Is There a Christian Attitude toward War?
- Tuesday, August 15, 2006
As human beings, we perhaps identify with one of these offices over another. One person feels more inclined to challenge authority, another to provide pastoral care, a third to administer power. Elements of all three roles characterize the ways in which the body of Messiah has historically and traditionally dealt with the difficult question of war. These traditional responses to war can be summarized under three main positions: pacifism, activism, and selectivism.
The pacifist position argues that killing is wrong in any context, including the context of war. War is seen by pacifists to be of human origin, permitted, but never commanded by God. What God commands is to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matt. 5:44). War is inconsistent with the "cheek turning" love of Christ that believers are meant to embody in the world (for more on the Pacifist viewpoint, see Norman L. Geisler, Christian Ethics, 221-225). Modern-day pacifists often point toward the position of the early church as an example of what our disposition towards war should look like. While the early church was largely pacifist, the reason for this extended beyond a moral objection towards war. Participation in the military often entailed that soldiers partake in certain idolatrous rites, and for this reason, many church father spoke out against participation in the military (see John Jefferson Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 209-210).
The pacifist position focuses on the role of priest. Pacifists are mainly concerned with administering care. It is up to God alone to use force; the believer should never take part in kingly affairs. This attitude can lead to a desire to separate from the corrupting affect of the world, as was the case with early Anabaptist communities. The danger is, of course, that by separating ourselves from our societies, we lose the opportunity to be salt and light; we lose our prophetic voice.
In opposition to the pacifist viewpoint, proponents of activist position believe that participation in and obedience to governmental structures is the believer's duty. Government is seen as instituted by God to enforce law and order in a world where evil is rampant. To advocates of this view, resistance to government and resistance to God go hand in hand (Geisler 218). In other words, to resist one is to resist the other. Accordingly, participation in war is mandatory and even godly, if demanded by government.
The activist position places its emphasis on the role of the king (and the believer's duty to stand behind the king), over and above priest and prophet. However, if we stand uncritically behind and within existing power structures, our ability to prophetically challenge the use of unlimited power and injustice is severely diminished.
As a voice between these two positions, the selectivist position argues that it is dangerous to make an absolute decision about the morality of war. Selectivism recognizes that wars can be both just and unjust. For selectivists, blind submission either to pacifist principles or to one's government can breed more chaos than justice. For example, most people would not argue that submission to the Nazi regime was entirely just, nor would they consider the violent opposition of the allied forces to Hitler's advances on Europe an evil response.
In this position, some wars must be fought, but not all. One the one hand, selectivists argue that the kingly vocation cannot go unchallenged. Daniel, for example, refused to submit to authority when it contradicted the higher authority of God (Geisler 226). On the other hand, we cannot stand by passively because we assume that war always contradicts the love of God. War is not always contrary to love; love sometimes demands active resistance. If love and justice were mutually exclusive, we could not believe that God is the true God of both (Geisler 231).
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