Pacifism vs. “Just War”: Biblical & Social Factors

Pacifism vs. “Just War”: Biblical & Social Factors January 11, 2017


Jesus and the Centurion (c. 1571), by Paolo Veronese (1528-1588) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


(April 1987)


1. Jesus’ Attitude 
A. Our Lord Jesus acknowledged the right of civil defense: ” . . . let him who has no sword sell his robe and buy one” — Luke 22:36.

B. Jesus accepted the notion of obedience to civil government in general when He said: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” (in this particular instance, taxes, which, no doubt were used in part for maintenance of the Roman armies — Matt. 22:21; Mk. 12:17; Luke 20:25).

C. In Jesus’ short parable about counting the cost of discipleship, the example of a king going to battle was used (exceedingly strange, if warfare was an absolute evil — Luke 14:31-33).

D. Jesus didn’t rebuke a Roman centurion for being a soldier, but rather, strongly commended his faith and healed his servant — Matt. 8:5-13 / Luke 7:1-10.

E. Lastly, Jesus, being the Messiah, who had largely a military function throughout the Old Testament, will come again in great power as an all-conquering warrior. He Himself taught this on several occasions: Matt. 16:27; 24:30; 25:31; 26:64, etc. For those accustomed to viewing Jesus as the meek and mild type who wouldn’t hurt a flea — which wasn’t true His first time here, either — the account of His return will come as quite a shock: “. . . in righteousness He judges and wages war and the armies which are in heaven . . . were following Him . . . And from His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may smite the nations . . . and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty” (Revelation 19:11-21).

How can all this be explained according to Christian pacifism? Non-Christians also continually misrepresent Jesus by ignoring this information.

2. John the Baptist

John’s emphasis in his preaching was on repentance from evil-doing. Here is a man who unhesitatingly addressed a whole crowd of Jews who came to him as “You brood of vipers”! (Luke 3:7). Yet when Roman soldiers came to him and sought his counsel John said: “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.” (Luke 3:14). The significance of this cannot be minimized. Why in the world — if pacifism is the true biblical outlook — would John not tell these men to get out of the army immediately, to renounce all use of force, etc.? For the pacifist, this would be the moral and logical equivalent of not telling the prostitute to stop selling herself, or not telling the thief to stop stealing. Thus, the concepts of military service and war cannot be unmitigated evils.

3. St. Paul and the Early Christians

The Apostle Paul: the greatest missionary of all time, and author of most of the New Testament, appealed to his Roman citizenship in protest of his beating and imprisonment (Acts 16:37-38), and to avoid being scourged (Acts 22:25-29). In fact, most of the last seven chapters of the Book of Acts, the history of the first Christians, is devoted to Paul’s defense of himself before the Jews and various Roman authorities (the Jews had sought to kill him ). During the whole legal process, Paul accepted the help of Roman military escorts and guards, in order to protect his life (Acts 23:12-33; 28:16), and appealed to Caesar (Acts 25:11).

This is all highly relevant to our discussion. The pacifist often argues that Jesus’ injunctions in the Sermon on the Mount are absolute and normative for all situations (“Do not resist him who is evil . . . ” — Matt. 5:39). If this is true, then Paul failed quite miserably to apply this teaching in his own life. This is unacceptable for any Christian who accepts the New Testament as authoritative. The logical alternative view, then, is that Matthew 5:39 does not have a universal application. This is clear from the facts in #1 above.

We also hear so much about the early Christians dying for their faith instead of resisting. However, in most cases they had no power to resist, as Paul did by virtue of his Roman citizenship, and the issue was usually a situation where the Christian had to renounce Christ and worship Caesar. Obviously, the Christian had no choice but martyrdom if he or she was to remain a Christian under these circumstances. This does not require that a Christian must die in a situation where there exists a moral escape from such injustice. Thus, Paul’s actions are altogether moral and ethical, according to New Testament teaching. His example also shows the wrongness of those pacifist strains which denounce Christian involvement in government.

