Outside the United Nations building in New York, there is a famous statue of a man beating his sword—a weapon of war—into a plowshare, an instrument of peaceful farming. This statue captured the sentiment of many after the horrors of World War II, which left at least 50 million dead. After all that death, couldn’t our world live in peace?
However, many drew a different lesson from World War II: in a violent world, we need the best military and the most powerful weapons money can buy. To this day, countries all over the world spend billions of dollars on their armed forces. We continue to produce more, and more powerful, “swords.”
Which is the correct lesson? Should we say goodbye to war forever, or should we admit that war is inevitable and plan accordingly?
War: what is it good for?
War is always a tragedy. No matter how glorious or glamorous movies make it seem, veterans and survivors of war universally testify to the horror that war inflicts upon fighters, civilians, and the earth alike. Fields and forests fill with smoke, stench, and death. Unexploded bombs and leftover landmines kill and maim decades after a war ceases. Some bodies are destroyed; others are left mangled beyond recognition. The youngest lives are cut tragically short.
On a relational level, war makes it hard for us to see the humanity in our enemies. In wartime, it is very common for nations to use derogatory names or issue inflammatory propaganda to make their citizens despise and distrust their opponents. Nations and leaders do this to generate hatred, which helps motivate soldiers to kill the enemy.
But when we dehumanize our enemies, we dehumanize ourselves. Christians have a specific reason to reject this aspect of war in the words of Jesus: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Matthew 5:43-48, Luke 6:27-28). Christians may differ in their opinions of the rightness or wrongness of war itself, but Jesus calls them to love and pray for all people, even people they see as opponents.
Priorities: Pacifism or Protection?
Given the horrors of war, why don’t we just give it up entirely? There are many who do—pacifism has a long history. The ancient Greek play Lysistrata, first performed in 411 B.C., was a protest against the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.). In United States history, there was great opposition to the Vietnam War and there is ongoing opposition to nuclear weapons. Perhaps the most famous recent pacifist was Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948 A.D.), who many credit with gaining independence for India from Great Britain through peaceful protest, without a long and bloody revolutionary war.
“In this cause I too am prepared to die. But my friends, there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill.” –Mahatma Gandhi, 1925
Within Christianity, there is a story in the Bible about Jesus’ close friend Peter drawing a sword to defend Jesus when Jesus was being unjustly arrested. Jesus told Peter to put his sword away (see Matthew 26:47-52). From this story, the early church father Tertullian (160-220 A.D.) concluded, “Jesus, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier” (On Idolatry). Some Christians today agree with Tertullian: they oppose war and refuse to fight in any war or even join the military. They are particularly mindful of Jesus’ warning: “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Many work actively to promote engagement across ethnic and national lines, to bring about peaceful resolutions to tense situations that could boil over into open conflict.
On the other hand, there have been many throughout history, including many Christians, who have believed that, in a world that is broken and filled with evil, sometimes it is necessary to go to war in order to protect and serve other humans. How can we just stand by and let our neighbors be abused or killed in war?
Think of World War II. Would it have been right for France to simply let Germany invade Poland and Belgium without coming to their aid? Should the United States not have responded when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941? What would the world look like today if no one had opposed Hitler’s rise in Europe?
Many in the world believe that some war is unavoidable, or a necessary evil. Christians who hold this view remember Jesus’ call to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31), and believe sometimes the most loving thing that can be done is fighting war for the sake of protecting people who are weak or innocent.
Limited War as a Last Resort
For those who think war is sometimes inevitable, the question follows: which wars are justifiable? If we cast an eye across history, we see an abundance of wars fought for horrible reasons: a ruler’s ego, pride, or jealousy; a desire for more land or natural resources; or—worst of all—hate for a group of people and a drive to eliminate them from the face of the earth. To this day, many in power still see war as a ‘tool’ for nations to get what they want (the Syrian conflict is an example of this). Should we go to war just because a president or supreme leader says so?
Even for Christians who aren’t pacifists, who think war is sometimes unavoidable, a leader’s command does not automatically justify a conflict. To avoid participation in unjust or plainly stupid wars, historic Christian leaders developed guidelines to define the kinds of wars they understood as morally acceptable. St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) and St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 A.D.) are primarily responsible for formulating the widely-known Just War Criteria. Here is a basic summary of their foundational principles for considering a war to be “just.”
Summary of Just War Criteria
- Last Resort and Just Cause:Every possible means of peacefully settling the conflict must be exhausted before entering into armed conflict. War must only be entered into in response to particular, serious, and long-lasting damage caused by an aggressor.
- Right Intent:The motive for entering into war must be the advancement of good and/or the avoidance of evil. Revenge, revolt, imperialism, retribution, bloodlust, domination, and exploitation are not acceptable justifications for war.
- The Goal of Peace:The ultimate objective of war must be to bring peace. The conflict must not precipitate greater wrong than the evil to be eliminated, and violence must be kept to a minimum.
- Chance of Success:There must be a serious prospect of success; military action without hope for victory is not justified (we are not to be military martyrs).
- Discrimination:Civilians must not be harmed intentionally, and prisoners should be treated with fairness and good care.
Over the past few centuries, the Just War Tradition has come to have great influence. For instance, in many wars, there has been little or no concern to nations and rulers if ‘non-combatants’ were killed as part of combat—consider the firebombing of civilian population centers in World War II. But today, the distinction between civilians and active fighters has entered public consciousness. Many nations try to not injure or kill civilians in war, and when it happens there is great public outcry.
While individual Christians will still disagree, the Just War Criteria are a reasonable and time-tested summary of the limits the Bible would place on humanity in the use of war. If these standards are not met for a particular war, Christians must, in good conscience, object to the war and to participating as soldiers, because Christians are called to obey God rather than humans (Acts 5:29).
What could the world look like if all the aforementioned Just War Criteria were honestly and evenly applied by all the nations of the world? War would become very rare and limited. Wars would truly become a last resort rather than a tool for nations to pursue their objectives or for rulers to fulfill their ambitions. That’s a goal for which all of us can fight.
The End of War
Remember the statue in front of the United Nations? The line about ‘beating swords into plowshares’ comes from the prophet Isaiah in the Bible. In full, he says,
“…And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).
Christians believe this is a prophesy that will be fulfilled when Jesus Christ returns at the end of time; that day will also mark the end of all war.
Until then, much of the world—Christians included—continues to debate the best approach to conflict. There is room for reasonable people, and people of faith, to disagree about the best way forward. But together, all of us can:
- Pray for peace, for good government throughout the world, and for people and nations we currently consider our ‘enemies.’
- Stay informed about geography, global issues, violence, and politics so we can contribute productively to war-related discussions.
- Work to resolve disputes before they escalate into war.
- Engage with one another across cultural, ethnic, and national lines.
- Submit every conflict, act of war, or use of violence to deep scrutiny. Is this conflict just or unjust? Have the demands of the Just War Criteria truly been met? Since wars are not always just and individuals make mistakes, we must be ready to engage the wrongs of this world and refuse to participate in unjust wars.