Does the cross mean a nation shouldn’t go to war?

I am not a pacifist. Even in the depths of my Candler-inspired apostasy from orthodox Christianity many years ago, I never completely made the leap that thinkers like Stanley Hauerwas wanted me to make: to extend Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount against personal vengeance (“turn the other cheek”) to a complete rejection of violence in the cause of justice in the world.

Even when I was reading Hauerwas in Christian ethics class (taught by a professor who himself wasn’t a pacifist, but a proponent of “just war” theory), I thought Hauerwas’s was a cheap kind of pacifism. After all, Durham, North Carolina, isn’t exactly Rwanda!

No… Even then I thought that Hauerwas’s pacifism freeloads off a police force and a military that he doesn’t support except, presumably, through his taxes—which, by the way, are ultimately paid at gunpoint. Not that you’ll hear me complain. I’m merely pointing out that the rule of law and our systems of government and justice—far from perfect though they are—are made possible in part by the use of coercive, sometimes lethal, force. From Hauerwas’s perspective, this kind of force is never Christianly permissible because God, he says, is perfect non-coercive love.

Good thing so many heathens in our country disagree with him!

Even many years ago, I saw this inconsistency. Today, I have the Bible.

Which is why I can’t go along with Christian blogger Zack Hunt when he argues that the cross of Christ means that we as a nation shouldn’t use force to stop ISIS terrorists from continuing to do what they did last weekend—beheading 21 Egyptian Christians because they were Christians—and have done with too little resistance across Iraq and Syria: murder indigenous Christian and other minority religious populations.

Hunt writes:

No matter how righteous our cause may be, as Christians the cross remains in front of us a stumbling block on the path to vengeance. Which, I think, is why so many of us in the Church are so willing to go out of our way to justify our dismissal of the cross as a way of life. Killing our enemies is just easier. It’s quicker and more satisfying than finding a non-violent solution. And it doesn’t require the struggle that comes along with loving and forgiving people that want us dead.

Why is military intervention necessarily a “path to vengeance” rather than a path to justice and, yes, love? Is it not loving to intervene, even with violence, to prevent violent men from murdering unarmed civilians when we have the power to do so? If we would support a similar police action within the borders of our state or municipality, by what logic would we oppose it outside of our borders? Because we don’t love non-Americans as much? That hardly seems Christian, either.

If you want to argue that intervening militarily is wrong because it would only lead to more violence and bloodshed, that’s fine… But it’s also a pragmatic and utilitarian consideration. No one ought to support Christian pacifism because it works! We’re talking principles here: we don’t resort to violence because, Christian pacifists say, the cross of Christ proves it’s wrong, not because it doesn’t work.

That’s what Hauerwas would say, and I’m sure Hunt would agree. Except, surely he’s being inconsistent when he says this: “Killing our enemies is just easier. It’s quicker and more satisfying than finding a non-violent solution.”

So there is a non-violent solution, he says, it’s just a matter of working harder to find one? We resort to violence out of laziness—because it’s “easier”? In other words, he says we should be pacifists because pacifism works. “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” In meantime, how many people will die?

Besides, who is he to say that “killing our enemies” is easier? Our troops put their lives on the line—indeed, sacrifice their lives—in order to save the lives of the weak and innocent. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Hunt speaks of vengeance, but why would that necessarily be our motivation to intervene militarily? I would be happy for our troops to swoop in and arrest all the terrorists without firing a single shot so long as it stopped their campaign of murder. But I’m pretty sure that ISIS wouldn’t “come out with their hands up.”

Hunt writes: “Paul, of course, famously echoed Jesus’ call to the cruciform life, declaring in Philippians 2 that as his followers, our lives should be like that of Christ who emptied himself, took on the form of a slave, humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”

This same Paul wrote, in Romans 13, that God’s duly appointed ruler “does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.

The point is, both Jesus and Paul speak against personal vengeance, not against a nation’s justifiable use of violent force. Indeed, as Paul says, such violence accomplishes God’s will.

As for God’s use of violence, see, for instance, this post. God’s love often is coercive, as it will be, especially, in final judgment.

52 thoughts on “Does the cross mean a nation shouldn’t go to war?”

  1. Very timely. As the saying goes, “it’s complicated”.

    Wars of conquest are hard to justify, whereas wars of liberation are much easier. Wars between two “civilized countries” is a lazy alternative to diplomacy and submission to global negotiation. The cost of war is so dear that it must not be entered into until all alternatives, including patience, have been exhausted. Wars by willing coalitions of freedom loving peoples against tyranny, slaughter and injustice are “more righteous” than wars of aggression or revenge.

