Christianity can actually justify war

By Robert Cargill
Guest Columnist

Robert Cargill - Guest ColumnistIn his March 27 article entitled, “War contradicts basic Christian ideas,” Professor Dr. Joel Fetzer did a nice job of articulating article 22 of the Mennonite Church’s Confession of Faith. He stated that war was contrary to the teachings of Jesus and the beliefs of the early Christian fathers, that it will set back missionary efforts, and that it is idolatrous.

While pacifism is a noble Christian ideal and Jesus’ teachings certainly promote peace and non-retaliation, I must take issue with  Fetzer (here as a representative of the radically pacifist view), and his claim that pacifism is the only example of conflict resolution demonstrated in the Bible. To state that Christianity forbids the use of force is to ignore the biblical record and to intentionally gloss over inconvenient events.

The Bible includes many occasions where the children of God were instructed to take up arms, fight and even kill. Moreover, Jesus himself once took up arms and used force to accomplish his goal and make a dramatic statement.

In the Old Testament, the faithful were ordered by God to destroy oppressive foreign regimes. Israel’s conquest of Jericho in Joshua 6 is the first of many examples of God-endorsed holy war, which carried the instructions: “The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction.” Israel is often admonished for failing to destroy all that God commanded.

 Additionally, many of the judges (Gideon, Deborah), Samuel (1 Samuel 15:33 and his slaying of an oppressive king), Elijah (1 Kings 18:40 and his slaying of 450 Ba’al prophets), and a host of others used force in the Bible apparently at the behest of God.

However, the commentary on Mennonite Article of Faith No. 22 ( completely glosses over this concept, stating conveniently, “There is no simple explanation for the practice of war in the Old Testament.”  What an understatement!  And what an opportune omission, one that not only overlooks God’s use of force, but his instruction to Israel to do the same. But Fetzer’s argument is a Christian argument, so I shall argue the remainder of my case from the New Testament.

In the account of Jesus’ “Cleansing of the Temple” in Jerusalem, Jesus brandished a weapon and used it to drive out those who were economically oppressing the righteous who came to sacrifice and worship. John 2:15 states, “Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, with the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the moneychangers and overturned their tables.”

A whip is a weapon. At least it was when Jesus was flogged with one prior to his crucifixion. Paul thought it was a weapon when he boasted about being repeatedly beaten with one. Some will argue that a whip is not a weapon, while others say that Jesus didn’t actually beat anyone with it. But Jesus did not brandish a whip as a deterrent; he took the time to “fashion for himself” the whip for the purpose of using it. To argue that he didn’t actually use force in this episode is about as absurd as the French passing a U.N. resolution calling for disarmament and then refusing to back it up with the use of force.

Astonishingly, the commentary on Mennonite Article of Faith No. 22 states, “Jesus did sometimes confront wrongdoers (Matthew 23:1-36; John 2:13-22), but he did so in a nonviolent way that shows us how to overcome evil with good.”  What?  Nonviolent?  I guarantee you that if I marched into the Malibu Bank of America with a whip, hopped the counters, tipped the registers, and drove the people out, I would certainly be pronounced “violent” (as well as dead on the scene).

 To claim that Jesus didn’t take up arms with the sole intent of immediately stopping the economic oppression of those attempting to worship at the temple is to completely ignore this biblical text for the sake of promoting an extremist position. 

So should we see Jesus as an extreme, pacifistic, sacrificial lamb preaching passive resistance in the face of insurmountable occupation?  Or should we view Jesus as a sharp-tongued, whip yielding, religious rebel liberating exploited worshippers from economic oppression?  The answer is both!  Jesus’ graceful orations on love and peace must be balanced with his vehement invectives (Matthew 23:1-26: “hypocrites, blind guides, fools, snakes, a hell-bound brood of vipers,” etc).  Likewise, Jesus’ gracious actions and directives to turn the other cheek must be weighed against his forceful “cleansing” of the temple.  Jesus is the walking epitome of Ecclesiastes 3:3 and 3:8: “There is a time to kill and a time to heal,” and “There is a time for war and a time for peace.”  Jesus himself predicts as much when he states, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34).

But I believe this entire debate is moot with regards to the present conflict in Iraq. Unless I missed something, I don’t believe a single coalition nation has declared a holy war. We presently have a coalition of secular nations removing the oppressive regime of another secular nation. While sacrificing our soldiers to stop the oppression of innocent Iraqis may be a noble Christian goal, in the end it is a mere secular conflict.

Furthermore, I would agree with Reinhold Niebuhr that the Christian ethic is a personal one and cannot always successfully be applied to a national or state government.  It is for this reason that Jesus permitted the payment of taxes to Rome (Matthew 22:19), tax that was used to pay the very military that persecuted the Christians. 

Jesus knew that a military campaign against Rome would be met with the same result with which the repeated Jewish revolts against Rome were met.  Early Christians adopted pacifism because there was no other realistic alternative.  Similarly, Paul was opposed to slavery ideologically (Galatians 3:28), but when he was confronted with the runaway slave Onesimus in the letter to Philemon, he stopped short of any “I have a dream” speech and ordered the slave to return to his master.  Paul knew he couldn’t overturn decades of Roman rule and centuries of slavery, so he endorsed submission, because to call for an uprising would have been futile.

Niebuhr also concluded that violence is permissible in order to prevent a greater evil, say the economic oppression of the righteous.  Apparently Jesus thought so too when he cleansed the Temple.  For this reason, Fetzer’s claim that “supporting the war in Iraq is idolatry” is particularly disappointing and wholly irresponsible. 

I would pray that Fetzer would support such military campaigns as the U.S. Civil War liberating the slaves and the defeat of Hitler in World War II to liberate, among others, the Jews.

To argue that our soldiers died for the cause of idolatry is to shame their memory and to hinder the liberation of the oppressed.

 If the Good Samaritan had arrived a few moments before the bandits who beat and robbed their victim did, would you suggest the Samaritan take up arms and assist in his defense or stand idly by and call them idolaters while they beat him half to death?

If Fetzer states that the use of force “is idolatrous,” then the Son of God must be classified as an idolater.  If the use of force will “set back by decades, if not centuries” missionary efforts, the greatest missionary himself is complicit in this setback. 

And if the use of force is sinful, then Jesus has at least one sin on his otherwise perfect record. 

If Fetzer is prepared to call Jesus a sinner, an idolater, and a stumbling block to his own missionary effort, then, and only then, shall I join him in his condemnation of our coalition’s campaign against the oppressive Iraqi regime. 

Until that time comes, I shall refrain from being like the pharisaical critics who “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; while they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4), and I will lend my words and my actions for the defense and the liberation of others.

— Robert Cargill is a technology liaison for the Religion and Social Science divisions and earned a Master of Divinity in 2000. He currently is working on a doctorate in Near East Languages and Cultures at UCLA