A Christian View of War

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The decision to have a war is a corporate decision; the decision to go to war an individual one. And once a man decides to go to war, of course his individual behavior in combat has corporate ramifications.

When the church was in her infancy, the question of war was a simple one. “Blessed be the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for war, and my fingers for battle” (Ps. 144:1). The church at that time was largely associated with the Jewish state, and God had not yet ceased giving revelations of His specific will. Thus, He could (and frequently did) tell His people to go to war (Josh. 8:1), what strategy to use (2 Sam. 5:23-25), and who should be executed among the captives (Dt. 13:12-15).

At Pentecost the wonderful process of expanding the church into a truly international body began. But this meant that multiple civil realms were now involved, most of them unbelieving. So what are believers to do when the civil realm is not yet Christian, and yet calls upon them to go to war?

The Problem of War in the Christian Era

Absent divine revelation for each occasion, Christian thinkers began to grapple with the problem of identifying scriptural principles which could be used to evaluate any given military conflict. The first major theologian to work on the problem of the “just war” was Augustine. Since his day, the principles have been refined considerably but they all deal with the same basic problem–the problem of Christian restraint on what tends to be unrestrained violence.

The problem can be divided in two. The first concerns whether or not a particular war is justified–the jus ad bellum criteria. The second concerns the regulation of conduct, both corporate and individual, once a war has begun–jus in bello criteria.

Jus ad bellum: With regard to this, the historic wisdom of the church has been that a just war . . .

1. Must be declared by competent authority;

2. Must have a just cause;

3. The waging of the war must have a proportional sense of means and ends;

4. Peaceful means of addressing the quarrel must have been exhausted;

5. And the nation going to war must have a right intent.

To speak in laymen’s terms, this means war is declared by Congress and not by private individuals or the U.N., it should be to repel invasion and not to adjust the price of wheat in Burundi, we should not go nuclear against Canada over a fishing dispute at Lake Winnetanka, lethal violence should be employed reluctantly (and only after a great deal of talking), and that the genuine aim of the war should be genuine and lawful peace-and not a smokescreen for something else. Of course, an awful lot still needs to be unpacked from #2 and #5.

Jus in bello: Now the complexities of modern warfare are immense. Nevertheless, each individual citizen may satisfy himself from Scripture that military service is in itself lawful (even if the magistrate is pagan).

1. Cornelius was a military man in the service of Rome (Acts 10);

2. Christ found no faith in Israel like that of the centurion (Matt. 8:10);

3. And John the Baptist told soldiers to be content with their pay (Luke 3:14), thus indicating they would go on receiving it.

Nevertheless, a Christian must go to war understanding that he remains a moral agent while in battle. While he may not be competent to decide whether the war itself is justified–someone else will answer to God for that–he still may know himself to be justified in going to war. His duty is to know what God’s Word expects of him in bello–and if he is commanded to do what is contrary to the Scriptures, he must be fully prepared to refuse. C.S. Lewis put it well: “I feel certain that one Christian airman shot for refusing to bomb enemy civilians would be a more effective martyr . . . than a hundred Christians in jail for refusing to join the army.” [C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), p. 327.]

If there is wickedness in high places which engineered the war (and there frequently is), their plans will be more quickly frustrated by a consistent Christian soldiery than by squads of amateur cabinent ministers second guessing whether the cause of the war was Swiss bankers, oil interests, or the Iluminati.

The Accountable Magistrate

The ad bellum criteria should be applied by those magistrates who are deciding whether to go to war. They must do so while publicly acknowledging that God will judge them for the decisions they make.

Those who observe the magistrates making this decision may be more confident that they are doing right in areas necessarily out of public view if they are careful to submit to Scripture in those areas which can be seen by all.

1. For example, the military should not be manned through conscription (Dt. 20:5-8). When the war is just, an able-bodied man can sin by refusing to go, but this sin ought not to be pubished as a crime.

2. The war effort should not fall on children (Num. 26:2,4),

3. And a nation which defends herself with women in combat no longer deserves to be defended (Dt. 20:7).

4. An assumption throughout Scripture is that, apart from divine revelation, women and children are not a lawful military target. Thus, for example, our firebombing of Dresden in the Second World War was an act of unspeakable wickedness. When our leaders behave with appalling lawlessness on stage then why should be trust them off?

5. The in bello criteria should be embraced by the authorities, but they must be understood and implemented by the soldiers. Scriptural principles in the conduct of war should be promulgated, taught, and enforced with discipline. With true disciplinary eloquence, George Washington once hanged several of his soldiers for a grievous offence, and then marched the rest of the army by the tree.

6. And my suggested development of just war criteria #2 and #5 earlier would also include the axiom that the evaluation of “just cause” and “right intent” be conducted while holding the magistracy to the tightest applications of what God has required the magistrate to do. For example, compare the “world’s policeman” to “defense of national borders.”

Chivalry and Pacifism

To some, discussions of how to behave with Christian charity in the midst of bloody carnage must seem nothing short of bizarre. How can we love our enemies, as Christ requires, and be occupied with trying to kill them? But to quote Lewis again, the lessons of history indicate otherwise. “Christendom has made two efforts to deal with the evil of war–chivalry and pacifism. Neither succeeded. But I doubt whether chivalry has such an unbroken record of failure as pacifism [Ibid.].

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