War and Peace in Christian Tradition

Peace: the hope of nations. War: the age-old destroyer. What to do and where to start? These questions tugged at my heart anew as I caught a smile from a small child in the evening markets of east Amman, Jordan, an area overflowing with refugees. My mind raced back to my baby niece, equating the due love and hopes given to both of them by their respective parents. Shouldn’t the sight of such little ones and the realization of our shared hopes and prayers push us back on a course towards peace? How can we prevent our love for those close to us from also driving us to fear the “other” and anything that might threaten what we want for them? What will it take so that the narrative of the world they come to know is not of untrust, militarization and sectarianism? Pop culture has determined that “all you need is love,”[1] and that we should “practice what we preach and turn the other cheek.”[2] As I stood there, I couldn’t help but agree. My mind blocked out all of the complexities in the struggle for peace in our world. Unfortunately, life moves past such moments and reality sets in. Violence, hatred and tribalism have been an unfortunate reality for as long as history remembers. The history of the Church is no exception. At the same time the Christian faith has at its core a message of reconciliation and peace, even and especially when confronted with suffering. So how should we as followers of Jesus think about violence, war and peace? What are some wise insights and necessary points of reflection that we, Christian or not, should take heed of when confronted with violence, war and the question of justice? As someone who is blessed to have never experienced war firsthand, I have often let my thoughts be based either on sympathetic emotions or a form of lazy cynicism that presupposes that my actions and thoughts won’t stop wars, so why bother thinking about it? Against these positions I hope to offer to the reader a historical summary of Christian thought on war, the strengths and weaknesses of modern positions towards fighting and finally some inspirational movements towards “Just Peacemaking” in the 21st century.

The New Testament Epistles

It is a commonly held belief, among Christians at least, that the Church in full was pacifist until Emperor Constantine’s conversion in 313, at which point it became helplessly infected with politics, power and violence. Along the lines of this belief, multiple pacifist and sometimes “escapist” Churches emerged in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. In reality, the early Christians, though mainly pacifist in theory and practice, still felt the tension between the hope to which they had been called to as citizens of the Kingdom of God and the reality of their ties to this sinful and hurting world, specifically the Roman empire.

It is generally accepted by historians that many Jews in the first century were steeped in apocalyptic frenzy and longings. A Jewish style apocalypse was not a set of beliefs regarding the world’s near demise, but a belief that the current world order of evil and suffering would be undone and overthrown by God’s Kingdom of peace and justice. Instead of thinking of falling rocks and flowing lava, one should think of Frodo delivering Sauron’s ring back to Mount Doom and Aragorn taking his place as King in the great city that has been freed from the shadows of Mordor. One of the most common beliefs of secular scholars about Jesus is that he, among others of his time, was a failed apocalyptic prophet— he did not overthrow the evil powers that be, the lion was still devouring the lamb, and the little child was still in danger.[3] Yet against such a reality, the early followers of Jesus stubbornly left the tomb that Sunday morning believing and preaching that death had been defeated, Evil had been subverted and God’s Kingdom of justice and peace had found its root in the mystical root of Jesse.[4]

Following the mainly oral preaching of the early Church, St. Paul is appropriately heralded as the first known man to theologize in writing what the life, death and resurrection of Jesus meant for the world. St. Paul in his letter to the Church in Colosse confidently asserts that “God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”[5] In his letter to the Church in Rome he reminds the early believers that “the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”[6] Recasting the words of Jesus’s call to nonviolence he mandates:

“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

“Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear 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. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”[7]

In the writings of St. Peter, the first Bishop of Rome (i.e. Pope), we find a similar command to follow Jesus in the path of suffering at the expense of retaliation, with hope for peace.

“If you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example…When they hurled insults at him, he did not retaliate, when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly….Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called…”[8]

Apostolic and Early Church Fathers

The period after St. Paul and his fellow New Testament writers is largely known to us by the Apostolic Fathers (~70-150) and the Church Fathers (~150-700). Until the time of Constantine, it was rare, and before 170 probably never, that Christians served in the Roman legions. This should not be too surprising given that they were often an oppressed minority and their reluctance to serve could be similar to the modern day reluctance of underrepresented minorities to serve in the military of a country whose domestic and foreign policies they do not agree with. In reviewing the writings of the pre-Constantine Fathers what should stand out is “how little the subject of Christians and military service surfaces…Characteristically, they reinforce what one might expect: Christians as a social subset are known for their peaceable, contented, and conciliatory nature.”[9]

Notably, the Didache, a compilation of Christian teachings dated to about 100, opens by creating a dichotomy between “two ways, one of life and one of death,” by first stressing the words of Jesus to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Justin Martyr, born in 100, interprets the going forth of the gospel from Jerusalem as the fulfillment of the Messianic vision of Isaiah 2 and the associated promise that “they shall beat their swords into plowshares…nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more,” by insisting that “we who formerly murdered one another now refrain from making war even upon our enemies, but for the sake of not telling lies or deceiving those examining us we gladly die confessing Christ.”[10]

Tatian, born in 120, emphasizes the freedom, including from the military, that he had in Christ: “I do not wish to be a king. I am not anxious to be rich. I decline military command…I am free from a mad thirst for fame.”[11]

Athenagoras, born in 133, affirms Jesus’s teaching on non-retaliation: “We have learned not to return blow for blow, nor to go to law with those who plunder and rob us, but to those who smite us on one side of the face, to offer the other side also, and to those who take away our coat to give likewise our cloak.”[12]

Irenaeus, born in 130, writes with similar convictions that pacifism is the result of Christ’s reign. “The new covenant that brings back peace and the law that gives life have gone forth over the whole earth, as the prophets said: ‘For out of Zion will go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem; and he will instruct many people; and they will break down their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks, and they will no longer learn to make war.” Irenaeus insists further that the Christian “counts no man his enemy, but all his neighbors, and therefore cannot even put forth his hand to revenge.”[13]

