Is War Compatible With Christianity?
“Against what moral standard is war a crime or a sin? Here, indeed, is a puzzle.”—Oliver O’Donovan, professor of Christian ethics
A PAINTING named Sacrifice, inspired by World War I and displayed at the Canadian War Museum, depicts slain soldiers, battle-worn survivors, and their families back home. Above the scene hangs Jesus Christ, impaled on a cross. Some observers are shocked that Jesus, the “Prince of Peace,” is painted next to scenes of carnal warfare. (Isaiah 9:6) Others, grateful for the sacrifices made by their countrymen, feel that God and his Son expect Christians to fight battles that protect the security and freedom of their nation.
Religious leaders have preached a message favoring warfare for centuries. In the year 417 C.E., church theologian Augustine wrote: “You must not think that no one who serves as a soldier, using arms for warfare, can be acceptable to God. . . . Others are fighting invisible enemies on your behalf by praying, while you struggle against visible barbarians on their behalf by fighting.” In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas explained that “wars are licit and just in so far as they protect the poor and the whole commonweal[th] from an enemy’[s] treachery.”
What do you think? When military action is launched for a seemingly noble cause—to defend a nation’s freedom or to liberate the oppressed—does it have God’s blessing? To what “moral standard” might Christians turn to discern God’s will in the matter?
Jesus Christ’s Example
Is it possible to get God’s mind on a complex issue like modern warfare? The apostle Paul acknowledged our predicament, asking: “‘Who has come to know the mind of Jehovah, that he may instruct him?’ But we do have the mind of Christ.” (1 Corinthians 2:16) To help us, Jehovah God sent Jesus to earth as our Exemplar. What Jesus said and did reflected Jehovah’s own thoughts and ways. So, what did Jesus say about warfare? What stand did he take on war?
There would seem to be no cause more worthy of armed defense than the life and security of Jesus Christ. One of his apostles felt that way. When Jesus was betrayed and arrested by an armed mob in the middle of the night, his friend Peter “reached out his hand and drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest and took off his ear.” Justifiable use of such weaponry? Jesus said to Peter: “Return your sword to its place, for all those who take the sword will perish by the sword.”—Matthew 26:47-52.
Jesus’ reaction is hardly surprising. Two years earlier, he had said: “You heard that it was said, ‘You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ However, I say to you: Continue to love your enemies and to pray for those persecuting you; that you may prove yourselves sons of your Father who is in the heavens, since he makes his sun rise upon wicked people and good and makes it rain upon righteous people and unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:43-45) Is it reasonable to think that a Christian could love and pray for his enemies while waging war against them?
History reveals that Christians had many enemies. For example, the Romans sentenced and executed Jesus Christ. Soon thereafter, merely professing to be a Christian became a capital offense. Jesus anticipated that Christians might be tempted to bear arms and revolt against Roman oppression, as some of the Jews had done. Hence, he said of his followers: “They are no part of the world, just as I am no part of the world.” (John 17:16) Christians chose to remain politically neutral. No injustice or threat to them or the country in which they lived justified taking part in military action.
Champions of God’s Kingdom
Genuine Christians upheld Jesus’ wishes and stayed neutral. Consider what happened in Iconium, an ancient city in Asia Minor. “When a violent attempt took place on the part of both people of the nations and Jews with their rulers, to treat [Paul and Barnabas] insolently and pelt them with stones, they, on being informed of it, fled to the cities of Lycaonia, Lystra and Derbe and the country round about; and there they went on declaring the good news.” (Acts 14:5-7) Note that when faced with violent opposition, Christians did not take up arms in defense, nor did they retaliate. Instead, they continued to preach “the good news.” What good news did they have to share?
Christians preached the same message that Jesus did. He said: “I must declare the good news of the kingdom of God.” (Luke 4:43) Jesus and his followers championed God’s Kingdom. Christ never used a national military force to defend that Kingdom. “My kingdom is no part of this world,” he said. “If my kingdom were part of this world, my attendants would have fought that I should not be delivered up to the Jews. But, as it is, my kingdom is not from this source.”—John 18:36.
“Have Love Among Yourselves”
Neutrality during wartime is a characteristic of true worship. Jesus said: “By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love among yourselves.” (John 13:35) Millions have been happy to discover a group who display such love, even when their refusal to bear arms has brought ridicule, imprisonment, or execution.
In Nazi-occupied Europe, officials imprisoned an estimated 10,000 of Jehovah’s Witnesses because of their Christian neutrality, including some 3,000 who were sent to concentration camps. Meanwhile, during the same period, over 4,300 Witnesses in the United States were imprisoned for their refusal to join the military. Neither German nor American Witnesses bore arms and fought against their Christian brothers or anyone else. How could they and still claim to have love among themselves and to love their fellow man?
Many people feel that military action is a necessary form of self-defense. But consider: Although first-century Christians were cruelly persecuted and refused to fight back, they survived. The powerful Roman Empire was not able to wipe out Christianity. True Christians thrive even today, and they continue to maintain a neutral stand. Rather than taking matters into their own hands, they confidently look to God for help. His Word, the Bible, states: “Do not avenge yourselves, beloved, but yield place to the wrath; for it is written: ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says Jehovah.’”—Romans 12:19.
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WARS THAT GOD BLESSED
Ancient Israel, a nation uniquely chosen by God centuries before Christianity was established, was at times authorized to assemble an army and engage in warfare. Before entering Canaan, the land that God had promised to Abraham, the Israelites were told: “Jehovah your God will certainly abandon [seven nations] to you, and you must defeat them. You should without fail devote them to destruction. You must conclude no covenant with them nor show them any favor.” (Deuteronomy 7:1, 2) Thus, Israelite General Joshua defeated those enemy nations “just as Jehovah the God of Israel had commanded.”—Joshua 10:40.
Was this a ruthless conquest wherein Israel greedily subjugated foreign countries? Not at all. Those nations had become full of idolatry, bloodshed, and degraded sexual practices. Even children were killed in sacrificial fires. (Numbers 33:52; Jeremiah 7:31) God’s holiness, justice, and love for his people compelled him to remove all uncleanness from the land. Even so, Jehovah searched the hearts of everyone—something no military commander can do today—and spared those who were willing to abandon wicked ways and serve him.
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Did Jesus expect his followers to fight in defense of him or fellow Christians?
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A group of Jehovah’s Witnesses after their release from the Buchenwald concentration camp in 1945