War and Peace: Six Different Responses

It is unfortunate that, when Christian leaders discuss peacemaking versus warmaking at all, they often limit the discussion to comparing Just War doctrine with an ill defined Pacifism as if it were a simple choise between these two options. This is too simplistic by far.  Consider these six alternatives for instance:

Total War – War in which the contenders mobilize all of their civilian and military resources in order to obtain a complete victory. It is a very pragmatic approach in which the ends (national victory) justifies the means (nukes, collateral damage, torture, whatever) and the ends are never seriously theologically or ethically questioned. Loyality is everything, surrender is unthinkable.

Holy War – War that is declared or fought for a religious or high moral purpose, as to extend or defend a religion. For example, a “crusade” or “jihad”. In this context surrender is considered, not only treasonous, but heretical. Holy wars may be executed in pragmatic or less pragmatic liturgical fashion but either way they are generally initiated by a religious leader, such as a prophet or pope. This is a type of war often featured in the Old Testament, but not always.

Just War – War that is declared and fought within ethically proscribed limits. For example it is commonly said there must be just cause, competent authority, comparative justice, right intention, last resort, proportionality and probability for success for a war to be called just. Taken seriously it implies that, in war, there are things worse than surrender. Just war doctrine originates from Cicero and entered Christian tradition via Augustine and Aquinas. One implication of just war doctrine is selective conscientious objection.

Apocalyptic Pacifism – Warmaking can never lead to the Kingdom of God. Whatever God commanded in Old Testament days, it is clear that God’s command in these last days is to follow Christ in the way of the cross. Disciples should not take revenge but leave room for God’s judgement, since God alone is just. Our focus, in light of the life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, should be on active peacemaking and nonviolent witness. This view emphasises the difference between old and new covenants as a movement towards climax.

Universalist Pacifism – War is never justified and has never been justified. God is no warrior and this is a timeless truth. This view stands in significant tension with the wars of YHWH in the Old Testament, often necessitating a rejection of inerrancy by the Christians who hold it. Debates over the meaning of the Old Testament commandment, “Thou shalt not kill”, are most common in relation to this tradition. Many of the “spiritual but not religious” gravitate towards this position as well.

Isolationistic Pacifism – A rejection of war that involves “passive withdrawal” rather than “nonviolent activism”. For example, the exemption from military service granted to priests and monks who do not otherwise challenge the Christendom status quo. It’s this approach that most often leads to the confusion of pacifism with passivism.

Contrary to popular belief, my experience is that most Christians would be more accurately identified as Total War Christians and that Just War Christianity, properly understood, is almost as uncommon as pacifism. But even within pacifist circles there are a variety of approaches, showing the folly of speaking of pacifism generically. For the record, I seek to live a life consistent with Apocalyptic Pacifism, as that’s the path I find most consistent with scripture. I’m not sure where you see yourself or how you interpret scripture but I hope this stimulates your thinking.

10 thoughts on “War and Peace: Six Different Responses

  1. Not sure how this lines up with your six alternatives, but I have held the opinion that “military action” is a governmental function. Followers of Jesus are not necessarily included in government actions, but they are all included in God’s family. So, they may not be required to act in one sphere, but they are always required to act in the other sphere. It becomes a matter of how do you hold onto Exodus 20:13 in one hand, and Romans 13:4 in the other.
    It is not simple I realize. Some people hold that Romans refers to “police actions.” Others believe Exodus refers to personal rather than international actions.


  2. I look at it this way. It’s one thing to refrain from violently “rebelling against what God has instituted” and to nonviolently “submit to the authorities”. It’s another thing entirely to violently support the Empire. I see Paul advising the former in Romans 13 but see no evidence of the latter.
    In fact, given the Roman government was militarily occupying Judea and Jerusalem at the time, I find it highly implausible that Paul was commending Christians enlist in the Roman legions. He was simply saying, revolutions aren’t our way.
    Don’t get me wrong, I agree the passage legitimizes some government use of the sword, but only in terms of the present age, which of course, Christians are no longer to be part of. As for Exodus 20:13, given the context I see it as forbidding murder only, not war. It may be said to foreshadow pacifism, but only dimly. My pacifist convictions rest on different passages, New Testament in particular.