According to Hippolytus, born 170, no baptized believer can enter the military service without denying God.[14]

Clearly there is a unity within the early Father’s writings of their depiction of a lifestyle that is biased towards peace. Tertullian, born in 145, and Origen, born in 185, were two of the most prolific Fathers and are commonly used to argue that the early church was pacifist because of their similar arguments that Christians, being dedicated to peace, do not learn to make war.[15] Yet, they are adamant, sometimes in response to criticism, that Christians do participate in society, and that notably, they play a most important role by interceding for the army and giving their support via prayers to God. For example Tertullian asserts:

“We pray for life prolonged; for security to the empire; for protection to the imperial house; for brave armies, a faithful senate, a virtuous people, the world at rest, whatever, as man or Caesar, an emperor would wish….We pray, too, for the emperors, for their ministers and for all in authority, for the welfare of the world, for the prevalence of peace.”[16]

Origen even goes so far as to say that Christians are more effective by interceding than fighting. “And none fight better for the king than we do. We do not indeed fight under him, although he require it; but we fight on his behalf, forming a special army— an army of piety—by offering our prayers to God.”[17]

Even Clement, the bishop of Rome between 88 and his death in 99, prays

“You, Lord and Master, have given them the power of sovereignty through your excellent and unspeakable might…. Grant unto them O Lord, health, peace, concord, stability, that they may administer the government which you have given them without failure…For you, O heavenly Master, King of the ages, give to the sons of men glory and honor and power over all things that are upon the earth. Do, Lord, direct their counsel according to that which is good and well pleasing in your sight, that, administering in peace and gentleness with Godliness the power which you have given them, they may obtain your favor.”[18]

Similar petitions for the civil rulers are commonplace in the 2nd and 3rd century and are an echo of the commands of Paul and Peter to pray for the authorities.[19]

Importantly, both Tertullian and Origen acknowledge the presence of Christians in the Roman legions. In defending against criticism that Christians are a private community, separated from society because of their refusal to take part in the Roman religion, Tertullian responds saying that they renounce “neither forum, nor shambles, nor bath, nor booth, nor workshop, nor inn, nor weekly market, nor any other places of commerce. We sail with you, and fight with you, and till the ground with you…unite with you in your traffickings—even in the various arts we make public property of our works for your benefit.”[20]

Tertullian recounts a tale of a victory given to the legions of Marcus Aurelius (emperor 161-180) as they were defending against the invading Germanic tribes in the 170s. Upon seeing the enemy approaching, the Christian soldiers knelt in prayer, being answered by a great thunderbolt and rain that both drove away the enemy and brought welcomed relief to the thirsty legions. Although this is the earliest reference to Christian soldiers, according to a most likely forged account in the conclusion of Justin Martyr’s apology, Aurelius recounted that the Christians “began the battle, not by preparing weapons, nor arms, nor bugles; for such preparation is hateful to them, on account of the God they bear about in their conscience”.[21] Regardless of the veracity of the story, we gain insight on how Christian writers viewed their relation to warfare.

It must be noted that one major deterrence to Christians joining the army was the apparently mandatory sacrifices to the Roman gods and oaths of unconditional allegiance to the emperor. Along such lines Tertullian later in life argued “There is no agreement between the divine and the human sacrament, the standard of Christ and the standard of the devil, the camp of light and the camp of darkness. One soul cannot be due to two masters—God and Caesar.”[22]

Notice the change between Tertullian’s earlier stance that “[we] fight with you” to the complete incompatibility between “God and Caesar.” Tertullian became increasingly anxious of potential idolatry and his later view towards Christian soldiering should not therefore be authoritative on its own. “Because of his wholesale condemnation of civil service, literature, art, forms of dress, and signing of contracts, his opposition to military service is properly understood as part of the logic of apostasy.”[23]

Tertullian does acknowledge the important point that neither John the Baptist or Jesus explicitly called soldiers away from their position, yet he argues that Jesus did set the rule by disarming Peter in the garden and that unless “there is an immediate abandonment” of soldiering then there will be “all sorts of quibbling…in order to avoid offending God”.[24] Importantly, neither Origen nor Tertullian denied the government the moral duty of self-defense nor denied that Christians actually served in the military.

Post Constantine

The legend tells that Constantine won a major victory after having a vision of a cross and the words “In this sign, [you shall] conquer”. The Church’s role in the empire would seemingly change overnight. With vivid imagery Eusebius recounts the role reversal as the motley group of some 300 priests arrived to Nicea in 325 for the first state-sanctioned ecumenical council, some severely maimed and many injured from the great persecution under Diocletian just two decades prior.[25]

Near the end of the 4th century St. Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, excommunicated Emperor Theodosius for commanding the ruthless slaying of the guilty and potentially innocent alike in response to a rebellion in Thessaloniki. Ambrose told Theodosius to imitate David in his repentance as he had imitated him in guilt and only readmitted the emperor to the Eucharist after several months of penance. St. Augustine, building on the shoulders of his spiritual mentor St. Ambrose, is thought to be the first since the empire’s acceptance of Christianity to seriously contemplate how Christians should view and take part in the empire’s wars. Certainly St. Augustine is known as the Father of the Just War Tradition but it is appropriate to acknowledge its Greco-Roman origins in Cicero, the Melian Dialogue, and most certainly others in the past who had contemplated the justice of wars.

