Genesis 4:2a-9; Isaiah 2:4; Matthew 5:43-48
The movie All Quiet On the Western Front was released in 1930. The movie, set in World War I, contains a scene between two American soldiers. One soldier asks the other, Where do wars come from anyway? The other soldier replied, Well, one country gets mad at another country, and they start fighting. The first soldier picks up his rifle and started walking away. Asked where he was going, he said, I’m going home. I’m not mad at anybody. I wish the reality of war was that simple.
Today ends our series Think Again, and this morning we consider what has shaped our world and our lives in ways more powerful than almost any other event or events in human history – war.
One of the earliest stories of the Bible is that of Cain and Abel, which serves as a template for human history and man’s inability to live in peace.
Every person in this room has lived through a time of war. My first memories of war date to my youngest years. One of my mother’s brothers was wounded at the Battle of the Bulge, during World War II. He had trouble with his leg because of his wound and I remember my curiosity about it led me to ask my mom what had happened. She told me about the battle and went on to tell me about when families in her neighborhood received casualty notices. I remember as an older child, in the early years of the Vietnam War, when we made prayer books in Vacation Bible School. Each one of us wrote a prayer that was copied so the prayer books contained a copy of each child’s prayer. Though it was a long time ago I remember that every one of our prayers included the plea that God would bring an end to the war.
War is a difficult topic for us as followers of Jesus, because we are citizens of two kingdoms – and earthly kingdom and a spiritual kingdom, and sometimes the goals and actions of those two kingdoms conflict with one another. Because we are citizens of both kingdoms it is hard for us to know when we are thinking as citizens of the earthly kingdom and when we are thinking as citizens of the heavenly kingdom. Some of our beliefs and thoughts about war come from our political beliefs while others come from our faith and our reading of Scripture. These two realms – the realm of faith and the realm of politics – do not always harmonize very well. My reading of the Bible, for instance, leads me to believe that Jesus was a pacifist, but I am not a pacifist. The first statement – that Jesus was a pacifist – comes from my faith and my reading of Scripture, while the second is more of a political statement.
The issue of war is complicated for us because the early church did not have to face this question. The early church had no influence over the military and Christians were generally not welcome in the Roman army. No Christian was in the position of declaring war or conducting a military campaign. But when the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian, everything changed. With his conversion the church went from being persecuted by the emperor to being favored by the emperor, who was now a Christian. The end of persecution was a great blessing to the church, but the church was now in a position it had never before known. Now Christianity was championed by the most powerful person on the face of the earth, the Roman Emperor, who controlled the greatest army in the world, and who wielded the sword that controlled a vast empire. From that moment, war became a different question to the church because of one Christian’s power to wage war.
This led to the necessity of the church formulating a theology of war and that theology was most famously devised by a bishop named Augustine, who gave us the Just War Theory. Under the Just War Theory war must meet the following guidelines to be considered permissible theologically –
1. There must be a just cause. Though the nature of a just cause can be a hotly debated matter, Augustine sought to frame what constituted a just cause in a clear and concise manner. A just cause, for instance, would not be to recapture land lost to an enemy or retaliation for an attack. To Augustine, a just cause was one that guarded against a grave danger or offense, such as the threat of force against innocent people.
2. There must be a just intention. War cannot be waged to expand an empire, to capture resources beneficial to a country or kingdom, for revenge, conquest, economics, or supremacy.
3. There must be comparative justice. In other words, the act of war cannot inflict more harm than the offense that led to the military response. A kingdom could not, for example, kill more people in its response that it suffered in an attack. This prevents the never-ending escalation of violence that comes as people, in seeking revenge, strike back with a damage far exceeding the original harm.
4. There must be a legitimate authority. Only a proper and just government may declare a war.
5. There must be discrimination. All attempts must be made to guard against harm to civilians, and civilians must never be targeted.
6. War must be waged only as a last resort. All other options must be exhausted before going to war and repentance should be practiced beforehand.
Is war that easy to categorize? While those are very helpful guidelines, I don’t believe they completely solve the tension between war and what Jesus asks of us, so I want to add some further thoughts. All of these, I would add, are my beliefs and not everyone will agree, and they are offered with profound gratitude for the sacrifices made by the scores of soldiers who have risked or given of their lives.
I think Augustine’s conditions are helpful, but I would suggest there are other matters to consider.
