A truly biblical perspective on war and peace rules out the possibility of pacifism.
Peace at any price?
On Monday this week, the CBC spoke to Kathy Moorhead Thiessen of Christian Peacemaker Teams, who says Canada "could take a different approach" to fighting ISIS – one that emphasizes diplomacy over military intervention. Moorhead Thiessen told the CBC that her pacifism is linked to her faith as a Mennonite Christian. But is pacifism really a biblical, Christian value?
There is no question that war and violence are a consequence of sin in history. If there were no evil and injustice in the heart of man, there would be no conflict and, hence, no war. It is also true that war has been typically seen in Christian thought as a last resort, not the first recourse to conflict situations. Certainly diplomatic solutions should be pursued wherever reasonable and possible, to prevent bloodshed.
However, without getting into the details of the conflict raging in Iraq and Syria, those who believe ISIS are interested in compromise and diplomatic solutions manifest only their ignorance of the ideology motivating these fighters. As desirable as a cessation of conflict is, men who remove the heads of Christian children in front of their parents if they refuse to convert to Islam, and slaughter their own people mercilessly in the name of God, are not interested in sitting around a table with Christian “peacemakers” to drink coffee and discuss peaceful settlements; that is a fool’s errand. True peacemaking in Christianity is not synonymous with peacekeeping, but some Christians seem unable to make that distinction and fail to appreciate that making peace may at times require war, unless we can settle for a peace that is no peace (Jer. 6:14; Jer. 8:11; Ezek. 13:10).
Killing and Murder
In the biblical perspective, moral absolutes are grounded in the being and triune nature of God who is all-personal and all-relational. Moral law is not a standard above God to which He conforms himself, nor is it an arbitrary standard beneath Him that might change depending on circumstances. Rather Scripture declares that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). This is not because He had the ‘potential’ for love once the world was created, but because within His own being, from all eternity, love between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is fully actualized. Likewise God is holy (Ps. 99:9; Rev. 4:8). Holiness (hagiotes) literally means distinct, set apart. God is not holy because He had the ‘potential’ for holiness once the world was created. Instead, God in His own being manifests distinction within the eternal fellowship of the divine persons. In short, God’s moral nature is not arbitrary since it is in no way co-relative (dependent upon) to the created world, from which He is totally distinct. This means that stealing is wrong because God is not a thief. Adultery is wrong because God is totally faithful. And murder is wrong because God is completely righteous and just.
It is therefore simply impossible for God to be a murderer, because murder is lawless or unrighteous killing. Murder and killing are not identical. God, as the Lord, sustainer and author of all life, has an absolute right and authority over the lives of men. When God destroyed the human population except for one family in the Flood, because of their violence and evil, God was not murdering them. He was executing His righteous judgment, for “the soul that sins shall die (Ezek. 18:20)” and “the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23).” Because He is holy and just, and because man was made in His image, God abhors the murderer. As such God requires the life of the murderer (Gen. 9:5-6; Ex. 21:12, 14; Lev. 24:17; Num. 35:31; Rom. 13:4). To fail to execute murderers is to reject God’s justice and deny the image of God in man. This fact makes clear that not all killing is murder. This fact can also be extended to defensive wars, where an enemy is determined to attack and murder another people without just cause. This is an extension of the biblical right of self-defence.
Peace and pacifism
It is often asked today whether Christianity teaches pacifism, and some professing evangelical groups are quick to assert that it does. But the answer to this really depends on whether the Bible is considered the authority for defining Christianity or not. There have certainly been groups in the history of the church who have held to pacifistic ideals, and nations professing Christianity have usually respected conscientious objectors in times of military conscription. However, if the Bible is considered to be the benchmark of Christian belief it is simply impossible to derive pacifism from Scripture.
Let’s consider some biblical cases and principles. Firstly, God is described in the Bible, among His many attributes, as a warrior and man of war (Ex. 15:3). Secondly, God appears in what theologians call a theophany to Joshua, as a military captain of a heavenly host with a drawn sword in His hand prior to the destruction of Jericho (Josh. 5:13-15). Indeed, God repeatedly required Israel, as a temporal act of His justice and judgment against a perverse and cruel nation, to use military force to defeat and drive out the Canaanites. On route, God himself destroyed the Egyptian army in the sea. Clearly, God is no buttercup and used war for His purposes, supporting just wars throughout the history of Israel.
Moreover, from Genesis 9 onwards, God required capital punishment for murderers in Scripture (an act of justice routinely opposed by pacifists), and just war has often been seen by Christians as the extension of the state’s right to defend citizens against violence and murder. St. Paul explicitly affirms the right of the state to bear the sword to exact vengeance (Rom. 13:3-4). This biblical perspective helps us understand why some of God’s greatest servants were warriors – and they were not great servants in spite of their military service, but in part because of their obedience to God in it.
One striking example is our spiritual father Abraham, the friend of God, who pursues with his “trained men” a confederacy of kings who have kidnapped his nephew Lot. Abraham makes war on them, killing armed men to rescue Lot and his family (Gen. 14:13-16). Moreover David, the greatest king of Israel, the man after God’s own heart and ancestor of Jesus, was also one of the greatest warriors in history.