Augustine confidently points to the related section of the aforementioned passage of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is 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. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience.”[26]

Augustine exegetes that Christians should be obedient subjects to the emperor and that the government has the God-given authority to violently punish in order to keep the peace and stability. By creating a dichotomy between a Christian’s allegiance to the “city of God” and “city of Man”, Augustine thought it legitimate for a Christian to serve in the Roman legions and help defend the empire against the barbarians. As a foundation to later generations of thought, Augustine argued that potential wars must be evaluated for their justice and that Christian soldiers must fight out of love. In response to Jesus’s call to be a peacemaker, Augustine instructs: “Be a peacemaker, then, even by fighting… For War is waged in order to attain peace; [and] through your victory you must bring those whom you defeat to the advantage of peace.”[27]

The necessity of a just cause, patience forbearance and prudence before starting a war would become staple parts of the Just War Tradition known as “jus ad bellum”, or the necessary conditions before beginning a war. Although not as explicitly defined, his second criterion of fighting the enemy out of love, or with charity, is a Christianized way of understanding the second pillar of the Just War Tradition, jus in bellum, or the necessity to fight a war with justice. Although the UN has drafted rules for fighting wars, I believe more emphasis, especially for Christian soldiers and citizen contemplation, needs to be given to the status of one’s heart towards the enemy. Instead of seeing only pure evil or being driven by vengeful passions, one should practice “benevolent harshness” as Augustine would have it, patiently exercising discipline on the belligerent as a good parent reluctantly would. Such benevolent harshness must have the welfare of the victims as well as the victims be the principal concern. Finally, “Augustine never allows his readers to take satisfaction in a victorious war over the unjust, no matter how spotless the war; for to him, war is evil from the start, and to celebrate the victory of good over evil is to fail to regret the evil that gave rise to the necessity of war in the first place.”[28]

Medieval Period

Between the end of the 10th century and the 14th century, the Peace of God and Truce of God movements spread throughout most of Western Europe in an effort to limit the permissible targets of violence and occasions for conflict. During the Medieval period, Gratian (ca 1150) and Aquinas (born 1225) stand out in their extensive writings, especially in dealing with war. Both saw the legitimacy of “holy war” or the Church’s blessing for fighting aggressors in the name of God. Because of the political power held by the Church, they deemed it necessary that the Church both protect the borders from invaders on the outside and protect from heresy within. This most famously took the form of the Crusades and the Inquisition.

According to the Just War criteria, it is certainly true that the Crusades were wrong and awful in their slaughtering of innocent Jews and Muslims. Indeed there were contemporary voices that condemned the abuses committed by the crusaders.[29] Yet, though I wholeheartedly desire peaceful Muslim-Jewish- Christian relations, the Crusades, according to Just War criteria, simply do not deserve the blanketed condemnation that took root following the enlightenment’s general abhorrence of religious authority. As a whole they span a period of more than 300 years and the personal motives of the crusaders varied between piety, wealth, adventure, political allegiance, the rescue and defense of fellow Christians and the reconquest of formerly Christian lands. Contextually, the launch of the first crusade by Pope Urban II in 1095 was in the immediate prompted by the request for help from the Byzantine Emperor after the recent conquest of Nicaea (the place of the Constantine’s Church council) by the Seljuq Turks. More generally it was a response to the Muslim conquest of fully two-thirds of the Christian world that had started in the mid 600s.[30]

Gratian is noteworthy for permitting the overthrow of tyrants by reasoning that although they had temporal authority, as unjust rulers, they were usurping the greater authority of God. But before raising the revolutionary flag, there must be both a legitimate hope and desire that the situation will be better and more peaceful after the revolution attempt. Both Aquinas’s and Gratian’s stance on limited obedience to a secular authority broke from Augustine’s more vaguely and seemingly unlimited obedience to authority. Though not precedence for an armed revolution, Aquinas and Gratian could find examples of civil disobedience in Daniel’s disobedience to King Darius in Daniel 6 and the apostles’ disobedience to the Sanhedrin in Acts 5:17-42.

Within Aquinas’s formulation of natural law, in which rational thought ultimately finds its home in Christ, the wisdom of God, he did find self-defense to be permitted for the sake of preserving life. Aquinas wrestled in his Summa Theologica over war being both a categorical vice in opposition to the virtue of peace and its potential role as the virtue of justice in action. Similarly to Augustine, Aquinas strongly emphasizes that in addition to the requirements of a just cause and a legitimate authority, the intention must be for securing peace and of charity, or “benevolent harshness” towards both the belligerents and those under attack.

The Reformation

The Protestant Reformation brought diverse strands of thought to the question of war.

In his treatise, Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved, Luther affirms the legitimacy of the military profession as a “legitimate and godly calling and occupation,” because soldiers are a function of the temporal sword and temporal government which, according to Romans 13 and 1 Peter, has been instituted by God for the punishment of wrong, the protection of right, and for the preservation of temporal peace. Luther confirmed that war must be purely for defense and the “only miserable way left of defending ourselves”. Luther, among other reformers, condemned any version of holy war altogether because it confused the two Kingdoms, that of man and God, and spiritual battles were to be fought with spiritual weapons. He also necessitated that soldiers could and should conscientiously object to any war or military command that they deemed to be unjust. Although Luther’s theological assertions would rupture the rule of multiple sovereigns, he, particularly distraught by the Great Peasant’s Revolt, strongly condemned the overthrow of rulers, even tyrants, unless they were mentally insane.

John Calvin (1530) shared with Luther a high view of civil society and the authority of the state. Although he acknowledged the just cause of some revolutions, he was against any foreign intervention because of the likelihood of selfish ulterior motives, favoring instead the sovereignty of states. Overall he believed it more proper for Christians to suffer in disobedience than to overthrow a tyrant and risk the instability that could follow. In the opposite direction of the other reformers, Calvin held that the magistrate and the church should be much more intimately related than in the medieval scene where regnum and sacerdotium were competing and sometimes overlapping. In this regard, Calvin deemed it an obligation of the state to defend the faith.

