Interview with Preston Sprinkle on his book “Fight.”

Preston Sprinkle, Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence (Colorado Springs: David Cook, 2013).

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Preston, what led you to write this book? I mean, you come from a conservative Christian context, typical “guns and religion” culture, “praise the Lord and pass the ammo,” that kind of thing, so how did you get to where you are?

That’s right, Mike. Not only do I come from such a culture, but I’m still in one! I’m a Reformed, Evangelical, socially conservative, country-music listening, gun-owning Christian. And I’m an advocate for nonviolence. As I said in the introduction of my book, I have no cultural, political, or emotion aversion to violence. The only reason why I advocate nonviolence is because—to echo the mantra of my fundamentalist brothers and sisters—I believe the Bible tells me to.

How can killing always be wrong, when the Bible permits killing in self-defense and even prescribes the death penalty for certain offences?

Does it? I don’t think it does. Or more specifically, I don’t believe the New Testament allows for killing in self-defense, and in spite of how Romans 13:4 is often read, I wouldn’t say that it “prescribes” or celebrates the death penalty. It simply says that Rome “bears the sword” and punishes wrong doers (including a Jew who committed—so they thought—insurrection in AD 30) and God may sovereignly work through the state to pour out His wrath and vengeance.

I don’t think the New Testament ever encourages Christian to celebrate the death penalty, nor does it allow Christians to kill in self-defense.

The Old Testament, of course, is a bit messier. The death penalty was prescribed for all sorts of different crimes, and killing in self defense seems to have been allowed (according to one reading of Exod 22:2-3). However, Christians need to think critically about how they apply the OT Law to their lives. At the very least, Jesus and the NT writers give several commands that appear to directly supersede these OT laws. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye…’ but I say to you,” and “turn the other cheek…love your enemies,” (Matt 5).

In any case, I devoted 4 chapters of my book to the Old Testament, so the interested reader can see if my argument therein holds weight.

Can Christians serve in the military or as a police officer?

Tough question, Mike! At least you didn’t ask about Syria!

Again, I devote a good deal of space to these two specific questions.  I’ll answer them in a second, but before any Christian seeks to answer these questions and others (Can I kill Hitler? What about the attacker trying to kill my family? I can kill him, right?), we must first answer the question: “Does the New Testament ever permit Christians to use of violence (or more specific: killing) under any circumstances?” If we can build a Biblical case for saying yes, then we can move to give a Christian answer to the question you ask.

After looking at the OT, NT, and early church, I can’t find a convincing biblical argument that permits a Christian to use violence (we need to define this, of course) or killing to rescue the innocent, defend oneself, further national interests, or punish one’s enemy.

So, my short answer to your question is: Yes, serve in the military but not as a combatant. Yes, serve in the police force but in the rare instance where you may have to pull the trigger, don’t.

Tell us how your approach to war and ethics informs Christians as to what kind of policies they should support and oppose regarding the possibility of a US strike on Syria?

I should have guessed…

I don’t think that Christians should support a US strike on Syria. I’ve blogged about one reason why HERE, and I was also echo (for the most part) Greg Boyd’s response HERE.

However, to be honest, I really struggle with the intersection between faith and politics in the public sphere. On the one had, I want to say, with Greg Boyd, that the kingdom of God should be concerned with the kingdom of God, and the nations will do what the nations will do. Ours is a spiritual warfare—a much more ferocious war, indeed!—and one cannot destroy a non-flesh and blood enemy with flesh and blood weapons. Tanks and drones cannot hurt Satan, and a Christ-less world peace could be a demonic victory. I get it.

However, I’m also fascinated that the prophets of Israel called the nations on the carpet for their disobedience to their Creator (e.g. Ezek 25-32), and John castigated Rome as the “whore of Babylon” for her violence and self-indulgence in the book of Revelation. Neither John nor the prophets let the nations just be the nations. They called them out for flagrant violations of the Creator’s will.

So I struggle with these two models. Should we be someone indifferent to what America does or perhaps hold them to their own standard, i.e. Just War theory (model 1)? Or, should the church prophetically call America (and all nations) to obedient submission to the will of their Creator, to love neighbor and enemy alike, to pick up their crosses and become followers of Jesus and settle for nothing less (model 2)?

Still thinking through this one, mate.

Are there any good wars? Was WWII a necessary war to stop the Nazis? Did Australia do the right thing by accepting the UN mandate to set up a peace-keeping operation in East Timor which meant eliminating Indonesian backed militias who were attacking the populace?

“Good” by who’s definition? I believe it is “good” to love one’s neighbor and enemy, to pray for people who may persecute me, to self-sacrificially give money to the needy, clothe the naked, heal the sick, and be joined to the risen King of all Creation. Are there any “good” wars?

No.

