Probably not.

That might seem a bit glib and there are several things to consider in coming to a judgement about these things. For Christians that includes what the Bible has to say on the matter and then doing our best to apply those insights wisely. In my tradition that means taking account of the insights of other Christians and the world we live in.

I had been asked by my church to consider the above question given the current crisis in Syria but this is neither the first nor the last time that such a question has been asked. About eight of us met to think about this and discuss a couple of questions. Firstly, I pointed out that there is a fair bit of warfare in the Old Testament and we should recognise that.

Holy War

We took as our example Joshua and the fall of Jericho, in particular chapter 6 of the book of Joshua. The background is that God has promised his people a new land to settle in but first they have to get there, conquer and then settle in it. As well as defeating the people of Jericho, Joshua and co slaughter every single person there: men, women and children (with the notable exception of Rahab and her kin). This is total war and mandated by divine command. It is in the Old Testament that we have the teaching: “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”.

I believe that the Old Testament has much to teach us but the New Testament tells us that Jesus Christ is the end or destination of the Law (see Romans chapter 10 verse 4). We also have Jesus’ teaching and example which does not sanction holy war. There is speculation that one of the reasons that Judas fell out with Jesus was his refusal to take the path of armed resistance against the Roman occupiers of the Promised Land. Jesus’ teaching takes us beyond the idea of Holy War. I find it very difficult to see that God would sanction Holy War when his only Son demonstrated another path.

“An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth”

Jesus said “But I say to you… turn the other cheek”. This is recorded in Matthew’s gospel chapter 5 verses 38-39. He has inherited an Old Testament idea but now takes it further. You could say that the original idea was to limit people’s responses so that revenge is mitigated by justice. This is learnt in many a school playground. One child hits another (it does not matter whether this was deliberate or not) and the response of the other is to punch and kick back several times. It may be in order to make sure the first person does not do it again but an immature child may simply be letting their anger get the better of him or her. To “give as good as you get” is fairer advice than “beat them to submission”.

However, Jesus’ teaching is to not respond in kind but to “turn the other cheek”. In other words, to be the place, the person where the violence stops. This is not easy and there are some problems with this. For example, a bully might try to take advantage of this by hitting someone and then saying “You can’t hit me because you are supposed to turn the other cheek” and few of us are comfortable with letting a bully get away with it.

But there is more, when Jesus is arrested some of his disciples are ready to resist and use their weapons. However, Jesus tells them to put away their sword (Matthew chapter 26 verses 50 to 54). Jesus has a heavenly army at his disposal and yet he refuses to use it. You could say that he would rather die than use lethal force. Jesus’ example inspired the first Christians to the extent that they often chose martyrdom in preference to violence. After all, Jesus said “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew chapter 5 verse 9). Pacifism is the norm in the New Testament.

Just War

When the Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, it was after he had won a battle. He has seen a shining cross in the sky (I guess some kind of halo or cloudbow, rare but not unheard of) and was told “By this sign you shall conquer”. In the letter to the Romans (chapter 13 verse 1 to 5) it says that Christians are to obey the Emperor. There are implicit conditions: the authorities are expected to punish vice and reward virtue – i.e. not be corrupt. So it would appear that it is OK for Christians to join the armed forces and obey those in lawful authority over them. This put us in direct conflict with Jesus’ own teaching and example. Bit of a headache here.

Meanwhile, we have not even considered the most obvious verse regarding this topic: “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus chapter 20 verse 13 and reiterated in Romans chapter 13 verse 9). Our default position must surely be against killing anyone. What is one to do given that the perfect world, the Kingdom of God, has not yet been fully realised? We live in this world even if, in the end, we are not of this world but just passing through.

One solution is the concept of the just war. Given that there is war, what can we do to reduce its bad effects? First, we recognise that when we go to war it is at best the lesser of two evils. It is still wrong but it may seem to us that it is the better alternative. Not everyone would agree with that statement. Perhaps we can help restrain violence, even if we cannot eradicate it – but we risk compromising our principles. I personally would say that I am an almost pacifist – I do not have the courage of my conviction. Pacifism takes great courage and I admire conscientious objectors for that reason.

Over time some rules have emerged. I would not say that they make war right, but they help to reduce its harm and make it manageable. The just war criteria are:

  • the aim must be to restore peace and justice / to stop evil
  • there should be proper legal authority
  • lethal force should be the last resort – all other means must be exhausted
  • it should not be in self-defence
  • it should be proportionate to the evil to be remedied
  • it should discriminate between combatants and non-combatants
  • it should be expected to succeed

Each of the criteria needs unpacking but here I will just make a couple of observations. Legal authority usually means a resolution from the United Nations but if your country has just been invaded you do not have to wait for a vote. If you are invading someone else’s country you do. “All other means” can be problematic because of differing opinions of when the options have truly run out. Not “in self-defence” might seem strange but is in keeping with the “turn the other cheek” ethos. I would suggest that this principle rules out most, if not all, pre-emptive strikes. This principle may have contributed to the nuclear missiles staying in their silos during the Cold War. “Discriminate between combatants and non-combatants” is painfully difficult when dealing with terrorism for instance.

While the Just War approach has its weaknesses, not least its roots in dealing with Mediaeval warfare, it has its merits. Indeed, I was impressed that in the recent parliamentary debates, the concept of a just war was implicit if not explicit in the contributions that many MPs made.

Another consideration not included in the above is the environmental impact of war and the use of lethal force. To put it one way, what is the point of winning a war if you cannot live in the land any more?

What would you do?

To aid our group discussion I posed two questions. The first was based on this scenario: imagine that the Good Samaritan came across the traveller while he was still being robbed. What would the Good Samaritan do?

The second question was: What would Jesus do?

I thought the answer to each question was obvious but our group surprised me by coming up with several different responses.

What do you think?