09 April 2010

Thou shall not murder

It's a tough question: can a Christian fight in war? The Bible seems to go both ways - Jesus told his disciples to love their enemies (Matt 5:44), but he also told them to buy swords (Luke 22:36).

Aaron Stern, Pastor of theMILL at New Life Church here in the Springs, came to talk to one of my Bible study groups here at USAFA. His thoughts and the Bible passages he used are some of the most helpful I've seen as I've struggled with this.

There are three main views Christians take when it comes to war:
  1. Pacifism - the Christian cannot fight in any war
  2. Activism - since all governments are created by God, the Christian is duty-bound by his government to fight in every war
  3. Selectivism - the Christian fights only in just wars
I believe selectivism is the best view, and the one that most closely aligns with Jesus' teaching and the Old Testament. But what is a Just War? It boils down to two criteria: the war must punish evil and/or protect innocence.

This is what God does in the Old Testament - both through and to the Israelites. He uses the Israelites to punish the wicked Canaanites; He uses the Babylonians to punish the wicked Israelites. "He does not leave the guilty unpunished" (Numbers 14:18).

But then, thousands of years later, Jesus comes along. He says things like, "Blessed are the peacemakers" (Matt 5:9) and "All who draw the sword will die by the sword" (Matt 26:52). What happened? Did God change? Is there an Old Testament God and a New Testament God?


Romans 13:1-5 is a critical passage here.
1Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. 2Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. 3For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.
Context is critical: remember that Paul is writing to Christians in Rome. These Christians were crucified, stoned, and burned by the thousands. They were used as torches to light the Colosseum during parties. They were torn apart by lions in the Colosseum. Paul is not saying, "obey this government because it's good," he's saying the government was established by God. That's not to be confused with a theocracy, of course. We must not forget: we may be agents of God's wrath, but that does not mean America is fighting God's war. Believing they were fighting God's war has led many churches, rulers, and nations into trouble: from the Israelites (Numbers 14:39-45), to the Crusaders, to the people of Salem.

But let's get past the context and to the point: God has established the government, and the government bears the sword. The Government is the agent of God's wrath. Today, the military is the sword of the government - and as part of that military, we are the sword. We do not bear the sword for nothing.

However, looking around Romans 13, we see that the end of Romans 12 is all about love: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (v. 21). How do we go from love and good to war and punishment? Aaron Stern made the distinction between civil and spiritual rights: Jesus made it pretty clear that we should defend civil rights - he told his disciples to buy swords (Luke 22:35-39) - but preached peace when it came to spiritual rights.

Why? God's kingdom is not established by human government or violence. When Peter cut off the ear of the high priest's servant, Jesus rebuked him: Jesus wasn't going to save the world with a sword. But there is still a place for just war, since there is still evil to punish and innocence to protect. The Christian soldier chooses to participate in these just wars.

But what does the Christian soldier do when his government engages in an unjust war? He has taken an oath, "without any moral reservations or purpose of evasion", to "support and defend the Constitution of the United States". Well, first of all, I think we can say an unjust war would be against the Constitution. In other cases, the Christian soldier would have to take his cue from Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Daniel 3).

Some would say that even if the war is just, war is always the greater evil. I disagree, largely due to something I learned from a Rhodes Scholar and Navy SEAL. This guy had done a lot of humanitarian work, and a lot of war. I asked which was the best way to overcome evil. His answer was clear: there are not two options - there is a continuum. Sometimes, both violence and compassion are necessary. To quote the Bosnian refugee he quoted, "Thank you for what you're doing here [humanitarian work]. But what we really need is for the Serbs to stop burning down our houses."

Sometimes, war is necessary. At least, until that day when we will fight side by side with our Lord.

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