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The Christian View of War: Can War Ever be Just?
(With Thoughts About the War in Iraq)

By Dr. Richard P. Bucher

How can anyone justify war from a Christian perspective? Is not one of the Ten Commandments “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17)? Do we not hear in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God?” Doesn’t the Bible repeatedly call God, the “God of peace” (Rom 15:33)? Doesn’t Jesus himself command non-violence for all Christians when he says, “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Mt 5:39)?

Since this is the teaching of the Christian faith, can war ever be just? Can war ever be necessary? Can war ever be God-pleasing?

The purpose of this essay is to answer these questions. In the first part I will answer the question, “Can war ever be just and God-pleasing?” In the second part, I will apply this answer to the current war with Iraq.

Can War Ever be Just?

The war with Iraq has caused Christians of all stripes to grapple again with the question, “Can war ever be just?” Massive anti-war rallies have been happening in cities throughout the world, rallies that contain many Christians. In a recent rally, one participant was asked to explain why he opposed the war. “War is murder,” he replied. “It’s as simple as that.”

But it is not as simple as that. The teaching of Scripture on the topic of war is much more complex.

For example, though it is true that God has forbidden killing in the Fifth Commandment, he has not forbidden it to everyone. According to Scripture he has given lawful government the authority to punish evildoers with death.

    Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience (Romans 13:1-5; see also 1 Peter 2:13-14).

According to this passage, the governing authorities are “God’s servant” that “bear the sword” in order to bring God’s punishment on the evildoer. The Roman sword (makaira) was an instrument of war and death. The whole intent of this passage, therefore, is that lawful governments are representatives of God who has given them authority to execute criminals and wage war.

This position was not new. Already in the days of Noah, God had said, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image” (Genesis 9:6). This passage enunciates the same truth as the passage in Romans 13 above: God has given to lawful government authority to punish evildoers with death, which certainly applies to war. They have the authority and responsibility to enlist and train certain of their citizens (such as the police and the military) to use deadly force, if necessary, to preserve peace and to maintain an orderly society. Otherwise, given that we are living in a fallen world, all would be chaos, not peace.

Though it certainly doesn’t appear this way, it is actually love that motivates an army to wage war. Just wars are fought to rescue those who have been attacked, oppressed or conquered by a hostile power, or to protect those in danger of such an attack. That is what love does. It rescues, it saves, it protects the weak from the strong.

This was also the position of Martin Luther. Luther, the great Sixteenth Century reformer, also wrestled with the question of whether it was ever appropriate for Christians to support or participate in a war. His study of Scripture convinced him that at times it was. In his 1526 treatise, Whether Soldiers, Too, Can Be Saved, Luther reflected on this.

    Now slaying and robbing do not seem to be works of love. A simple man therefore does not think it is a Christian thing to do. In truth, however, even this is a work of love. For example, a good doctor sometimes finds so serious and terrible a sickness that he must amputate or destroy a hand, foot, ear, eye, to save the body. Looking at it from the point of view of the organ that he amputates, he appears to be a cruel and merciless man; but looking at it from the point of view of the body, which the doctor wants to save, he is a fine and true man and does a good and Christian work, as far as the work itself is concerned. In the same way, when I think of a soldier fulfilling his office by punishing the wicked, killing the wicked, and creating so much misery, it seems an un-Christian work completely contrary to Christian love. But when I think of how it protects the good and keeps and preserves wife and child, house and farm, property, and honor and peace, then I see how precious and godly this work is; and I observe that it amputates a leg or a hand, so that the whole body may not perish. For if the sword were not on guard to preserve peace, everything in the world would be ruined because of lack of peace. Therefore, such a war is only a very brief lack of peace that prevents an everlasting and immeasurable lack of peace, a small misfortune that prevents a great misfortune.

    What men write about war, saying that it is a great plague, is all true. But they should also consider how great the plague is that war prevents. If people were good and wanted to keep peace, war would be the greatest plague on earth. But what are you going to do about the fact that people will not keep the peace, but rob, steal, kill, outrage women and children, and take away property and honor? The small lack of peace called war or the sword must set a limit to this universal, worldwide lack of peace which would destroy everyone (Luther’s Works, American Edition (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967) 46:96).