    However, I’m not sure an action against something like ISIS should even be called a war. If ever there was a time for the free world to band together in a “police action” to exterminate rattlesnakes, it is now. There is NO justification for standing by and watching this kind of slaughter and inhumanity. If the United States has to go it alone, so be it. But, shame on the rest of the world if we do!

    1. Very well said, Grant. I’m not pro-war in many instances. I’m speaking of principles: the cross of Christ doesn’t rule military action out on principle, as this blogger (and other Christians) want to say.

  2. I think the Cross of Christ means that we all (saved and unsaved) will stand in judgement before God for all that we have done in this life. Those who bear the responsibility for committing to war are no different. I can’t be certain of how the LORD will judge in that instance, but I am guided by what I said above, not that I ever expect to ever have direct responsibility for so awesome a decision as war. The same principles apply to all of the lesser decisions we do make, though, don’t they?

  3. That would be pretty frightening, if I didn’t have the perfect advocate offering His righteousness in place of my sin.

    1. In final judgment, it’s reassuring that our judge is also our defense attorney! So we’ve got it made. 🙂

  4. What I’m wondering is what the cross has to do with a nation going to war, unless that nation is intentionally and explicitly Christian, which the U.S.A. most certainly is not. I don’t think there is a “Christian nation” and I’m not sure there could be one.

    As both of you have said, Brent and Grant, the Bible has no prohibitions against nations going to war, Indeed, in the OT, it is quite the opposite. The oft-misquoted words of Jesus Christ refer to personal vengeance, not national justice and not even personal justice for that matter; for example using violence to defend oneself.

    And the line between what is just attacking and defending oneself is not as clear as some would like to make it out to be, whether on a personal or a national level.

  5. I think that what the cross “has to do with it”, in the context of this conversation, is how should a Christian react to the notion of war. Is it ever necessary and justifiable? Is it
    “un-Christian”, so to speak?
    At least, that was what I was trying to address.

    1. Grant, I was referring to the title of Brent’s post and the views of people like Hauerwas and Zack Hunt. I know where you are coming from and I agree with you. I believe there is a place for “just war”, if that’s what you want to call fighting terrorism. I believe it is okay for Christians to take part in such “just war”. I even believe it can be considered self defense or defense of family.

      I’m just saying that I don’t see how the cross relates to whether or not a non-Christian nation goes to war.

    2. That’s right. Can Christians view war (or any act of violence, for that matter) as justifiable and can they be soldiers or law enforcement officers? But Victor is right: we have badly misconstrued Jesus’ words against vengeance and made them about violence in general.

  6. Re: Pacifists, Hauerwas, etc. It’s difficult to take such people seriously. They are akin to sheep standing around in a pasture opining on the merits of non-violence, while the wolves are held at bay by the shepherd and shepdogs. Perhaps they are willfully naive. Perhaps.

    In actual practice, they are no different than the self-anointed governing elite who who campaign on a anti-war platform then once elected turn around and ask to be given a three year carte blanc to wage war against their own preferred threat. Of course, their children will not be going to anyone’s war. They will go to college so that they can enjoy the privileges of living as sheep… in a pasture… protected.

    1. “Pacifists” should never own a gun or call the police. They also should not benefit from the freedoms that we have because those police exist and do their job, and because military people fight and die violently to protect those freedoms.

      1. The police is what gets me most… They must, by the same logic, oppose any coercive or violent police action—even when used to protect or defend their lives, the lives of their family, the lives of their neighbors. Pacifists, can’t opt out of the “umbrella” of law and order made possible by people with guns and bombs.

    2. How hard is it to be a pacifist in that hotbed of social unrest, Durham, North Carolina? Although I did read that Hauerwas said in a recent debate that he believes in law and order and is “open” to the possibility of police using force. I’m like, “On what grounds?”

      1. I don’t see how one can be a consistent pacifist. The pacifism of some is paid for by the violence, or at least the threat of violence, from others.

        Furthermore, if people are going to be consistent about pacifism, they are left with not being able to defend their family members from violence. That, I believe, is unbiblical.

        “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Tim 5:8).

        That, I believe, speaks to whether or not a Christian should sometimes exercise violence in order to take care of his or her family.

        If someone attacks a member of my family, I will be violent to the death in my efforts to protect them. I would not be behaving as a Christian if I did anything else.

