I was asked recently to speak at one of a series of meetings with a general theme of “War and Peace”. This article is an expansion of my notes.
What did Jesus say about war? What did he say about patriotism? Did he encourage his followers to be pacifists? Jesus did not address these issues directly at all, but his teaching does give us some principles which can totally change our attitude to war and our attitude towards our enemies.
The Sermon on the Mount.
Jesus was a revolutionary. He encouraged a revolution, not based on conflict, but a revolution based on love, compassion and justice. Jesus turns the world’s values up-side down. He said things like:
- Blessed are the meek
- Blessed are the peacemakers
- Don’t be angry with your brother
- Turn the other cheek
- Love your enemies
Here is a part of the teaching taken from Luke’s version. Imagine it is the first time you had heard these words. You were hoping for a Messiah to come and liberate your country from the oppressive Roman Empire. You gasp as this teacher speaks with authority, but says the opposite of what you expected.
Luke 6: 27-36 (New International Version)
But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.
Bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.
If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them.
Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.
And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that.
And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full.
But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Hatred – a tool of War – World war I
Imagine living 100 years ago. The British Empire rules huge chunks of the world. The industrial revolution has made us prosperous. Our overseas colonies have made some people fabulously rich.
Germany meanwhile is united after a long history of being fragmented. The rulers of Germany want to create an empire also. Suddenly our prosperity as a country is at risk.
But the average German is much like the average Englishman. How do our politicians motivate ordinary people to fight a war?
- The Government and the media (just the newspapers in those days) stirred up hatred for the German people.
- The Germans were given the derogatory label of ‘Huns’.
- The facts were cynically distorted.
- Hatred meant dehumanising the enemy.
- Fear was used to create hatred.
I quote from somebody called David H in Yahoo Answers:
The use of “Hun” in reference to German soldiers is a case of propaganda. In order to fully dehumanize the enemy he must first be thought of as patently different from you and me. It was initially quite difficult to get “decent white people” of Blighty riled up over the “otherwise decent white people” of central Europe. The solution, then, was to transform them philosophically into rampaging Mongol hordes from the East. One look at the simian features applied to German soldiers portrayed on the Allied propaganda posters drives the point home.
Who would you fear and hate more — a nice blond-haired, blue-eyed boy from Hamburg or an ape-like, rapacious brute from some distant and dark land?”
Patriotism: a tool of war
Patriotism has its place in Sport but is used in war to urge people to ‘fight for your country’. I was cheering on ‘Team GB’ in the Olympic Games as much as anyone else but patriotism can be used cynically as a tool of war.
Does God ‘see’ or think in terms of nation states? He sees individuals, families, and communities. But many countries in the world today have arbitrary boundaries, due to History, Colonialism, Conquest etc. Large countries like Nigeria, India and Indonesia have real problems in creating a national identity because they are made up of many people groups, religions and cultures.
I can’t think of a single instance in the Bible which tells us that we should love our country. The Bible does tell us:
- To love our wife, love our husband, and love our family.
- To lay down our lives for our brothers (I John 3:16)
- To love our neighbour as ourself.
- To even love our enemy
- But does not tell us to love our country.
There is a process here, used to change patriotism into a tool of war.
Patriotism can lead to
→ Excessive competitiveness
→ Despising our enemy
Jesus and War
Jesus doesn’t condemn war as such, but showed us a better way. In his day, the Zealots wanted to overthrow Roman domination by force. Jesus certainly did not side with them, but neither did he condemn them.
Let us look at some of the words of Jesus
Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Mark 12:17
“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” Matthew 26:52
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Matthew 5:9
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. (Matt. 5:38-39)
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you. Luke 6:27
Early Church and Pacifism
Jesus didn’t specifically command his followers to be pacifists, though he may have said other things which are not recorded. For hundred’s of years the early church was naturally pacifistic. In fact teachers taught that belonging to the military was regarded as sinful.
But when the Roman Emperor Constantine was converted in A.D. 312, he waged war ‘in the name of Christ’.
Would I have been a pacifist in World War II? I simply don’t know. For most of us this is a hypothetical question, and like most hypothetical questions, cannot easily be answered.
- Would I reluctantly decide to fight to protect my family and community?
- Would I join the army but ‘aim to miss’ to avoid killing people?
- Would I be a conscientious objector and perhaps serve in the medical arena?
- Would I refuse to take any action that could possibly help the war effort and be prepared to face prison or even being shot?
