Archives For Just War

Kill Them All

Preston Sprinkle —  September 13, 2012 — 4 Comments

The Old Testament is filled with various ethical dilemmas, but perhaps the most complex one is Joshua’s conquest of Canaan. God’s command to kill all the Canaanites—men, women, and children—has led Richard Dawkins, an atheistic philosopher, to state

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully (The God Delusion, p. 31)

You may not know what half of those words mean. But trust me, they’re bad. If Dawkins’s view of our Old Testament God contains even an ounce of truth, then we’ve got a real problem on our hands. Is the God of the Old Testament really a bloodthirsty, vindictive bully?

On the flipside, the conquest has given others biblical precedent to wage modern war. Two weeks into the Iraq war (2003), former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld encouraged president Bush with these words:

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.

Rumsfeld’s words are a quotation from Joshua 1:9, which God spoke to Joshua on the eve of the conquest of Canaan. They are a divine command to wage a “holy war” on the pagan Canaanites. And Rumsfeld saw fit to appropriate the same logic for America’s own (holy?) war against Iraq. The implications are clear: America is a holy nation and the terrorists in Iraq, like the Canaanites, need to be annihilated.

Rumsfeld wasn’t the only national leader to use Joshua’s conquest to give religious backing to war. Christian history is filled with examples of nations fighting other nations, or people seeking to annihilate other people, all under the banner of holy war. (The Crusades of the Middle Ages are one horrific example.) I’m not sure it could be done, but it would be interesting to see how many people have been killed, tortured, and in some cases cannibalized, all because certain Christians sought to apply the book of Joshua to their lives.

Needless to say, there still exists an ethical urgency to understand Joshua’s conquest and how—if at all—it applies to us today. Does God’s command to kill the Canaanites justify a Christian’s use of violence?

Over the next few posts, I’m going to look into the ethical issues surrounding the conquest, including the slaughter of women and children, and whether or not the conquest can be used by Christians to justify violence (or war). For the rest of this post, I’ll lay out a few ways Christians have understood the conquest.

Some think that Joshua (and Moses before him) misunderstood God’s command to kill all the Canaanites. God actually didn’t really mean that they should kill the Canaanites. The Israelites simply acted “in good faith acted on what they believed to be God’s will” (Cowles, “Radical Discontinuity,” Show Them No Mercy, Kindle loc 620). While this approach distances God from the apparent evil action (commanding the genocide), nowhere in the Bible does it say that the Israelites misunderstood God. In fact, the Israelites are rebuked for not driving out all the Canaanites from the land (Judges 2). If God never actually commanded Israel to get rid of all the Canaanites, then such a rebuke would be nonsensical. There’s got to be a better solution for Joshua’s conquest.

Other Christians say that the Bible grossly distorts what actually happened. Even though Deuteronomy and Joshua speak of entering and conquering the land, this isn’t what took place at all. What really happened—despite the biblical picture—is that the Israelites were already living among the Canaanites and yet there was a “peasant revolt” within the land. The oppressed Israelites rose up and overthrew their oppressors—the Canaanites—and then described their uprising as a “conquest” in their sacred Scriptures (the book of Joshua). This view not only dismisses the Bible’s own presentation of what happened, but relies on rather scanty historical evidence for support.

Still others—yes, even Christians—will assume that the God of the Old Testament is quite different than the God of the New. The God of the Old is filled with wrath, judgment, and violence, and it fits right in with His character to command an indiscriminate slaughter of all the Canaanites. But the God of the New, revealed in Jesus Christ, shows us how to love, forgive, and live peaceably with all mankind. So when it comes to the Canaanite genocide, there’s no problem. The God of the Old is a God of genocide. Let’s just be thankful that we serve the God of the New.

I don’t think any of these views does justice to what the Bible actually says. Regardless of the apparent moral dilemma, it seems best to deal with the text head on and then figure out how God could command such things. God doesn’t need us to make excuses for Him. So let’s approach the problem with a plain reading of Scripture and then move towards a solution of the ethical problems therein.

Stay tuned!

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.