"War is a dreadful thing," wrote C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity. "I can respect an honest pacifist, though I think he is entirely mistaken. What I cannot understand is this sort of semi-pacifism you get nowadays, which gives people the idea that though you have to fight, you ought to do it with a long face and as if you were ashamed of it."

This quote begins the recent book When God Says War Is Right (Waterbrook Press, 2002) by Dr. Darrell Cole, assistant professor of religion at Drew University.

Cole argues that war is not merely a "necessary evil." Instead, he writes, it's sometimes the right thing for a Christian to do.

Why shouldn't we view war as a necessary evil?

There are no necessary evils in Christian morality. We sometimes have to take the lesser of two courses, but that doesn't make it evil. We should always abstain from evil, and we should follow Paul who said, explicitly, "Never do evil that good may come."

If you're entering into something with a long face or a troubled conscience, that's probably a good indication you shouldn't be doing it. We can't stoop to evil just to bring about a good consequence.

Why do we have the impression that most early Christians were pacifists?

We've gotten that idea because a great many scholars early in the 19th century were basing their research on incomplete data. Those researchers were generally very much liberal humanists. They wanted to see Jesus, Jesus' followers, and the early church in their own way of life.

Research over the past 50 or 60 years has shown that the term pacifism, as we use it to mean that all bloodshed as inherently evil—simply did not exist in the early Christian community. Early Christians did not participate in war because the Roman soldiers distrusted them and because in order to be a Roman soldier you had to participate in pagan rites.

As soon as those two things fell apart, Christians started joining in droves. So by the time you get to Constantine, in the early 4th century, you've got whole Christian battalions.

How did the early church view Jesus' teachings about war in the broader context of the entire Bible?

They said, "Look, we have to pay attention to the whole Bible." Their enemies were saying that you could just lop off the Old Testament. More than that, they argued that you could lop off pieces of the New Testament that didn't fit in with what you wanted.

The church fathers were very adamant. "No, we've got to pay attention to the whole Bible," they said. "We've got to pay attention to the whole New Testament, so we don't make up a religion out of one and two verses that are the gospels."

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The early church said that God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Jesus is a God of love and peace, but Jesus is also a God of wrath. We find out in the last book of the Bible that Jesus is leading the Lord of Hosts back into battle to defeat the enemies of God. Jesus is also read into the Old Testament, most particularly, as the divine figure who encourages Joshua before he battles against Jericho.

To sum this up quite quickly, the Old Testament God is generally characterized as one as being wrathful and vengeful, but he's also very merciful and very loving to his children. Jesus is usually characterized as being loving and merciful, but he is also very wrathful when the time comes.

What do we learn when we look at that broader context?

We learn that Christians must abstain from retaliation for personal revenge. When Paul says return not evil for evil, he's perfectly echoing the words of Christ.

Paul then asks, "What does it mean to leave vengeance to God?" The state works out God's vengeance. And this means the state wields the sword to punish the evil and protect the good, and Christians are supposed to support this.

Is there a difference between having just intention for war and having just cause?

You could say a just cause for a war is self defense. For an example, we can look at the current conflict in Iraq. We need to go in there because we're afraid Saddam Hussein might have weapons of mass destruction and use them against us.

So we have a just cause. But our intentions may not be just. That is to say, we may not be doing it simply to secure peace, but we may be wanting to get other things out of the deal. We could be simply using just cause as an excuse to do something we want to do.

For example, Bush could really hate Saddam Hussein and be looking for any excuse whatsoever to wipe him out.  Human beings are not angels. There's going to be no such thing as a perfectly just war. All you can do is, given the criteria say, do we approximate this? Do we fulfill the conditions to a degree that we can say it's just?

How do you know when more good than unintended evil is going to follow from your acts? You're going to have to have a certain amount of wisdom and prudence to be able to count the costs. As Jesus said in the parable about the king who goes to war, no king goes to war who doesn't count the cost first.

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When you look at the current war, are you satisfied that we have a just war situation?

I'm satisfied on all criteria except reasonable hope for the success. And that's something we're going to have to simply trust the President on. If the President thinks that he has a battle plan in place that will allow us to decapitate Saddam Hussein from using weapons on Israel, then I think we need to go for it.

Related Elsewhere

Christianity Today has now posted a War in Iraq archive for access to recent news from Iraq: reflections on the Christian response, debates over the war, and relevant articles from previous conflicts.

Visit DickStaub.com for audio and video of his radio program (4-7 p.m. PST), media reviews, and news on "where belief meets real life."

Recent Dick Staub Interviews include:

Jim Van Yperen on Church Conflicts | The author of Making Peace: A Guide to Overcoming Church Conflict says the early church was also "full of problems." (March 18, 2003)
Texas Pastor James Robison on the Life-Changing Faith of George W. Bush | The president of Life Outreach International talks about his friend's faith, the moral need of America, and his own conversion. (March 11, 2003)
National Book Award Finalist Ron Hansen on Christian Fiction | It's important to instruct while entertaining, but method can be as important as message, says the author of Isn't It Romantic? and Atticus. (March 4, 2003)
Gods and Generals' Director Links the Civil War with Today | Ron Maxwell talks about the role his faith plays in his career and what attracts him to the generation of the 1860s. (Feb. 25, 2003)
Why Don Richardson Says There's No 'Peace Child' for Islam | The author and missionary says he has tried to find bridge-building opportunities with Islam, but failed. (Feb. 11, 2003)
Did Martin Luther Get Galileo In Trouble? | David Lindberg talks about the early relationship between science and faith and his own journey on the subject (Feb. 4, 2003)
Dan Bahat on Jerusalem Archaeology  | One of Israel's leading archaeologists talks about the importance of the Temple Mount and key historical finds in the Holy Land. (Jan. 27, 2003)
Eddie Gibbs Reconsiders Gen X Churches | The author of Church Next and Fuller's professor of church growth says his views on church leadership have grown. (Jan. 21, 2003)
Peter Jenkins Finds Jesus While Walking America | The author of A Walk Across America talks about why angels smiled down at him at a revival in Mobile, Alabama. (Jan. 7, 2003)
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R.C. Sproul's Testimony | The theologian and author of Five Things Every Christian Needs to Grow talks about how he met Jesus and why playing the violin is like reading the Bible. (Dec. 31, 2002)
Calvin Miller on a Southern Baptist's View of Advent | The author of The Christ of Christmas celebrates the season around the one great miracle (Dec. 17, 2002)
Phillip Johnson | Asking the right questions is at the heart of the evolution debate. (Dec. 3, 2002)
Connie Neal | The author of The Gospel According to Harry Potter talks about leading a friend to Christ through the wizard hero. (Nov. 19, 2002)
Chris Rice | The author of Grace Matters talks about his friendship with racial reconciliation leader Spencer Perkins, his former coauthor and best friend. (Nov. 12, 2002)
John Polkinghorne | The 2002 Templeton Prize winner sees the Bible as "the laboratory notebook" of the Holy Spirit. (Nov. 5, 2002)

The Dick Staub Interview
Dick Staub was host of a eponymous daily radio show on Seattle's KGNW and is the author of Too Christian, Too Pagan and The Culturally Savvy Christian. He currently runs The Kindlings, an effort to rekindle the creative, intellectual, and spiritual legacy of Christians in culture. His interviews appeared weekly on our site from 2002 to 2004.
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