War and The Christian Faith

Jan 20, 1991

War. W-A-R. A simple, tiny word. Easily spelt, but what a word.

Shakespeare says in Henry 5, ‘O war, thou son of hell.’

War represents a tragic waste. It is a waste of life which could have been otherwise productive. It is a waste of resources which could have been otherwise used.

It was Dwight Eisenhower who said,

‘Our spending on weapons is nothing other than robbing the poor of resources they should have.’

Everyone agrees that war is terrible, and yet it happens. Even back in the First World War, 7000 men were killed per day over the 1600 days it lasted. 9,000,000 children were made orphans. 5,000,000 women were made widows.

That was the unsophisticated days of warfare fought nearly 80 years ago. Who knows how many will suffer because of the current one[1].

We all know war is awful. Few people would identify with George C. Scott as General Patton in the movie Patton where looking out over a battlefield in the wake of an intense bombardment, he turned to his aide saying ruefully,

‘God help me, I love it.’

Why then do wars continue?

The book of James in the New Testament gives us an answer. In chapter 4 verses one and two it says,

‘What causes wars, and what causes fighting among you? Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war.’

In the last 3000 years there have been 3300 recorded wars, and every one of them has been based upon one of more of the passions the Bible speaks about which produce war.

Historians tell us that the passions which produce war are five in number:

  1. A passion for pageantry,
  2. A passion for possession,
  3. A passion for protection,
  4. A passion for profit,
  5. A passion for patriotism.

We certainly see at least four of those passions causing the current conflict in the Gulf.

Yet the question we as Christians need to ask ourselves is what is the Christian response to war? Is pacifism and non-resistance the only response? Should we all be out marching, or lining up behind a pacifist political party?

Before going any further, I remind you of what you already know – that I have no monopoly on wisdom regarding this issue. You will have different opinions to mine, and they are more likely to be more right than any insight I have, yet I will still share with you the mind of God and the wisdom of Scripture as I see it at present on this issue.

I was once a pacifist. I believed the only way to apply the teaching of Jesus in conflict was to offer no resistance. I could not envisage Jesus sinking a bayonet into someone or dropping a bomb on them. The issue seemed sown up. I suppose I still believe in a personal pacifism if I were attacked as an individual, though I would ask that none of you put me to the test.

Yet my mind changed on pacifism as a response to international crimes as I thought and read more deeply about it.

I found that Scripture has a picture of justice that is more than just an individualistic ethic. I found Scriptural teaching that I am my brother and sister’s keeper. I found Scripture that obliged me to render to Caesar what was Caesar’s, given its primary obligation was to protect people against evil.

Romans 12 says the state has the authority as God’s servant to be an agent of wrath and to bring punishment on the wrongdoer and in 13:4, ‘the state does not bear the sword for nothing.’

I also found that God has a passion for the protection of the weak. The widow, the immigrant, the stranger, the parentless, the poor exploited by the primary producers, cheated through false measures. All of there are included in the concept of justice the Bible teachers. Not to defend the weak was to fail them, and God.

Not to see that people received the rights they deserved was to invite God’s judgment. The protection of the weak was so strong in the Scriptures both in the Old and New Testament that I came to believe that there are cases where it may be necessary to take up arms. Not to do so would be to fail the hungry, thirsty, lonely, naked, sick and imprisoned as Jesus spoke about in Matthew 25.

I am wondering too if Jesus had turned up while the robbers were still attacking the man on the Jericho road in the Parable of the Good Samaritan whether he would have just passed on the other side, or just watched. I doubt it.

As a result of these Scriptural teachings I have concluded that sometimes to take up arms will be the lesser of two evils. The worst evil would be to allow evil to go unchecked.

So I would have no right to be a pacifist if my attitude then led to my country losing its democratic freedom, or if it meant my family would be tortured or ravaged, or if it meant the loss of freedom of assembly and association. It would be a greater evil to allow injustice to enthrone itself, than to resist it.

As Leslie Weatherhead once wrote, ‘We cannot follow the ethic which bids us to turn the other cheek when the cheek we offer to the smiter would not be our own but that of the next generation and that of our women, children and old folk.’

That is why I am no longer a pacifist. An individualistic ethic is inadequate for deciding what to do about international banditry. But you say back to me, ‘Are you not compromising the Christian love ethic by putting love for family and country ahead of any love for your enemies?’

It is certainly a compromise, yet it reminds me of the wise words of theologian Reinhold Neibuhr in his book Christianity & Power Politics, ‘The fact is that we might as well dispense with the Christian faith entirely if it is our conviction that we can act in history only if we are guiltless.’

In other words, we would do nothing in the world if we waited until our actions and motives were perfect and free from any compromise.

It is then our job to have another kind of passion, a passion for peace. Peace without justice is not peace but appeasement. The only true peace is that which comes out of justice where people receive the rights they deserve.

As Blaise Pascal wrote, ‘Justice without force is without power. Force without justice is tyranny. We must therefore put together justice and force so that whatever is just is mighty and whatever is mighty is just.’

What can we do to promote peace that is just? We can pray, and pray and pray that God will bring about peace based upon justice. And we can offer courage and encouragement to people around us. We can offer the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

By George Robert Iles.

[1] The Gulf War