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Is There a Christian Attitude toward War?

  • Salim Munayer, Ph.D ASSIST News Service
  • Published Aug 15, 2006
Is There a Christian Attitude toward War?

The current conflict between the Israeli military and the Hizbollah has been escalating in the past weeks, seen not only in the growing number of casualties, but in the displacement of many Israelis and Lebanese and in the destruction of infrastructure.

While the writing of this article has been primarily prompted by the present war in the North, it is important to take into account the ongoing conflict in Gaza that has been overshadowed and nearly forgotten in the past month. Many believers on both sides of the conflict have had to abandon their homes, cancel organized programs, and live in fear for the lives of their families. The impact of war and the depth of human misery are becoming all too clear the longer these conflicts are perpetuated.

As past and present history has evidenced, we are struck by the fact that humanity seems more ready to go to war than to work towards peace. This is not an observation we can gloss over, but one we must take responsibility for. The reality of war is not externally imposed on this world, but is the creation and work of human beings. War is a man-made phenomenon; it has been so from the beginning of the human narrative, and it is so with our present conflict.

Facing the magnitude of conflict, however, human beings feel the need to seek out grand interpretations of reality in order to create a sense of order in the midst of chaos. Sometimes the sought-out explanations remove the guilt of war from human hands. Such explanations can range from militaristic to apocalyptic interpretations. The apocalyptic worldview in particular is appealing to many believers.

My eldest son, for example, recently returned from a summer camp in which he encountered a number of American Christians who were advocating a particular interpretation of the book of Revelation. Their apocalyptic worldview allowed them to speculate about the identity of the "beast" or of the "horn" and so on. I attempted to explain to my son that these issues are far more complex. To this my son responded, "Dad, you need to read the book of Revelation" - a book I study and teach annually. There is no doubt that the current emotionally-charged situation makes a black and white worldview very appealing for the sake of its simplicity. When adopting this framework of interpretation, we only have to worry about being on the side of "good" rather than that of "evil." The complex "grey" reality consequently slips between the cracks.

To some degree, the human propensity to shy away from grey situations is understandable. The hard, ambiguous questions are frightening to us because they are not always followed by satisfying answers. Furthermore, in a society where believers represent the minority, we are less likely to challenge the status quo. We fear that by raising the tough questions we will be perceived as betrayers to our national community. Both these reasons make it easier to ignore complexity rather than face it, for facing it may mean taking a difficult ethical stance. Conflicts are not simplistic, and if we are to engage them responsibly as the body of Messiah, we will have to face many difficult questions, despite our fears.

The present conflict is not only concerned with land, state, or ideology. Religion plays a significant role. Some have even come to perceive this conflict in terms of a clash between civilizations: between the Christian West and the Muslim East. Religion functions as the lens through which people of the Middle East interpret their lives and their environment, and as such must be taken very seriously. The role of faith is of course fundamental in the lives of local believers. What interpretive frameworks inform the worldviews of the body of Messiah? How does our environment impact our religious convictions and vice versa? In this article I would like to examine a number of the working frameworks, both biblical and historical, that are influential in the lives of local believing communities.

Our respective frameworks provide us with the tools by which we answer such questions as: "What is a Christian attitude towards war?" We may also wonder if our ethic as believers differs from the cultural response to war that surrounds us. A common response to the question of an ethic towards war asserts that "in war as in war," implying that the reality of war necessitates a change in our moral understanding and behavior. In other words, the ends justify the means.

An obvious excessive adaptation of this line of thinking is taken by extremist Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who repeatedly calls for the destruction of the nation of Israel. Here is an example of a worldview that demands the destruction of a perceived evil for the sake of the greater good. Israel, for its part, has called a war on the Hizbollah, perceiving its destruction as a moral end that requires certain means. Where do believers stand on these issues?

A Christian response, unfortunately, can take a similar tack. On August 5, 2006, an associate of the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem, Earl Cox, was interviewed by prominent Israeli TV anchor, Yaakov Achimeir. When asked by Achimeir in what way a Christian morality helps us learn how to avoid killing the innocent during war, Cox turned to the Book of Joshua for an answer. Cox says, "There was Caleb and there was Joshua, and the Lord said, 'you go in and you destroy men, women, children, whatever ─ you destroy them to let my people in.'" For Cox the answer seems clear; he thus concludes, "so I believe from a spiritual stand… there is a time [for] love, and there is a time to wipe out evil. And I believe evil is what you are facing here, in Israel at the moment." When anchor Achimeir responded with dismay at this response, Cox qualified his answer by saying: "I'm simply saying: go after the radical Moslems."