  3. Orthodox Christianity does not generally accept the idea of a “just” war, certainly not one that “justifies” killing. Thus a soldier who kills has a sin to confess and repent of.
    And, empirically, I doubt that there has ever been a “just war” that meets all the hypothetical criteria for one.
    It may be argued that war is the lesser of two evils, but even if it is, it is still evil.
    I think this is a seventh position, not among your original six.


  4. The six are only indicative and far from exhaustive. Yoder once did a list of twenty or so different varieties of pacifism, and I could think of some more on the pro war side too. My point is simply the mainstream conversation is flawed due to over simplifications and gross misrepresentations.
    As for just war doctrine, it’s my understanding that one of its earlier uses was for guiding priest in what penances to issue to soldiers returning from war (i.e. just how unjust was their conduct during the war?).
    As yes, I also doubt there has been a war that met all just war criteria, certainly not since the industrialization of warfare. That this has not led to churches urging Christian soldiers to exercise conscientious objection in recent wars demonstrates how little it is actually practiced. Most (but admittedly not all) just war talk seems to be little more than a whitewash exercise for what is actually a sad indifference to the ethics of warfare.


  5. As for just war doctrine, it’s my understanding that one of its earlier uses was for guiding priest in what penances to issue to soldiers returning from war (i.e. just how unjust was their conduct during the war?).
    Yes, that makes a great deal of sense.
    There’s another consideration in relation to the “just war” theory too. Though I am a Christian pacifist, I don’t see it as my task to convert people to pacifism. What I think is more important is to stop wars. And the way to do that is not by trying to stop all wars, but just the wars threatened or currently under way. How do you chop down a forest? One tree at a time.
    So if you are trying to stop a war, it is often easier to persuade people that a particular war is wrong than to persuade them that all wars are wrong. So the “just war” theory can come in useful for that. I believe that all wars are unjust, and there is no such thing as a just war. But for the purpose of trying to prevent war, it is more important, and usually easier, to convince people that this war is unjust.


  6. Agreed. Although I see significant weaknesses in the just war position it still has its uses. Also, at the point that it is admitted a given war is unjust the difference between just war and pacifism effectively collapses. So I still see a reasonable degree of common ground. My biggest issue is with the total war position, which unfortunately is more dominant than most Christians care to admit.


  7. Thanks for this, Matt. I plan to bookmark this for reference during discussions where it becomes clear that there is a binary view of war/pacifism which doesn’t recognise active pacifism/peacemaking.
    I’m in the Christian Peacemaker Teams and I know that there is a wide divergence in the membership about the scriptural basis for peacemaking, etc. For me I guess I am an Apocalyptic Pacifist, but I generally just say Peacemaker.


  8. Peter, glad to meet you. I often stress peacemaking without much qualification myself. I just find it frustrating when theological conservatives dismiss nonviolent activists out of hand as theological liberals, failing to recognize some of us ARE theologically conservative, more theologically conservative than Augustine in fact. Even worse is when they confuse pacifism with passivism, as though the only active response to violence is a violent one. Amongst such skeptics I’ve found it better to differentiate (for if they only come armed with anti-universalist arguments it can be quite disarming). I hope you do find some of this useful.


  9. As an additional point, it should be noted that the holy wars of the Old Testament are just as problematic for the just war tradition as they are for different pacifist traditions.
    Think about it. To dismiss one tradition as sub-biblical, simply because its practice stands in tension with the practice of ancient monarchial Israel, is to dismiss every tradition that differs from the holy war tradition, including the just war tradition itself. Thus, just war advocates must explain how their tradition came to be, despite its tensions with the Old Testament, every bit as much as the different pacifist traditions. It does not stand exempt in this matter.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s