Okay, okay. Let’s go on the world’s definition of “good.” Even still, Oliver O’Donovan, a major advocate for Just War theory says: “History knows of no just wars.” World War II is often hailed as a Just War, despite the fact that more than 2/3 of the deaths were civilians and many of these were by the hands, or bombs, of allied forces. Did we use “Proportionate Means?” Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Dresden, which one historian labels “the largest slaughter of civilians by military forces in one place at one time since the campaigns of Genghis Khan,” argue the contrary. Did we honor “Non Combatant Immunity?” No.

No war has satisfied the criteria for Just War theory. Not even close. If we want to say that some wars were necessary, then we can discuss them in those terms. But I think that the terms “good” or “just” only try to whitewash an evil with the thin morality of the world.

What are you reservations/criticisms about “Just War” theory?

I devoted an entire appendix to Just War theory, so I would point our readers there. In short, Just War theory argues that violence and warfare is so evil, so wicked, such a tragedy that it should be pursued only as an absolute last resort; that is, after all other nonviolent means have been exhausted. Or according to Just War theorist Arthur Holmes: “War is evil.” “Its causes are evil.…Its consequences are evil … it orphans and widows and horribly maims the innocent … it cheapens life and morality … wars that are intended to arrest violence and injustice seem only in the long run to breed further injustice and conflict. To call war anything less than evil,” concluded Holmes, “would be self-deception.”

But I don’t hear this type of stuff when I hear people say they believe in Just War theory. At least in my country, I hear a lot more eagerness for militaristic intervention as a first, maybe second, resort, not a last one. (The contrasting approaches of Obama and Putin are a case in point.) “Praise the Lord and pass the ammo,” as you stated above. That’s our Just War theory.

So in itself, I think that nonviolence and Just War theory actually share a moral foundation, one which does not race to violence to solve the world’s problems. But as a Christian who has not found a convincing biblical argument that Christians should ever use violence to confront evil, I don’t think that physical warfare is ever the solution to evil. I believe that that there’s a real war going on, one which is a hundred times more devastating than any earthly war, one where the victor gains heaven and the loser suffers hell, one that is fueled by the Spirit and blood of a crucified and risen King.

Let’s focus on that war. It’s much more urgent. 

  • Patrick Mitchel

    Amen to what Preston is saying and I look forward to reading the book. Can’t fathom the ‘gun-owning’ bit at the start – how the heck to you square that with what follows? Guns are designed to kill.

    • Preston

      Thanks Patrick! As far as the guns go, I shoot animals not people with them and I eat what I shoot. And unless one is a vegetarian for theological reasons, there is no contradiction.

      • Patrick Mitchel

        Thanks Preston, thought that after posting – just not used to the guns & hunting culture over here in Europe!

        • Preston

          Haha! No worries, Patrick. I get that. For what it’s worth, I haven’t been hunting in years, so my guns are just sitting up in my attic, except when I shot that trailer video. I had to borrow the Glock but the shotgun was my ole’ hunting piece.

  • Jean

    Preston, can it ever be the case that violence could be employed to preserve life, so that it could be considered the “pro-life” action? In other words, if one encounters the shooter at the navy yard and has the opportunity to subdue him through violence (even killing), is that the loving action relative to additional potential victims.
    Also, if God works through humans to impose his will and sovereignty (e.g., judging Israel in the OT), could he ever use a Christian for these purposes? Thanks!

    • Preston

      Jean,

      You raise very good questions! I could spend a lot of time answering them here in the comment box, but I’d encourage you to read the book since I spend a lot of them answering them there. And honestly, if you read the book and still have questions, please feel free to email or Facebook me and I would love to dialogue further.

      For starters, though, we would need to answer the question: Is there any New Testament evidence that Christians should use violence to spare innocent lives? If we can say “yes,” then there may be a case for shooting the maniac in the Naval Yard. If we answer “no,” then we take the approach of Antoinette Tuff.

      Both may be “effective,” but I believe that only the latter example is “faithful.”

  • Patrick

    Preston,

    In the Luke 22:35-36 passage it appears to me Jesus is instructing the 12 that they can no longer count on His unique provisions when He leaves and protecting oneself with a sword is among these responsibilities Jesus instructs them to provide for themselves.

    To me, self protection is a separate issue from national warfare.

    Almost never should we be willing to fight for national causes, IMO. That’s where Christians have traditionally failed at least here in the US. We’ve been willing to kill for nefarious motives a lot all the while buying the nonsense our pr machine preaches.

    • Preston

      Good catch, Patrick! But I do address Luke 22 in my book and most certainly doesn’t mean self defense with a sword.

  • Jeremy Ellis

    “Yes, serve in the police force but in the rare instance where you may have to pull the trigger, don’t.” If a Christian wants to be a police officer, but thinks it is wrong to pull the trigger on his or her gun, don’t be a police officer then. Find a different job.

  • Bill Crawford

    Hi Preston,

    Appreciated your ministry of the Word at Compass Church (AZ) a few months back.

    Fact-check about ‘Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Dresden, which one historian labels “the largest slaughter of civilians by military forces in one place at one time since the campaigns of Genghis Khan,”’
    Didn’t Auschwitz and other individual concentration camps exceed these numbers?

