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The Christian and War: Is Jesus a Pacifist?

Updated on April 6, 2013

A Look at Pacifism Through the Eyes of Jesus

War is an issue that has a broad range of emotions attached to it. The human nature, aside from Christ and left to its own, is to defend, to demand justice, and to avenge. We want to defend our country and stand for our own ideal of justice. There are many motives that drive war-conquest, self-defense, retaliation, hidden political agendas, etc. Whatever reason a man chooses to wage war, in his own eyes, he is always right and upon his victory, justice is served. But where is justice found amidst a country where war has wreaked havoc and left nothing but obliteration? Where thousands of innocent civilian lives have been taken-mothers and children? Where food supply has been cut off? And where nothing but fear and terror linger in the air for those that have survived? Is this justice or has injustice been shifted from one side to the next leaving true justice all too elusive? Man has turned justice from demonstrating godly righteousness and fairness to all mankind into the executing of one’s own agenda to get what he thinks he deserves. The all too common misconception of what justice is has driven many unnecessary wars throughout history (i.e. WW II).

There are three different positions one can hold on war-activism, the just war view, and pacifism. Activism holds the view that governments are ordained by God, therefore, Christians are to support a war whenever one is declared. Many Christians tend to hold this view. The just war view holds that Christians can support a war that is done with a morally justifiable cause. The conditions which determine if a war is just and should be declared are referred to as jus ad bellum. These conditions are usually based on self-defense and just intention, but some Christians also support preventative wars and crusades. The guidelines to be followed once the war is being fought are called jus in bello. The advocates of just war suggest two major criteria-the principle of noncombatant immunity and the principle of proportionate means. Noncombatant immunity suggests that all nonmilitary persons are exempt from direct attack while proportionate means suggests that there must be a limit to the amount of force and violence use to the point of necessity. The third stance on war is pacifism. Advocates of this position believe that since Jesus lived a nonviolent life, then Christians are called to live nonviolent lives in every arena. In application this means war should be avoided and other types of nonviolent resistance should be used. This article will look more specifically at the pacifist viewpoint.

The pacifist's point of view is based on the premise that Jesus’ teachings support a nonviolent way of life both personally and nationally. Matthew 5:38-48 is used as the supporting passage of this principle. Jesus uses phrases such as “Love your neighbor as you love yourself” and “Love your enemy” to demonstrate a love that goes beyond fellow Jews and extends to the Gentiles. Although Jesus forbade violence, He did not forbid resistance. Jesus demonstrated resistance in his own dealings with the Pharisees and those that arrested him.

Of the Old Testament wars, pacifist authors Sider and Taylor say, “…the Old Testament proves both vastly too much and vastly too little to serve as a support for Christians in the just war tradition.” (511, Sider and Taylor) The Old Testament records instances where God told the Israelites to wipe out entire populations. There are also instances in the Old Testament where Israel did not have to go to battle, but God performed a miracle on their behalf. What they authors fail to point out though is that the issue in the Old Testament is not to fight or not to fight, but rather to obey God. Israel was a unique people who God dealt with specifically. The Old Testament cannot be used as a foundation for how we are to conduct warfare, but can be used as an example of obedience and a revelation of God’s character toward His people. If we, as Christians, are walking in obedience of the principles Jesus taught us, then our motives for war will be just (theoretically speaking). We have the Holy Spirit to convict and reveal our hearts to us. The Israelites did not have the Holy Spirit in the way it is available to us today. This is the reason they depended so heavily on the prophetic Word of God.

