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.
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’…