John Locke famously developed his ethical judgements, including on war, in two strands by using both Scripture and natural rights. Locke, in agreement with Luther, objected to Calvin’s thinking that rulers should defend a particular religious conviction because such resolve would undeniably bring persecution and war, especially in the age of the Reformation. It was during Locke’s time in 1648 that the famous Westphalia Treaty was signed, ending the Thirty Years’ War and giving emphasis to the sovereignty of nation states and a renewed precedence for diplomatic means of negotiating peace.[31]

Other reformers such as the Quakers, Amish, Mennonites and Church of the Brethren became apolitical and pacifist.

The Age of Discovery and Colonization

During the same time period, the European powers, often with the blessing of Church leaders for the sake of spreading the Gospel, were competing to explore and capitalize on the resources of distant lands, often to the detriment of the native populations. Francisco de Vitoria (born 1492) was a Spanish theologian, philosopher and jurist who in response to the Spanish conquests of the new world argued that rights necessarily extended past one’s own borders and to all people. Because of his reflections on a “republic for the whole world”, he has been labeled the “founder of global political philosophy”. Following in his footsteps, Francisco Suarez, a Jesuit professor of philosophy, drew on the concept of Charity from the works of Augustine and Aquinas to further the argument that humanity has a moral and political unity. Though his works would influence a diverse number of later philosophers, his direct influence on Grotius has earned him the title of godfather of International Law.

Hugo Grotius (born 1583), often called the father of international law, brought together both Christian and pre- Christian thought to expand the concepts of the Just War Tradition to the international level. In the concluding chapter of his famous book On the Law of War and Peace, Grotius admonishes his reader to “preserve faith” and “seek peace”, for “by faith…not only is every state preserved, but that grand society of all nations is maintained. If this be taken away, says Aristotle rightly, all human correspondence ceases.” Moreover, “War is so horrible, that nothing but necessity, or true charity, can make it lawful.” And, “It is impossible that we should have a quiet conscience, and a just confidence in the protection of heaven, unless we aim at peace in everything we do throughout the whole course of a war.”[32]

The Geneva Convention and the Formation of the UN

In the sorrowful aftermath of WWII, 196 countries came together to sign the Geneva Convention treaties to delineate the protection and rights of wartime prisoners, the sick and wounded, and civilians. These famous treaties were an affirmation and expansion of 3 previous Geneva conventions dating back to 1864 when the first convention was formed based on the powerful proposition of Henry Dunant for internationally recognized relief agencies in the time of war. Dunant, himself a socially minded Christian, would become the founder of the International Red Cross and become the recipient of the first Nobel Peace Prize. Whereas the Geneva conventions focused exclusively on people during wartime, the Hague Conventions between 1899 and 1925 were negotiated at International Peace Conferences and focused on the elimination of chemical and biological weapons.

The UN was formed initially in 1941 as a united front against the axis powers with its founding four members (US, UK, China, Soviet Union) viewing themselves as “four policemen”. The UN Security Council was designated the lofty task of maintaining peace and security among nations with its membership permanently composed of the four founding countries, France and 10 temporary countries. Although the effectiveness, moral purity and legitimacy of the UN Security Council has rightfully been called into question, its declared purpose and potential make it an important player when discussing the options for war and the hopes for peace.

Contrasting The Just War Tradition, Pacifism and Realism

Today there remains among Christians the option to either identify with the Just War Tradition or to adhere to a form of pacifism. Admittedly some Christians have both permanently and more often temporarily, held more realist views towards war and peace. Debating the moral legitimacy and consequential effectiveness of each position is both valuable for personal ethical development and for international hopes for a just and peaceful society. I am no expert on any position but I hope to in what follows give a basic overview of each position’s claims, strengths and weaknesses, especially in their responsibility as citizens and their fidelity to the life and teachings of Jesus.[33]

Starting with shared foundations, all Christians aim to love and serve God and their neighbor before themselves. They believe that all humans, even the most vile, bear the image of God. They are challenged by the call, and critically the example of Jesus, to love their enemy, even if it results in rejection or death. They trust that God’s promises of peace, justice and new creation will be vindicated in the fullness of God’s reign. Christians further believe that the Church should be a place to critically think through ethical questions together. But because reflection must be both personal and communal, some notable differences in theological interpretations divide Just War from pacifist perspectives—namely the way Christians view the fall, eschatology, and ecclesiology are key indicators of what position is held.

The Fall

If one emphasizes the inherent goodness of God’s creation of humanity despite the fall, that is our sinfulness, then they are likely to be either a Just War adherent or a pacifist. If however they place more weight on the dichotomy of humans who are still “dead in their sin” and those who have been “redeemed by grace”, then they will likely be more suspect of either aligning with or trusting secular or non-Christian authorities and governments. Pacifists of this type have historically separated themselves completely from any worldly ties to violence and power, while realists argue that in some situations, unjust war decisions and violent government coercion is needed to defend the good from what is bad. It is sadly this latter position, which though perhaps admirable for loving and defending what is good, has let fear drive Christians to make unjust and non-Christ-like decisions.


Eschatology invokes the present state of the world and where it is going in regards to the consummation of all things. Pacifists emphasize that the reign of God is truly existing among Christians and therefore Christians should live by values that are in accord with God’s reign, particularly nonviolence and peace. Yet grasping the reality of our depraved world, many Christians have interpreted the eschatological situation to mean that though the church certainly should always try to transform the present reality and follow Jesus’s commands to be peacemakers, at times the church will have to tolerate some evil in order to avoid greater evils. This position insists that because the reign of God is not fully realized, living by the values of Jesus is not completely possible or even best for the world (e.g. always turning the other cheek). Realists in particular, guided by their strong sense of sin, emphasize the not yet portion of God’s reign and recognize war as a necessary evil to restrain sin. The Just War Tradition has tried to minimize the tension of the already, but not yet full, reign of God by seeing the ordering of a just society as both required under the reign of God and as a God-given, disciple-of-Jesus, task for the present. Just War theorists argue that pacifists do not give practical answers for dealing with evil in the world while pacifists charge Just War thinkers for renouncing the very practices that Jesus commanded that would make the reign of God more evident in our midst.

