just war, or just plain war?

“I’m driven with a mission from God. God would tell me, ‘George, go and fight those terrorists in Afghanistan.’ And I did, and then God would tell me, ‘George go and end the tyranny in Iraq,’ and I did.”
– George W. Bush

“We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren’t punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That’s war. And this is war.”
– Ann Coulter

“A good butt-whipping and then a prayer is a wonderful remedy.”
– Fob James, Former Governor of Alabama

“AIDS is the wrath of a just God against homosexuals. To oppose it would be like an Israelite jumping in the Red Sea to save one of Pharoah’s chariotters.”
– Jerry Falwell

“There is only one way to get rid of nuclear weapons… use them.”
– Rush Limbaugh

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
– Jesus in Luke 23:34

By all accounts, the life of Jesus paints a picture whereby the terms justice and violence fit together about as well as two corner pieces of a puzzle or two pieces of hook velcro. Yet Christians have, throughout history, engaged in horrifically violent activities.

It really does boggle the mind how the life of Jesus can be so ignored by people who claim to follow him. Despite the fact that the Sermon on the Mount is an incredibly non-violent manifesto, many Christians today still insist that violence is the way forward in our world.

Imagine it… violence bringing peace…

And man said, "Let us make God in our own image."

Many Christians believe that violence is a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. For those who hold to a view whereby modern day Israel is “meant” to regain Palestinian territory, violence against the Palestinians is often considered a necessary reality in the eschatological scheme of things. This is even despite the fact that a decent percentage of Palestinians are themselves fellow Christians (and, may I add, Christians who are very confused at the attitudes and actions of their brothers and sisters in some very pro-Israel nations).

But violence is the language of empire – Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Greece, Rome…


(or, U.S.?)

Can there ever be such a thing as “just war”? Just violence? What would Jesus have to say?

The same Jesus who, having had horrible acts of violence and injustice thrust on him, declared forgiveness on his enemies…

Jesus enacts a new way to be human, a way where violent revenge is rejected in favour of forgiveness and willing embrace. What does this mean for international relations in the eyes of Christians? How do we use our vote? How do we advocate – for violence, or against it?

What does it mean for the violence I do against my fellow man? When things are done to me or said about me that are unjust, do I respond with violence (in word or deed), or am I content to forgive as Jesus forgave? Am I willing to go a step further and encourage others to forgive them, as Jesus did?

What does it mean for my opinion of violence, the military, and terrorism?

(And let’s not kid ourselves, we live in nations that cause far more terror for far more people than anything that has flashed on our television screens recently. Tragic terrorist attacks on western nations may have killed several thousand, but the War in Iraq has led to the deaths of over 100,000 Iraqi civilians, and that is without considering military deaths. How can we be the “good guys”?).

There is another way. A Third Way. Not violence. Not apathetic pacifism.

It is the non-violent way of Jesus – Forgiving enemies, not killing them. Standing against evil, not riding with it. Suffering with the downtrodden, not getting your boots dirty. Carrying a cross, not a rifle.


Posted on March 13, 2010, in Conflict and Nonviolence, Theology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. I got this wicked cool shirt from zazzle. ‘What would republican Jesus do?’

    you should search for it. And get it, and wear it!

  2. So keen! I want a WWJB one for sure!

  3. I agree with what you say Matt, some of those quotes are flat out embarrassing and it is clear from the teaching of Jesus that personal retribution is unquestionably wrong.

    A scenario that i’ve sometimes thought about is this: If a Christian policeman is on duty when he sees a man draw a gun in a crowded place and begin to shoot people, is it wrong if the policeman then draws his own gun and shoots the offender?

    What would have happened to the Jews in Europe had not England declared war on Germany?

    I have just finished watching Band of Brothers and I think that war is a horrible, ugly exercise which fully exemplifies a fallen world, however I still can’t bring myself to say that it is always wrong for a country to go to war. Don’t get me wrong I’m not trying to simply defend western nations in their recent efforts, and I still don’t completely know what to think about the issue…I just can’t shake the thought that sometimes it is necessary for a country to go to war against another to protect the innocent….ala WW2

  4. It’s messy, isn’t it?
    My take (for what it’s worth)
    It’s never ok to be the aggressor
    It’s never ok to use violence in private life
    I don’t see how one can ever claim an attack as “just”, but possibly there are circumstances where defence may be justified?
    It is right todefend those who are being hurt and victimised — this may require the necessary use of force, it should never involve excessive force (say for instance you saw someone about to commit rape or murder, you would do whatever was necessary to protect the victim, you would not then have the right to beat up the perpetrator)

    vengeance (even on a national scale) is always wrong

  5. Rob,

    Aren’t they embarrassing…

    I don’t know that I have many answers to the objections you raise, let alone convincing ones, because frankly those same scenarios have gone through my head too, and they do require a realistic answer. I would point out a few things though.