An appeal to the book of Joshua as a source for justification of extreme and violent measures is nothing new. However, this appeal, which uncritically applies a biblical narrative to our current situation, ignores the specificity of the biblical event and runs the risk of misusing the book of Joshua. The wars of the book of Joshua were not mandated as eternal rules of engagement. The decree was to take place in context, as a command for a one-time event, under the direct theocratic rule of God. The particularity of our context makes it difficult and extremely dangerous to abstractly apply the principles of Joshua to the present conflict. In addition, we must acknowledge the role of human sin as a prerequisite of war. Most wars are not ordained by God. Human beings must take responsibility for the conflict they cause rather than justify it by pronouncing it a divine command. Finally, the book of Joshua must be read in light of the Old and New Testaments. If isolated from the rest of the biblical message, it can be severely abused, to the detriment and degradation of human life.

What then is the calling of the body of Messiah during times of war?

Prior to surveying the three traditional Christian responses to war, it is beneficial to understand what God's people are called to be according to the Bible. The Tanach discusses three different vocational offices: that of the king, the priest, and the Prophet.
The king is the bearer of the sword of justice, God's representative who maintains order and law by the use of power and authority (see I Samuel 8:11-18). Paul too notes the role of the king as a punishing and law-enforcing agent. He says that the governing authority "does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil" (Rom. 13:4 NASB).

The priest is expected to teach the will of God, to attend to the daily needs of his people, and most importantly to mediate between the people and God. The priestly vocation, in other words, is one of pastoral care.

The prophet, by contrast, resides in the king's court and works to preserve the boundary to the authority of both king and priest. The prophet Nathan, for example, confronted David about his transgressions and called him to repent. The prophet is expected to keep a check on the corrupting impact of unlimited power on those in authority, and to speak out when the king acts unjustly.

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).

The difficulty with a selectivist position is that it denies us the possibility of finding an easy answer. (Also that we make judgments on what is just and what is unjust but our human judgment are not always the right assessment.) But as believers, we must be discerning. At times we may be called to stand behind the king. However, our prophetic calling demands that we do so with open eyes, and remain critical of the abuse of power. Our priestly role demands that in addition, we pay attention to the spiritual and physical needs of people, and do what we can to relieve suffering.

War is obviously a difficult and confusing reality to face. Some have turned to the Just War theory (which is selectivist in essence) as a guide for believers' facing the prospect of war. It is worth commenting on the main points of this theory, expounded on by St. Augustine in the fourth century CE. First, war is justified when it serves to protect innocent civilians from an invader. Second, the implementation of justice sometimes demands that we engage in war. Third, individuals do not have the right to carry out a war; this is the job of legitimate governments. The fourth criterion is perhaps of most importance to us. War must be carried out in the most just way, and not only with just cause. The ends do not justify all means. As we have already noted, even during war we are called to be prophetic and priestly. Accordingly, the maxim "in war as in war" does not stand (for more on the Just War criteria, see Geisler 233-234).

One of the challenges facing the work of reconciliation is the different viewpoints Israeli and Palestinian believers have towards war. The Palestinian Christian community has been heavily influenced by the Anabaptist-pacifist approach. This has partly to do with the fact that Middle Eastern Christians have historically existed as a minority, and as such have not been heavily involved in imperial wars. Under Ottoman rule, for example, Christians often avoided being drafted into the military. Palestinian believers have faced difficulty from their own community due to their pacifistic tendencies. Moslem Arabs consider this passive stance to be a betrayal to the Arab people.

The early Messianic movement displayed similar minority-pacifist tendencies. However, recent decades have witnessed a change in this regard. Especially since the 1980s, the Israeli authorities have been more accepting of Messianic believers, allowing their participation in a wider variety of offices including service in elite military units. In addition to these favorable circumstances, the Messianic body has been more influence by North American Evangelicalism, which generally does not hold to pacifist principles. As a result of both influences, Israeli believers tend to have a more positive outlook towards involvement in the military. The difficulty with this position is that Israeli believers face numerous moral dilemmas during their military service. Some of the demands made by the military may come in direct contradiction with the soldier's faith.

