Morality of War: "Love Our Enemies" or "An Eye for an Eye"?

Chuck Colson | Chairman of Prison Fellowship Ministries | Sunday, June 2, 2002

Morality of War: "Love Our Enemies" or "An Eye for an Eye"?

The attacks on September 11 were scarcely over before Christians began weighing in on how America should respond. For many, going to war was simply not an option. How could it be? After all, they said, didn't Jesus Himself say, "Blessed are the peacemakers," and, "Turn the other cheek"? Remember, warned a letter-writer to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Christ was an absolute pacifist."

But as Bill Bennett reminds us in his new book, Why We Fight, Jesus was nothing of the kind. As America wages war on terror, confusion over the morality of war itself is an issue the Church must address.

Many Christians, Catholic and Protestant, sincerely believe the Bible forbids violence of any kind. But, as Bennett notes, the Christian tradition does in fact offer principled support for both the right to go to war and the proper conduct of war.

It's true that Jesus told us, as individuals, not to resist evildoers and never to avenge ourselves. But these words need to be read in the context of the whole New Testament. There's a difference between the commandments to us, as individuals, and to the state and the role of the state in society. That's a subject I deal with at length in my book Kingdoms in Conflict. Bennett goes on to note that in one of his few unmixed utterances of praise, "Jesus lauded the faith of a Roman centurion, a soldier and a man of violence," who asked Jesus to heal a dying servant.

Jesus Himself engaged in at least one act of violence. In the gospel of John, we read that Jesus became enraged when He saw people turning the Temple into a place of trade. He made a whip and drove the moneychangers out, overturning their tables and pouring their money onto the ground. And in the gospel of Luke, Jesus tells His disciples to sell their cloaks, if necessary, in order to buy swords.

In the book of Romans, Paul admonishes Christians to obey government authorities -- authorities that are authorized by God to use force to overthrow evildoers. Both Paul, and the Apostle Peter later, instruct the Church that human institutions are sent by God "to punish those who do wrong."

"Nowhere in the New Testament do we find force itself held up for explicit praise," Bennett acknowledges, but "neither are the [biblical] writers so unworldly as to posit that the answer to every human conflict is to turn the other cheek." Indeed, he adds, it was to elaborate the why and how of force that the Church developed the doctrine of "just war." And among the causes justifying a just war are avenging wrongs and righting injustice.

Augustine, the first just war thinker, explained that the belligerents in a just war must "intend the advancement of good, or the avoidance of evil." Bennett writes that Augustine recognized that "there are times when not resorting for force leads to evils far greater than the one we oppose." Applying just war teachings to the current war on terrorism, Bennett says, "both the military campaign and our conduct of it qualify unreservedly as just."

You can learn more about the morality of war by reading Bennett's book, Why We Fight. You will learn how to defend the proper use of force - a force that recognizes, as so many Christian soldiers and sailors in the past have, that, in some cases, the most honorable way to be a peacemaker is to take up arms against evil.

For further reading:

  • William Bennett, Why We Fight: Moral Clarity and the War on Terrorism (Doubleday, 2002).
  • Charles Colson, Kingdoms in Conflict (Harper, 1990).
  • St. Augustine of Hippo, The City of God (Doubleday, 1958).

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