A while back, I wrote about the issue of using violent force in defense of one’s self and family. This is the follow up concerning Christian thought on war and state-sanctioned violence.
This is an issue that’s been weighing on my mind quite a bit recently. The world seems to be a scary place right now. ISIS (ISIL) has been sweeping through the Middle East, kidnapping and murdering people, brazenly posting videos on YouTube. Boko Haram drags schoolgirls out of their beds at night, kidnaps them and probably selling them into slavery. Just today, another militant group, Al Shabaab, attacked a university in Kenya and killed 70 people. (and counting as of the time of this writing)
These are not isolated incidents of a few crackpots that decide to wreak havoc. All of these groups are well-funded, paramilitary organizations operating outside of any legitimate government to instil fear in people and force their own twisted interpretation of religion on their neighbors. And the things they are doing are horrible.
So what are Christians to make of it? It’s easy to say we should send our holy fleet of Predator drones over there and bomb them into oblivion, just as our Lord Jesus commanded. Plain and simple.
Oh wait, he didn’t say that.
Jesus said “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
It’s right there in red text in Matthew 5:44. To borrow a phrase from Mark Lowry, “Have you ever read the red part of the Bible? It’ll mess you up.”
Yes, it often turns out that the things Jesus actually said mess up a lot of our beliefs that we think are based in Christian scripture.
So what am I getting at? Are we supposed to watch evildoers go around raping and pillaging while we pray for them and let the innocent suffer? Are we not to also equally love the victims, the children who are being murdered?
In fact, Jesus had some very stern words for those who harm children, saying it would be better for them to have a millstone tied around their neck and dropped into the ocean. (Luke 17:2) Those sound more like the words of Don Corleone than the nonviolent pacifist we so often picture Jesus to be.
The command to love our enemies who persecute us and also love our neighbors who are subject to that persecution seem almost contradictory. Are the two mutually exclusive? Would showing love to the oppressor not pile onto the plight of the oppressed?
This is a difficult, complex issue, and much has been written on it. Christian thinkers have wrestled with it for centuries, including such luminaries as Martin Luther and St. Augustine of Hippo.
I will not attempt to reinvent the wheel by rehashing everything that has been said, but I do want to survey this issue and highlight a few of my thoughts.
First, as is my custom, let’s apply my three-step method by examining the old Law, the words of Jesus and the apostles in the New Testament, and finally the leading of the Holy Spirit. We will see where we land after that journey.
The Old testament has innumerable passages about war and warfare. God frequently ordered the Israelites to attack the cities of their enemies at chosen times, so that he could deliver victory into their hands. Sometimes God purposefully let the Israelites be captured if they turned from him. There is a lot of military imagery of God as a powerful warrior-imagery that pervades the New Testatment as well-and military success is strongly associated with the Lord’s favor.
I think part of this is cultural or historical. The early prophets lived in a time when the existence of Israel as a country was truly threatened and they were at constant risk of being enslaved by larger neighboring empires, e.g., the Egyptians or Babylonians. They viewed military success as a necessity to their existence, and God sanctioned those wars as needed to bless them.
We here in the United States do not face a threat of having our existence wiped away, or anything remotely close to that. However, there is still a lesson to be learned, which is that God fights for the underdog. He protects the weak, and repels attacks on his followers.
In our modern context, Americans are not the Israelites, but the subjugated peoples in land controlled by ISIS could be. Children in Nigeria living in fear for their lives because they learned how to read a newspaper or a Bible are not so different from a small tribe of shepherds fearing the wrath of the vast Egyptian empire. God saw fit to protect the Israelites through warfare, so maybe we should do the same.
In the New Testament, Luke 3:14, some soldiers (possibly Roman, possibly Herod’s) asked John the Baptist “What shall we do?” I think there is a strong implication of asking if they should quit their jobs in the military. However, John did not command that. Instead he told them not to take money from people by force, or I see it more broadly as “Do not take advantage of your strength.” I think in doing so, he implies that the soldiers can use their strength and position of authority as a force of good in the world. Later in a similar incident, Jesus abstains from telling a Roman centurion to leave the army.
