Jesus and War

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“Put
your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die
by the sword.”
~ Jesus

With President
Bush’s veto of the recent spending bill, fighting in the Middle
East will continue indefinitely – wars not only waged by an
avowed Christian president but also backed by the evangelical Christian
Right. Rev. Jerry Falwell, in speaking of terrorists, epitomizes
the Bush Administration’s stance: “I’m for the president
to chase them all over the world. If it takes 10 years, blow them
away in the name of the Lord.” In this way, Christianity is
joined with the state and its war machine.

However, what
would Jesus think about this in light of his teachings against the
use of violence – war, of course, being organized, systematic
violence?

One can only
imagine that he would be horrified. After all, many who strive to
follow Jesus’ teachings find it impossible to do so and still
participate in war. Indeed, leaders in the early church adopted
Jesus’ attitude of nonviolence. Tertullian (born about AD 160),
one of the giants of the early church, stated very clearly that
confessing “Jesus as Lord” means taking the teachings
of Jesus seriously. Just as Caesar commanded men to kill their enemies,
Jesus commanded them to love their enemies. Caesar made use of chains
and torture, in much the same way as governments do today. Jesus,
on the other hand, taught Christians to forgive and to sacrifice
power for servanthood.

In fact, Tertullian
had pithy advice for soldiers who converted to Christianity: quit
the army or be martyred for refusing to fight. Tertullian was not
alone in his thinking. “For three centuries,” writes biblical
scholar Walter Wink in The
Powers That Be
(1998), “no Christian author to our
knowledge approved of Christian participation in battle.” This,
of course, changed in the third century when the church was institutionalized
and became an integral part of the warring Roman Empire.

Jesus’
apostles never advocated violence. Rather, they urged their followers
to suffer, forgive and trust God for the outcome rather than take
matters into their own hands. And while they may have talked about
warfare and fighting, it was not through the use of conventional
weapons. For example, the Apostle Paul wrote: “For though we
live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons
we fight with are not the weapons of the world.”

Christ’s
crucifixion was a radical repudiation of the use of violent force.
And the cross, which was the Roman tool of execution, was reserved
especially for leaders of rebellions. “Anyone proclaiming a
rival kingdom to the kingdom of Caesar would be a prime candidate
for crucifixion,” writes Brian McLaren in The
Secret Message of Jesus
(2006). “This is exactly what
Jesus proclaimed, and this is exactly what he offered.” But
Jesus’ kingdom was one of peace. Among other things, he proclaimed,
“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those
who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him
who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also.” Consequently,
Jesus ordered Peter not to use the sword, even to protect him.

The so-called
Roman peace (Pax Romana) was made possible by the cross. That is,
people so feared crucifixion that many opted not to challenge the
emperor rather than face the possibility of death on the cross.
Why then would early Christians choose the cross – an instrument
of torture, domination, fear, intimidation and death – as their
primary symbol? What could this possibly mean?

For early Christians,
“it apparently meant that the kingdom of God would triumph
not by inflicting violence but by enduring it,” notes McLaren,
“not by making others suffer but by willingly enduring suffering
for the sake of justice – not by coercing or humiliating others
but by enduring their humiliation with gentle dignity.” Jesus,
they believed, had taken the empire’s instrument of torture
and transformed it into God’s symbol of the repudiation of
violence. The message? Love, not violence, is the most powerful
force in the universe.

Not surprisingly,
the early Christians were not crusaders or warriors but martyrs
– men and women with the faith and courage to face the lions.
Like Jesus, they chose to suffer rather than inflict violence.

When Jesus
said “Blessed are the peacemakers,” exhorting his followers
to turn the other cheek and give freely, he was telling us that
active peacemaking is the way to end war. Can you imagine what the
world would be like if every church adopted that attitude and focused
its energies on active peacemaking?

The Rev. Martin
Luther King, Jr., who vocally opposed the Vietnam War, took to heart
Jesus’ teachings about peacemaking. In his acceptance speech
for the Nobel Peace Prize, King proclaimed:

Peace is
not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we
arrive at that goal. We will not build a peaceful world by following
a negative path. It is not enough to say “we must not wage
war.” It is necessary to love peace and sacrifice for it.
We must concentrate not merely on the negative expulsion of war
but the positive affirmation of peace.

This
is not to say that Jesus was a pacifist. The opposite is true. He
spoke truth to power and engaged in active resistance to injustice.
In my opinion, Jesus would have intervened to defend someone being
violently mistreated, and I believe we must do the same. But he
would never have engaged in violence as the means to an end.

One has to
wonder what Jesus would say about war being waged in his name today.
As Gary Wills writes in What
Jesus Meant
(2006), “If people want to do battle for
God, they cannot claim Jesus has called them to this task, since
he told Pilate that his ministers would not do that.” In fact,
as Wills notes, Jesus “never accepted violence as justified.”

May
10, 2007

Constitutional
attorney and author John W. Whitehead [send
him mail
] is founder and president of The
Rutherford Institute
.

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