The differing Palestinian and Israeli approaches to war have been a source of tension. Palestinian Christians find it hard to understand why Israeli believers are so willing to serve in the military, and are even proud to do so. Israeli believers, for their part, do not feel that it would be right to separate themselves from military duty, which is mandatory for all citizens. It is obviously very difficult to carry out the work of reconciliation in light of these differences of approach, which are all the more heightened during our present state of war. Our natural tendency is, of course, to stand with our people since we understand them, hurt with them, and live in their midst.
However, since we are engulfed in our own communities, and hear the news as it is broadcasted from our particular viewpoint, we find it increasingly difficult to relate to those on the other side.

Accordingly, our perception of the war is simplified into an “us versus the enemy” paradigm, and we begin to dehumanize the person living on the other side. We avoid the gray by convincing ourselves that we know exactly who our enemy is and what we must do to him/her. We fall into a fatalistic worldview that assumes that power solves all things. As a result, reconciliation with the other side seems like an impossible endeavor. War easily produces negative feelings and ideas in us because it is divisive and forces us to take sides. We must be aware of this and be careful of finding easy and false answers to the problem of conflict.

During our recent summer camp (July 2006), the Israeli and Palestinian counselors were challenged with some of these issues. One Israeli counselor, Avi, was set to be drafted into the Army right after the camp, a reality which proved difficult for some of the Palestinian counselors. Camp coordinator Shadia Qubti notes that the tension between Israelis and Palestinians arises out of a conflicting perception of what it means to be a soldier. On the one hand, "Palestinians view soldiers with fear, and perceive them as aggressors." However, on the other hand, for Israelis "a soldier is someone who could be their brother, sister, or parent; someone they love and admire."

The encounter between these two groups was nonetheless hopeful. Out of love for Avi, the counselors collectively gathered to pray for his military service; many of the prayers were said in Arabic, by Palestinian counselors. For them, the Israeli soldier now had a name, a face, and character. This makes it far more difficult to dehumanize him and view him as an aggressor. In like manner, when Avi faces difficult decisions during his military service, he will have the faces of his fellow Palestinian counselors in his mind and heart to remind of the importance of being discerning.

Is the war we are currently in existential? Is it just? Are there political interests involved that we do not know about? How should this war be carried out? What is a proportionate and just response to acts of aggression? These are some of the questions that must be raised if we are to use our prophetic and priestly voices. Upon raising these questions, how should we, as believers, be responding to this war? By way of conclusion, I would like to outline a number of suggestions that I believe are necessary for us to consider during this difficult time:

1. Question what it means to be priestly and prophetic during times of war. This means that we must honestly seek the will of God and be discerning. We must call upon God to intervene, and pray for those in authority that they might act justly and with mercy.

2. Question what you hear and what you think you know. History teaches us that the king has the ability of manipulating the people and convincing them that they are truly engaged in a “just war.” The priest’s knowledge of Scripture provides us with the framework by which we can be more discerning in this regard; the prophet speaks out accordingly.

3. Be critical of how power is being used. It is not easy to speak out against the excessive use of the sword, and only few have the courage to do so. But it is our prophetic calling to identify if there is a way to relieve the pain of the innocent. We may feel that a war is justified, but we must still pay close attention to the means that are used to achieve the desired ends.

4. Attend to the immediate needs of people: whether they are spiritual, medical, psychological, or any other that might arise during this war.

5. Reach out to the other side. There is no better time to reach out than during the time of war. If we do so, we will be taking an enormous stride towards building a bridge of reconciliation and showing the love of God. For God’s love transcends these boundaries that we, as fallen human beings, have set up.

This article has made certain observations in attempt to discern how God's people should act, as we are called to be peacemakers amidst the fog of war.

*Special thanks to Nomi Pritz for her assistance in writing this article.


Davis, John Jefferson. Evangelical Ethics: Issues Facing the Church Today, second
ed. New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 1993.

Geisler, Norman L. Christian Ethics: Options and Issues. Leicester:
Apollos, 1990.

Interview between Yaakov Achimeir and Earl Cox. “Roim Olam,” Reshut Hashidur.
(August 5, 2005). Taken from interview transcript.

S alim Munayer is Executive Director of Muslaha Ministries which seeks to bring reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians through camp and retreats.

© 2006 ASSIST News Service, used with permission