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Considering the world’s landscape today, like me, you might be wondering if each month brings us closer to the possibility of another global war.  I sincerely hope I am wrong, but it feels increasingly like we may find ourselves in a world war during our lifetime.

My biggest fear for my future is not where I will live and what job I might have but whether I will have to send my son to fight in a foreign (or native) land in the name of defending our nation.  I’m not entirely sure what those terms mean to us anymore.  So, what does the Bible have to say about the possibility of war and our approach to such matters?  We can’t always choose the scenarios we find ourselves in, but perhaps the Bible offers some examples of how we should respond.

Many scriptures offer wisdom around war, urging us to pursue God’s peace while also recognising that war is inevitable for most generations. Consequently, much of the Bible is written from a place of struggle and conflict, with stories of survival and adversity while engaging from a place of faith.  

Several seemingly conflicting scriptures, such as Romans 12:18, urge us to live in peace, at least as much as we can manage.  Other scriptures, such as Ecclesiastes 3:8, recognise that there are times when we will be at war.  You may have noticed that it is historically unusual for a nation or people group not to find themselves in a war within a lifetime or two.  Yet, for those of us who live our lives under the guidance of the Bible, we may want to consider the complexities of war in light of our faith in following Jesus and walking humbly before God.

After all, we may find ourselves at war with another person who worships the same God, follows the same Jesus, and reads the same Bible. What, then, do we make of duty, honour, defence, war, and peace?

Let’s explore some perspectives and possible interpretations and look at how they can apply to our lives should we be confronted with the horrific circumstance of going to war.

 

What Does The Old Testament Have To Say About War?

The message of the Bible does not encourage us to be at war.  Even though the Old Testament (and New Testament) show us that war happens and God can guide us through it, a picture emerges where violent conflict should be avoided and not condoned in the name of God.

The Old Testament records 13 significant battles or wars that chronicle God’s chosen people and their fight for survival throughout the ages.  If you have a vivid imagination like me, your first thought might be to imagine scenes from hero epics.  Still, the Bible doesn’t shy away from the brutality of the days when Israel was battling for survival with other tribes and nations.  It’s also worth noting that the context of those wars is vastly different from the age in which the New Testament was written and still further different from our current day and age.

The Context & The Causes:

Ancient Judaism was birthed in a barbaric past.  Many people groups were nomadic and tribal, with only some small townships being established, but largely, people lived in tribes and early settlements.  Genesis records Abraham, Sarah and their sons settling in different lands during those early days as they steadily moved their people towards a Promised Land.  You often see the phrase ‘in the land of such and such a people’ throughout the Old Testament.  It’s a better description, as great established cities were few and far between over 10,000 years ago.

Safety was not certain for most people living outside of a city context (and we must use the term ‘city’ loosely).  Tribes had to be strong, skilled at defending themselves, and expert at survival.  Existence in the early days of humanity was not secure, and you had to deal with the harsh reality of violent threats, hunger, and exposure to punishing environmental conditions.

In what can sound like a dystopian setting, it was not unusual for tribes to attack each other.  The idea of fortified walls and city guards providing protection was a luxury not afforded to most of humanity in the far ancient world of the Old Testament.  Negotiating to live in peace was desirable and usually the best outcome for tribes.  For example, in Genesis 21:22-34, Abraham negotiates a treaty with Abimelech, and they even dig a well together as a symbol of their peace.

All of this is to say that war was a necessary consequence of living in unestablished societies.  A tribe or people group may not take kindly to other tribes using resources in settled lands.  Countries and borders were defined only by a group’s ability to inhabit and protect areas where they had settled.  Survival of the fittest is perhaps the most apt way to see the early beginnings of the nation of Israel.

While we are on the topic, a nation is not about one’s birthplace or existence within defined country borders and state governance as we know it.  A nation in ancient times should be better understood as people who shared common characteristics such as language, culture, ethnicity, religion, or territory and were usually bonded through kinship and marriage.

The context matters here because it was not unusual for a tribe to go to war.  Battles were frequent, and there was a pervasive fight for survival.  Very few areas of the world were governed by any sense of law.

The War With Canaan

The first war recorded in the Old Testament is one in which God commands the nation of Israel to enter the promised land⎯, the land of Canaan.  This presents some moral problems for the reader in that one of the ten commandments found in Exodus 20:13, God’s edict to righteous living, is that we are not to kill.

Many scholars view the command to enter war as a directive from God that is morally acceptable when the conditions are for survival and protection.  The Hebrew word for ‘kill’ (רצח ratsach) in the Ten Commandments is better understood as ‘do not unlawfully kill’.  Within the context of war, killing is sanctioned to complete the war and restore some sense of peace and order, and so would be understood as something distinct from murder.

