Christianity and Jihad – is there such a thing as a Just or Holy War?

A recent ‘Agnostics Anonymous’ opinion piece written in a Christian magazine argued that proselytising faiths such as Christianity and Islam have always relied on war and violence to spread their message. It’s a point worth thinking about – is there any truth in it?

There is of course a contentious tradition of ‘holy war’ within both Christianity and Islam (‘jihad’). And it’s true Jesus did say ‘I have not come to bring peace but a sword’. But most commentators interpret this not as a foundation for a theology of Christian violence (an oxymoron if ever I heard one), but rather a simple prediction of the subversive, disruptive and divisive effect of Jesus’ message.

Turn the other cheek

Jesus’ teaching on non-violence is clear and repeated. ‘You have heard it said “eye for eye, tooth for tooth”. But I say do not resist an evil man’.  ‘Turn the other cheek’. ‘Love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you’. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’.

Furthermore, Jesus not only taught non-violence, and indeed anti-violence, but modelled these principles in all his life and actions. When his followers apparently wanted him to enter Jerusalem as a conquering king, he chose instead to ride in on a donkey as the Prince of Peace. When Peter tried to take up arms to prevent Jesus’ arrest, cutting off the ear of a centurion’s servant, Jesus chided him ‘Put away your sword; those who live by the sword die by the sword’, and healed the man’s ear.

Jesus’ death was of course the ultimate act of non-violent resistance. He let himself be taken, making no attempt to resist capture. He offered no defence of himself in his trial or before Pilate, but submitted to abuse and humiliation. From the cross he forgave those who crucified him, and welcomed the thief at his side into Paradise. He did not repay evil with evil, or violence with violence, but rather took the evil and violence upon and into himself and in so doing disarmed and neutralised it.

The apostles Paul and Peter took up Jesus’ message: ‘do not repay evil with evil’ appears in letters written by each of them. And of course they and all the apostles lived and died by this, suffering all sorts of indignity and harsh treatment – and ultimately death – without fighting back.

And Jesus’ example has inspired countless peacemakers from St Francis who preached to the Crusaders on the front line to dissuade them from fighting, to Gandhi, to Martin Luther King who famously said ‘with violence you can murder a murderer, but you can’t murder murder’.

Fighting the good fight?

So what of all the war-like, apparently violent language in Christianity, the talk of ‘fighting the good fight’, and ‘Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war’? We have to remember that these are, and always have been, metaphors. As Paul put it back in the earliest Christian times, ‘Our struggle (or fight) is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers and principalities of darkness in the heavenly realms’. Or again, ‘though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does’ (2 Cor 10:3).

We are, metaphorically, engaged in a struggle or battle, but it’s never against people or nations or other religions or any human enemies. It’s a spiritual struggle against the ‘powers of darkness’, however we understand that; the forces of chaos and evil and destruction, of disintegration and dehumanisation. And more often than not the battle is within ourselves, with our own inclinations and impulses and attitudes. That is the true meaning of ‘holy war’, of ‘jihad’.

Christians are not called to fight as the world fights. Our fight against evil is predicated on Christ’s cross, where his fight against evil took the path not of violent resistance but of acceptance, even surrender; of taking all the rubbish and hate and horror that evil could throw at him and turning it to good.

Onward, Christian soldiers?

A crucial point to remember is that Christianity was never meant to be a religion of state power and state force. It is at heart and root a religion of the marginalised and oppressed, the powerless and voiceless. The vast majority of the early Christians were not people of wealth, power, influence or renowned intellect. The way of Jesus is never the way of state rule, and the principles and practices of Christianity have little to do with the business of governing nations.

So the decision on whether to embark on armed national or international conflict is not one which Christianity generally even tries to address.

But should Christians ever be soldiers, ever engage in armed conflict on behalf of their own nation or another country? That I think is a complex and nuanced question.

Firstly I do not believe that war is ever anything but a tragic and terrible waste of life, to be avoided at almost all costs and entered into only with extreme reluctance and sorrow.

And ultimately I do not believe that the end ever justifies the means, nor that violence is ever the right way to achieve our goals.

Just war?

Nonetheless, I also have to acknowledge that we don’t live in an ideal world where all solutions can always be fully good and as God would wish. Sometimes it really is a choice of the least worst option, the lesser of two evils.

Aquinas (after Augustine) famously formulated the concept of a ‘Just War’, a set of criteria for deciding whether a conflict could be justified in Christian terms. For myself, I’m not convinced that there can ever be such a thing as a just or justified war, in Christian terms. But what there may be (perhaps) is a war that is on balance the least worst option, the lesser evil which may at least achieve some good amongst the inevitable and terrible bad.

And perhaps there may be times where the principle of defending the weak and vulnerable against the oppressor may lead us to consider taking up arms as a viable course of action. Though so often the hidden or unforeseen consequences for ill threaten to far outweigh any good that fighting might achieve even in these cases. Morally, I think I’d always prefer to opt for Gandhi’s or Martin Luther King’s non-violent resistance – an option which may at times require more, not less, courage than fighting.

But even if we do feel in conscience that, on balance, armed conflict must be entered into, it must always be with the deepest regret and sorrow, with full acknowledgement that in war there are no winners and death is the only victor.

War in the Bible

I don’t have space to do more than touch on this here, but I can’t completely overlook all the war, violence, bloodshed and even genocide in the Old Testament – much of it seemingly commanded by God.

I wrote a fuller (though still incomplete) treatment under ‘Is God homicidal?’ For now, all I can say is that I don’t believe that the OT model is meant to be normative for us. I don’t know whether God really did command any or all of the bloodshed that the OT records – I very much hope not, and I think there are good reasons for thinking not.

