Archive for the ‘Just War Theory’ Category

Having just about finished the third book in my ongoing quest to better understand why God allowed such gruesome violence in the Old Testament era and why many modern Christians believe some level of participation in war is justified, I felt it appropriate to pause and assess my understanding–for the benefit of both myself and you who found relevance in my previous posts about such things.  Originally, I set out to understand what, if any, scriptural basis there was for a Christian killing another person in the name of their earthly nation, and while I have gained a much firmer conviction about this I’ve also uncovered a web of theology and philosophy underneath all of it that is much more complex than I expected.  But that’s fine.  The more I read about the two issues (1. OT violence and, 2. Christian applications), the harder it is to just focus on one without running into a discussion about the other.  I guess this is to be expected to some extent since the authors I’m reading hold orthodox positions and thus view all of the Bible as canonical and authoritative, and both issues are dealt with in the Bible.  So, I have had to approach the two issues simultaneously even though the interpretations and conclusions between the two have been very different.

‘Just’ War Theory

Without going into tremendous detail and writing a grand book report I would like to first summarize the point I’ve reached on Protestant Christianity’s acceptance–albeit a vague one–of the Just War Theory.  In doing so I’m not really addressing the specifics of the Theory.  This is intentional.  My reason is that every church that I’ve been to that openly takes an affirming position on Christians in the military draws on the Just War Theory–either explicitly or implicitly–only in the most loose and general way.  Since the Theory is essentially Catholic doctrine and I attend Protestant churches, this is not surprising.  So, because Protestants refer to it generally, I am critiquing it generally.  While I know more could be said in defense of the Theory, I do not hold the Catholic belief that the Church’s teachings are authoritative therefore I am more concerned with what Scripture says than with dogma, and from what I understand of this issue thus far I can say that the Theory doesn’t work.

While there is much thought and care behind the Just War rules of engagement, I believe it is too idealistic and antiquated to base one’s life upon.  This is because the way in which war actually happens today makes it impossible to apply Just War principles, and I see two primary reasons why.  1) Modern warfare is not the low-tech, hand-to-hand combat it was when this theory was dreamed up by St. Augustine.  The tactics and technologies that have been used since WWI could not have been foreseen by Augustine even in his worst nightmares–especially nuclear weapons.  As a result, modern warfare involves–as a byproduct–the taking of innocent, non-combatant lives.  Thanks to worldwide industrialization, soldiers are no longer the only ones who die during conflicts.  In this sense, engaging in a “just” war is virtually impossible.  2) World governments, often intentionally, do not reveal to its citizens truthful, unbiased information about the nation’s conflicts or its enemies rendering individual Christians ill-informed as to whether or not they would be ‘justly’ participating in a military campaign should they choose–or be forced–to fight.  With respect to the Just War Theory, individual Christian citizens simply do not and cannot know enough to make a correct assessment of a situation.  In the United States, this leaves the “moral compass” in the hands of elected officials and military personnel.  While that might not sound too bad to many American Christians who trust in the benevolence of our government, imagine if you were a conscripted soldier in Nazi Germany, Stalin’s U.S.S.R., Omar al-Beshir’s Sudan, or even modern North Korea!  Would you blindly obey your government’s orders to commit genocide because you thought God wanted you to “be subject to rulers and authorities” (Titus 3:1)?  Of course not.  If the Just War Theory cannot be applied timelessly and universally then it is nothing more than a theory and is only useful in the theoretical realm not the practical reality in which we live.  This is very unfortunate because a vague ideal of a just war, along with a narrow application of the biblical principle of submitting to authorities, seems to be the best and most widely accepted justification Christians, especially Western Evangelicals, have come up with for killing others in the name of their country.

Old Testament Violence

The next issue I sought to learn more about is why God either commanded or allowed such brutality at the hands of the Israelites.  Prior to trudging through these three books I felt I had a pretty good understanding of this but I knew there is always more to learn when it comes to the ways of God.  At this point I have heard from 11 different authors, not to mention the many that they cite, and all of them make the same conclusion that the “holy war” of the Old Testament does not provide a model for engaging with the world that the Christian Church ought to follow.  All the authors agree that Christians, or any modern nation for that matter, have no right to engage in warfare the way in which ancient Israel did.  There is no biblical justification for “fighting for God” or taking up arms to “defend Christianity”.  Where there is disagreement, however, is with the explanation for the murder of so many thousands of people, as recorded in Old Testament books like Joshua.

