Freedom, honor, truth, righteousness, justice—all are more valuable than life itself.
In the last issue, CHRISTIANITY Today completed a three-part series on war and pacifism. We thought it best to let each article stand without taking an editorial position. Not that CHRISTIANITY TODAY is neutral on this terribly important issue! We respect the Christian integrity of those on both sides; it is only those with deep moral convictions who raise it at all. We wanted readers to weigh impartially the delicate pros and cons of these articles, with the hope that they would thereby arrive at mature, biblically based conclusions.
Our position is that across-the-board pacifism is both unbiblical and unrealistic. We do not question the sincerity of most pacifists. They act from highest Christian motives, draw conclusions from a serious endeavor to take the Bible as their rule for faith and practice, and courageously apply its teachings to their daily lives, whatever the cost. For this we honor them and are proud to claim them as brothers and sisters in Christ.
Nonetheless, we strongly disagree with their interpretation of the Bible on this issue. The heart of the matter is simply this: Ought a Christian to use force in order to restrain evil? We believe the Bible in both Old and New Testaments teaches that it is right under certain circumstances to use force and even to kill another human being. The classic biblical passage, Romans 13:1–7, says it all: A Christian is to obey his government, and the God-given task of government is to preserve justice, including the right, when necessary, to take life. There is much in the Bible that qualifies, restricts, and safeguards this principle, but nothing that negates or contradicts it.
A Christian does not accept the common viewpoint that physical life is the highest good. Freedom, honor, truth, righteousness, justice—all are higher values than physical life. The Christian is to love justice; he is to seek the good of others. It is his duty to protect the innocent, even at the risk of his own life. And if a Christian is neither to seek vengeance nor take upon himself personally the task of rendering evil for evil to preserve justice, he is nevertheless a citizen. When his government performs its legitimate task as the preserver of justice (national or international), the Christian cannot abjure his responsibility as a citizen. What is a necessary duty for any citizen is also a duty for the Christian citizen.
Moreover, we live in a fallen world. We cannot assume that evildoers will be deterred merely by education and persuasion. Some will yield only to force, or even the threat of death. And the threat of death is worthless unless it is backed by willingness to carry out the threat.
Difficult questions yet remain. Can each person select which wars he deems justified and choose to participate only in them? In many countries, obviously, there is no way the average citizen can get the facts in order to draw valid conclusions. Even in a democracy with a free press it is still very difficult, if not impossible, for a private citizen to make an informed decision. Usually, therefore, Christians have believed that decisions about going to war are primarily the responsibility of the state. God has entrusted responsibility for the use of the sword to officers of government. They have far better access than we do to data necessary for making wise and just decisions; and God holds them responsible.
Generally, that is the view we follow. But nonetheless, a Christian cannot abrogate his conscience. He is still accountable to God for what he does. It is his duty to assess honestly the evidence available to him about the justice of any given war. If he is clearly convinced that a war is wholly immoral, with no redeeming features, he must follow his conscience; he must obey God rather than men (Acts 4:19).
Of course, Christians must use their influence to oppose war. To the degree that they can, depending on the nature of their government and their role in it, they must persuade their government to exhaust all other means in the pursuit of justice. War, like capital punishment, is the final, extreme form of human coercion to thwart evildoers.
When a nonpacifist concludes that for conscience’ sake he cannot participate in a given war, he must be prepared to suffer the consequences of his decision. No government can tolerate individual citizens’ selecting which laws (or wars) are wise and choosing to obey only them. Because of the sacred nature of the human conscience, government should exempt from military service those whose conscience will not permit them to engage in war. But those who simply reject the wisdom of their government’s decision about a given war stand on a different level. To extend the right of conscientious objection to all who refuse to obey laws of which they disapprove, or which they think unjust, would lead to anarchy.
There is the further troubling question: Is a justifiable war inconceivable in the light of nuclear weapons, laser death rays, germ warfare, and other awesome means of annihilation? Certain types of nuclear war are clearly unthinkable. No Christian can defend indiscriminate mass slaughter of noncombatants. But strategic bombing of military centers, even when noncombatants become involved, does not seem to be inherently different from what in the past has been accepted as necessary and just. Even justifiable wars (probably most Christians would agree that the war against Hitler and the Nazi commitment to genocide and worldwide repression of human freedom was justified) bring incalculable suffering to millions who are relatively innocent. Suffering and death in themselves are not sufficient reasons to rule out the justice of a nation’s decision to wage war (assuming, of course, that physical human life on this earth is not the highest good). The decisive questions are: Does the government seek a good and just end? Will war deter the rampant spread of evil? Will it bring about justice, a greater sense of human dignity, a wider human freedom? These things, even in the relative and limited degree to which they are possible among fallen humanity, are truly worth fighting and dying for. And at crucial times in the right places it is even necessary for the follower of Christ to take life—in the name of human justice.
Paradoxically, even when fought for the best causes, war is always a dreadful curse. The just war can only be a war to repress an evil so malignant that it will not yield to lesser restraints. Every Christian, pacifist or nonpacifist, should pray for peace and strive in every way possible to turn the hearts of people away from war and towards peace—looking for that wonderful day when the Prince of Peace will return to earth and set up his kingdom of perfect peace and righteousness.
As we reflect on our presidential election, the times are uneasy, serious. Not only is there a tense economic front with mounting inflation, recession, and energy trials; but there’s a sobering awareness, seldom expressed, that our nation is no longer Number One. Some warn that if the Soviet Union doesn’t defeat us on the economic front, she has the weaponry to survive us in war.
If God wills that we continue as we are, with the United States and the Soviets coexisting, especially should we pray for our President. For he must lead through years of world crises. If we’re spared—knowing business (and politics) as usual—would that our President in trial and stress, and above all under political duress, revere his office—but would that we the people examine our consciences and responsibilities toward him. Would that we take an honest look at our whipping-boy concept of the President, that demands he be all things to all persons, that when he can’t deliver we make him pay. Hurts and disappointments in a President notwithstanding, have we the right to hate, smear, to malign? Are we not all responsible to maintain the moral vitality that should be our nation’s hallmark?
With repentance we should bow before God that our nation be arighted, rather than cast stones at handy scapegoats. With tears before God we should bear our responsibility for what we’ve let come to this good land, namely, the overthrow of his moral law, the rejection of the saving grace and virtue of his Christ, the failure to share knowledge (of all kinds) and freedom with his world.
But a harsh spirit manward has come to exist, with mercilessness toward those who serve us, a mercilessness that feels its power to abuse. Most vulnerable to that abuse stands one lone figure.
And it’s a shame what we do
Only to the President;
His is such a harrowing, impossible job.
It is something we may yet be answerable for;
Answerable, like Presidents, to God.
SARA KILLIAN COOKE
A classical pianist, composer, and teacher, Mrs. Cooke is the wife of a Presbyterian minister in Richmond, Virginia.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more