In other words, the normal rules of societal interaction are suspended during war. The battle with Canaan was about establishing a place for the nation of Israel to live and thrive and squashing the threat of Canaanite culture. God’s command not to murder without cause is best understood as Israel leading them to a victory against a threat to their existence.

It’s hard to appreciate the complexities of the conflict between Israel and the Canaanites.  Although each of their ancestors can be traced back to Noah’s family in Genesis 11 on opposing sides, some dark practices within their society clashed sharply with the Israelites.  The Canaanites were not one homogenous people but a collection of tribes with complex politics and opposing values.  For instance, they worshipped a God called Molech, to whom they would frequently sacrifice children, which the Israelites found detestable.  I’m sure all of us would.

It’s worth noting that the victors tell the story of history, and most Christian scholars reading after the fact would consider ‘just reasons’ such as child sacrifice as credible reasons for war.  We shall talk about ‘just reasons’ later, but according to the Bible, the Canaanites certainly seemed to meet the just war criteria.  The problems of societies in the Bronze Age, during which many of these Biblical wars took place, are so far removed from us that we will never fully appreciate the complexities of these hyper-violent cultures.

It’s interesting to note that we share the same ‘just war’ narrative today when considering the conflicts during World War 2 and emerging conflicts worldwide.

However, Isaiah 2:4 shows us that God desires peace and that war is not something to pursue.  Verse 4 reads: “He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”.

In addition to verses like Isaiah 2:3, we find a myriad of Proverbs urging wisdom and counsel around conflict.  As in many other portions of Old Testament scripture, a significant portion of the book of Proverbs is dedicated to wise considerations on maintaining peace and living in harmony with neighbours.  The references to God’s desire for peace are overwhelming, but the context is what we consider most when we read about Old Testament wars.

Yes, the ancient scriptures contain some directives from God for war as well as many references to peace, some of which I’ve noted above.  However, the context is very unusual compared to today’s circumstances and was evidently peppered with highly violent tribes with the constant presence of violent threats.  But do Jesus and the New Testament writers think differently about war?

What Does The New Testament Have To Say About War?

Jesus taught radical forgiveness and tolerance towards enemies.  As we read about Jesus around the first century, the conversation had moved from gruelling survival through violence to demonstrating peace while loving your neighbour.  Jesus was not necessarily anti-violence, but he was against inciting violence, with several scriptures demonstrating his perspective.

Things had changed dramatically since the wars of the Old Testament. In the first century, societies became very well established, and every known part of the world was subject to several cycles of different empires across the ages. The most recent, just prior to Jesus’s time, was the Greek Empire, and the current rule in Jesus’s day is the Roman Empire. War resulted from conquering powers seeking to gain control over the world, and Jesus’ teachings emerged in a Roman culture of oppression.

Some might say nothing has changed regarding the desire to establish conquering empires that seek to control populations.  However, Jesus and the early church writers have much to say about how we should think about violent conflict in the middle of empires that seek to dominate our societies. The New Testament writers have first-hand experience of living out the faith within the context of oppressive empires.

So, what are our assumptions about Jesus’ view on war, and would we be surprised by his teachings as we consider the possibility of going to war?

Jesus Christ, Meek and Wild?

War is violent.  Surely Jesus would be against all forms of violence?  Perhaps you have a rosy view of Jesus⎯as meek and mild.  But meek and mild do not necessarily mean Jesus was opposed to violence.  It might surprise you that there are a few instances where some peculiar things happen around Jesus in moments of conflict.

The first is when Jesus went into the temple in Jerusalem, saw people exploiting worship for profit and then got angry.  And it wasn’t a moment of explosive reactive emotion. Jesus’ anger is managed and considered as he deals with the situation.  We read in John 2:13-16 that Jesus makes a whip and then goes into the temple and begins turning over tables and driving people out!   I don’t know the last time you made a whip, so you might have an idea of how long Jesus was angry, but I imagine it took him some time, and then, carrying that same emotion of anger, Jesus used the whip on people, or as far as we can tell from context, close enough to frighten them off. While making a whip, Jesus had time to consider his response, and he enacted that anger upon the people in the temple by creating a notable physical disturbance.

Okay, the temple story might be a stretch to any sense of full violence, but it was certainly volatile.

This is the same Jesus who tells his disciples to turn the other cheek in Matthew 5:38-48, delivering a sermon about loving your enemies and forgiving people.  That’s more like the Jesus we think of when it comes to conflict.  But are there any other times when Jesus suggests a level of engagement in violence?