Jesus actually said little else about the government or military other than saying that we should pay our taxes, perhaps an implicit endorsement of the legitimacy of government as an arm of God’s authority on Earth.
Peter and Paul, however, both gave some clear instructions regarding the government. Paul says in Romans 13 that all must submit to the governing authorities because the governments are ordained by God and is “an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong.” To me, that sounds like a strong affirmation that wordly governments can use their military force to bring about peace and justice, and Christians should support that mission by paying taxes. (As tax day approaches, I must point out that, unfortunately, the case that paying taxes is a Biblical command is ironclad.)
Paul says “Those who oppose will bring judgment on themselves.” So perhaps, if terrorists are doing so much evil in the world that they bring the wrath of our government down upon themselves, their blood is on their own hands.
Peter’s instruction is similar to Paul’s. (1 Peter 2) “…Governors sent out by him to punish those who do what is evil” This verse may have been aimed more at police and magistrates enforcing the law, but it is not a huge stretch to think Peter would also support the projection of force to foreign lands to protect the weak from oppression.
So, I think there is a strong case that governments have the authority to wage warfare and enforce peace and justice. But, here in America, we live in a democratic society, which means we get to vote (somewhat indirectly) on when or how to do that. And what about that stuff about loving your enemy?
It is true that God uses Earthly authorities as a means of bringing justice to His people. However, it is important to remember that He does this in His own timing. There are plenty of evil, tyrannical, corrupt governments throughout history, which God left in power for a time. We’ll probably never know the reasons for this, but we should learn not to rush to war at every injustice. This brings me to the third line of inquiry, the Holy Spirit. I think we have to rely on the Spirit to know when the injustice in a situation justifies the cost of war. We have to keep in mind many people will die on both sides, people will be injured, homes destroyed. The financial cost is enormous, and maybe that money could be better spent finding peaceful solutions. Sometimes, that is just not possible. After much consideration and prayer, we might have to go to war. It’s important that we for our government leaders to have wisdom in deciding this.
Clearly we have to show love and compassion to the weak and downtrodden in times of war.
Jesus taught on the importance of showing love by ministering to the specific needs people have. He said “Who among you if your song asks for bread, will give him a stone? If he asks for a fish, will you give him a snake?” Careful scrutiny of the Gospels show that each time Jesus ministered to a poor, sick, or hungry person, he showed them love by catering to a physical need they have. Feed the hungry, heal the sick. And we can extrapolate that to “Protect the weak from those who wish to do them harm.”
When people are being murdered and watching their children be kidnapped by terrorists, they have some specific physical needs, and we should minister to them by meeting those needs. Sending a box of Band-Aids will not help; what they need is military protection. If we refuse them that, doesn’t that undermine our message of love? If we respond to mass murder with an impotent Twitter campaign instead of a military campaign, we are giving our neighbors a snake when they need a fish.
However, having Congress declare war on a set of enemies does not exempt us from loving them. Jesus said “Love your enemies” not “Love your enemies until that’s really hard, then just kill them.” But how are we supposed to love them?
I believe we have to make diligent efforts to continue to extend an olive branch to our enemies even in the midst of war. This seems to me to be the only solution that shows love to both sides. We cannot forsake the weak and the oppressed. Neither should we give up on those who persecute us and give them over to darkness. I think the way to show love to them is by making it clear that we will not tolerate various heinous crimes, but they are welcome back into the fold if they repent. (Wait, that sounds familiar…)
We can draw from the ultimate example: Christ’s sacrifice for us. Humanity has endlessly sinned against God, and there are consequences waiting for all of us. All sins will be answered for, either in the fires of Hell or the fires of Hellfire missiles. However, even while passing judgement for our sins, God extends a peace offering by sacrificially giving his life so we have a chance at reconciliation. I think this dual model of justice tempered with a sacrificial desire for harmony is the model for how we should also deal with our Earthly conflicts.