Wineskins Archive

February 12, 2014

Just War: Quandary of Christian Conscience (Jan-Feb 2002)

Filed under: — @ 1:34 pm and

by Rubel Shelly
January – February, 2002

In a world coextensive with the kingdom (reign) of God, the violence of war would be unknown. There would be no criminals, terrorists, or rogue nations. The lion and lamb would lie down together, and peace would reign.

The world in which we live at present is not coextensive with the kingdom of God, however, and the bloodshed of war is all too common. There are criminals in our cities, terrorists within our own nation, and rogue nations whose rulers seem to care for nothing except their own supremacy. This is not the life of God’s kingdom, but sinful life in a fallen world.

In the latter circumstance, is it sometimes right for God’s kingdom people to take up arms to resist criminals, root out terrorists, or defeat the evil intentions of a nation whose government has abandoned its legitimate function?

Jesus calls his disciples to follow him in self-yielding service to others. Is it not possible that suffering servanthood would sometimes require fighting with deadly weapons to defend our families or nation? Should one who dies in that effort be viewed with disdain or honored for laying down his life for his friends?

The United States of America has deployed its military forces against Osama bin Laden, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, terrorist organizations such as al-Qa’ida, and the nations or individuals that harbor them. I want to explain why I believe these operations are morally justified and should be pressed to a successful conclusion.

In order to make my case, I shall proceed from back to front – with whatever risk that may involve. I begin with Paul’s discussion of the role of government, show that it is a consistent development of the ethic of Jesus, and claim finally that Jesus’ teaching and personal behavior are set within a uniform view of retributive justice in Scripture.

Pauline Instruction

Paul wrote by Spirit-guidance and made a clear distinction between personal prerogatives and the rights of legitimate governments. The code of personal Christian behavior outlined in Romans 12:9-21 is founded on love for others and requires the pursuit of peace with all. “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord'” (v.19). Rather than personal anger and vindictiveness, the apostle counsels feeding enemies and overcoming evil with good.

Lest we think that God’s wrath will be visited against evildoers only at the Final Judgment, Paul’s next paragraph turns to an ethic of Christian citizenship under earthly governments. He insists that government is ordained by God to encourage upright behavior and to punish evil. Specifically to the point of police, military, and other agencies employing force, he wrote: “It is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom.13:4).

The private (i.e., vigilante) dispensing of justice forbidden at Romans 12:19 is explicitly assigned to government in Romans 13:4. Private citizens, churches, and civic clubs do not have the duty to keep order on the streets of London, New York, or Nashville. But both the Sunday School teacher and police officer are functioning as “God’s servants” when performing their very different duties. What is true of a city’s police officers is equally certain for Michigan’s National Guard or the United States Air Force.

Teachings of Jesus

Jesus both taught and modeled this very same distinction between personal and governmental response to evil. In his Sermon on the Mount, for example, he taught a kingdom ethic of personal behavior that requires non-resistance of an evildoer and demands that someone struck on the right cheek turn the other to his enemy (Matt.5:38-39). To interpret this counsel as demanding that Christians consent by passive non-resistance to crime, terrorism, and international aggression misses his point.

Jesus’ words here are consistent with Paul’s teaching on retaliation against evil in Romans 12-13. In his exposition of Torah, Jesus reminded his hearers that Moses prohibited personal vengeance and taught love for one’s neighbor (cf. Lev.19:18). It was only the full community acting through its ordained agents that could legitimately enforce the lex talionis.

The slap on the face of Matthew 5:38-39 is the blow of insult, not injury. Christians must be willing to suffer such abuses and insults as may come in meekness. Those same believers have the right to be defended against evil. Jesus never told his followers not to check the hand of a murderer, rapist, or thief. To say otherwise is to say Jesus violated his own teaching when he protested an unjust blow inflicted on him in the presence of Judaism’s high priest at John 18:22-23.

Larger Context of Scripture

The ethical teachings of Scripture are continuous and holistic. This is to say that the Ten Commandments and the sanctioned moral behaviors predicated on them reflect the unchanging holiness of God. The sixth commandment (i.e., You shall not murder, Ex.20:13) did not prohibit the execution of a murderer; to the contrary, the death penalty was ordered for murderers (Ex.21:12-14).

The Israelites marched, camped, and fought as an army—though the nation was not constituted for nationalistic or military purposes. Moses and Joshua led the Israelite army against Amalek, for example, and Yahweh gave them victory and commanded that the event be recorded for a memorial (Ex.17:8-16).

Long before the Ten Commandments were given on Mount Sinai, Yahweh had given this instruction as to how he would “require a reckoning for human life” to Noah: “Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person’s blood be shed; for in his own image God made humankind” (Gen.9:6).

The God of the Bible does not live in moral contradiction with himself. He does not authorize and command things that are inconsistent with his holiness.

Reason vs. Force

Reason, sanctions, and joint declarations have not and will not work with the likes of Adolf Hitler and Idi Amin, Pol Pot and Osama bin Laden. The blade of a righteous sword must be used against such aggressors to punish them for evil deeds already committed and to protect future victims from their wicked designs.

No, war is not desirable. The people of God do not glory in wars. But there are spiritual light years between initiating an aggressive conflict and having a war thrust upon us by a wicked aggressor. Yes, Christians should always work for situations wherein we can live at peace with all people. But some are not lovers of peace and will refuse goodwill extended toward them.

One of the encouraging ironies of the present world coalition working to put an end to terrorism is that countries such as Germany and Japan are our partners in this just cause. This fact alone proves that America has made war in the past against Nazis in Germany and militarists in control of Japan’s government without the necessity of maintaining a permanently hostile posture against those nations. Even as we have pursued terrorist organizations and leaders in Afghanistan, we have agonized over humanitarian relief for the displaced and suffering civilians of that country. We can only hope that decades to come will see a friendly bond created between the United States and the Afghani people.


Force of arms can never be the last word on peace. At best, military power serves to clear the way for such constructive forces as mutual respect, love for one’s neighbor, and cooperation toward noble goals to do their healing work. But when face to face with people of whatever nation, race, or religion who have chosen to pursue egregious evil, you can neither conquer nor win them by kind deeds and a winsome smile. To quote Dr. Frederick Brown Harris, who was chaplain of the United States Senate for more than a quarter century: “No gentle charms can stay the fangs of the cobra when it is ready to strike. To allow callous deviltry—whenever it is powerful enough—to trample righteousness into the mire at will, while the forces of good stand impotently by, is a tragic travesty of justice and judgment.”

Operation Enduring Freedom is not an assault against Islam. It is not a war against Arabs. It is not an exercise in which America is trying to destroy a sovereign nation. It is not aggression against peaceful and innocent people.

What is happening now is both a response to and an attempt to thwart future instances of terrorism of the sort we have suffered already. If there is ever a situation in which military force is morally justified, this is surely one of them.

(See also Lee Camp’s Response and his article Pacificsm: the Case for Christian Non-Violence)New Wineskins

Rubel Shelly

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