  7. In the interest of fairness, there is room for people who are truly conscientious objectors. I know quite a few people who couldn’t raise a fist, even in self-defense. I haven’t read the blogger in question here, so I’m speaking in general, not specific terms.

    As for Jesus; he was the Prince of Peace. He came to be the suffering servant. He didn’t lift a finger to protect himself, or even the woman caught in adultery. His words were his “weapon” against her accusers. If one wishes to strictly model Jesus, then I can see the argument for total non violence, but they will need to be prepared to die in the process.

  8. Grant I pretty much responded to your comment in my post above, before I saw this one from you.

    But Jesus was not entirely and always non-violent. He was plenty violent when He cleared the temple.

    Also, there is the question of whether or not allowing violence to someone, especially someone who is helpless, for whom you are responsible, is itself an act of violence.

  9. The article confuses two separate questions, that of the title and “Should a Christian go to war?” Charles Spurgeon had an answer to that

    as does Romans.

    Unlike this article, Romans does not confuse the role of disciples of Christ with the role of God:

    “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,”says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. ”

    Re: government–” he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. ”

    Christians are called to be the light of the world, not the sword of the LORD.

    1. Michael,

      Are you saying that it’s O.K. for other people—non-Christians—to go fight our wars and play the role of God’s servant to accomplish his will, but Christians themselves can’t participate? If so, I can’t go along with that. For one thing, it would mean that we have an interest not to convert our soldiers to Christianity, so they can continue to play the vital role that God gives them. For another, logically whatever we say of soldiers would also apply to police, who carry guns and—potentially—use lethal force in the service of peace and justice.

    2. Also, I wonder how we square this idea with Jesus’ commending the faith of the Roman centurion? Here we have a believer who serves in Roman army (not known for always being on the side of goodness and light), whom Jesus praises. If the man were sinning by doing so, wouldn’t Jesus have told him so? “If you would follow me, first, go and resign your commission…”

      1. This is a common misuse of the Centurion story. Are you going to use it to also endorse slave holding? “First go and selll your slaves” ?

      2. Fair enough, although let’s concede that slavery in the first century was different from 18th and 19th century African slavery. Even if you won’t concede that, you haven’t proven your point. Are you saying it’s ok (in fact, God-ordained) for non-Christians to be soldiers, but it’s not ok for Christians?

    3. “35 And He said to them, “When I sent you out without money belt and bag and sandals, you did not lack anything, did you?” They said, “No, nothing.” 36 And He said to them, “But now, whoever has a money belt is to take it along, likewise also a bag, and whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one.” (Lk 22).

      Those are the words of Jesus to the disciples as they prepared to go to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus would be arrested.

      Jesus never condemned military service and neither did any NT writer.

      When soldiers came to John the Baptist for the baptism of repentance, he told them “Do not take money from anyone by force, or accuse anyone falsely, and be content with your wages.” (Lk 3:14).

      Action by police is not revenge. Just war is not revenge. And certainly self-defense and taking care of one’s family is not revenge. It’s not about being the sword of The Lord.

      Christian police and military personnel can be lights in the world.

      And I have no doubt that if I had to kill someone in defense of my wife, children or grandchildren, my light would be shining brightly.

  10. Unless you have actually killed someone, don’t be so sure. You may feel justified, but very few people ever get over it. Of course, there are evil men, who can behead a man and are eager to do it again. They think they are on “a mission from their god”.

      1. This is a common reply. Did you notice that this thread was about going to war? Christians march off to war daily while neither you nor I have ever seen the probverbial homicidal maniac attempt to kill and rape our families.

      2. Victor can answer for himself, but what I notice in your responses is a failure to engage the principle: is violence ever justified from a Christian perspective? We’re not arguing about the justice of this or that war or battle; we’re arguing about the principle. If we rule out potentially lethal violence on the battlefield, we also rule it out in other ways as well. Or do you disagree? Most pacifists oppose police actions, self-defense, and the defense of our families by the same principle. Or at least they ought to.

        We do live in a world in which police daily put their lives on the line, through violence or its threat, to protect innocent lives. Is their action justifiable—not to mention self- or family-defense?

      1. Michael Snow,why do you keep replying to my replies to other people but not to what I say directly to you? That, along with your continuing wise guy comments and presumptuous assumptions about me as though you know me, indicate two things about you to me.

