To War or Not to War: Who Wins?

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. –Hebrews 12

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In one fashion or another, we are all war veterans. Consider some staggering information that impacts all our lives: A group of scholars recently reported that since 3,600 B.C. our world has known only 292 years of peace! In 5,603 years, about 4 billion people (that’s two-thirds of today’s world population!) have died in more than 14,000 wars, large and small. The value of property lost in all those wars equals a solid gold belt 97 miles wide and 33 feet thick around our entire planet. That’s some belt! Yes, indeed, we’re all war veterans!

World leaders once more rattle sabers on the nightly news. Already men and women from our armed forces and those of our allies are waiting on the ground in the Middle East and close to North Korea, and in warships on the high seas, and they are ready to strike on command.

“No war talk here,” a group of California Christians once protested to me after I mentioned in a sermon the Apostle Paul’s occasional use of military metaphors. Some of them seemed ready to do battle over that passing reference. Reality is that the Bible has a lot of war talk, and a number of war heroes, in its pages. Let’s see now: Joshua, Gideon, David, and others. . . .These Bible war heroes did battle for God. Throughout history, God uses war to fulfill His plans. Still, many Christians believe all war is wrong. Others note a serious conflict between the Old Testament warrior God and the peace-loving crucified Son of God in the New Testament.

The reason Christians are divided over war is that legitimate biblical arguments can be used persuasively to support both sides. Pacifists, citing the Sermon on the Mount, say Jesus teaches that we are to love our enemies and turn the other cheek no matter what. Those who disagree with them point out that the New Testament also makes clear that God makes human leaders His “agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). Scripture also instructs soldiers not to plunder war booty but to “be content with your pay” (Luke 3:14), and honors those war heroes who “through faith conquered kingdoms . . . became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies” (Hebrews 11:33-34).

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Truth is, Scripture never presents a neatly defined list of good reasons for going to war. Eight hundred years ago Thomas Aquinas first spelled out a systematized “just-war” theory. War, he declared, is not the opposite of peace but is sometimes the way to achieve peace. For Thomas Aquinas, war was warranted when it met three standards: 1. Legitimate authority. Does the person or organization ordering troops to war possess the right to do so? 2. Just cause. Is freedom threatened and are people and neighboring countries safe from a tyrant? 3. Righteous intention. Does the nation going to war have any interest or intention in occupying, exploiting, or destroying another nation?

Later theologians added three more criteria to that just-war theory: 1. Last resort. Is fighting a war the only means left to right a wrong? 2. Reasonable hope of success. Are the goals of this war limited and achievable? 3. Proportionality. Is it likely that the human cost of going to war will be less than the human cost of not going to war? Just-war proponents argue that when these six criteria are met, Christians have a duty to fight. On the other hand, if any one of these objectives is not met, or likely to be met, Christians should refuse to fight.

So, who is right? Is it the pacifists or the just-war theorists? In a sense, both may be right! On the other hand, either side may be dead wrong! There is a “time for war” (Ecclesiastes 3:8), but smart people don’t get in a rush. Those hauntingly neat rows of white crosses in WWII military cemeteries around the world remind us that war winners still lose. And 30 years after the last plane evacuated American troops from Vietnam, soldiers from that war come weekly, and sometimes weakly, seeking help at our church. Three decades after they came home, that war still rages in their souls. When it comes to war, there are no winners.

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