Ethics: Peace and War

Are Christians justified in committing acts of violence? The majority view, I think, in our context is, “Yes.” We desire the freedom to defend family and property. Most probably think it is okay for a nation to go to war if the cause is just (though we often disagree on what a just cause might be). What I want to do, with you, is go to the Scriptures to discover whether or not human violence is truly morally acceptable before God.

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In Matthew 5 we witness Jesus, as we have before, teaching about what is written in the Mosaic Law, and even quotes from Leviticus 24:19-20. He deals with the Law as we have seen previously in our series. He honors it and highlights how the people of the world, particularly the religious community, had misinterpreted the Law in the days of His earthly ministry.

Matthew 5:38-42 HCSB

“You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I tell you, don’t resist an evildoer. On the contrary, if anyone slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. As for the one who wants to sue you and take away your shirt, let him have your coat as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to the one who asks you, and don’t turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Retaliation

When Jesus quotes from Leviticus, here, it almost looks like He is contradicting the Law. The Law prescribes a sort of “eye for eye” civil disciplinary system, yet Jesus, here, states that individuals should, instead, not even resist the evil doer. Context is everything. When the Law is prescribed, it is done so in a sense that the civil authorities hold the responsibility for discipline or punishment regarding the actions of the public. By the time Jesus is teaching physically on the earth, this system seems to have been twisted into some sort of personal excuse for retribution. People argued that they had a personal right to seek justice on their own. The story reminds me of the circumstance concerning the Capulets and the Montagues or the Hatfields and the McCoy’s. Retribution or retaliation was commonplace, and I think it is in our day as well. We respond to evil with evil on an individual level. We return hate for hate.

Jesus, here, is not making the argument that the civil government has no right to discipline its citizens. He is stating that, as individuals, we do not have the right to retaliate because we do not have the authority to condemn anyone. The responsibility of the Christian is to act in and with God’s grace toward sinful people because Christ poured His grace over His people even while they were still rebellious. Retribution or retaliation has no place in the life of the Christ follower. We are to be a people of grace. What better way can we be the image of God in this world than by loving those who persecute us? There is no greater grace that we can show.

Submission to authorities

So that we can observe the idea of civil authority, we turn to Romans 13:1-7

“Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For government is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For government is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath, but also because of your conscience. And for this reason you pay taxes, since the authorities are God’s public servants, continually attending to these tasks. Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor” (HCSB).

It is the governing authorities, according to Scripture who wield the sword for a reason. God has actually placed civil governments upon the earth to fulfill this purpose. Because of this, Scripture encourages Christ followers to submit to the governmental authorities. According to Romans 13, the government of the state has the responsibility to punish those who break the law and to protect its citizens. God does not give this responsibility to individuals, but instead to the civil government. This means that we are given two options regarding our philosophy on violence: pacifism or just war. Retaliation or retribution, however, is never acceptable before God.

If it is the government that has the responsibility to punish and protect, then just war concerns itself primarily with government and cannot be the agenda of the individual (lest we find ourselves subscribing to an odd form of vigilantism).

Nonviolence

Whether we consider ourselves to be just war theorists or pacifists, it is clear that those who follow Christ should be committed to a non-violent predisposition. Violence is to be a very last resort is it is ever necessary, and it is never desirable. In this, again, we always get to reflect God’s grace.

There are some questions that I will leave for the reader. These questions must be considered in light of Scripture.

    1. Should Christians carry a weapon for the purpose of self-defense?
    2. How should Christians respond to bullies?
    3. Are parents just in punishing their children?
    4. At what point is it acceptable for a nation to go to war?
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