In last week’s issue of Reflect, we looked at the pacifist position, offering a few considerations and criticisms. On the other side of the debate are the just war advocates. Just war theorists argue that, while war and violence are undesirable, there are times when Christians can and should take up arms. As Christians, we have an obligation to look out for the needs of others, to protect our families, and to seek the welfare of our state. In part this means defending others against tyranny and injustice, and sometimes it means going to war in defense of liberty.
A Just War Theory
The just war view leans heavily into the ideas of standing for justice, defending the vulnerable, and protecting the innocent, which are clearly priorities of God in Scripture. Christians in this camp tend to support active military service and gun rights for self-defense. However, just war theorists see war or forceful self-defense as a last resort. Like pacifists, proponents of just war argue that we should look for all possible means of resolving conflict through nonviolent means first.
Of course, no one should ever want to take another human life, and modern warfare has brought to the forefront how nuanced the issue of just war can be. How do we determine if and when force is necessary? Should America help fight for freedom in other nations or simply protect its own? Do we fire only when fired upon or should we take the first shot to potentially prevent further harm? These questions have been large on the American mind for as long as we’ve been a nation, but particularly since the use of the atom bomb in WWII and the tragic conflict in Vietnam.
Furthermore, in combat or self-defense scenarios, how do we determine if and when it’s appropriate to use force? The film American Sniper gives us a glimpse into these difficult realities. The film tells the story of Navy Seal Chris Kyle, one of the most deadly snipers in U.S. history.
In one scene, Kyle has to kill a child and a woman who both attempt to throw a grenade at an American convoy. After killing them both, his buddy congratulates him by giving him a slap on the back, to which Kyle replies, “Get the #!@% off me!” His remark aptly demonstrates the moral conflict that is present. The trauma from these events leaves scars, as we see in this scene where Kyle struggles emotionally.
As is demonstrated, questions of warfare and violence are not easy. A just war theorist would argue that Kyle was justified in his actions because he was protecting his fellow soldiers. However, the issue is not black and white, and the film portrays the tension that advocates of just war theory experience. We can admire Chris Kyle’s courage in the face of such difficult choices.
However difficult these questions are, we must face them. We must deal with the reality that we live in a fallen world. In a fallen world, not all conflicts will be able to be solved through nonviolent means (though we should do everything we can to solve them that way). Furthermore, just war theory highlights (in a different way than pacifism does) the value of human life. There is something worth protecting—human beings.
God’s instruction in Genesis 9:6 affirms that human life is invaluable because we are all made in the image of God. However, by assaulting an image-bearer, we are in fact assaulting God himself and surrendering part of our human dignity. When we assault other human beings, God sometimes allows for a stronger punishment. Though we can’t use this or the Old Testament warfare stories as blanket justifications for going to war whenever we feel our cause is just, we should note that sometimes the use of force to fight evil is acceptable to God.
Pitfalls and Questions
As we think about just war, pacifists would have some good questions, too. For example, they might ask: “Is it acceptable for us to take someone else’s life and potentially send them spiraling towards hell?” or “Would it not be better to die ourselves than to have death on our conscience?” These are multifaceted moral questions that we must ponder carefully.
Perhaps one of the reasons pacifists react against just war theory has to do with some of the gunslinging rhetoric that is often touted by conservative, evangelical Christians. Taking another human life is an incredibly serious thing, it is not to be talked about lightly. Conservative Christians have often been too flippant in their remarks about this issue.
For example, a few years back, Liberty University president, Jerry Falwell Jr., created controversy when he encouraged students to arm themselves. Referring to Islamic terrorists, he said, “Let’s teach them a lesson if they show up here.”¹ Admirably, Falwell is concerned for the safety of his students, but this kind of language doesn’t demonstrate the love that we are called to show to all people.
Sometimes the way that we talk about gun rights and warfare is incredibly off-putting, and frankly, more American than Christian. When Christians repost memes about how they’re going to “teach those people a lesson” or are in-your-face about their gun rights, we have to wonder if we have forgotten the teaching of Genesis 1-2—that all people are made in God’s image. If we forget this fact, we are not representing the Christian position, no matter how just our cause.
Finally, sometimes political leaders use just war language to promote a war as a righteous and moral cause, when in fact there are other motives at play. It can be tempting to hop on board with anything that America does. This is not true just war theory, however. Our first allegiance is to Jesus. Just war theory requires us to look carefully at every situation and to assess it, not to blindly follow whatever America or our political party promotes.
Often, in self-defense or combat scenarios, we don’t have as much time to ponder our response as we would like. However, in our volatile world we do have a responsibility to put some thought into this issue before we are faced with such events. We must remember how serious a thing human life is and how important it is to guard it. Ultimately, this is what just war theory should be about—guarding and standing up for others.
In the end, just as we are to show love to our enemies, we must also show love to our friends on both sides of this debate. Just war proponents are not gun-slinging maniacs, and pacifists are not cowards. These unfair caricatures need to end. Knowing how to respond to injustice and evil in a fallen world can be difficult. We need to seek wisdom from the Holy Spirit and work together to bring peace to conflicts whenever and wherever we can.
This Article Corresponds To:
- Understanding the Culture, chapter 15: “The Use of Force”
- Understanding the Culture curriculum, unit 15, pp. 399–410
Possible Discussion Starters:
- How do we live in a fallen world with people who seek to destroy (people, places, ideas), in spite of our best efforts toward reconciliation?
- What are the potential pitfalls of just war theory?
- How can just war theorists better defend and advocate for their position in a loving and gracious way?
- “Should Christians Go to War?” – Chuck Edwards
- “Why I’m Not a Pacifist” Part 1 / Part 2 – C. S. Lewis
- Jerry Falwell Jr: “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.” – Jeff Tobler
- “The Just War” – J. Arthur Holmes
- “Is There a Time to Kill?” – Timothy Padgett
- “War and the Christian” – Ligonier Ministries
- War: Four Christian Views – Robert G. Clouse
Sign up here to receive weekly Reflect emails in your inbox!