Jesus At War?
"He shall banish the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be banished, and he shall command peace to the nations." (Zechariah 9:10)
Jesus is a pacifist. His pacifism is unequivocally and unconditionally explicit in the Gospels. On the political right today, there are many in the Church who lend easy support to the concept of preemptive war. But no war of choice can be regarded as Christian.
To justify war, the Christian Right ignores the peace teachings of Jesus while giving deceptive interpretations of other Gospel passages. We must examine these passages and reject, once and for all, any claim that a Christian could condone wars of aggression and preemption. We must be vigilant against such claims, for the Bible has often been abused to justify fascist and imperial policies: from the slaughter of the Canaanites to the Crusades, from the enslavement of black slaves to the invasion of Iraq. After all, even Hitler used Christianity as an excuse for war:
My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter.... In boundless love as a Christian, I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was His fight for the world against the Jewish poison.... As a Christian I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice. - Adolf Hitler, 12 April 1922 (Norman H. Baynes, ed. The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, Vol. 1, pp. 19-20, Oxford University Press, 1942)
I. False Arguments For War
Luke, Chapter 7
One of the deceptions used to give a Christian justification for war is based on the Gospel of Luke, chapter 7. St. Augustine was the first to use this argument, which asks the pacifist to prove the negative. In this passage, a Roman centurion begs Jesus to heal his sick slave. The disciples assure Jesus that the centurion is a good man, kind to the Jews, a supporter of the synagogue. Jesus heals the man's slave.
Does the healing of the slave indicate that Jesus condones war, simply because the slave's owner is a soldier? One could as easily ask, does it show that Jesus condones slavery?
Such an argument would be a non-sequitur. What the story actually shows is: (A) Jesus' healing power, and (B) Jesus' ministry to the Gentiles. The passage is not written in the context of any teaching about war. Yet Christian sophists claim that Jesus must have supported war, since he did not condemn the centurion for being a soldier! This argument shows how desperate they are to find some shred of evidence from the Gospel to support military violence.
The next verse abused to justify violence is Matthew 10:34-37: I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. Quoted out of context, this seems to evoke a martial tone. But taken in context, it is clear that Jesus is talking about the sword of decision, not combat.
Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
I ask any rational reader a simple question about this passage: is Jesus speaking literally? Does he want young Christians to kill their parents if the parents refuse to convert? Clearly, the context here has nothing to do with violence or war. As he often did, Jesus uses parabolic language. This symbolic "sword" is the same found in Revelations 1:16: "Out of his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword." And in the Epistle to Hebrews 4:12, the Word of God is "sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit... a discerner of the thoughts and intentions of the heart." This is not a weapon of battle, but the sword of discrimination. It is an ancient and universal symbol indeed. In Buddhism, this sword is the Vajra. In Hinduism, it is the Sword of Shiva.
Jesus asks for a radical choice, and choice may bring division in our life-style or relationships. Choosing his Way may even divide family members. Those who take this verse as a justification for war distort the intention of Jesus.
The final passage abused by Christian sophists is Matthew 21:12-13, where Jesus cleanses the temple.
Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves. And he said unto them, 'It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.'
Where in this passage is there any physical violence against persons, any use of weapons, or any act of war? In several Gospel scenes, Jesus demonstrates his overwhelming spiritual power (exouzia). Crowds part and authorities slink away from his presence. He never needs to use physical force when he wants to manifest such power. Here in the temple, Jesus certainly overturns the tables and seats of the money-changers: we can legitimately interpret these acts as physical. But we have no justification whatsoever to assume that Jesus strikes or inflicts bodily harm on any man. He uses no weapon of war. The context of this story is Jesus' demand for pure worship, not his teaching on violence.
It is clear that these passages cannot be used to justify war, and any attempt to use them for that purpose is a deception.
