwarzkopf put it)—should be “pro-war.” We should desire peace. And yet there is disagreement on how to define the peace for which we aim and how to achieve the peace we envision.
On one end of the spectrum are pacifists, who wish to achieve peace by laying down their weapons. They deny that the use of deadly force can ever be justified and thus argue that Christians must address any threat in a non-violent manner.
At the other end of the spectrum are militarists, who wish to achieve peace by picking up their weapons. They assume the authority to impose their ideological vision on a recalcitrant world through lethal force.
What unites pacifists and militarists, however, is their idealism. Both visions wish to achieve the ideal state of peace in the here-and-now.
Situated between these extremes is a view of warfare—the just war tradition—that is realist rather than idealist in practice. Unlike pacifists and militarists, we are under no illusion that humanity can achieve the ideal peace in the here-and-now. Unlike pacifists, we are willing to wage war, but unlike militarists, we will do so only for limited purposes and under specific terms.
Arguments in Favor of Pacifism
In regard to the Old Testament, pacifists generally argue that God’s standards for Israel do not apply in any way for Christians today. Some pacifists, such as Richard Hays, argue that the Old Testament ethic flatly contradicts the New Testament ethic and therefore is irrelevant for Christian practice.
In regard to the New Testament, pacifists usually appeal directly to a handful of passages, but especially to the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus makes three significant statements. He blesses persons who are “peacemakers” (Matthew 5:9), commands his disciples to reject the “eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” ethic (5:38-42), and to love even their enemies (5:43-46).
Pacifists also point to the New Testament narrative in which Jesus rebukes Peter for drawing his sword to defend Jesus as Jesus was being taken captive by armed soldiers (Matthew 26:52). Similarly, they point to the many passages that urge Christians to live “in peace” (Mark 9:50; Romans 12:14-21; 1 Corinthians 7:15).
Christian pacifists also make arguments based on Christian doctrine. Take, for example, the doctrine of atonement. Today’s foremost proponents of Christian pacifism—Richard Hays and Stanley Hauerwas—both argue that the Bible’s crucifixion-resurrection narrative is nothing less than an exhortation to pacifism. Jesus, they argue, is a Messiah who refused to defend himself; likewise, Christians should follow Jesus’ example in eschewing any use of violence.
A similar approach is taken with the doctrine of the end times. Christian pacifists such as Hays and Hauerwas argue that God calls the church to be a counter-community who breaks the cycle of violence by being agents of reconciliation (1 Corinthians 5:18-20). The church’s faithfulness, they argue, is based upon its ability to be a preview of Christ’s coming kingdom in which there will be no violence.
Finally, pacifists usually make a historical argument that the early church was pacifist.
Arguments Against Pacifism
In response to the view that the Old Testament is irrelevant to a Christian view of war and peace, I argue that Old Testament passages differ in their relevance to a contemporary Christian ethic of warfare. Some passages—such as divinely approved wars in which God commanded and led the war—are not relevant to us today.
Yet, other passages—involving wars that were not commanded by God or led by God—are very relevant for contemporary warfare. For example, the prophet Amos rebuked Israel for war crimes such as waging war with the wrong spirit, with disproportionate use of force, and without discriminating between combatants and non-combatants (1:3-2:3).
In response to pacifist interpretations of the Garden of Gethsemane, I argue that Jesus’ rebuke of Peter for trying to defend Jesus with a sword is by no means a universal prohibition of armed defense. Jesus’ rebuke had to do with Jesus’ unique mission to die on a cross to atone for sin. He rebuked Peter for getting in the way of his mission. Arguing more than this from this text seems unwarranted, especially in light of Jesus’ other teachings.
The pacifist interpretation of Gethsemane is undermined by the various passages where Jesus demonstrates or allows for the use of force. Jesus used force to cleanse the temple (John 2:15-16), told his disciples to carry swords for self-defense (Luke 22:36), approvingly alluded in his parables to the justice of using force (Matthew 18:21-35), and promised to use force one day when he returns to set the world to rights (Revelation 19:11-16).
In regard to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, it is best understood as an interpersonal ethic. It is an imperative for Christians not to be vengeful people; our first impulse, when insulted or persecuted, should not be to strike back but to love.
Additionally, Jesus’ teaching is not in opposition to his chosen apostle, Paul, who declared that God authorizes governments to wield the sword (Romans 13:1-7).
There is also a theological case to be made against pacifism. To be concise to the extreme:
The doctrine of God teaches us that God doesn’t change. Thus, if God did not consider warfare inherently and universally evil in the Old Testament period, it makes sense that the New Testament would not, either.
The doctrine of humanity teaches us that human beings are sinful. There exists in humanity an evil that cannot be eliminated. Wars will continue until Christ returns (Matthew 24:6). Thus, against pacifism, we must affirm that justice without force is a myth. There will always be evil, and evil cannot always be opposed merely with peace talks and negotiations.
The doctrine of Christian love asserts that Christian love—the central imperative of any good Christian ethic—is not only the dynamic for transforming personal relationships (loving our “neighbors” through interpersonal non-vengeance) but also the wellspring of social and political responsibility (loving our neighbors by using lethal force to protect them during time of war). One of love’s instruments is justice and justice sometimes requires force.
Praying for Peace, Preparing for War
With pacifists, we must be peace-loving people. We must never take delight in going to war. But unlike pacifists, we argue that war is sometimes morally justified and even necessary. “There is an occasion for everything…a time for war and a time for peace (Ecclesiastes 3:1,8).
Therefore, we can witness to the gospel not only by praying for peace and encouraging political leaders to wage war only as a last resort, but also by acknowledging that no amount of social engineering or peace talks or negotiations can rid the human heart of evil. Thus, Christian love sometimes demands that we protect our neighbors and allies through the use of lethal force.
We must pray for peace, but be prepared for war.