The Just war theory
Just War theory postulates that war, while very terrible, is not always the worst option. There may be responsibilities so important, atrocities which can be prevented or outcomes so undesirable they justify war. (Wikipedia)
The idea of a just war is good in theory but has been used to justify wars such as:
- The crusades fought to regain Jerusalem and kill Muslims.
- The murderous conquest of South and Central America by Spain and Portugal.
- The civil war in Britain – both sides fighting ‘in the name of Christ”
- The war to overthrow Saddam in Iraq. (To remove threat of weapons of mass destruction – which were never found.)
- George Bush – and his ‘war on terrorism’
The trouble is that we can never predict the outcome of a victory or a defeat.
But please note that other atrocities have existed and we didn’t get involved:
- Pol Pot murdering his own people in Cambodia.
- The Hutu genocide against Tutsi’s in Rwanda.
- Idi Amin in Uganda who terrorised his country.
- Genocide against Armenians by Turkey.
- The list goes on …
Is War ever Justified?
Think about the following situations and try to decide whether a war is justified,
- To protect our way of life?
- To protect our freedom?
- To protect our economic system (Capitalism, Consumerism, Communism)?
- To protect our trade with the rest of the world?
- To protect our national interests in the world?
- To stop a dictator killing his own citizens
- To take back a territory overrun militarily by another country.
- To protect the lives of our family and people close to us?
Does War ever achieve anything?
- Is Iraq a better place now than under Saddam? There are still many Iraqi lives being lost.
- What if the southern states had won American Civil war? – Would slavery still exist, or was history on the anti-slavery side anyhow?
- Will Afghanistan revert to its previous state when troops are removed? (Will the Taliban take over again?)
- Vietnam war – delayed communism in that country by a decade – was it worth it?
- Falklands war – protecting a few. But it would have been cheaper to give each of the falklanders $1,000,000 compensation for having to live under Argentinia, or allowing them to re-settle elsewhere!
- Who could have predicted that one result of World War II would be the Russia, and communism dominating Eastern Europe?
Where should the Church stand?
The problem is this. Do we get involved in complicated rules and regulations or do we seek to put the spiritual principles taught by Jesus into action.
If we think in terms of a ‘just war’, patriotism or pacifism, then we get into a whole process of defining rules for every eventuality, This is rather like the Jewish Leaders trying to define the law in great detail.
Jesus would not have got involved in the legal arguments. He simply said that we were to love our enemies and do good to them. We must start from a point of love, not from a pre-determined statement, such as “I am a pacifist”.
We will probably never achieve a ‘Church’ view either.
But it is important that we follow Jesus’ command to love our enemy.
What does it mean to love our enemy?
- Love is a verb – something we do, it is action, “do good to them”.
- Love is not a nice feeling.
- Love is not just the absence of hate. Jesus did not say “Do not hate your enemy”.
- Loving our enemy means we respect them, that we do not despise them.
- Loving our enemy means that we do not fear them. (Perfect love casts out fear.)
- Loving our enemy means we include them in “love your neighbor as yourself”.
- Loving means recognizing that they are the same as us. Not ‘demonising’ or treating as them sub-human.
- Loving means praying for those who treat us badly.
- Love means forgiveness. (“For they know not what they do’.)
All of this applies to how we treat an enemy in a matter of war, but what if we are not currently at war with anyone.
These principles apply to our enemies on an individual basis.
Who are our individual enemies?
- A jealous colleague at work who tries to get ahead by attacking you.
- Someone who has different religious views.
- Someone who takes an instant dislike to you.
- Someone who is offends our passion for justice in his treatment, of other people. E.g. Slave Owners or Human Traffickers.
- Someone with different political views.
- A competitor in business.
A country cannot love another country. Only individual people can love individual people. If we find ourselves at war with another country, if is up to individual people to show love for the enemy.
Am I being idealistic? Was Jesus idealistic? Is the idea for loving our enemy impossible or totally unrealistic? The answer has to be, “No”, because Jesus loved his enemies and forgave them when they nailed him to a cross. Jesus gives us the ability to grow like him, and so it must be possible for us to love as he loved.
Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. This is a prayer for now, as well as for next year and for the future. As his kingdom grows on the earth, and as his will becomes reality on this world, we can see his laws of love, compassion and justice taking root in the hearts of men and women.
It is time that the followers of Jesus Christ took His teaching seriously. Turning the other cheek, being peacemakers, loving our enemies, does not come easy. But as we learn to apply the teachings of Jesus in our everyday lives, we can have some hope that we can influence our nation if ever we should find ourselves at war again.