Jesus and War


“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

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