War: A Force That Gives Us Meaning

For whatever reason, pacifism is considered by many Christians to mean something other than non-violence. I’m not entirely sure why this is, except that we don’t understand what the word means or implies. So, here’s a definition: 1 : opposition to war or violence as a means of settling disputes ; specifically : refusal to bear arms on moral or religious grounds 2 : an attitude or policy of nonresistance (Merriam-Websters Dictionary).
Keep that in mind.
The Bible is an unfolding story of God bringing his people into new ways of living and understanding. As such, it is also full of history about the way things were, and hints of the way things are supposed to be. There are provisions for war, and even startling verses like this from the “Song of Moses”: “I will make my arrows drunk with blood, and my sword shall devour flesh-with the blood of the slain and the captives, from the long-haired enemy.” Some will read that and say, “Hell yeah. Kill the bad guys! That’s God’s plan!” Others might read it and wonder, “How can God as revealed in Jesus have anything to do with that?”
The wars that God called the Israelites to enact in the Old Testament were never intended to inform our theology on war and violence. They do, but as you will see, they shouldn’t. “War is always evil – and peace is the norm and standard in the Old Testament, as evidenced in numerous passages from the prophets – but because of the reality of human sin, and because of Israel’s existence as a geographically located state, war is a necessary practice” (Lee Camp, Who Is My Enemy?). See that? Because of the political reality of the nation of Israel, and because of sin, O.T. War was necessary. But…
“…the story moves beyond this state of affairs…for in the new covenant, the new manifestation of the kingdom of God is neither geographically nor ethnically located but transcends all such boundaries and borders…Something new arises, and thus the possibility for existence that does not necessitate war” (Ibid).
If its true that in Jesus, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, then there is no such thing as an ethnicity or nation that is God’s. Everyone who belongs to Jesus is part of the new kingdom.
When Isaiah has visions of the new Kingdom in which the Messiah will reign (see Isaiah 2:2-4, 11:6-9, 25:6-9), he talks about the end of all war, of things being put to right. He has this vision during a time of exile for Israel, after they have already been defeated in war by other, stronger, nations. This is both a prophecy of hope to a hopeless people, and a hint of what God is calling his people into. Not a nation of war-mongering thugs that everyone is afraid of, but a nation of peace-wielding creatively non-violent people who no longer learn war. And this right in the middle of a blood-soaked history of the people of God.
When Jesus lived, he taught his people to live in this new way, most notably in telling Peter to put away his sword. That’s the old way. There’s a new way that is much better. When Jesus died, he submitted to a criminal execution at the hands of the oppressor, though he had all the power to “take vengeance on the adversaries”. And in his resurrection, he became not only Israel’s Messiah, but also Messiah for all mankind, ushering in the long-awaited kingdom of God on earth through the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
In the first few centuries after Jesus, one main argument against Jesus being the Messiah by Jews and pagans was this: If the Messiah was supposed to end all wars, and people are still going to war with one another, then Jesus certainly can not have been the Messiah. It’s an interesting argument that is based upon Scripture. It’s a hard one to refute. But, here is where pacifism and non-violence comes back in: the church responded, “Yes, Jesus was the Messiah. And the community of disciples have unlearned the ways of war and learned the ways of peace: the very peaceableness of the church is evidence that Jesus is the Messiah” (Ibid).
When we make arguments for war using the Old Testament as a means of proof, we are essentially also saying that Jesus was not indeed the Messiah. “The interpretive move to make the Old Testament the authority for war-making, from this early-church perspective, is to reject the lordship of Jesus” (Ibid).
I like to think that John the Baptist’s dad was on to something when he said that the Messiah will guide us on pathways of peace. If peace is not the goal, then Jesus is not the Messiah. And, as Derek Webb so eloquently sang, “Peace by way of war is like purity by way of fornication.” If peace is the goal, then our calling just might be to strive for the hopeful vision of Isaiah by fighting against the ways of this world by refusing to kill our enemies and thus prove that Jesus is indeed the Messiah.


8 thoughts on “War: A Force That Gives Us Meaning

  1. I don’t like this.

    It’s confusing. I also think it’s uncharacteristically absolutist of you. But, I could be misunderstanding you because, like I mentioned, it’s confusing (to me, anyway).

    My first question is this: When you talk about non-violence/pacifism, are you just talking about war, or all lethal violence, or any kind of violence at all? What about beating someone up? What about the threat of violence (pointing a gun at someone to coerce behavior, for example)?

    The answer to that is important because violence, defined as broadly as possible, is a mostly ugly thing that can sometimes be very good, even beautiful. An armed police raid on a brothel, freeing enslaved women and children, is both violent and good.

    If, however, you’re just talking about killing, I think it’s a lot harder to find examples of killing someone being a good or beautiful thing. Killing seems “right” sometimes, when it’s the bad guy getting what he deserves. But that’s just vengeance, really, and I don’t think there’s any room for vengeance in the Kingdom of Heaven.

