Recently, a memory of when some soldiers visited our school has haunted me. It was a Catholic school, albeit full of Protestants, and as the soldiers were trying to persuade the students to join the military after departing school, one of my former colleagues raised his hand and asked, “How do you justify shooting at people?”. One of the soldiers, a devout Muslim, answered the question with the classic ‘we kill bad buys so that they do not kill more good guys’ answer, which although my colleague found satisfactory, I found lacking – I wished my colleague was properly rebuked for his foolish understanding of Christian theology.
This has become somewhat more important in politics recently, as foreign and defence policies are once again at the forefront of discussion, and as political commentators reference religious stances in their arguments; often Christians use Christian theology to justify political stances, and even secular commentators use Christianity to attack Christian commentators about their beliefs. Pacifism has been associated with Christianity, and those who hold more militant beliefs yet claim to be Christians are branded hypocrites – yet pacifism is not in the slightest what Christianity advocates!
It is not a matter of argument as to whether the Old Testament justifies righteous wrath. I do not know anybody who would argue that there, war or violence is somewhat forbidden. Be it the flood that drowned the neighbours of Noah, the earthquake that took down the walls of Jericho, or the brimstone and fire rained upon Sodom and Gomorrah, God does not refrain from using force as one of His tools in the Old Testament. What is disputed is the New Covenant – many people, ardent that the teachings of Jesus override the old, cling to the idea that Jesus does not advocate any violence, as shown by His life and words.
One valid response to this is that Jesus did not ‘come to abolish the law’. The Old Testament is just as valid as the New, and if one discards the Old in favour of the New, they are not doing their theology well; rather, the two Testaments are reconciled. Jesus is actually very good at explaining how to interpret Old Testament law. Of course, the issue arises of how to reconcile them – this is where the second response comes in.
When teaching, Jesus is very clear about what should happen to those who do not want to be members of His Kingdom – about those who are not good people. ‘But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and slaughter them in my presence.’ This seems in contradiction to what Jesus preaches in the Sermon on the Mount, one of the most famous seemingly pro-pacifism passages in the Bible. He commands to ‘Come to terms quickly with your accuser’, ‘if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also’, and ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’. In the Gospel of John, it is written ‘as I have loved you, you also should love one another’.
Indeed, it is very Christian to love one’s enemy – the Church Fathers commanded Christian soldiers to even love their enemies as they thrust their sword through them. To love one means to will good upon them; the supreme act of Christian love is to will for one to be saved. We are to love each other as Jesus loves us, but Jesus does not refrain from righteous wrath, such as when He cleanses the Temple from the moneylenders – this does not stop Jesus from loving them. It is indeed more loving to rebuke one doing wrong, so that they may not do it again, rather than let them remain in their wrongdoing.
More importantly, the pacifism passages from the Sermon refer specifically to oneself. You ought to come to terms with your accuser, and turn the other cheek to the person who strikes you – but should one strike an innocent person that is not us, ‘it is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer’. In many places in the New Testament are we commanded to forget our own lives and welfare and focus on serving God instead. We should not focus on the wrong done against us, but rather be selfless and act against the wrong which offends those in more dire need than us.
It is for this very reason that Jesus tells ‘the one who has no sword [to] sell his cloak and buy one’. It is also for this reason that, rather than rebuke the Centurion in the 7th chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus heals his servant – He has nothing against soldiers. In order to fulfil the commandments of Jesus, one must bring the enemies of God and slaughter them in His presence; they must ‘execute wrath on the wrongdoer’. This is not compatible with pacifism. Like David when striking down Goliath, like Joshua when fighting the Amalekites, like Archangel Michael fighting the Beast, Christians are not only permitted to use force and military intervention – in times when the wrongdoer remains unpunished and the innocent unprotected, it is the Christian thing to sell his cloak and take up the sword. ‘As your heavenly Father’ rained down fire and brimstone upon the unrighteous, it may now be our duty to rain down lead and artillery fire.