II. Legitimate Arguments Against War
There are passages where Jesus discusses war, retaliation, and the use of violence. Christian conservatives gloss over these passages. Yet they are the only places in the Gospel where it is legitimate to look for Jesus' explicit teachings on the subject of war.
Matthew 5: The Sermon On The Mount
The first such passage is Matthew 5, part of the famous Sermon On The Mount. When we read this, we fear and tremble: the words are overwhelming in their purity and their challenge to all that we would justify as "human nature." We glimpse Jesus' uncompromising and absolute pacifism:
Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you: Resist not evil, but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also (5:38-39).... I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you. (5:44)
Jesus does not use the ordinary Greek word for love, philios. Philios signifies the love we have for kinsmen and bosom friends. It is a natural emotional connection, a biological and family bond. Jesus does not tell us to feel emotional warmth toward our enemies. His teaching isn't a bumper sticker that says, "Have you hugged your enemy today?"
Jesus uses a rarer Greek word, agape, to suggest a new order of love. Agape is not emotional self-gratification, but an act of the will: to understand, to empathize, to stand in the enemy's boots snf gaze out through the chinks of the enemy's armor. By the power of agape, what we see through the enemy's eyes is ourselves, as the enemy sees us. This is morally demanding and patient work, requiring prayer.
The injunction to "resist not evil" is more literally translated, "resist not the evil one." Here, evil must mean another person, not an abstract moral quality. For if Jesus wanted us not to resist moral evil, this would contradict all the rest of his moral injunctions. His words can only mean non-resistance in a physical sense. Certainly we are called to resist moral evil in ourselves: but we are also called to refrain from physical violence against "the evil one". The phrase, "resist not the evil one," can only mean one thing: non-violence.
Matthew 26:52: The Garden Of Gethsemane
Then came they, and laid hands on Jesus and took him. And, behold, one of them which were with Jesus stretched out his hand, and drew his sword, and struck a servant of the high priest's, and smote off his ear. Then said Jesus unto him, 'Put away thy sword: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.'
In the garden of Gethsemane, after the Passover meal, priestly officials arrest Jesus. This is the only other Gospel passage, after the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus explicitly addresses the issue of violence. And it is the only time a disciple of Jesus uses a weapon. Jesus immediately, decisively rebukes him for it. One could well argue that the disciple strikes, not in aggression, but in defense of the innocent. Yet Jesus rebukes him anyway!
Here we see the same uncompromising pacifism encountered in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus not only preaches his pacifism: he walks the talk all the way to the Cross, spreading his arms to embrace the world with forgiveness, the good and the evil, friends and enemies alike.
Conclusion: Preemptive War
No nation has the right to invade another as a mere insurance policy, based on the presumption that the other nation might be a threat in the future. No one knows the future, and such presumption usurps the throne of God. If the United States is to demonstrate moral leadership, then we must lead by example. But if the U.S. example of preemptive war were imitated by every nation that wished to neutralize its rivals, world chaos would ensue.
In his God-like presumption to know the future, George W. Bush has killed tens of thousands of innocent Arabs -- far more innocents than terrorists ever killed in the U.S. or Europe. Iraq neither threatened us nor participated in the 9/11 attack. The invasion of Iraq cannot possibly be justified as self-defense. As an act of imperialism, Bush's war is naked aggression. As a Christian act, it is worse than naked aggression: it is a denial of Christ.
And what about our troops? Struggling to understand their mission and hold the moral high ground, they act with virtue, nobility and courage. But they have been abused: abused by the civilian leaders of our nation, abused by gray flannel Caesars hiding behind mahogany desks, pouring the blood of the world's finest warriors into the sand as an offering to Mammon, the god of Wall Street. Those who profit from the fog of war can no more call themselves Christians than those who sprinkle doves' blood on an alter of gold.
We must make an absolute ethical distinction between the soldiers who fight this war and the civilian authorities who abuse them. This is precisely why Jesus recognizes the Roman Centurion as a good man, without condoning the policies of the Empire.