    I think we’re mostly in agreement when it comes to killing, although even THAT is complicated because an armed raid on a brothel that frees enslaved women and children despite a few casualties is STILL a good thing, isn’t it? At the very least, it’s not an easy, black and white answer.

    You haven’t explicitly said that Jesus preached pacifism, but you did say that being a pacifist is necessary to following Jesus (in the Third Way post). That’s an awfully black and white claim to make, and I think it boxes Jesus in. He said “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemy”, sure. He submitted to an unjust death without retaliation. But he didn’t say “No violence for any reason”, and to claim that non-violence is *necessary* to following him is drawing a hard line in the sand that Jesus didn’t actually draw.

    So does it make sense why I’m a little confused and surprised by what seems to be a very absolute stance that you’re taking? You seem to make a sweeping, black and white argument for pacifism based mostly on Lee Camp’s book and early church traditions, and you don’t leave any room for what I think are some really legitimate questions.

    Having talked to you about things of this nature before, I know that I agree with you on a lot of violence-related issues. But I’m no pacifist, and neither was Jesus. He was just a cheek-turning, enemy-forgiving, do-unto-others-ing guy who also drove merchants out of the temple with a whip (yeah, maybe he only hit the animals with the whip, but he probably got a couple merchants too.)

    1. I think that there are creative alternatives to all violent choices that we make when violence is the easy answer (as in your “armed raid on a brothel” example). But, like I said, violence is easy. It lacks creativity. There’s this idea in Scripture of “heaping burning coals on someone’s head” that I particularly like. Here’s the passage: “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.” ~ Romans 12:17-20

      I’m not completely confident that I know every nuance of the idea of heaping burning coals on someone’s head, but it seems that this loving-kindness will have a greater result of bringing about change in the enemy than any violence ever could.
      As MLK Jr. said “You can murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder.” Violence cannot be the ultimate solution. It can never bring about shalom…it may bring about a brief feeling of peace in the world, but it definitely doesn’t bring a lasting peace, nor does it show an example to the world of how we are living differently as followers of Jesus.

      1. No, violence is not the easy way out. Doing nothing is the easy way out. Violence, in certain situations, may not be as “creative” as other solutions, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

        For that matter, wrestling with the question of when is violence appropriate for followers of Christ is a lot less “easy” than simply saying “no violence, period” and relying instead of vague, undefined “creative” solutions.

        To be clear, I’m not advocating for self defense. I’m not advocating for the death penalty. I’m not advocating for “justified” revenge. I’m not advocating for war.

        I’m advocating for the idea that sometimes, when the weak are actively being abused by stronger, evil people, controlled violence is the best solution for stopping the abuse. I’m pushing back against the idea that Christians ought to be pacifists in the full, black-and-white, no-violence-for-any-reason-ever sense.

        Why can’t violence be an ultimate solution? If a wife is being beaten by her husband, isn’t it better that armed police use force to separate the two instead of waiting around, letting the abuse continue while they think of more “creative” solutions?

        Everything that Jesus said about non-violence was said to an oppressed people who expected a Messiah to come as a political conqueror, and should be read through that lens. He talks about how we should treat our enemies, but he doesn’t address how we should respond to a situation in which someone is inflicting abuse on someone else, when we have the power to intervene.

    2. I somewhat agree Zach. Even though I would consider myself a pacifist I’m not sure about the absolutist tone. While I do think Jesus was a pacifist and he calls us to be as well, I’m not sure about the implication that that is the only conceivable choice for a christian; as it seems to limit discussion and seems kind of the opposite of “setting the bar low.”

      On the other hand- I see the times I have tried pacifism and failed (moving out of a bad neighborhood to feel safe) and it all starts to sound a little too idealistic.
      But God has promised us that some day Shalom will happen. And if we are supposed to be working towards heaven on earth, I don’t see any other choice but to try non-violence. And fail. And try again.

      Can you be a violent christian? Sure. But why would you want to after seeing what Jesus and the early church accomplished without the use of force? Why settle for the lesser of two evils?

      1. I think one interesting way to look at violence vs. non-violence (which seems like a ridiculous argument to argue FOR violence, but whatever) is this: When we choose to act in any way other than love towards our enemy, we determine on their behalf that they will never be our friend or fellow believer. While that may be true, it is not the role of man to keep Jesus away from people by determining that they are an enemy therefore they will always be an enemy, an outsider, the other. Any violent action towards the enemy generally will cause continued distance and disconnect between us and them. This is the opposite of shalom.
        I would not say that all wars that have happened in the past were bad, nor would I argue that the accomplishments of violent actions towards evil regimes that were positive are evil because they were violent. What I will likely always argue is that a non-violent solution to a deep-seated issue is what the church should not only be devising, but also encouraging our governments to employ. The only way for the church to be a light in the darkness is to keep from resembling the darkness.

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