        First, your words show a lack of respect and are at least potentially violent. Words can be violent too. Had you read my other posts instead of just looking for a place to attack me, you would have read that already.

        Second, people who show a lack of respect and make personal attacks often do so because they have no good response to what a person says. In your case, you had no response at all.

        Your words and your lack of respect do little to make whatever points you are trying to make about non-violence.

        Yes, I did notice that this thread is about war. You would have known that had you read my posts. Did every word you say specifically address war? Even if they did, weren’t at least a few of us talking about other things besides war?

        As for your presumptuous assumption about me never having “seen the probverbial homicidal maniac attempt to kill and rape our families.”, I never said anything about a proverbial homicidal maniac.

        And I have had to deal with a rape of a loved one.

        Your comment was unwarranted, unnecessary and hurtful.

        But I don’t even expect an apology from someone who uses such hateful and violent language. You may not have intended it that way, but that’s what it is.

        This is what happens when you assume things about people you don’t know, and when you show a lack of respect for your fellow human beings.

        And that is violence.

  11. I feel this post badly mis-represents Hauerwas. It certainly does not engage with Christological non-violence in terms that proponents could recognise. For one thing, the claim that pacifism is secretly pragmatic is somewhat undercut by reference to one of Hauerwas’ most famous aphorisms:

    “Christians are not nonviolent because we believe our nonviolence is a strategy to rid the world of war, but rather because faithful followers of Christ in a world of war cannot imagine being anything else than nonviolent.”

    I used to ask Christians who present the argument as you have the following question:

    If Just War Theory is the appropriate Biblical pattern for Christian living, then what war that has been fought satisfied the criteria?

    But in the midst of the never-ending War on Terror, I realise the question that needs to be asked is:

    What war fails to satisfy Just War criteria?

    The former President of Yemen spent last night hiding in the back of a food truck after a drone attack he got caught up in killed three people. The conversation that American Christians has about who they are allowed to kill in the name of God appears absurd to your Christians brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world.

    1. I wasn’t accusing Hauerwas of pragmatism, only the blogger whose post I was responding to.

      Is it not fair to say that Hauerwas’s pacifism is premised upon God’s love being non-coercive?

    2. Sorry, I’m back at my laptop, so I can type properly. I’m not exactly a “Just Warrior,” Kevin. My Christian ethics prof, Tim Jackson, was. For all I know, no war perfectly matches the criteria of Just War. I don’t care. I believe that war is sometimes justified.

      Regardless, I wasn’t speaking of the War on Terror or drones or any war in particular. I was talking about the principle: Is the use of violence ever justifiable? As I read Hauerwas, his answer is “no.” And this principle isn’t only war: it’s police protection; it’s defense of family; self-defense. Any resort to violence is always only wrong.

      I disagree with him. And if this article fairly represents his view of police protection ( maybe Hauerwas disagrees with himself, too. Police force that’s short of killing is now “an open question.” It wasn’t an open question back when I was reading him in seminary. Is he really starting to budge on non-lethal violence? On what principle? And how does that principle, whatever it is, not apply to protecting lives outside of one’s country—if it were possible?

      1. Brent, like you, I am speaking to the principle is the use of violence ever justifiable, more than to “just war”. I certainly was not speaking specifically to who we can or cannot kill.

        I would consider it an act of violence, and a terrible one, if I did not protect a member of my family from an attacker.

        Beyond that, I’m not sure, and wouldn’t be till I was in a situation.

        But I don’t believe that all violence can be dismissed as evil.

      2. I agree. If violent force, per se, is wrong, tell me why. What’s the principle? Kevin points to murderous drones killing civilians or whatever. Fine. But if you’re going to be principled about it, defend the principle in the hard cases, too. Here’s why a police sniper isn’t allowed to stop the man who’s spree-killing children at an elementary school. Here’s why soldiers can’t forcibly liberate Auschwitz. Good Lord, here’s why I can’t use force to stop the man who’s raping my wife or molesting my child. Reductio ad absurdum? Reductio ad Hitlerum? Sorry. It’s his principle, not mine. Do we make exceptions?

  12. Michael Snow, being insulting and making unwarranted accusations does not help in making your point, whatever it is.

    If you are going to accuse someone of taking Scriptures out of context, you ought to be able to show how they are doing so and show what the actual context is and what the verses mean in that context.

    The article you linked fails to do that.

    It offers a subjective opinion which accepts one of two possible meanings, which I do not accept.