Ecclesiology and Secular Government

Although the separation of Church and State is a hallmark of the enlightenment, historically the two have been one and the same and even today bridges are both abundant and varied. Consider Angela Merkel and the host of Christian democratic parties across Europe and South America or the vibrant role of religion in African public life. More close to home in the US, the religious right have an enduring, albeit waning, presence.

Having a “smaller” view of the Church’s direct role in political society is common among Christians who see themselves in step with the Christians of the first few centuries as a community of disciples who are trying to faithfully follow Jesus in a communist-like way, requiring at least some distancing of themselves from the trappings of secular society, particularly violence. Similarly to Augustine, they would argue that humans did not originally need government, and the state, though necessary for the world, is flawed and in itself is more evil than good.

Christians who have a “big” view of the Church would agree with Aquinas who saw political authority as good in of itself and a place where Christians and non-Christians could come together for the common good of society. Accordingly the Church should be actively involved in secular society and though it might teach pacifism, the Church can contain a diversity of members including politicians and soldiers and its goal is to instruct and teach each for their personal context.

The Just War Tradition and its Critiques of Pacifism and Realism

The Just War Tradition has been the dominant method of Christian reflection on war for the past 1600 years, but does it deserve to retain this privileged position today? It is broadly claimed to be the most ethical approach to war by Christians and non-Christians alike. Its proponents would argue that from the outset it correctly recognizes the reality of war and the fallen world that we live in, and tries to bring some good out of a bad situation. Although there is certainly a diversity of thought in the centuries-old tradition, upon which I have barely scratched the surface, the broadly unanimous ethical judgments and necessary lines of thought regarding war have been filtered and enshrined in international law. Though one cannot certainly prove that the Just War Tradition has prevented and ameliorated many wars, there is evidence to make a sensible argument that it has.

“For the Christian, the Just War Tradition provides a path from their basic faith commitments to responsible participation in worldly affairs. “The Just War tradition was initially and still is for many Christians an attempt to come to terms with what it means to love their neighbor, protect the widow and orphan, and recognize God’s providential ordering of human affairs through political authority.”[34]

The modern and mainstream perspective on Just War is founded on ethical and political assumptions such as natural law developed mainly by Aquinas and secularized by Locke, the centrality of human rights and the notion of the common good. Just War theorists would affirm some wars as a last resort for humanitarian reasons, in particular when it is backed by a UN decision because it clearly satisfies all of the Just War criteria.

Going to war to maintain justice and defend the innocent where no other means is sufficient is not something that is morally ambivalent but must be open to question by tender consciences. In response to pacifist critics, they would argue that Just War “policing” is continuous with what love and justice require in other relationships such as parenting and policing where wise judgments require decisions that are sometimes hard and costly. A shortcoming of pacifism is the potential of abandoning instead of loving one’s neighbor, either domestically or internationally, when they are in need, such as the essential example of preventing a genocide.

During WWI, WWII and the Cold War, Just War thinkers often charged pacifists as being irrelevant at best, and dangerous at worst for potentially lulling political leaders and nations to passive stances towards totalitarian regimes. They also rightfully point out that neither Jesus, John the Baptist or St. Paul ever condemned Roman soldiers for being soldiers but rather commanded them not to abuse their power. In summary, it is argued that Just War thinking is the best alternative to abandoning public reasoning about war to pacifistic, realist and nationalist rhetoric.

Pacifism and its Criticism of the Just War Tradition and Realism

“The strongest reason that Christian pacifism remains an attractive option at the beginning of the twenty first century is the same one that made it attractive at the beginning of the second century: It points to a kind of faithful Christian discipleship that witnesses to the new ordering of the reign of God.”[35] Now as then, many Christians experience God’s call to a life that suggests there is an alternative to the continuous warring and competition among nations and subnational groups. Pacifists are generally wary that by recognizing war as a sometimes legitimate action, Christians since the time of Constantine have been duped into rationalizing tribal or nationalistic self interests, “baptizing wars” and legitimizing the killing of innocent civilians. After all, historical realizations of these fears are admitted even by Just War theorists as a shortcoming of Just War reasoning.

Has the Just War reasoning of Christians really been effective? Couldn’t the pragmatics of nations and the natural law of humans have had the same effects in stemming indiscriminate killing and adventure wars? What would the world look like today if for 2,000 years Christians collectively had remained faithful to following Jesus in nonviolence?

Modern arguments in support of pacifism and its number of adherents appear to be growing due to the destructive nature of modern weaponry whereby it is less plausible that a war will lead to a net improvement of any given situation. Although Just War thinkers are also against the use of nuclear weapons because of their indiscriminate nature, pacifists argue that even the use of smart weapons cannot be fully trusted to discriminate between soldiers and civilians, noting that between 1997 and 2002, about 3 million people were killed by war with 75% of those being civilians.[36] In the wake of modern terrorism, pacifism is arguably much more effective at addressing the grievances that fuel most non-state sponsored terrorist groups.

