As Congress considers military action in Syria, I thought it might be helpful for Christians to review briefly the way theologians have engaged the question of war.
At one extreme is total pacifism: war is never justified under any circumstance. Pacifists might adopt non-violent means of opposing their enemies, such as hunger strikes or public rallies, but they refuse to take up arms against others. Many cite Jesus’ admonition: “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:39).
However, our Lord’s words related to personal slander rather than self-defense or war. The left hand was never used in public in Jesus’ culture. As a result, if I strike you on the right cheek with my right hand, I must slap you with the back of my hand. This is not a life-threatening attack but an insult. The context of Jesus’ words clarifies their relational intent: “If someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (vs. 40-42).
His injunction was not intended to address the issue of war. Nonetheless, total pacifists believe that it is always wrong to harm others, whatever their aggression toward us.
Preemptive war, by contrast, is the belief that war may be justified to protect ourselves from real or perceived threats. Proponents assert that the technology of modern warfare makes it possible for an enemy to launch strikes such as 9/11 without warning, requiring us to anticipate such attacks and prevent them through any means necessary. For instance, while our declaration of war in response to Japan’s December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor was easy to justify morally, many lives would have been spared if we had launched a preemptive attack against Japan’s fleet on December 6.
Preemptive war theologians often claim justification for their position in God’s command that his people initiate war against the Canaanites (see Joshua 6:5; 8:1-2; Judges 1:1-4). These people had done nothing to the Hebrews. They had not attacked them and were defending lands that had been theirs for centuries. But God knew that if they were left alive in the Promised Land, their paganism, idolatry and immorality would infect his people and lead to rebellion against his word and will (Deuteronomy 18:10-12).
Of course, this logic is not compelling for everyone. First, the Hebrews were under direct mandate of the God who is “holy, holy, holy” (Isaiah 6:3); what human leader can claim such divine character and omniscience? Second, the conquest of Canaan was a one-time event necessary to create the nation through whom God would bring the Savior of the world, not a strategy prescribed for all people at all times. Third, if it is morally appropriate to initiate aggression against a nation or person merely because they have the capacity to harm us, what real or potential enemy are we not justified in attacking?
Tomorrow we’ll consider a third option, called “just war” theory. In the meantime, please pray for our leaders to seek and follow God’s leading in these challenging days. God gives wisdom to those who lack it (James 1:5)—but we must ask first.