Summary: The Scriptural criteria that determine whether a particular war is morally acceptable. “My country, right or wrong” is not a Christian motto.
War and Morality…a Memorial Day weekend sermon by Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts Scripture text: II Samuel 22
Historian Stephen Ambrose (Band of Brothers) observed: "During WWII, when soldiers from any other army, even our allies, entered a town, the people hid in the cellars. When Americans came in, even into German towns, it meant smiles, chocolate bars and C-rations." Ours has always been an army like no other, because our soldiers reflect a society unlike any other. We have been known for having compassion on civilians and even defeated enemies. That has changed. In Iraq, we’ve seen how a justifiable war can include horrific atrocities. The reputation of our soldiers and our nation has been besmirched by the despicable actions of a few. This Memorial Day we honor our slain comrades-in-arms, and we do not want their memory tainted by the abuse suffered in Al-greb prison.
Memorial Day raises a moral question: “May Christians serve in the military?” People of faith differ on whether military service is permissible. Before soldiers raise their right hand and take their oath of office to defend and protect the nation, they need to consider the morality of war.
Religious scholars have developed what is called “Just War theory”, which consists of criteria that determine whether a particular war is morally acceptable. This perspective presumes that military force can be appropriate. War is not, as some view it, a “lesser evil” but a good. The use of force is a positive duty, and a failure to use force when it is fitting indicates a lack of love. When a nation stands idly by while an invading enemy attacks (or attacks a neighbor), that nation is less than virtuous. A godly nation should seek a just peace for all, with the understanding that military force is sometimes an appropriate means for securing that peace.
Not everyone agrees. Pacifists oppose all wars, and regard “just-war” as a contradictory term. To a pacifist, there’s no such thing as a just war. While we may respect the integrity of such convictions, pacifism will not prevent the victory of evils such as the Holocaust, or “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans. Pacifism grows out of a vision of the future as a time when God will bring peace to the world, and the “lion and lamb will lie down together.” Until Jesus returns to put an end to sin, we live in a fallen world beset with evil and ruled by the forces of spiritual wickedness.
There is some confusion regarding the commandment, “Thou shall not kill.” In more precise translations it is rendered, “You shall not commit murder”, which is an act of cold-blooded, pre-meditated homicide. War must not be confused with personal hatred or retaliation. In war, the antagonist is not a personal enemy but a lawbreaker who needs be punished. Soldiers are agents of God’s vengeance, acting by civil authority to carry out government policy. A nation unwilling to wage war is unprepared to enjoy peace.
Soldiers serve as custodians of security, very much like policemen. Law enforcement and military personnel are often described as “peace officers”--their mission is to protect and preserve peace through necessary force, for the common good--a positive, virtuous duty. As peacekeepers they are committed to do all they can to bring about and maintain peace, even if this requires armed action and personal loss.
In Scripture we see God permitting, initiating and even commanding Israel to engage in violent military campaigns. The protection and survival of nations in the ancient world depended on military might. The wars of the Old Testament were a means of divine judgment upon evil. Throughout Scripture God is referred to as the “Lord of hosts” (literally armies) and a “Man of war”.
Significant statements in Scripture support the view that warfare can be just:
Matthew 10:34, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
Deuteronomy 1:30, “Do not be afraid of (the enemy). The Lord your God, Who is going before you, will fight for you, as He did for you in Egypt.”
Joshua 1, “No one will be able to stand up against you...be strong and courageous...take possession of the land the Lord your God is giving you...your fighting men, fully armed, must cross over ahead of your brothers...whoever does not obey your words will be put to death.”
Psalm 24:8, “Who is the King of Glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle.”
Ecclesiastes 3:1, 8: “To everything there is a season...a time of war, and a time of peace.”
To “turn the other cheek” does not mean we passively stand idly by when our neighbors are being threatened by an enemy. Jesus told His disciples to sell their cloaks in order to purchase swords, for the purpose of protection (Luke 22:36). His teachings on non-retaliation were for personal offenses, yet Jesus does not rule out self-defense. His rebuke to Peter (in attacking the Sanhedrin guard) was for an inappropriate use of force.