Further, there is hope that recent advances in communication can increase the potential for international initiatives to resolve conflicts peacefully. Although the UN and especially the Security Council, has proven to be not without bias in its judgments and initiatives, it does in theory have the ability to adjudicate between nations, to decide when international law has been breached, to deploy troops in peacekeeping roles and to act to enforce judgments. In order for the UN to be a realizable international authority it needs an increased level of endorsement and commitment from the world’s most power nationals, which as of right now are weary of accepting constraints on their freedom to act.

Although the changing realities of the 21st century point to the strategic merits of pacifism, the truth of pacifism for Christian adherents is its faithfulness to following Jesus and resolving to not use violence even in cases where it seems to promise better results in combating evil or protecting the vulnerable.

But isn’t the real threat of totalitarian regimes like in WWII an exception? I grew up watching and glorifying the heroes of WWII, including my own grandfathers. I had two grandfathers in the Pacific and a great uncle who braved the infamous beaches of Normandy, all of whom were God-fearing Christian men. I am thankful to both them and the current soldiers for their courage and sacrifice. Although the horrors and failures of Vietnam provide some balance, the enshrinement of its WWII heroes has also made the US prone to glorifying its own position in wars, making it susceptible to dichotomizing the enemy as pure evil and the US as the intervening hero. Pacifists would argue that many civilians were killed by the allies in WWII, e.g. the fire bombing of Germany, and to the critical point of preventing genocide, that many of the Jews, Roma, homosexuals and disabled who were rescued were done through nonviolent means.[37] They further insist that genocidal thought and action would be much more avertable if people and nations took a more proactive step in creative and determined peacemaking initiatives.

Recently as I walked the famous road from Concord to Lexington upon which the colonials famously opened fire on the British troops who were coming to destroy a stockpile of weapons, I started to doubt the righteousness of the American Revolution. Later as I read through the New Testament epistles I was struck with the multifold call to peaceful living and prayer even and especially under oppressive regimes. Although I, like any Christian, should plead for the cause of the oppressed, I have come to understand that there are about as many definitions of justice in the world as there are people, and much too often one crosses over even one’s own definition when trying to compensate for past injustice. Accordingly I am becoming more wary of violent means of asserting justice, recognizing instead that choosing the way of the cross, by accepting a portion of the world’s injustice and pain, is quite possibly the only way to peace. Yet, I admit that I am still unresolved given that movies such as Braveheart and The Patriot still tug my heart towards violent revolution.

But what about the Old Testament? Can its violent passages be completely dismissed? Alongside the Old Testament’s vision of peace as the fulfillment of God’s purposes, and the New Testament’s witness to faithful nonviolence, we find the characters of the Bible wrestling with a world that is anything but peaceful. The most disturbing texts relating to warfare in the Bible are the parts of the Mosaic law documenting how the Israelites are to conquer the land of Canaan and the exaggerated stories[38] of the ensuing slaughter of the neighboring tribes at the command of God. Deuteronomy 20 sets the standard of expected conduct. Distant nations that do not accept an offer of peace and forced labor are to have their males killed and their women and children taken as bondservants. Even more frighteningly, the peoples that inhabited the immediate area of Israel’s future possession were to be completely slaughtered and the cities burned wholly to the ground.

While it is true that the political context for Israel as a theocratic nation with explicit boundaries was very different to the position of the early Church, that being a marginal community under the powerful authority of Rome, after Constantine why did the Church not recognize the political and conquesting example of Israel?[39]

The books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy place a large emphasis on purity. The rationale for primarily pushing out[40] and if need be slaughtering whole peoples and their livestocks is specified in Deut 20: “So that they do not teach you to do all the detestable things…and so you do not sin against the Lord your God.” The mandated violence is not commanded out of cruelty, unbridled aggression or unlimited conquest, but in a struggle to keep a people holy and separate from the evil practices of those around them. Further there is a strong emphasis that it is God who would fight for and protect Israel and that they should not rely on a building a military machine.[41] Christians in general believe that the Hebrew purity laws and territorial boundaries have found their fulfillment in Christ[42] and therefore the descriptive passages of the conquest of Canaan cannot be used as an authoritative basis or prescription for right conduct in war. Most conclusively, Christians find themselves under the reign of Jesus in the Kingdom of God. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus ushered in the beginnings of the great vision of peace in the Old Testament, whereby the nations would be united under the banner of the Prince of Peace.

The Middle Way: Just Peacemaking in the 21st Century

Perhaps one position is more closely tied to the reign of Jesus, trusting God and being a responsible citizen. I am honestly not able to make that judgement. I would however like to finally present a middle way forward, contemporarily called Just Peacemaking that has its roots in the kingdom vision transformative initiatives laid out in the Sermon on the Mount.[43]

The strength of the Just Peacemaking movement is that it combines the fundamental goals and methods of pacifists and Just War thinkers to encourage and challenge one another to be more proactive in the peacemaking goals of their positions, even or especially in daily life. “The foundation of just peacemaking must be a culture of reconciliation, a process of “overcoming past alienation, enmity and hurt and of relating to the ‘other’ in the roots of conflict, one of which being fear and anxiety. Preemptive Love Coalition, an encouraging example working mainly in Iraq, states it this way: “We fear loss. We fear shame. We fear ideologies and religions. We fear vulnerability….So we fight, first with attitudes and words, then with fists and bombs….We must confront polarizing conflicts with love instead of fear.”[45]

Further, we must see the dignity in each other, recognizing that we all have hopes, dreams, grievances and life experiences while understanding that our enemy does not attack us without a reason. We must try to understand that reason and proactively create shared identities and dreams for the common good. Yes it is absolutely true that dreams and worldviews do not always fit neatly together, but this is where transparent, face-to-face discussion is most critical. Instead of building fences, talking in echo chambers and then bitterly tossing polemic bombs over the fence, we need to both respectfully listen and candidly talk and challenge based on our understanding of the current state of a situation, ideologies and social or political changes. Hopefully such discussion will bring new understanding or at least the ability to agree to disagree without resorting to violence.

