War in Indochina, war between Arabs and Jews, strife and warfare in Northern Ireland: these shake the world, as well as the countries directly involved. Before these recent conflicts we had the world wars, and one could keep tracing war back in history to the epochs represented by the New and Old Testaments.

Where were Christians in these wars and conflicts? More important, where should they have been? Should they have refused to participate in any and all wars as pacifists? Or should they have been willing to participate in some, though perhaps not all, as a duty owed to God? In view of the abiding relevance of this question and especially in view of the ambiguity of some recent conflicts, Christians should reflect again on the principles concerning war found in the Word of God.

A central point of departure is an appeal to the sixth commandment, “You shall not kill.” There are those who say that this settles the issue once and for all: since God here prohibits killing human beings, this command prohibits war, It means, according to this view, that no one, individual or nation, has a right at any time to take another’s life.

But the Old Testament also gives the express command of God to men to put a murderer to death: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God he made man” (Gen. 9:6). This in itself goes to show that every death inflicted is not a violation of the sixth commandment, which prohibits murder. Genesis 9:6 gives to men acting collectively, designated today as the state, the right—indeed, the responsibility—to inflict death on those who unjustly kill others.

This awesome responsibility of men extends not only to capital punishment ...

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