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19 December 2012

Should Christians go to war?

Should Christians go to war?

Throughout most of the Church’s history, Christians have disagreed over whether it is ever right for them to go to war. 

The tension is highlighted by two key New Testament texts referring to “the sword”. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus says to Peter: “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Paul writes to the Romans: “Rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4-5). 

The predominant view in the first few centuries and a significant minority witness throughout Christendom has called on Christians to refuse all support for or participation in war. Pacifist Christians point to that saying of Jesus and his teaching on turning the other cheek as part of loving our enemies as among their central arguments. In addition, Jesus shows us that God reconciles us, His enemies, through His death on the cross where He suffers injustice and refuses to respond violently. 

In recent years, the writings of people such as John Howard Yoder (speaking out of the Anabaptist tradition of non-violence) and Stanley Hauerwas, have stressed that this attitude to war is not an optional extra which applies, for example, only to clergy. It is, they insist, a central aspect of distinctive Christian discipleship to be embraced by all followers of Jesus. Such pacifism is a commitment to resist and challenge all that leads to war including, for example, demonisation of others and the evils of the contemporary arms trade. Positively, it seeks justice through creative non-violent alternatives to war and working for reconciliation. Particularly as we move out of Christendom into a situation where Christians are once again a minority, it is argued that this must become a prophetic counter-cultural witness to the good news of Jesus’ peaceable kingdom brought by
the way of the cross. 

Most Christians, however, believe that at times Christians should go to war but cautiously, regrettably and subject to careful moral scrutiny. This just war tradition argues that love of neighbour may require the use of coercive force when one neighbour acts unjustly against another neighbour. God
has given us government in a fallen world to restrain and punish such wrongdoing and it can and sometimes should do this outside its borders and by the use of lethal force. Such a perspective is shaped by great Christian thinkers going back to Ambrose and Augustine in the early Church, through medieval and Reformation thinkers such as Aquinas, Vitoria and Grotius and has contemporary advocates in writers such as Oliver O’Donovan and Daryl Charles. 

This answer to the question stresses the need for war to be limited and controlled by the demands of justice. It should therefore not be waged by the Church or private individuals but only by those who have responsibility more widely for upholding justice in society, what the tradition calls legitimate authority. It should be undertaken in response to serious wrongdoing – there must be a just cause – for which war is a proportionate response. Those fighting should also have the right intention which is not military conquest or economic gain but one of righting the wrong and securing a more just peace for all. Because war is such an extreme, damaging and often unpredictable enterprise it should always be a last resort and have a reasonable chance of success. Such concerns place strong limits on those tempted to resort to war too quickly or for unjustified reasons. 

Just as this tradition allows Christians to go to war but does not write a blank cheque to those in power, it also rules out certain forms of war. Military  action must be proportionate – you don’t use a sledgehammer to crack a nut! – and must discriminate between legitimate and illegitimate targets. This last concern rules out blanket bombing, strategies of terrorising populations and using weapons of mass destruction and says that once someone ceases to be a combatant they are to be treated with dignity, ruling out the use of torture and other dehumanisation of prisoners.

Increasingly, Christians within this tradition stress the need for a commitment to justice and peace after war. The invasion of Iraq shows both the potential for this tradition to enable prophetic, non-pacifist critique of government actions and the need to insist that moral responsibilities continue once wars have been ‘won’. 

Different Christian answers to this question should not hide much agreement. All Christians should work for peace, reconciliation and justice. Whether in favour of pacifism or just war, we all need to be prophetic critics whenever those in power resort too quickly to force, are driven by pride, greed or hatred or use any means which intend to harm the innocent and vulnerable. 

The Revd Dr Andrew Goddard is associate director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics, Tyndale House, Cambridge and part-time tutor in Christian Ethics at Trinity College, Bristol. He is a member of the Alliance’s Theology and Public Policy Advisory Commission.

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