Some pietistic Christians, deeply influenced by the heresy of Marcionism, will say that this is all in the Old Testament and irrelevant, and try to suggest that an unchanging God has changed His mind about the validity of violence or war in resistance to evil, but this is absurd. The character and nature of God does not change (Mal. 3:6; Heb. 13:8; Isa. 40:8; 1 Pet. 1:24). In all the interactions that Jesus, Peter, Paul and John the Baptist had with soldiers (especially centurions) in the Bible, not once do they tell them to repent of soldiering and to leave the military, whereas the corrupt tax collector repents and repays what he has stolen (Luke 19: 1-10). Furthermore, Jesus was quite ready to heal the Roman centurion’s servant, commending the soldier for his great faith, the like of which He said He had not found in all Israel, and yet He makes no call for him to leave the Roman military (Luke 7:1-10).
In another New Testament instance, Cornelius, a centurion of the Italian cohort, is described as a devout man who feared God, gave alms and prayed continually. Not only is he thus commended, he comes to faith in Christ and is filled with the Holy Spirit – all without leaving the military (Acts 10)! It is also worth noting that Jesus states explicitly that had His kingdom been of the world (i.e. its origin and source of its authority being simply earthly), His followers would have fought to prevent His arrest (John 18:36). It is essential to the Christian faith that we do not spread the gospel by the sword, but earthly kingdoms will fight in a sin-ravaged world and at times, those conflicts will involve just resistance to evil.
We see also that in the gospel account, popular with pacifists, where Jesus tells Peter to put away his sword after cutting off the servant’s ear, as Judas and the mob came to arrest him, that the pacifist fails to notice the obvious – Peter was armed (Luke 22:47-53; John 18:11; Matt. 26: 47-56). Jesus knew and submitted to the Father’s will that He suffer and be crucified, and so our Lord did not resist arrest (though He pointed out to the disciples He could call twelve legions of angels to His defense should He desire it). Yet Peter was armed and ready to use his weapon to defend Christ. Jesus warns that taking the sword in combat will often mean death by the sword, but Jesus had clearly not banned the disciples carrying swords for self-defense. In fact at one point He tells them to buy swords (Luke 22:35-38). Moreover, Scripture is plain that Christ will return as the faithful and righteous judge and make war on His enemies (Rev. 19:11).
It is evident also that St. Paul had no scruples about appealing to civil authority and accepting armed escort when his life was threatened (Acts 23:12-25). In other words, it is simply impossible to derive pacifism as a Christian doctrine from the Bible. In fact the failure to resist the murder and abuse of our fellow man can be a great evil.
Peacemakers and Peacekeepers
A commonly-quoted passage of Scripture among pacifists in rejecting all forms of violence and war is to “turn the other cheek.” But what does this text really say about the morality of engaging in war? The reality is that this passage in the Sermon on the Mount says nothing about the morality of war. At the beginning of this great Sermon Jesus makes it emphatically clear that He has not come to abolish the law of Moses but to “fulfill” it, which in the Greek means to complete or ‘put into force.’ He is emphatic that until heaven and earth pass away, not one punctuation mark from the law will disappear (Matt. 5:17-20). Thus, whatever Jesus teaches here is not in contradiction to what God has already taught His people in the older Testament. Rather, Jesus sets about correcting the misinterpretations of the law that have proliferated among the Scribes and Pharisees. These were usually ‘fences’ for the law to excuse people’s disobedience.
One major issue in people’s relationships Jesus was addressing in this sermon was lawless retaliation. People were taking the law into their own hands and getting each other back for wrongs done to them. In Matthew 5:38-39, Jesus does not reject the foundation stone of justice, “the law of the talons" or just retribution (the requirement for exact justice in a court of law), rather He condemns the practice of God’s people taking the law into their own hands by perpetrating personal vengeance on each other. Moreover, the illustration of being slapped across the cheek as something to overlook and not seek personal vengeance for by taking the law into your own hands, is hardly akin to charging people or nations not to resist marauding invaders overrunning your country, murdering your children and raping your wife. In fact God’s law specifically provides for lethal force in self-defense of life and property (Ex. 22:2-3).
In the same Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:41, Jesus also gives practical guidance for dealing with someone forcing you to go a mile with them. In Roman Judea, soldiers were permitted to press people into military service to carry their packs for one mile. Jesus teaches not to resist the demand, for such resistance is pointless – carry it for two miles and go beyond what is asked! Yet this act of kindness and non-resistance is assisting a soldier in his work. In short, the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is Christ’s instruction with regard to our interpersonal relationships as individuals in very practical circumstances. It is clearly not intended as a treatise or sermon on the obligations of a father to protect his home and children, or that of the magistrate to give justice in court and the state to defend the citizenry in war.
 CBC News, “Winnipegger in Iraq urges Canada to take different approach to conflict,” CBC News, http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/winnipegger-in-iraq-urges-canada-to-take-different-approach-to-conflict-1.3086221, accessed May 28 2015.