I’m going to begin a series on the relationship between Christians and violence, which, as you might already know, can be a pretty heated discussion. Here’s a few questions related to the topic:
Should Christians participate in national war?
Should Christians ever think positively about the use of violence to accomplish justice?
Should Christians support a national war?
Can a Christian use violence on an individual level?
We’ll wrestle with these questions over the next few posts. But first, a brief summary of my journey.
I grew up, like most Evangelicals, loving war and violence. I played with toy tanks and soldiers, loved watching old war films, and rooted with all my might when America fought against the Iraqis in Desert Storm (1991). My favorite movies growing up were Rocky III, Top Gun, and Gladiator. Throughout high-school and college, I hunted, fished, chewed tobacco, and voted Republican no matter the candidate. I had an NRA sticker, even though I never paid my membership dues. I pretty much was the dude on the cover of Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” album. The idea that someone could be a Christian and be a pacifist was weird and confusing. Could someone actually read the Bible and still be a pacifist? They must be biblically illiterate or anti-American, is what I thought.
When I got saved at 19, none of this changed. (Gladiator came out when I was 24 and I was first in line!) It wasn’t until I taught a class on Ethics at Cedarville University (Ohio) in Spring of 2008 that I began to wrestle with the issues, and for the first time I was forced to consider what the Bible actually said about violence. I was quickly shocked at how many passages in the New Testament discuss violence and how few of them (if any) support the use of violence by a Christian (the Old Testament is a different story). My worldview was sent into a tailspin as I searched long and hard to find New Testament support for the so-called “Just War” position (we’ll discuss this anon). I didn’t find any.
And so by Fall of 2009, I became—and in many ways still am—a pacifist. In short: I don’t believe that the Bible endorses the use of violence by the church or by individual Christians, except in extraordinary circumstances. Violence, along with lying and intoxication, is not the normal behavior that befits the church.
Let me go a bit further and stick my neck out: I think that of all issues, the relationship between Christians and violence/warfare is largely cluttered by a worldview that’s shaped by our American culture more than the Bible. I really think, and will seek to show, that pacifism has by far much more biblical support than any other view on violence held by Christians, and it’s ironic and sad that so few Bible-believing Evangelical Christians are pacifists. It’s even more depressing that many Evangelicals think—as I used to think—that pacifists are weird, limp-wristed, or non-biblical. The apparent “weirdness” of the pacifistic position only reveals how culturally conditioned we are.
Fighten words, I know (pun intended). But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so I hope that I will be able to defend pacifism biblically over the next few posts. In order to get the ball rolling, let me lay out four different Christian positions on violence and warfare. (I’m using the two terms “violence” and “warfare” somewhat interchangeably for now).
View 1: Pacifism (non-resistance). This view says that Christians should not kill people, but they can join the military (or police force, etc.) as long as they serve as non-combatants (psychologist, medical doctor, etc.)
View 2: Pacifism (total non-participation). Christians should not join the military or any other institution that endorses and participates in violence.
View 3: Just War. Christians can participate in a war that is waged on a “just” basis. The seven-fold criteria for a “just” war include: (1) Just cause, (2) Just intention, (3) Last resort, (4) Formal declaration, (5) Limited objectives, (6) Proportionate means, (7) Noncombatant immunity.
View 4: Self-defense and Justice. This view focuses on the individual’s encounter with evil, as opposed to his/her participation in national warfare. The view says that a Christian may use violence when defending oneself against evil (i.e. being attacked in a dark alley, etc.) or to achieve justice for someone being oppressed (e.g., executing Hitler).
By the way, I sort of made the forth view up. I’ve never seen it called this, but many people describe their view in such a way that I thought it deserves a place at the table.
In the following posts, I will defend view 1 while allowing for view 4 in some extreme cases and with qualification. For now, I’d love to hear your thoughts, questions, or pushbacks.