    One is that the early Christians expected new converts to quit the military. Tertullian put it brilliantly when he said that Jesus disarmed Peter in Gethsemane he disarmed every soldier. There was quite a bit written by the early Church leaders on violence and war, and it can be found easily on Google. This kind of reading should make us reconsider whether or not military service and kingdom life are in fact compatible.

    As for civil authorities… there doesn’t seem to be anything said about taking such jobs in the early Church literature. Indeed, the police are a necessary part of civil life, and unlike frontline soldiers their job does not necessarily entail violence.

    What needs to be said though is that we can’t reduce the issues down to hypothetical scenarios that are somewhat unrealistic. This was illustrated by a conversation I witnessed recently between a friend and a guy working for a peace organisation. My friend asked, “…but what if your wife is going to be killed, and you have an opportunity to shoot the would-be murderer to protect her – should you do it.” The other guy’s response was simple but brilliant (this is only a paraphrase from what I recall) – “That’s not a real scenario. You have left out way too much information – life is not that black and white. Can I wound him? What weapon does he have? Does he even have one? Who else is around? What is his motive? A real situation would be more complex than what you have just given me.”

    And truth is all real scenarios are more complex. It is one thing to say that war needed to be declared on Germany to rescue the Jews, but we must remember that it was in huge part the economic abuse of Germany in the 1920’s at the hands of the Allied nations that led to Hitler even gaining power at all. If the Allies hadn’t of exploited a defeated Germany from WWI then WWII may never have happened. Moreover it was European imperialism and violence that led to WWI. The argument could be made that violence simply leads to violence. Whether or not violence was needed to overcome the Nazi threat is arguable – what is clear is that there would never have been a threat if not for previous violence, war and imperialism.

    There also needs to be a serious counting of the cost for following the way of Jesus. He made clear violence was not the way, but we in the West assume we still have the right to dish out violence in order to secure our way of life as if we are the defenders of a better way. However this is just not true. Perhaps our way of life will drop if we truly follow Jesus’ way, but maybe it needs to (I know the planet would thank us if it did…).

    This is a ridiculously stripped back answer, and begs more questions than it answers, but I guess that’s a good thing.


  6. I work as a pizza delivery driver to cover text books and coffee/outings (yes, I am a student). Often as the night nears 10pm or just after, I’m carrying anywhere up to $300-400 in cash.

    Walking around unit blocks in some of the more dodgy parts of the Shire has always had me wondering about what I’d do if some punk-kid tried to mug me.

    My boss warned me to just give people what they asked for, to hand it over and submit.

    Truth be told, I reckon that I’d beat them silly if they tried to rob me, because it’s not my money – it belongs to someone else and there’s lots of it.

    If you’ve met me, you’ll know that I could damage said punk-kid.

    Fortunately for them, my Hollywood inspired lust for being the provoked/innocent guy who turns out to be a bad-ass ex-black ops guy (or something similar) and seeks revenge, just wont cut it in Jesus’ world. It is something I must stop myself from doing.

    Part of being a fully functioning Christian means taking excess riches out of my bum-bag before the amount skyrockets into the hundreds, bringing a torch and having my wits about me.

    It took a certain degree of self-honesty to admit that I wanted a fight and was using the sound of my bouncing coins to bring it to me (so I’d appear innocent), and to take the necessary steps to ensure that both reduced the risk of trouble starting in the first place and having to defend pieces of plastic (people tell me that money is printed on such material) in the first place.

    Psalm 137 directs us to trust in God’s justice and to not rush to the victim-anger that typically brings on escalation:

    “O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
    happy is he who repays you
    for what you have done to us-” (v8)

    Let’s not forget that Israel was betrayed by it’s neighbor (a HUGE slap in the face/pride). They still manage to trust in God’s justice, so why can’t we?


  7. James,

    Thanks for the very honest story. I think you touch on a really important aspect of nonviolence – the need for us to confront our own violent ways. Walter Wink says in “Jesus And Nonviolence”:

    “Jesus’ Third Way (i.e. nonviolence – ed.) requires us to root out the violence within our own souls. To resist something, we must meet it with counterforce.”


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