The Christian is to obey the present governmental authorities (Rom. 13:1-7; I Pet. 2:13-15), but not to the extent of transgressing God’s moral law, which transcends man’s law and provides the basis for justice. The first believers, including Peter, immediately engaged in civil disobedience, when necessary (Acts 4:18-20; 5:27-29).

We also find that some of the early Christians were soldiers (Acts 10:1-4,22,30-31). Cornelius, one of them, is called “a righteous and God-fearing man” (10:22) and Peter himself showed no qualms whatsoever as to the notion and fact of a Roman centurion being a Christian.

4. Military Heroes in the New Testament

Hebrews 11:32-34: ” . . . Gideon, Barak, Samson, . . . David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.” These men and their military acts are extolled as examples of faith, a fundamental New Testament concept.

5. Military Metaphors in the New Testament

These are quite common and are used in reference to spiritual warfare. Some of the more notable examples are: II Cor. 10:3-4 (“weapons of our warfare”), Eph. 6:10-17 (“Put on the full armor of God “), I Tim. 1:18 (“Fight the good fight”), and II Tim. 2:3-4 (“. . . a good soldier of Jesus Christ”). Again, it makes no sense to use such terminology if such things are absolute evils. This would be the same as saying “Be a good mass-murderer of Jesus Christ” (since pacifists consider all wars, as far as I can tell, as just that). The very existence of such metaphors is inexplicable if the New Testament teaches total pacifism. I believe it is clear, for all who honestly look into the matter, that there is no radical break in morality and teaching between the two testaments of the Bible. The underlying reason for this is simple: God does not change. He merely reveals Himself more fully and progressively in history.

6. “Thou shalt not kill”

Unfortunately, an extraordinarily simple-minded pacifist argument is based on the one word kill, from the sixth commandment. Many have said that all killing is prohibited, based on this one verse (Exodus 20:13). The problem here derives from unfortunate translation of the original Hebrew into English. The original word in Hebrew here is ratsach, which is much more accurately translated as “murder.” Ratsach is always used in a disapproving sense in the Old Testament.

Other words are used for killing which is morally justified (there are at least 21 Hebrew words for various types of killing, and 13 Greek words in the New Testament). Webster’s Dictionary defines “kill” as “To deprive of life; to slay”; whereas it defines “murder” as follows: “The offense of unlawfully killing a human being with malice aforethought, express or implied.” This is a legal definition, and implies moral wrongdoing. I have 12 translations of the Old Testament and 8 of them use “murder” for Ex. 20:13. The standard King James Version and three modern translations have “kill”. In any event, it’s obvious that the Old Testament teaches the correctness of many types of killing, usually in the sense of ultimate lifesaving for the many, and the protection of the innocent. Examples: Gen. 9:6; Ex. 22:2; Gen. ch. 14; Lev. 18:24; Numbers 25:8; Josh. 7:25 and 10:40.

7. War as Judgment in the Old Testament

This is a bit more complex idea, and is often greatly misunderstood by those who don’t interpret the Bible on its own terms, and in its totality. Various nations in history, according to the Bible (which is an impeccable historical source), were judged by God for their evil, in the sense that He allowed them to be defeated in warfare. The secondary purpose of such “judgmental wars” — when they were against Israel’s enemies — was to ensure the survival of God’s chosen people, with whom He established a covenant. Such wars were to eliminate all extreme forms of immorality which might corrupt the life of the Jews, whom God was using as His saving instrument for the world. This theme of God’s “chosen” people runs through the entire Old Testament. The Jews, however, did not, by any means, receive preferential treatment. They were subject to even more severe judgment if they rebelled against God, because so much was revealed to them. Now, if God’s right to judge is questioned from the outset, then the ethical issue becomes an entirely different one.

The Nations: Ex. 23:23-24, 32-33; Lev. 18:3, 24-30; Deut. 9:4-6; 18:9-14; 20:17-18; Isaiah 10:1-19; 13:17-19; 45:1-2; Jeremiah 25:12-13; 43:10-11.