Live By The Sword, Die By The Sword

Let’s consider the time when Jesus is being arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, and one of his disciples (the book of John tells us it’s Peter) cuts off the ear of the High Preist’s servant in Luke 22:50-51.  Jesus rebukes his disciple and heals the man’s ear, warning that if we live by the sword, we will die by the sword.  But why did the servant have the sword in the first place?  The answer is in Luke 22:36-38.  Moments before it was used, Jesus told them to go and buy swords, but the disciples already had two with them.  Jesus tells them that these are enough.  So why did Jesus tell the disciples to bring swords and then rebuke them for using them?

There is very little to go on, and you can’t build much theology on outlier texts like the one above, but one interpretation is that they have it for self-defence.  Others say Jesus told them to buy it as a spiritual metaphor, but the text shows them buying real swords, and later, there are real consequences, so I won’t place too much stock in a metaphorical reading.

Peace Is The Preference

Regardless of these few obscure passages suggesting violent self-defence might be a reasonable response to violent attacks, we see an overwhelming directive to be peaceable whenever possible.  Jesus pushes the challenge further by saying that we are to be people who create peace and do everything possible to live in harmony with others.

The New Testament writers continually revisit the idea of peace.  As such, the proposition of war is not inviting to Christians.  We must make every effort to live in and broker peace with others.  Sometimes, conflicts emerge all too easily, and people are unwilling to pursue peace.  To follow Christ’s example, we may need to consider whether the wars we participate in do indeed present an immediate and tangible threat to those we love and hold dear.

A close reading of the Bible suggests that there are some contexts that require us to defend ourselves and our kin violently, but this should be avoided.  Hopefully, this should be infrequent in built-up societies.  When it comes to defending one’s nation, prayerful consideration should be given.  Fighting for your nation by attacking others pushes beyond the boundaries of Biblical moral examples and is a matter of conscience for the fighter within a war.  A war we fight in as Christians if at all, should only be a just war.

What Is A Just War?

Christian thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas developed the just war theory, which helps guide reasons for going to war.  These include fighting for a just cause in the defence of another, having the right intention and not being driven by vengeance, exhausting all peaceful options as a last resort, being proportional by using no more force than necessary, and discriminating between combatants and civilians.

However, we find that our Western countries are increasingly engaging in ‘prevention conflicts’.  These are proactive battles to defend future interests, and in these scenarios, the Christian ought to consider whether the moral criteria for a ‘just war’ are met.

If you serve in the forces, you have a complex obligation to your role.  While in service to an army or other special force, any killing is made lawful by command of the government.  In that sense, the blood of battle and war is not on your hands but on your governments.  Yet, not only does the government have to live with the consequences of war, but the soldiers who fight on the ground also have to reconcile the lives they have taken.  Further, the one caught in war is also left broken by conflict.  Regardless of whether one finds themselves compelled to take another’s life under lawful directives such as war, the emotional scars will be profound on all involved.

 

“War is hell”, to quote the American Civil War General, William Tecumseh Sherman.  Contrary to war narratives, glory is not found on the battlefield but in a life lived in worship and submission to Jesus.

Given the peaceful imperatives of following Jesus, I believe (feel free to share your own opinion in the comments) that Christians should not pursue violence and only act when under immediate violent threat.  One scenario is perhaps being drafted for service when your nation goes to war.  But where possible, we should aim to live in peace.  There are times when we are likely to be faced with a violent attack, and we must act accordingly, especially in the defence of an innocent.  However, from a Biblical perspective, particularly from Jesus’ view of how we live, we are dissuaded from violence and persuaded toward peace and reconciliation.

 

I, of course, offer these unsolicited musings as someone who has never seen a battlefield but as a theologian who searches the scriptures and prayerfully considers the ‘what if’ scenario of war.  I do not know what it is to take a life, but I do know what the Bible tells us pleases God.

This article will undoubtedly elicit more comments from some than others, and I may be forced to rethink this if the call to serve in the forces comes up in my lifetime (which I think is increasingly likely these days).  But when reviewing scriptures about conflict, it’s clear that God has never been portrayed as being pleased with humanity’s blood being shed.  As followers of Jesus, we ought to first consider what pleases God.

What do you think?  What would you do if a draft were called and you were obligated to fight?  To what extent could or should a Christian make a conscientious objection?  Please drop a comment, but keep it respectful.

KEY VERSES: Romans 12:18, Ecclesiastes 3:8, Genesis 21:22-34, Exodus 20:13, Genesis 11, Isaiah 2:4, John 2:13-16, Matthew 5:38-48, Luke 22:50-51, Luke 22:36-38
Bible references are taken from the ESV
Feature Photo by British Library on Unsplash

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