While forgiveness is absolutely essential in building peace, securing some level of retributive justice is necessary for both healing and breaking cycles of strife and violence. Economic justice and reducing the imbalance of power is a significant component in a culture of reconciliation. We must heed Scripture’s plea for justice and the plight of the poor, calling us to a faithful and compassionate response.[46]

We should find motivation to forgive and find common ground by recognizing our own failures and involvement in injustice. Instead of letting a Facebook mentality of judgement and criticism direct our thoughts, we should determine to make self reflection and repentance integral to our daily life and the way we approach conflict of any kind.

Finally as followers of Jesus, we can be confident and at peace with the future as one of my favorite hymn says:

“Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side. Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain…
[For] the waves and winds still know,
His voice who ruled them while He dwelt below.
When change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.”[47]

While we have this hope in the future, in the present we must live out our identity as the body of Christ by being agents of reconciliation and peace. The glorious truth about Christianity is that God is working to make all things new by first entering into humanity, proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom, dying for us, his enemies, and then calling us to be part of the Missio Dei, the Loving Mission of God.

Yes the coherent ethical answers are important, the riches of historical theology can be incredibly insightful and practical steps are essential. Yet, the long and complicated answer can easily be twisted and wrongly interpreted. Thankfully, as I was reminded in Jordan, the answer is both simple, generally accepted, and at the heart of the gospel. Trust God and love even when it’s difficult.


1 The Beatles, “All you need is Love”, 1967

2 Black Eyed Peas, “Where Is the Love?”, 2003

3 Isaiah 11 (emphasis on vs 6)

4 See the Isaiah 11 reference to the root of Jesse and Acts 2-4 for the preaching in Jerusalem that followed the Resurrection. See also Micah 2, 4-5, 7; Zechariah 2:10-13, 8:20-23, 9:9-10, 13- 14; Isaiah 2, 9, 12, 14, 25, 34-35, 42, 45, 49, 52, 54-56, 50-62, 65-66; Hosea 1-3, 6-7, 10, 13-14; Psalm 46, 22 etc. for prophetic discourses on the future renewal and expansion of the Kingdom of God.

5 Colossians 1:20

6 Romans 14:17

7 Romans 12:14-21

8 1 Peter 2:20-21,23, 3:9.

9 David D. Corey and J. Daryl Charles, The Just War Tradition, An Introduction, pg 28

10 Justin Martyr, First Apology, section 39

11 Tatian’s Address to the Greeks, Chapter 11. I personally do not think this quote suggests that Christians today should completely decline military service. I do respect and humbly honor soldiers that serve in love for the sake of peace and protection.

12 Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, Chapter 1

13 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 4” and Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, pg 96.

14 Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition, 16.17

15 See for example Tertullian, Against the Jews, 3.154, Origen, Contra Celsus, 5:33, 3:7

16 Tertullian, Apology, 30 and 39

17 Origen, Contra Celsus, Ch 73

18 Clement of Rome, The Apostolic Fathers

19 1 Tim 2:1-2, 1 Peter 2:13-17

20 Tertullian, Apology, 42

21 Tertullian, Apology, Ch 5 and Letter to Scapula, Justin Martyr, Apology, 68,

22 Tertullian, On Idolatry, 19

23 David D. Corey and J. Daryl Charles, The Just War Tradition, An Introduction, pg 34

24 Tertullian, On Idolatry, 19, and De Corona

25 Eusebius, Life of Constantine and Ecclesiastical History and Socrates Scholasticus.

26 Romans 13:1-5

27 Augustine, “Letter 189, To Boniface”

28 David D. Corey and J. Daryl Charles, “The Just War Tradition, An Introduction”, pg 65

29 The Archbishop Ruthard of Mainz and the Bishops of Speyer and Worms tried to shelter and protect the Jews. Condemnation of the Crusades or the abuses committed by the crusaders was voiced among others by Peter the Venerable in 1122 and the Franciscan philosopher Roger Bacon in 1271.

30 Although the Crusades are a significant historical phenomenon with enduring cultural and relational consequences, their legacy has been often misappropriated within post-colonial narratives. The historical caricature that the crusaders destroyed the existent peace in the holy lands is betrayed by the disunity and civil wars of the contemporary Seljuq, Fatimid, and Abbasid dynasties. With the crusaders being largely defeated by the celebrated Saladin in 1187, and the long pursued Muslim conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Muslims were by most regards the contemporary victor. The tide of Islamic expansion would only be finally halted at the gates of Venice in 1683 by King Sobieski of Poland with European colonialism following shortly thereafter. For a more complete history of the Crusades see The Real History of the Crusades, or The New Concise History of the Crusades, by Thomas F. Madden or Holy Warriors: A Modern History of the Crusades by Jonathan Phillips or The Crusades: The Authoritative History of the War for the Holy Land by Thomas Asbridge or Arab Historians of the Crusades, translated and edited by Francesco Gabrieli. Alternatively see some articles by these authors online:

http://www.historytoday.com/jonathan-phillips/crusades-complete-history, http:// www.catholiceducation.org/en/controversy/the-crusades/the-real-history-of-the-crusades.html


31 Interestingly “the Catholic Church adamantly opposed the Westphalia Treaty and its recognition of the spiritual sovereignty of modern nations. In 1650, Pope Innocent X issued a bull condemning it as “null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane, empty of meaning and effect for all time.” For the Roman Church, the rise of state sovereignty was not simply an affront to the Church’s temporal influence. It also challenged Western Christianity’s historic conception of a unitary global order, one that went back to Constantine and the fusion of religious and imperial authority in the fourth century. As a result, throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, the Catholic Church continued to judge the Westphalian primacy of state sovereignty contrary to the natural order established by God. As late as the nineteenth century, the Church still banned the writings of Hugo Grotius, an early defender of the sovereign state and the father of modern international law.” (source: https:// www.firstthings.com/article/2015/12/two-theories-of-immigration) The idea of one human family that transcends national borders is still pushed today by Pope Francis.