The Jews: Lev. 26:14-17,31-39; Deut. 28:15,25,36,45-52,58; Judges 2:14; II Kings 15:37; I Chron. 5:25-26; II Chron. 24:23-24; 33:10-13; Ezra 5:12; Jer. 25:3-11; 27:6; Ezek. 29:18-20.

8. The “Just War” as Classically Formulated by St. Ambrose and St. Augustine (3rd-4th cent. A.D.)

A) There is an organic connection between justice and necessary and just warfare.

B) War must be declared by the proper governmental authorities (Rom. 13:4).

C) War is to be fought only if all peaceful negotiations fail to attain justice (Deut. 20:10-12; Hebrews 12:14).

D) Both the cause and the motive for a war must be just.

E) War is engaged in only for defense purposes and the protection of the innocent (Gen. 14:14-16).

F) War is fought only with a realistic expectation for success, and must be justly waged:

i. Fought against soldiers, never civilians (Principle of Discrimination).

ii. Only as much force as is necessary to secure a lasting and stable peace is used (Principle of Proportion).

It would appear that nuclear war, by virtue of its nondiscriminatory nature, would always be immoral. Perhaps mere possession of nuclear weapons for purposes of deterrence is not necessarily immoral, given the malevolent character of many of the governments of the world. Part of the reason deterrence works, is the self-preservation instinct. One tends to not want to fight a war when annihilation of one’s entire country (as opposed to mere defeat) looms as a distinct possibility. This prospect unites all kinds of people — good and bad.

9. The “Police” Question

For the pacifist to be consistent with his or her own position (the total renunciation of lethal force as immoral), all use of force within states must be condemned along with force between states. Police forces, judges, and politicians are all involved, directly or indirectly, in the maintenance of public safety. All states preserve order and stability by means of coercion and, if necessary, lethal force (the shooting of madmen holding hostages, riot control, prison sentences, etc.). Many pacifists do not wish to deny these societal institutions. Of course, total pacifism has even more dreadful results, especially the closer it hits home, for it would require standing by and doing nothing while a close relative, spouse, good friend, or child (God forbid) was being tortured and killed. It seems utterly obvious that a viewpoint which violates our most basic instincts of justice and honor and love must be a false (and ultimately immoral) view. And the pacifist will generally quickly forget his or her intellectual concept of pipe-dream peace and togetherness once in a horrifying position like the ones above. The Bible certainly doesn’t advance such a concept, as has been shown. This is why pacifism in the Church has always been a minority view.

10. Gandhi’s Follies

Incidents in the life of the famous pacifist Gandhi illustrate the moral illegitimacy of the total pacifist outlook in the real world, where those who would hate and harm others are never lacking. During World War II, Gandhi urged the Viceroy of India to stop fighting, saying “Hitler is not a bad man,” and suggested that the English should accept Hitler’s fate for them, that the Czechs should face the German armies unarmed, and that India should let the Japanese overrun the country and then “make them feel unwanted.” What was his comforting advice to the Jews of Europe, who were being slaughtered mercilessly by the millions? He thought that they should have committed collective suicide, so as to leave a “rich heritage to mankind”. He reached the very pinnacle of the heights of folly, perhaps, when he wrote to Hitler, starting out, “Dear friend,” and made a heartfelt appeal for him to embrace all mankind!

Of course, Gandhi’s tactic of nonresistance in striving for independence from England, was a success because it was directed towards a people who had a measure of conscience and magnanimity. Likewise for Martin Luther King in the American South. Nonresistance, needless to say, would be absurd in Nazi Germany or Lenin’s and Stalin’s Russia, where marchers would immediately have been gunned down without the batting of an eyelid. Pacifism, like consistent atheism, once thought out in all its implications, will collapse from within, because it simply cannot be lived out. While I admire anyone’s nobility in being willing to die for a cause, I do not admire a willingness to let so many other people die (literally millions when tyrants aren’t stopped).

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