War and Peace – Christian Perspectives

"War is one of the constants of history, and has not diminished with civilization or democracy.  In the last 3,421 years of recorded history, only 268 have seen no war."  -Will and Ariel Durant in The Lessons of History (1968)

In our Stellar Bible Study this fall, we took an extended look at Christian Perspectives on War and Peace. There have been differing views in the history of the Church when it comes to war and peace. Here is a quick overview. 

The predominant view of the early church was pacifism; i.e., Christians were not permitted to wage war or even serve in the Roman army. Early Christian leaders argued that the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount (e.g., "love your enemies"; "turn the other cheek") and Christ's own example ("When they hurled their insults at Him, He did not retaliate." 1 Peter 2:23a) prohibited Christians from bearing arms.  In addition, because Roman soldiers had to swear allegiance to Caesar, to worship Roman gods, and to engage in cruel acts such as crucifixion, Christians were admonished not to serve in the military. Today, Mennonites, Quakers, and the Amish still embrace pacifism.

A turning point in the history of the Christian faith occurred in the 4th century A. D. when Constantine became the first Roman emperor to endorse Christianity. Given this seismic change in the Roman government, church leader St. Augustine taught that Christians could engage in a "just war". He developed a number of specific criteria for determining when it was permissible to go to war. For example, the war must be waged for defensive purposes, not for revenge, greed, or power. The war must be a last resort. It must be authorized by the duly constituted public authority. The war must also be waged "justly". For example, unnecessary killing should be avoided. Civilians, wounded soldiers and prisoners must be protected and treated humanely. Just war theory is the predominant view among Catholics and Protestants today.

In A.D.1095, Pope Urban II authorized the first of approximately nine Crusades-"holy wars"-to retake Jerusalem and oust the Muslims. Acts of mass slaughter occurred during the Crusades. The first Crusaders, upon re-taking Jerusalem, killed virtually every Jew and Muslim, including women and children, in the city. Such actions were clearly inconsistent with the idea of waging war justly. In our Stellar Study, we concluded, as have most Christians today, that "holy war"-a religiously motivated war to eliminate mass groups of people, including non-combatants-is entirely inconsistent with the teachings of Christ and the New Testament.

In recent years, just peacemaking has gained traction as a focus for Christians.  Instead of asking should we fight or not, we should first ask how we can foster peace. To be sure, peacemaking efforts may fail, and one may then have to determine whether to fight or not, but, as Christians, we should first be peacemakers. Thus, in the schematic (left), all Christians should be within the boundaries of the triangle. Some Christians may lean toward pacifism, others toward just war theory, but all of us should be near the top of the triangle seeking to promote peace. 

As Christians, our views regarding war and peace should first be shaped by our relationship with and supreme allegiance to the Prince of Peace. We should never glorify war, even a just one. Instead, we should remember that His blessing is upon the peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). So let us pray for, work for, and long for the day when the nations will beat their swords into ploughshares and will train for war no more. (Isaiah 2:4). May it be so-soon.

 David Rogers