In Practical Christian Pacifism by David A. Hoekema. He asks the question “Why is the pacifist vision of a healing and reconciling ministry of nonviolence not universally embraced in the churches?” He then points out five different reasons and then responds to them from a pacifist point of view. The first reason that pacifism is not embraced in the churches, he says, is people believe that pacifism is surrender. People confuse pacifism with passivity, and indeed, it is not the same. Pacifism encourages action of the nonviolent sort. The second characteristic he points out that people falsely believes about pacifism is that it extols purity. In other words, pacifism values personal purity over saving lives. It is thought that pacifism is not an objection to participation in war, but an objection to war itself. He explains that the pacifist does not refuse to participate in war because of their own purity, but they refuse to participate because war is immoral. The third false assumption made about pacifism is that pacifism is based on optimistic humanism. It naively believes there is an inherent good in every person and eventually this will come out. Hoekema says this is unrealistic and not true of pacifism. Pacifists understand that there is a sin nature lurking in everyone and to believe otherwise would be a delusion. In order to overcome evil there must be a nonviolent response. The fourth assumption about pacifism is that it confuses moral categories. The critics of pacifism say that Christian morality is based on principles that can be followed in our personal lives and the pacifist falsely believes that an immoral government can follow these same principles. Hoekema objects by saying, “[this]…is completely contrary to a central doctrine of Reformed theology,” because Jesus Christ is Lord over the entire world and every activity. (519) The final reason that keeps people from receiving pacifism is pacifism is too patient. Critics say that if violence is inflicted for a long period of time there is no choice but to retaliate. The author makes a courageous claim that even Nazism would have been destroyed by nonviolent resistance. I cannot help but chuckle at such a claim that a bunch of picketers could have stopped Hitler. This so easily falls into the passivity that he reproaches in the beginning of his essay. I do not believe this is the model Jesus set up for us concerning war. I cannot imagine Jesus, in human form, standing by idly as one of his beloved disciples got beat to death. This is not the hero of the scriptures who saw how sin was getting the best of the human race and actively pursued to defend us by stepping out Heaven into humanity to defeat Satan, death, and the grave when we were to weak to do so ourselves. When Jesus urges his followers not to resort to murder or retaliation, He is urging us to protect our hearts from sinful attitudes that will lead our souls into death and destruction-selfishness, plotting and scheming, lust for power, etc. In Gethsemane, I do not think he was chastising Peter from wanting to defend his Lord. I believe He was rejecting anything that would interfere with the plan of the crucifixion, since later in that passage he mentions he could call down thousands of angels and asks, “But if I did how would the Scriptures be fulfilled that describe what must happen now?” (Matthew 26:54, The Holy Bible, NLT)

I cannot say that Jesus is a pacifist, but he is a strong and might warrior full of justice and righteousness ready to defend those he loves with a pure heart driven by love. “Then there was a war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon and his angels. And the dragon lost the battle, and he and his angels were forced out of heaven.” (Revelation 12:7-8, The Holy Bible, New Living Translation) Another descriptive depiction of our warrior king is, “Then I saw heaven opened, and a white horse was standing there. Its rider was named Faithful and True, for He judges fairly and wages a righteous war. His eyes were like flames of fire, and on His head were many crowns…From His mouth came a sharp sword to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod. He will release the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty, like juice flowing from a winepress.” (Revelation 19:11-12, 15, The Holy Bible, NLT)

Now obviously we are not Jesus Christ, but I think that it is apparent we are to demonstrate justice on behalf of others that are too weak to defend themselves, just as Jesus has done for us. He is our advocate so we must demonstrate His love and justice to others in this way as well. War, though, must be motivated by this great love and compassion to defend helpless others as a last resort not as an act of vengeance or conquest. Jesus has waged a great war in the Heavens on our behalf. He has not picketed Satan or sat “nonviolently” by to try and strike a compromise with evil. Evil at its core cannot be negotiated with and, unfortunately, there are many people that are driven by this evil in the wars they wage. And, to shift the paradigm a little, war is not solely about destroying the enemy, though this is certainly important in instances of violent oppression and self-defense. But, it is about being so motivated by this love of Christ that you are willing to give your life as a sacrifice to defend those in need. When it comes to war if we are motivated like Jesus was motivated, it is hardly immoral, but can turn into the greatest demonstration of Christ’s love there is.

Since the government is full of worldliness and corruption and does not always make moral decisions should we become pacifists? Certainly not! Our role in this instance is to infiltrate the corruption with the light of Christ. We should never back down or take an alternative route because the world believes or lives differently than us. To do so compromises the gospel and we become an ineffective people.

Even though the Bible does command us to “live peaceably with one another as it is possible,” pacifists who believe they can bring “world peace” do so in vain. Jesus himself said, “Don’t imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came not to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34, The Holy Bible, NLT) And in Luke 12:51 Jesus asks, “Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I have come to divide people against each other!” (The Holy Bible, NLT) Jesus never expected us to bring world peace, but He does expect us to strive to live in His image and teachings the best that we know how. This means being neither pro-war nor anti-war, but working in our best efforts to maintain peace, but willing to fight when necessary.

Works Cited

Clark, David K. and Rakestraw, Robert V. Readings in Christian Ethics, Vol.2: Issues and

Applications Grand Rapids, MI, 1996

The Holy Bible, New Living Translation, 2nd Edition, 1996, Tyndale House Publishers, Carol

Stream, IL


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