    • Andrew

      “in one place ***at one time*** “

      • Bill Crawford

        Thanks for the reply and pointing out what I missed Andrew. Not sure I see the significance of the difference. Also, Genghis Khan’s “body count” is probably more comparable to Auschwitz (did Genghis Khan kill even as many as 18,000 in one day – the low range of those killed at Dresden?) than any of the examples given.
        All that to say, a little more nuance about the military value of those targets, the Nazis and Japanese morality of locating military targets in/near civilian areas, could make for a better discussion.
        Also, if one has decided that violence would not be appropriate to stop the holocaust, I would like to hear what non-violent means would stop it.

  • Richie

    So …. Jesus and Paul both command followers to not resist evil, to not to take vengeance and to overcome evil with good – all sentiments expressed first in several places in the OT, especially Proverbs. Paul also specifically states that governmental authorities bear the sword for the purpose of punishing evil and that believers are, at the very least, to support them in doing that including by paying taxes; therefore, making them complicit in the acts of governmental punishing of evil. Paul, also says that a husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself for it. However, despite all of the above if a man breaks into my house, rapes my wife, kills my children, etc. I am apparently supposed to allow him to do this without any type of physical resistance. Perhaps, to continue following the biblical commands I should offer him a cup of cold water in Christ’s name while he is in the act of these crimes or, perhaps, when he finishes. Or, when Soviet soldiers gang-raped German women by the tens of thousands at the end of WWII and ordered their husbands to count the number of rapes while in progress these, possibly Christian, German husbands were supposed to comply without malice or resistance? Of course, the same would have been true for Bosniaks, or Croats, or Kosovars as their wives, sisters, and daughters were being gang-raped by Serbian troops in the 1990s Yugoslav wars? They also were to meekly watch, count, and offer a cup of cold water to the perpetrators of these crimes. Correct? What other conclusion can a pacifist or believer in non-violence come to? Of course, on the other hand such gross pacific inaction makes a clear shambles of so many other biblical principles that would have been givens for OT and NT believers. Biblical statements about non-resistance to evil and forgoing personal vengeance must be understood in the light of the clear role that God has assigned to government throughout the Bible – both in the OT and NT – and that are clearly summarized and delineated in Rom. 13, I Pet. 2, etc. Both in the OT and NT such principles of overcoming evil with good existed in parallel with and against the background of governmental systems of law and justice that were meant to protect the people of a society by punishing and deterring evil, including by force. That is how both sets of principles were understood to exist simultaneously by both OT and NT believers as the life of the apostle Paul – who time and again relied on Roman protection and his Roman rights as a Roman citizen throughout his life as a Christian apostle for Christ. Despite numerous accounts of Roman officials – governmental and military – becoming followers of Christ not once is it so much as even implied that they must resign their positions. Instead, as in Romans 13 people in such positions were commanded to be respected and given honor as “the public servants of God” (Rom. 13). For such converts to continue in such positions without being willing to use force would have been hypocrisy upon hypocrisy since they would still have been a part of a system that supported the use of force to punish evil. But, fortunately, the proper use of force by government – or by individuals in government’s stead, if it is absent – is a biblical principle that all believers recognized both in the OT and in the NT. It was seen as necessary for the protection of society and the punishment of evil. When it was not carried out, or not carried out justly, evil triumphed – just as today.

  • Michael Snow

    Dr. Sprinkle (hope he’s not a Baptist!) is in good company. Compare Spurgeon: ““I wish that Christian men would insist more and more on the unrighteousness of war, believing that Christianity means no sword, no cannon, no bloodshed,…” http://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/

  • Jack Carter

    You’ve done a great job at identifying and dissecting the scriptures that parallel your points, but you failed to ask/answer the basic question:

    Does the bible say it is a sin to use force (including deadly force) to protect yourself or others?

    As an active Christian, military veteran and retired law enforcement officer, I can provide numerous personal observations wherein the use of force to protect the lives of self and/or others was not only appropriate, but the only option.

    Seriously, are you suggesting that our military forces should have passively allowed Hitler (as well as other dictators, etc) to continue his genocide? Should a police officer keep his/her weapon holstered while a deranged individual systematically assassinates people in a crowded venue?

    More importantly, are you saying that GOD was wrong when he not only enabled – but commanded – followers to kill (i.e. Moses/Red Sea, the walls of Jericho, etc)?

    I’m probably going to ‘let slip the dogs of hell’ with the following’; ke sera sera.

    The Quran commands Muslims to kill anyone who does not believe in/convert to Islam (especially Christians and Jews). By your logic, Christians should stand idle as their family, friends and themselves are killed (beheading is Muhammad’s preferred method – à la Daniel Pearl).

    So, I ask you this: If all Christians are eliminated, who will be here to spread the word?

    I ABSOLUTELY share your vision of world peace and non-violent resolutions. However, many – many – people do not.


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