In no particular order, here are the three most interesting explanations that I came across for why this violence took place.  1) God did not in fact command these wars; they were the result of Moses’ imperfect understanding of God’s will.  God works with fallen humanity where we are at and therefore allowed the Israelites to carry out such violence, even though it was not done at his command.  This is evidenced by the fact that the book of Deuteronomy, where the rules for war first appear, is essentially Moses’ interpretation and retelling of the Law he was given by God at Sinai—it is a not a verbatim quotation of God.  The book is filled with a great deal of creative liberty and embellishment when compared to the account of the event in the book of Exodus.  Furthermore, Moses’ commands to Israel concerning the rules of war tend to change from situation to situation and at times seem to be totally arbitrary.  Additionally, Israel’s understanding of the events of their wars and God’s commands have a progressive quality whereby from Moses to Joshua to the Book of Chronicles things get clearer over time.  This suggests that the Israelites, like us today, didn’t always hear God correctly at the time they moved forward with a decision, but understood God’s will more fully in hindsight.  In other words, God allowed the violence but he didn’t command it.  2) Holy War in the Old Testament should be best thought of as “Yahweh War” for the reason that the chief objective of war was the annihilation of foreign gods.  That this was the case is most clearly articulated by God himself when he states that by killing all of Egypt’s firstborn he “will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt” (Exodus 12:12).  Because foreign gods could trip up the Israelites, the only way to protect God’s people was for him to exterminate the idols and by extension those who worshipped them.  In this way the violence should be termed “deicide”, not “genocide” or even “homicide,” because the gods were the primary object of the Lord’s wrath, not the humans.  3) While the wars of Israel and Judah were historical, some of the details, such as the number of casualties or the method of victory, are most likely not.  This is because the judgment on other nations that was carried out by the hands of God, or God via the Israelites, most importantly serves the purpose of pointing to the eschatological reality of God one day destroying evil and all who do it and preserving a remnant for himself: the Church.  Thus, the warfare during the Old Testament era is an allegory, created by God, for things to come.  The concern then should not be with the violence itself, since many details themselves are probably part of the allegory, but rather with understanding the themes and eternal reality it points to.

Each of these three explanations was new to me and each one of them definitely requires a lot or more study on my part to fully understand.  The other explanations, in my assessment, were basically more technical and scholarly ways of articulating what I wrote about in my previous post on this issue.  So, having pondered all these explanations by all these smart guys over the last nine months I have reached this noble and commendable verdict as to which one I believe is right:  I have no idea.  (This stuff is really complicated!)  I see convincing arguments within them all, so the best I can say is that they are probably all correct to some degree.  While I feel pretty secure (right now, anyways!) in my conclusion regarding a Christian’s obligation to their government, this second issue will probably take me a lifetime to wrap my head around.  Thankfully there’s lots of people who have devoted their lives to understanding these things and writing about them so we can all benefit from their insights.  If you’re interested in learning more, be sure to check out the books I’ve recommended on these topics and please let me know of any additional ones you’ve found helpful.  For now, thanks for reading and…



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Have you ever been to a church service, perhaps in early July, where they “honor veterans” by asking them to stand while the rest of the congregation erupts into applause and the pastor, or whoever, says something to the effect of “Thank you for your service”?  I have been to at least three.  And in case you’re wondering, these weren’t churches in Texas full of gun-toting Republicans; it was here, in the Bay Area, at good Bible-teaching churches.  This is a tragedy.

I call this an “American tragedy” because I believe it to be a peculiarly American phenomenon–that, being the Cross+Flag faith that I’ve alluded to before.  Perhaps this occurs in churches in other countries with standing armies, a history of military interventionism, and a strong sense of nationalism.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it did–the U.K., France, Canada, Australia seem likely.  Yet, America is unique in its historical relationship to Christianity and I am convinced that this is the source of our syncretism.  That being said why is this a tragedy?  The role of a Christian church is to affirm and encourage obedience in the form of acts of love towards God and others, not to affirm and encourage sin.  As Christians we are called to submit to and obey our respective governments (see Romans 13:1-5, Titus 3:1); we are not called to sin for them.  Unless an individual is a cook, doctor, or some other kind of non-combatant, job duties in the military will unfortunately require the taking of human lives in violent warfare–or at least the preparation and willingness to do so.  Violence, murder, and vengeance are the very essence of warfare and each one is sin.   If our government asks us to sin then we must be prepared to join with the Apostles and shout, “we must obey God rather than men!” (Acts 5:29), and then be willing to endure any persecution that might come as a result.  This is the brutal and dangerous nature of being a Christian and loving our Lord and I say that it is a tragedy when our churches affirm and encourage sin rather than obedience!  It is safer, and certainly more P.C., but what a tragedy it is when Christians gather together and those who have participated in sin are esteemed rather than corrected and pointed towards love.  And let me quickly offer the disclaimer that this is not a critique of the so-called Just War Theory, the necessity of a strong national defense, rules of engagement, or any other secular, political idea.  I am talking exclusively to the Church here because “what business is it of mine to judge those outside the church?  Are you not to judge those inside?  God will judge those outside!” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13).