When reasonable efforts at peace have failed, war is the most loving thing to do. War is love for one’s neighbor.

Doesn’t this contradict Jesus teaching that we should “turn the other cheek” and “not resist the one who is evil” (Mt 5:39)? Not at all. In that passage, as in all of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is speaking to individual Christians. He is telling them that if they themselves have been wronged or are threatened, and only they have suffered harm or injustice, they should be willing to suffer the wrong and not seek vengeance. If, however, their neighbor has been attacked or wronged, love demands that they fight on their neighbor’s behalf to protect and help them – the very thing that a just war does.

If Christians were intended to be absolute pacifists, wouldn’t we expect to find a command, directive, or example in Scripture to that effect? None can be found, however. If war and the participation in war is always wrong, why, for example, does our Lord not command the centurion, whose servant he healed, to give up his position in the Roman army? But our Lord does not; in fact he praises him for his great faith (Mt 8:5-10). On one occasion, soldiers came to John the Baptist and asked him, “What should we do [to be pleasing God]?” John replied, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” Here is a perfect opportunity for John to condemn war or the participation in war. But he does not do so. Instead, he warns them against extortion and greed (Luke 3:14). The first Gentile convert was Cornelius, a Roman centurion. Never once did Peter rebuke him; instead he and those in his household, were filled with the Holy Spirit as they listened to the Gospel (Acts 10). Paul preached the Gospel to Caesar’s elite imperial guard (Philippians 1:13), and compared the Christian’s spiritual weapons and armor to that of a Roman soldier (Ephesians 6:10-18). But never once do we find him condemning war or the participation in war.

By no means does this mean that Christians should support governments that foolishly rush to war. Christians should be peacemakers, and ever strive for peace with their prayers and deeds. Because we live in a sinful world, however, there are occasions when just wars become necessary. What then makes a war just?

It was the great church father Augustine of Hippo who first sought to give some specificity to a definition of a just war. In fact, his position, which he articulated in the early Fifth Century, has long been the Church’s traditional definition of a just war. Augustine held that a just war must have five components. A just war:

    (1) Must be waged for self-defense, rather than conquest, plunder, or political oppression;

    (2) Must be initiated by the proper authority, i.e., lawful government, rather than an angry mob, etc.

    (3) Must be fought with the right intention: peace. It should not be fought to gain land, power, wealth, etc.

    (4) Must have a reasonable chance for success.

    (5) Must use means proportionate to the goal. If the goal of a war is to liberate an oppressed people, for example, it makes no sense to destroy all their cities in the process, or to bring them under further subjection.

Unfortunately, throughout the Middle Ages, as demonstrated especially by the Crusades, Augustine’s definition was usually not followed. European governments, all of which considered themselves Christian realms, routinely waged war against one another, and rarely for the purposes of self-defense. Even the Pope had a standing army, and he, too, invaded other nations.

Because of the endless European warring, and even more because of the teaching of Scripture, Martin Luther saw few valid reasons to go to war. For him self-defense and the restoration of peace were the only valid reasons to go to war, and even then war had to be begun with great deliberation.

    At the very outset I want to say that whoever starts a war is in the wrong. And it is only right and proper that he who first draws his sword is defeated, or even punished, in the end. This is what has usually happened in history. Those who have started wars have lost them, and those who fought in self-defense have only seldom been defeated. Worldly government has not been instituted by God to break the peace and start war, but to maintain peace and to avoid war. Paul says in Romans 13 [:4] that it is the duty of the sword to protect and punish, to protect the good in peace and to punish the wicked with war. God tolerates no injustice and he has so ordered things that warmongers must be defeated in war . . . And in Psalm 68 [ :30] God has the psalmist sing of him, “Dissipat gentes, quae bella volunt, ” that is, “He scatters the peoples who delight in war.”