    What proof is there that Jesus was using hyperbole? I never take the Bible as anything but literally unless there is clear reason to do so and I certainly don’t see it here. That is why I don’t accept the conclusion of the article.

    I am a pretty simple man. But I am not less than one.

    And by the way, violence doesn’t just include actions, it can also include words, like insults and false accusations.

    1. Michael’s exegesis misses the point that they had swords to begin with! Was Peter’s sword, among others, so easy to conceal that Jesus never noticed it before? Whatever. I’m a simple man, too.

      1. Exactly, Brent.

        Also, I don’t see how what Jesus said could be taken as hyperbole. He referred back to something He had said and something He had the disciples do in the past. Then He told them that now they were to do something different, including getting swords. Jesus is talking about actual events and things He is telling the disciples to do. Where is the hyperbole?

      2. Even if it is hyperbole (John Wesley thought so—I just checked his Explanatory Notes), how can this passage imply that carrying a sword is therefore wrong? It’s not like Jesus was saying that it’s wrong for Christians to carry moneybags or knapsacks since he was, after all, using hyperbole.

  13. Good point Brent.

    This is an interesting and an important topic of discussion to me, and I’m glad you brought it up. There are so many implications and applications.

    What bothers me is that many of the same people that are supposedly against all violence, including capital punishment, are pro-abortion.

    Abortion is a horrible and fatal act of violence against the most helpless and innocent of human beings, to whom there could not possibly any justification for killing or even hurting them, except in the very rare cases of saving the life of the mother.

    What is also conveniently overlooked by many is that abortion is also a violent act against the mother that often causes great physical harm and sometimes death.

    Actually, I do not consider myself a violent person, and neither would anyone who knows me. For me, being truly pro-life entails a respect for the sanctity of all human lives that precludes violence in most cases.

    This is true to the point that my views have changed a great deal on capital punishment.

    At one point I was anti-abortion but strongly pro capital punishment.

    Now I am at the point where I am almost against capital punishment in any case. But I still struggle with it because to me you have to weigh the life of a serial killer against the lives of the people he would very likely murder if he escaped from prison or was paroled, just for an example.

    If prisons for violent criminals were as secure as they should be, with little chance of escape and no chance of parole, then I would probably favor no capital punishment at all. But by violent criminals I include sexual violence, rapists and child molesters. Very secure prisons, no work release, no parole.

    And by all means do all we can as Christians to lead them to salvation in Christ. But that doesn’t mean they get released.

    As far as the actual post topic, war, I do think there is a place for it and for Christian participation in it. For example, to liberate people from a concentration camp or some similar situation. Certainly to in some way battle terrorism. Yes, it’s better to avoid war, or military combat, if we can, but not at all costs and unconditionally.

    Related to the use of violence, I’m not so sure that what is called violence is always violence. Is a use of force always and automatically violent? No, I don’t believe so. Are there situations in which not using force may be an act of violence? Yes, I believe so.

  14. I thought the following, exerted from an article by Brent Perman were good points:

    John 18:36 acknowledges the right of the sword to earthly kingdoms
    In this passage, Jesus says: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting, that I might not be delivered up to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.” When Jesus says that if his kingdom were of this world his servants would be fighting, he implies that it is right for kingdoms of this world to fight when the cause is just and circumstances require it. As Christians, we are citizens of “two kingdoms”–our country on earth, and heaven. Jesus shows us that it is never right to fight for the sake of his spiritual kingdom, but that it is right to fight on behalf of earthly kingdoms (when necessary to counter evil and destruction).

    Romans 13:3-4 grants governments the right to use force to restrain and punish evil
    Paul writes: “For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.”

    1. I agree. It’s incomprehensible that the state’s authority to use violence could be a “minister of God,” yet no Christian ought to participate in it.

  15. au contraire mon ami.

    A Christian might even be a part of the government. The two things are not mutually exclusive.

  16. I’ve never run into a Christian pacifist who thought that America was a “Christian nation”. And frankly, I agree with them on that point — that ship sailed a long time ago. So then, where do they get off applying allegedly Christian standards to this nation?

    I can understand — though I ‘m not sure I agree with — extrapolating Jesus’ “turn the other cheek” instructions and the like to more than a one-on-one thing. But to expand it to a national policy is silly. Especially when you consider that in the one true theocracy this planet has ever had, God just about had them killing anything that moved.

    1. Right. If one is committed to the authority of scripture, it doesn’t help one’s case for pacifism to acknowledge that God didn’t reject war and violence, in principle, back then.

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