32 David D. Corey and J. Daryl Charles, The Just War Tradition, An Introduction, pg 144

33 See Faith and Force: A Christian Debate about War, by Brian Stiltner and David Clough for a great introductory book written as a debate over contemporary issues between adherents to pacifism and Just War Theory.

34 Faith and Force: A Christian Debate about War, by Brian Stiltner and David Clough, pg 222-223

35 Faith and Force: A Christian Debate about War, by Brian Stiltner and David Clough, pg 224

36 Dan Smith, The Penguin Atlas of War and Peace, rev. Ed, pgs 38-40.

37 See the debate on pages 100-107 in Faith and Force: A Christian Debate about War, by Brian Stiltner and David Clough, that is specifically centered around the Humanitarian crisis in Kosovo. Using nonviolent methods, the people of Bulgaria, Denmark and Finland were able to save almost all of their Jewish populations. See also https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article. php?ModuleId=10005185 and https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article. php?ModuleId=10005131 for some history on both the nonviolent rescue of Jews and the liberation of the concentration camps.

38 Though passages such as Joshua 10:40-12:24 indicate that the Israelites conquered the entire land, destroying everything that had breath, following passages reveal that Israel did not, in fact, kill everything that had breath for all the groups that are said to be destroyed appear later in the text. See Joshua 13, 16:10; 17:12; 23:7,12-14. In the very next book (1 Chronicles), the first verse after the book of Joshua, they ask who will fight the Canaanites. As another example, in 1 Sam 15:3 Saul is ordered to utterly destroy and kill all of the Amalekites. After all but executing this command because he spared the King, later in the same book (1 Sam 27:8-9) David and his men are said to have gone up and raided the Amalekites. The Amalekites appear yet again in 1 Sam 30 and even centuries later during the reign of King Hezekiah in 1 Chron 4 and in the descendent Hamman who tried to exterminate the Jews in the story of Esther. Apparently the genocidal words of “completely destroying everything that breathes” are not literal unless you think the authors are completely insane. Upon comparison with other Ancient Near East sources, scholars have determined that this is a literary device used at the time called Hagiographic Hyperbole. When one army would defeat another army they would brag of complete annihilation to intimidate and glorify their strength. Modern day parallels are heard often in the sporting context: “We massacred [slaughtered, butchered, destroyed, etc..] them!”

39 I am sure some Christians at some point in history used the conquests of Canaan to support conquering but I do not know of any examples. Even the modern state of Israel was and still is largely a secular Jewish effort, and though they argue for their historical ties to the land, they do not justify the displacement of the Palestinian people with the conquering narrative of the Old Testament. Rather, as right or wrong as it may be, they first justified using force in order to secure a safe place for Jewish people and now as a means to protect against local Arab threats. In Ezekiel 47 the recreation of Israel after the exile is foretold and it is stated that “you shall divide this land among you according to the tribes of  Israel. You shall allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the aliens who reside among you and have begotten children among you. They shall be to you as citizens of Israel; with you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel.” (v21-22). Religious Jews today have varying theological views about the state of Israel but Christians see this foretold renewing of Israel after exile to have already come true in Jesus and His Kingdom.

40 Rather than pure slaughter, there is an emphasis on driving out the people inhabiting the land. (See Lev 18:24-28, Num 21:32, 33:51-56; Deut 9:1; 11:23; 18:14; 19:1; 23:27-30, 2 Kgs 16:3. For example, according to Exodus 23:23, the angel would go before Israel and would completely destroy the Canaanites. Later in the same chapter (vs 28-29) God says he would not drive out the Canaanites all at once but would do so little by little. (see also Deut 6:22) According to the narrative God gave the Canaanites plenty of time to leave before judgement came. It is even stated in Joshua 5:1 that the people of the land knew that Israel was coming and were afraid because of what had happened in Egypt. There is also the example of Rahab, the prostitute of Jericho, who places her faith in the God of Israel and she saves herself and her family from the destruction of Jericho. Remarkably she is even in the lineage of Jesus. Finally, God promised to the Israelites that it was not because of their righteousness that they would take possession of the land but because of the inhabitants’ wickedness and if (and when) they fell to the same level of wickedness they would get destroyed and be driven out of the land. (see Deut 6, 8, 9, 12;, Lev 18:24, 20:22)

41 See the example of God’s power in the exodus out of Egypt along with Deut 7:17-26, Deut 20:1, Joshua 23:9-10, Isaiah 30:15-16, 31:1.

42 See Matthew 5-7 and in general Jesus’s multi-fold call of association to himself and the Kingdom of God as the formation of the new Israel over and against traditional purity laws, family ties and territorial boundaries.

43 See https://www.sbl-site.org/assets/pdfs/Stassen_Transforming.pdf for a paper by Glen Harold Stassen, one of the leading developers of Just Peacemaking.

44 Raymond Helmick, Rodney Petersen, and Tom Porter, Boston University School of Theology, “Components of Just Peace Declaration”.

45 http://www.preemptivelove.org/

46 Jeremiah 22:3, Isaiah 1:17, Psalm 146:7-9, Malachi 6:8, 3:5, Amos 5:24, Luke

4:18-19, James 2:15-16 etc.

47 Be still my Soul, Kathrina von Schlegel, 1752



Erik Johnson graduated in 2016 with his Masters in Electrical Engineering and is working locally. He enjoys sports, reading, building things and spending time with friends and family.

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