    . . . Let this be, then, the first thing to be said in this matter: No war is just, even if it is a war between equals, unless one has such a good reason for fighting and such a good conscience that he can say, “My neighbor compels and forces me to fight, though I would rather avoid it.” In that case, it can be called not only war, but lawful self-defense

    . . . Take my advice, dear lords. Stay out of war unless you have to defend and protect yourselves and your office compels you to fight. Then let war come. Be men, and test your armor. . . The reason is that every lord and prince is bound to protect his people and to preserve the peace for them. That is his office; that is why he has the sword, Romans 13 [:4]. This should be a matter of conscience for him (Luther’s Works 46:120-121).

If the war was just, then the Christian could support and participate in the war with a good conscience, knowing that he was fighting in love in order to protect his neighbor. This has been the Lutheran position ever since, and one with which I heartily agree.

The War with Iraq

What of the war with Iraq? Is it a just war? Many people oppose this war, not because they find all wars unjust, but because they consider this one unjust.

Unfortunately, if the slogans, placards, and sound-bites are any indication, many people consider the war with Iraq unjust because they distrust the Bush Administration. This distrust moves them to latch onto questionable theories as the “real reason” for the war. The most popular of these theories is summarized by the ubiquitous slogan, “No blood for oil.” This theory holds that the Bush Administration wants Iraq’s rich oil reserves, and they are willing to do anything, even conquer Iraq, to get it. Iraq will then become a United States colony, etc. The problem with this theory is that there is not one shred of evidence to support it. It is based on wild distrust not based in reality. I am not questioning the right of these Americans to express their dissent. I am questioning the basis for their amazing distrust of the current government and their wild, baseless theories.

This is not Christian teaching. As we saw above, Christians are to view the governing authorities as “God’s servant,” which has been placed in authority by God himself. The Christian should trust and obey their government, unless clear evidence presents itself that the government is being deceptive.

As a Christian I trust the integrity of the Bush Administration and the integrity of the leaders of our Armed Forces. I trust that they are telling the truth about the goals and intentions of this war, for I see no evidence to call what they say into question. And what they have consistently said is that the purpose of this war is to protect the American people against a very real threat. The threat is that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction and known ties to terrorists, including Al Qaeda. Terrorist training camps are known to exist in Iraq. Terrorists have been given safe haven. Therefore, it is self-defense of the American people, and other free peoples of the world, that makes the war just and necessary. In addition, after many years of trying to work with Saddam Hussein’s regime, the Bush Administration has become convinced that his regime is the heart of the problem. The peace process has been given a more than reasonable amount of time and energy. The compelling threat to our nation’s security because of Hussein’s ties to terrorists means that there is no longer time for peace.

A secondary reason for the war is to liberate the oppressed people of Iraq, so that they might govern themselves with leaders of their own choosing. If this were the only reason, however, it would not be sufficient to make the war a just war. It is not just for one nation to invade another merely because they believe its citizens are oppressed.

What of Luther’s conviction that whoever starts a war is in the wrong? The United States-led coalition started this war, technically speaking. Or did they? A strong argument could be made that Iraq started this war by being in material breach of countless United Nation resolutions that demanded that they disarm completely and immediately.

Even if we allow that the coalition forces started this war, does this alone make it unjust, given the circumstances? Many have criticized this war because of its preemptive nature. Luther could see no justification for preemptive strikes. But Luther’s world did not face the threat of terrorists possessing weapons of mass destruction that could kill thousands in a matter of hours. In such a dangerous climate, it is my opinion that any definition of a just war must allow the possibility of a preemptive strike, if a real and present danger exists, according to the best evidence. We are no longer living in world in which armies would take time to mass on the border, giving the invading nation time to prepare. Is it loving our neighbor, is it protecting our citizens to sit back and wait for a devastating terrorist attack, when strong intelligence, amassed also by other countries, shows the reality of the danger now? In my opinion it is not.

President Bush is commander-in-chief according to our constitution. As such, he has been called by God to bear the sword, to use deadly force to protect the people he serves. This is a weighty responsibility from God. His decision to begin this war was made very deliberately, and peace was truly given a chance. I trust his judgment and respect his call, one that I do not have. I agree with him, however, that according to the Christian definition, the war with Iraq is a just war. And I pray for the speedy success of our Armed Forces and that casualties on both sides might be light. May God grant it for the sake of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.