July 27, 2010

A Few Thoughts on War

I was working on this essay and honestly had no intention of posting it here but thanks to the encouragement of @jackodile and @nickestelle I decided otherwise. It's a little long for a blog post so I apologize.

****** ****** ****** ****** ******

Throughout history the Church has encountered war on a number of different levels and has responded in a number of different ways, though primarily through the responses of crusade, just war, and pacifism. Each one is unique in its understanding of the use of violence and the teachings of Jesus, which impacts the way in which one reads and understands Paul’s writing in Romans 12:17-13:7. A brief explanation of these three responses to war is important before moving forward.

The crusade response to war is most commonly understood as being represented during the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth centuries by what took place in the Middle East. The thought behind this approach is one that believes war is appropriate and even necessary for the advance or protection of a particular religion or belief. This typically results in a zealous sort of violence that goes beyond what is “necessary” to advance or defend the perceived cause. John Howard Yoder describes the Crusades as going “far beyond the old Roman just war categories to make the Middle East adventures a specifically religious cause.”[1]

The most common response to war throughout Christian history is known as Just War. This belief holds that war should be avoided but at times may be necessary in order to protect and defend a weaker nation. Kennedy explains the just war response well when he says, “sometimes the use of violence by nations is morally permissible, perhaps even required.”[2] He goes on to write, “there are moral rules or criteria which must be satisfied before a war can be considered morally justified.”[3] There are a number of criteria which help to determine whether a war is justified, some of these include: last resort, proportionality, right intention, and reasonable hope of success at accomplishing your ends in fighting.[4]

The third response to war mentioned above is pacifism, which is the belief that war is never the appropriate action and should be avoided at all costs based upon moral or religious grounds.[5] Kathleen De Sutter Jordan speaks to Dorothy Day’s commitment to and example of pacifism when she writes, “For Dorothy it was precisely the love of God and the grace to “see Christ in people” that inspired her radical Christian pacifism and life of nonviolence.”[6] Jordan notes that much of pacifism’s response to war is “based on Christ’s revolutionary commandment (not merely a counsel, or recommendation, Dorothy pointed out) that his followers “Love one another as I have loved you.”[7]

Depending upon whether one sees himself or herself as a crusader, a just war advocate or a pacifist will impact the way one understands and explains Paul’s words in Romans 12:17-13:7.[8] This passage begins by addressing the issue of vengeance or seeking revenge and notes that peace is preferable, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (vs. 12:18). The seeking of justice in one’s own favor is not only inappropriate but not a moral reason to resort to violence or war. Paul gives the challenge to “overcome evil with good” (vs. 12:21) and allow God to be the administrator of justice and revenge by treating enemies kindly because it is the appropriate action of a disciple but may also have the effect of turning one’s heart. This begins first with submission to God, trusting in His promise, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay” (vs. 12:19) and secondly submission to the authorities that He has put in place to carry out His justice. Paul goes on to write, “Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established” (vs. 13:1) and explains that this is expected of Christ’s followers (vs. 13:5, 7).

Attempting to answer the question of when, if ever, it is appropriate to support a war based upon this passage of Paul’s writing may be difficult. The majority of Christians find themselves responding to war with a form of the Just War argument, believing that there may be times when war is the necessary action. While Paul’s words in Romans 12:17-13:7 do not speak specifically to the issue of war, he does address revenge, how peace is preferable and the need for Christians to submit to governing authorities.

As I read this, I understand it to mean that peace is always preferred, should be pursued but is not always possible. It then becomes a matter of trust and faith. Trusting that God, in His sovereignty has put the authorities in place as Paul notes in vs. 13:1. This trust then allows one to have faith in God’s promise that justice will be His and He will use whatever means necessary to see His justice come to fruition. Having said all of this, it seems to me that it becomes appropriate to support a war when peace has been pursued but to no avail and the basic tenets of humanity (opportunities for peace, security, basic necessities) are being withheld or denied from a weaker neighbor or people group. One can also see that support for war based solely upon vengeance or selfish gain is never appropriate. Keeping in mind the broader message found in Romans of God’s justice, freedom and peace over against those of the institutions of humankind will serve as faithful guides in determining one’s response to the issue of war.

1 Yoder, John H. "The Authority of Tradition." From Christ to the World: Introductory Readings in Christian Ethics. By Wayne G. Boulton, et. al. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1994. 98.
2 Kennedy, Thomas. “Can War Be Just?” From Christ to the World: Introductory Readings in Christian Ethics. By Wayne G. Boulton, et. al. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1994. 437.
3 Ibid. 437.
4 Ibid. 440.
5 Webster Dictionary: The New American. New York: New American Library, 1958.
6 Jordan, Kathleen De Sutter. “The Nonviolence of Dorothy Day.” From Christ to the World: Introductory Readings in Christian Ethics. By Wayne G. Boulton, et. al. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1994. 442.
7 Ibid. 443-444.
8 Romans 12:17-13:7. The Holy Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.


JAy. said...


Interesting writing. This is also something I have been considering over the last several months especially. Previously I was soundly in the "just war" camp. Now, I am not so positive.

Having read Yoder, I have to admit he gives a very strong argument for pacifism. To me, the strongest Bible verses come from Jesus - "Love your enemy," and "Pray for your enemy."

Can I do this while engaging in any kind of war or violence?

Can't say I have reached a point of calm understanding on this. And I certainly can't strongly criticize either the "just war" proponents or the pacifists.

Just thought I would throw out my quandary for others to perhaps throw a little light my direction!


Matt Lipan said...

JAy: thanks for the read and comment.

i can certainly understand your struggle, it's such a tough topic isn't it? i agree with you that Yoder makes a strong case for pacifism, especially when you take some time to consider the words of Jesus.

thanks again for being willing to share.