You know what I would love to see?  I would love to go to church next 4th of July or Veteran’s Day and witness submission and obedience to God in relation to government affirmed.  Do you pay all your taxes?  Do you obey traffic laws?  Have you never stolen or vandalized property?  Do you show respect to government officials?  Do you fill out government forms honestly?  If so, you should be standing and receiving applause from your congregation!  You are the role model for your fellow Christians!  You show faithfulness to God through your fearless submission to the government!  You are the one deserving a “thank you” from the pastor for your faithful witness and obedience to God “rather than men”!  If churches feel so obligated to use patriotic holidays as an opportunity to affirm acts done for our earthly kingdom then let them affirm acts such as these for they show allegiance to the Kingdom of God and are the only ones that should be encouraged at church.

Church is for affirming and encouraging righteousness and “blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves.” (Romans 14:22)  Since God desires for us to obey our government, so far as it doesn’t conflict with His Kingdom, let’s encourage each other to do so.  But let’s not allow our government or American culture define obedience for us.  That would be a tragedy.


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A couple months ago I got an email from a dear friend raising some really good points about what I had written in my post entitled, “Overturning ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’: The Hidden Injustice of Gay Rights.”  The most important of his points, to me, was the apparent contradiction between the New Testament’s pacifism and the Old Testament’s holy wars.  I believe reconciling this is crucial to justifying a case for Christian pacifism so the following is an adaptation of that email conversation, which I am grateful for having had.

An Apparent Contradiction

If you were involved in a church Sunday School class as a child–against your will or not–then you’ve long been aware that violence and war were a regular part of life for God’s people, the Israelites, in the Old Testament.  Indeed, any quick survey of the Old Testament might lead you to believe that God’s favorite rod of discipline against His people and His enemies is violence.  If He’s not wiping people out by His own supernatural acts, it seems He’s commanding the Israelites to do so and then blessing their efforts by granting them success.  Flip a few hundred pages to the right, to the New Testament, and the tables seem to have turned.  Now it is God’s people, the Christians, who seem to be the scum of the earth and are in danger of getting wiped out through religious persecution.  Yet in this context there is a different type of religion being advocated by God and His people as a response to their enemies: pacifism.  This is summed up nicely in the three passages I cited in my post: Matthew 5:43-46, Romans 12:17-21, Ephesians 6:12.

Hmm.  Isn’t this a contradiction in the message of the New and Old Testament scriptures?  Where is the continuity in the faith?  How can God’s commands allow for violence and war in the Old Testament, then condemn it in the New?  And, how can Jesus and the Christian message be considered the authentic fulfilment of Judaism if it deviates from its principles so radically?

Great questions, right?  Well, if you’re a Christian like me you may have never played devil’s advocate with yourself on this issue until right now.  The reason for that might be because your instinct is to gloss over this issue by quickly recalling something Jesus or Paul said about love and then moving on.  Doctrine reinforced.  Theology unshaken.  Unfortunately, when we do this we miss an opportunity to better understand this and many other objections people have with the Bible and the Christian god, and as a result we miss an opportunity to better understand the God who can help us address them.

As for me, I treasure opportunities such as these and thus seek them out.  This is why I’m willing to explore the difficult social issues that you’ll find addressed on our blog;  I want to be able to understand the true nature of an issue from all angles and then ask God what He thinks and if there’s anything He wants me to do about it.  My motivation is that I’ve come to realize that there are too many people with too many issues for us to be satisfied living out our Christianity in cultural fortresses every Sunday morning (and maybe Wednesday night), oblivious to the suffering of the world.  I also know that people with legitimate struggles will conclude that God/Christianity is cold, irrelevant, condescending–and worse–when we don’t understand their issue yet spout out shallow theological answers.  This is why I hope and pray that this blog inspires and equips you Christians out there to engage with the world as Jesus did.  We might not change the world but that doesn’t make our efforts any less faithful to God.  With that being said, the issue at hand is such an issue requiring our attention if we are to wisely engage with the world.