1. Recognize that the purposes of the state and the church are not the same.
What is the purpose of the state? One of the primary purposes of the state is to ensure the safety of its citizens. What is the purpose of the church? One of the primary purposes of the church is to bring the love of God and his kingdom to all people, regardless of their nationality, their economics, their social status, their politics, or any other manmade distinctions. This means that while the state may collide with other states over borders and political ideology the church transcends borders and political ideology, because there are no borders in God’s kingdom. It also means that while the state relentlessly pursues and battles its enemies, those who are followers of Jesus are called to love their enemies.
War is a political action, not a spiritual one. Our responsibility as members of a spiritual kingdom is to remind political powers that all options should be explored before using force, and if force is engaged, that all proper safeguards are exercised.
One of the Biblical characters who is a symbol of this conflict of purposes is David. One of the great kings of Israel, David was hailed for his military prowess. His skill as a military leader was a source of great tension between himself and Saul. Though Saul was king, the people had great admiration for David by cheering Saul has slain his thousands, and David his ten thousands (I Samuel 18:7). While David was admired for his military skill, it was his military success that cost him one of his great wishes. David passionately desired to build a temple to honor God, but God would not allow David to do so. In I Chronicles 28:3 David tells the people, God said to me, “You shall not build a house for My name because you are a man of war and have shed blood. It would fall to David’s son Solomon to build the Temple.
2. Study the question of war thoroughly and with careful attention to what the Scriptures have to say.
Whatever your thoughts about war, make sure that as a person of faith they are well informed by Scripture. Study the Biblical passages for yourself and think about them and pray about them. And, most importantly, balance all of the passages together and interpret them through the lens of Jesus.
3. Recognize that God’s desire is for peace.
At the birth of Jesus the angels sang Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men (Luke 2:14). In the Sermon On the Mount Jesus said, Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God (Matthew 5:9). In Romans 14:19 Paul writes So then let us pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another. The writer of Hebrews tells us to Pursue peace with all men (Hebrews 12:14).
4. Remember that war is primarily a sign of the sinfulness and brokenness of humanity.
War is a large-scale reproduction of the conflict between Cain and Abel; it is the sad and tragic truth that some are not willing to live peacefully with others. This is why wars never end, because the problem that leads to war – the problem of sinfulness and brokenness – is always with us. This truth led Augustine to write that the fact is that the power to reach domination by war is not the same as the power to remain in perpetual control (City of God, page 327). No human kingdom can ever dominate to the point of ending war because the sin that led to war in the first place leads to a never-ending cycle of violence that guarantees war is ever with us.
One of the tragedies of war is that while war may solve some problems, it does not solve all problems and it often creates more problems. The great answer to war is the love of God that can transform the human heart from hatred and conflict into love and grace.
5. War should never be waged in the name of Jesus.
We should pray for our leaders and the members of our military; we should pray for the family members of the military; we should pray for the civilians in war zones; and we should offer these prayers regularly and fervently. We might even recognize that war may sometimes be politically inevitable but we should not attaché the name of Christ to war.
Gregory Boyd writes that The kingdom of God is not a Christian version of the kingdom of the world. It is, rather, a holy alternative to all versions of the kingdom of the world, and everything hangs on kingdom people appreciating the uniqueness and preserving this holiness – (The Myth of a Christian Nation, Gregory A. Boyd, page85).
The kingdom of God is very unique and very different from any earthly kingdom. We cannot attach, then, the name of Jesus to what represents in such a tragic manner the sinfulness and brokenness of humanity. We must instead always lift the name of Jesus higher as the goal for who and what we should be.
On a visit to Washington, D.C., I visited two memorials one afternoon. The first was the Holocaust Museum, which is such a difficult place to visit. To see the horror and evil of what man is capable of inflicting on his fellow man is tragic beyond words. From the Holocaust Museum I went to the Vietnam War Memorial to look up the name of a friend. If you have been to that memorial you are well aware of the powerful sight of that long wall etched with so many names, and the overwhelming sight of the incredibly thick book that gives directions to each name on the wall. I did what most everyone does at that memorial; when I found the name of my friend – Robert “Moose” Mosgrove – I ran my fingers over his name and thought about the kid who used to hang out at our house.
He died doing what was asked of him and his loss was a great sacrifice. My prayer at the memorial that day was the prayer of so many through the ages – that there will be a day when wars will cease, when young people will not have to give up their lives, and peace will rule, and those immortal words of the prophet Isaiah will ring true – And He will judge between the nations, and will render decisions for many peoples; and they will hammer their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they learn war (Isaiah 2:4).