But even if God did command violence then for whatever reason (and there are possible reasons), that doesn’t mean he does now. The world we live in is not the world the Israelites inhabited. Most crucially, Christ has come, and in his death and resurrection has put an end to violence and the need for violence. I believe that the ‘war to end all wars’ actually took place on the cross, though we have yet to heed its message.

Postscript: C.S. Lewis, Narnia and war

One of my Christian heroes, C.S. Lewis, was a surprising advocate of fighting. One of the most problematic lines in his otherwise-beloved Narnia series is “Battles are ugly when women fight” (spoken by Father Christmas in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe). The sexism aside, the implication is that battles aren’t ugly normally – that indeed they can be beautiful.

Lewis directly experienced the horrors of the trenches in WW1. Yet in later years he would argue passionately against pacifism and write almost lovingly of wars and battles in the Narnia stories (4 of the 7 books contain full pitched battles).

True, these are fantasy battles in a fantasy world; the medieval chivalric ideal of noble knights fighting with valour and honour rather than the brutal realities of modern warfare. And we can – probably should – interpret them metaphorically, as battles against evil and injustice rather than a human enemy.

But Lewis’s support – at times glorification – of fighting and war, albeit in a just or honourable cause, does strike a jarring note for me. Yet so too do some of his other ideas and attitudes, which now look to us dangerously like sexism and racism. Lewis is a great Christian thinker and writer, but he’s flawed like the rest of us, and not everything he says is gospel.

And of course I’m flawed too, and my own perspective is partial and biased. I’m conflict-avoidant by temperament so of course I hate the idea of war and fighting, even in a good cause. Ironic really, as my name Harvey translates roughly as ‘Warrior’ or ‘Battleworthy’…


About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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8 Responses to Christianity and Jihad – is there such a thing as a Just or Holy War?

  1. jesuswithoutbaggage says:

    You covered a lot of ground, Evan; and you did it well. You provided very good insights into various aspects of violent responses vs. the non-violence taught by Jesus.


    • Thanks Tim! I do struggle with this one a bit – if I were called up to fight, I’m not sure whether I’d refuse on grounds of conscience or of cowardice! Or worse, whether I’d not have the courage of my convictions and would fight anyway. The whole area of conflict is certainly something I’m quite, er, conflicted about… but luckily for me, for the moment I can view it with comfortable academic detachment.


      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        I understand your uncertainty on what you would do if called up. I can give you my perspective (it will give away my age; I hope you are not disillusioned!).

        When I was 17, I DID have to choose. The draft was in effect for the Vietnam War. After much thought, I registered as a conscientious objector on religious grounds–of the sort that would not even accept non-combative service. Not all objectors who registered were granted exemption, which makes sense because otherwise a lot of people would have lied about it. So I turned in detailed paperwork on my religious beliefs and waited nervously to hear back from my draft board.

        My school buddies talked a good bit about what they would do if drafted. My best friend’s parents said they would sneak him into Canada, but he decided he would serve if called. I would not have gone to Canada; instead I would have accepted the required jail sentence for refusing to report.

        As it turned out, my draft board accepted my application and granted me conscientious objector status, so I did not have to face jail. Many people who knew about it were furious called me a coward; and my father was deeply disappointed in me, as he had served during the Korean War and took it as a personal offense on my part.

        The bottom line for me is: I believe Jesus is Lord (and Caesar is not). I don’t know if this helps or not. Hopefully you will never have to make that choice.


        • Tim, thanks very much for telling me (and any other readers) your story. I’m not at all disillusioned by your age (in fact, I’m rather encouraged and heartened), and nor do I think you a coward in the least. I’m impressed by your decision and indeed by your courage. And whether it helps or not, I for one strongly believe you made the right decision. It must have been a very hard one to stand by, given the feelings of your family and others.

          I too believe that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. I don’t always fully understand how to play out the tension between those two rules and rulers in this current messy and non-ideal world, but your example is an en-couraging one (in the old, literal sense of ‘giving courage’).


      • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

        By the way, I was NOT a coward. If I had been physically forced onto the battle field, I would not shoot at the enemy. Instead, I would just let them kill me; that is not cowardice–it is commitment. Jesus is Lord and nobody else is.


  2. Michael Snow says:

    Excellent piece.

    “And perhaps there may be times where the principle of defending the weak and vulnerable against the oppressor may lead us to consider taking up arms as a viable course of action.” I could think of a couple of examples. ISIS slaughtering Christians and others required a response, being the result of our country crossing a (wrong) line. Had we not invaded, there would be no ISIS.

    I would distinguish “lead us” from “lead a nation” as in the context of Romans and the distinction Paul makes between what Christians are called to do and what those in the instiution of government are called to do.

    If you would care to take a look and consider a review of my book on pacifism, I’d be glad to send you the pdf. (this comment should show you my email). The brief overview of the OT in Chapter 3 might be of interest, even of surprise.


    • Hi Michael, thanks very much for your comment. I think you’re right about the difference between ‘lead us’ and ‘lead a nation’.

      I’m also interested in what you say about the need to respond to ISIS slaughtering Christians, but that ISIS itself is (at least partly) a response to the actions of our own country. For me this sets up a difficult dilemma – if our violent or warlike actions originally contributed to the creation of ISIS, then are we justified in responding violently to ISIS, or will that not merely continue the endless cycle of violence?

      For me, I’m not entirely convinced that we are right to take up arms against ISIS even if they are killing Christians – but then I might decide differently if it were my own family or friends who were under threat. So I would say that the decision to fight (or not to) always has to be a matter of individual conscience. Or to put it another way, it has to be a judgement call, under God, as to which is the lesser evil – to allow evil to operate unchecked, or to resist in a violent way that violates Christian principles of love for enemies?

      And yes, I’d be interested to read your book – I’ll email you separately about that.


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