The Wrath of God

To understand why violence is not permissible for Christians I had to first come to terms with why, exactly, it was for Jews.  The issue, I believe, comes down to the judgement and wrath of God.

Before Jesus was sacrificed for all our sins, God’s judgement and wrath upon sin was happening in real-time both for the Israelites and other peoples of the world to an extent that it is not today.  For the Israelites, their sins were punished in all sorts of ways both by God and by each other as prescribed by the Law.  Against groups that didn’t know God and were opposed to Him, their punishment sometimes took the form of being killed by the Israelites or sometimes God himself wiped them out, or sometimes they just lived and died natural deaths without ever having known the God of Israel (God hiding Himself is certainly a form of punishment).  This might sound extreme or even gruesome but as the Bible clearly shows us the Israelites were chosen by God to be the vehicle to bring God’s fellowship to all people groups, which was finally accomplished with Jesus’ death and resurrection.  So, because the ultimate purpose for the Israelites was to pave the way for Jesus, anything that stood in their way stood in the way of God’s plan to bring forgiveness and fellowship to the world.  Therefore, God did not hesitate to remove and even destroy anything opposed to this purpose.  God and His people were not being homicidal imperialists, they were ensuring that satan would not thwart God’s plan of bringing a way for the whole world–not just the Israelites–to be “God’s people.”

So what about all the people God killed?  Are they just out of luck because they happened to be born outside of the Nation of Israel and were therefore merely rubbish waiting to be discarded?  Well, there are two answers from what I understand.  First, the tradition and doctrine derived from verses like 1 peter 3:18-20 say that Jesus preached the Gospel to some of them before ascending to heaven after he was crucified.  Second, just like today there are those whom God saves and those whom He doesn’t–so as it is confusing as to why God chose to make contact with Noah and Abram instead of others, so it is confusing as to why God allows some to trust Jesus and some not to (i.e. John 6:44).  Theology, we can forget, can’t explain all the mysteries of God:

‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways’ declares the Lord. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.’  (Isaiah 55:8-9)

Implications and Applications

Does this make God/Jesus a hypocrite for telling us to love our enemies in the Gospels?  Or, are the Gospels inconsistent man-made novels?  No.  These questions, and other similar questions have more to do with us than with God.  More specifically they have to do with the way we view the Bible.  If we treat the Old and New Testament as a complete work of religious philosophy from which we can extract principles and rules then we have missed the point.  For too long I myself had the idea that I could study the Bible on my own and deduce the truths from it and lay them out in a sort of divine system which I needed to follow if I wanted to live correctly.  Uhg!  What I had to realize was that scripture tells a story.  The story progresses and unfolds and more and more things make sense along the way.  The theological term is “progressive revelation.”

In light of this, I read the “Sermon on the Mount” with Jesus appearing to contradict the Old Testament Law with his talk of love, charity, and peace, and see that the battles to preserve the Israelites until salvation could be offered to everyone are no longer necessary now that Jesus has come.  I see that the wars, exiles, and violence of the Old Testament are now officially over because Israel’s true king is here, and that all the fighting was to ensure that he would arrive safely, right on schedule.  And by the end of the Gospels I see that there really is no need to fight against your enemy anymore because the only battle worth fighting for–eternal safety–was won by Jesus.  Amen.

In conclusion, God’s desire for humanity to live peaceful, loving lives has never ever changed.  The story of salvation has certainly been a messy one, but since Genesis it’s been clear that God’s intended goal was always for us to be people of love–love for Him and for each other.  Therefore, I see no contradictions in the Bible with regard to this issue.  And while I’m sure there are hundreds of different ways to articulate the centrality of pacifism and/or non-resistance to New Testament faith, this is just the one I felt inspired to use.  Finally, I should also note that while I am aware of some of the differing conclusions about issues of war and peace by those within Christianity during its long history (for example, Augustine of Hippo’s “Just War Theory”), what I have just laid forth in this essay and in my previous one compels me to disagree in deference to the simple wisdom of Jesus:

‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. (Matthew 22:37-40)

The Lord is God

For further reading on this issue, here are two sources which I found helpful:

> “Spirituality While Facing Tragedy: How Then Shall We Live?”, by Henry A. Gustafson
> “Can a Christian be a pacifist?”, by Don Murphy

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