Podcast: Can Christians Ever Support War?

Mere FidelityOn this week’s episode of Mere Fidelity, Andrew, Matt, Derek, and I are joined by Preston Sprinkle to discuss the topic of non-violence and whether there is ever justification for Christian support for war. Share your thoughts in the comments!

You can also follow the podcast on iTunes, or using this RSS feed.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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24 Responses to Podcast: Can Christians Ever Support War?

  1. quinnjones2 says:

    I listened to your discussion with great interest.
    On my mind now is the fact that Christians who don’t support war do have the option of being conscientious objectors, either at the outset of a war, if they believe that the decision to go to war was made for unjust reasons, or during the course of a war, if they are asked to carry out specific tasks which they deem to be unjust.
    For instance, I think that any Allied pilots who might have objected to dropping nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki would have had just grounds for objecting to performing those tasks – but I think they would also have needed to be ready to take the full legal consequences of being conscientious objectors. It seems to me that making the decision to be a conscientious objector ((or deserter) in such circumstances would have been a brave and altruistic one, not a cowardly one motivated by self-interest.
    What do you think?

    • Cal says:

      In the US, when you are enlisted, you make an oath to obey the authorities above you. Just because we’re Christian does not give us the right to put an asterix and a caveat in the clause. We cannot sanction lying to preserve our desire to enjoin military service.

      That’s the problem with this discussion. It’s about vagueries and shadows on the wall. No one here is talking about real situations or realities. It’s easy to sit in our armchairs in the West and pontificate about “authorization” and “natural right”.

      No one had discussed what this means or looks like. Paul did not make distinctions between “legitimate” reign and ‘illegitimate’ reign. When Al-Quaeda has power over a region, and seek vengeance, why would a Christian disagree, given the determined understanding of Romans 13? Preston was not taken seriously, and Matt spoke out of ignorance. To Republicans in Rome, Nero, and his whole family, were usurpers and deserved death for taking the mantle of kings. The US was founded upon unlawful rebellion. Where do we draw the line? In Mexico, the cartel has the authority in many cities. Whose to say they are legitimate or illegitimate?

      Paul doesn’t seem to care, and that should provoke us to whether we have any place to have this discussion. Paul says leave vengeance to God, and to do good to those who do evil. Are we to dare and usurp an eschatological judgment for ourselves? Matt’s answer is bad typology.

      Evil actions can bring about many good effects. But this is not a justification for the agents, but a part of the mystery of God’s providence. We ought to praise God for His mercy, not celebrate the tyrannies of divers Babels.

      I’m glad you had Preston on the show, but the format was frustrating.

    • quinnjones2 says:

      I take it that you don’t want to tell me what you think about conscientious objectors then, Alastair. OK.

      • I’ve had a number of lengthy ongoing discussions on other issues, mostly in e-mail, and didn’t want to weigh into the discussion here, knowing that I couldn’t afford the open-ended time commitment during an unexpectedly busy period. From past experience, I know that any serious debate about just war requires a lot of argument and study. I would rather not say anything at all than weigh into a discussion that I can’t follow through to its conclusion. I like to participate in comments when I can, but unless I can sit some time-demanding comment threads out when I have a lot on my plate, it would be better for me to close my comments altogether. The issue is being discussed over in the comments on the Mere Orthodoxy blog.

      • quinnjones2 says:

        Thank you for taking the time to explain

      • quinnjones2 says:

        I value Mere-Fi and your blogs and links…but I have now made the prayerful decision to make no further comments.

      • I am very sorry to hear that you feel this way, Christine. I really value people’s comments here and have greatly appreciated your involvement here. I read all of the comments posted on my blog, the many emails I receive from readers, the interactions on Twitter, etc., and, when I have the time, I do my best to answer them all in detail. Unfortunately, as I have been deluged with requests for my time—emails demanding extremely extensive responses, requests for detailed feedback on people’s academic work, requests for lengthy theological discussions over Skype, people wanting to meet up for conversation, requests for me to write articles, Twitter interactions, etc., etc.—and I have also been unwell, I have had to disappoint a number of people. It is important to me that people understand that: 1) interacting with them is something that I take very seriously and usually enjoy; 2) my time and energy are sometimes very limited and I won’t be able to engage with everyone on every occasion; 3) I am very happy for people to request my time, but, for my own well-being, cannot allow people to demand it; 4) if people are not understanding about this, I will either have to burn myself out, trying to ensure that they are not disappointed, or I will have to stop blogging, podcasting, corresponding, tweeting, etc. altogether.

      • quinnjones2 says:

        Hi Alastair, Thank you for your post [4.04 p.m. today]. I hope you are now as well as possible, and recovering well.
        I know that you value peoples’ comments here. I have been very thankful for the way you have answered my questions – and I have asked many. I also know, from at least one blog that you have written, that the topic of this podcast is important to you. So I was surprised when you didn’t reply to comments on the podcast*. I thought there must be a substantial reason for this, but I didn’t want to make assumptions, and thought it best to check. I certainly don’t think I have any claim on your time at all, which is why I wrote ‘O.K.’
        I really need to find a ‘happy medium’ between being too rambling, and too terse and to the point. Looking at some of my comments now, I can see that they were too much at the ‘terse’ end – I’m sorry.
        From my own point of view, thinking I’d reached an impasse with posting comments is not entirely out of character for me. I used to comment on several blog pages via Twitter, but now I’m down to three, and I comment only infrequently on two of those. My reasons for thinking I’d reached an impasse here are many and I don’t want to put all of them in the public arena – I’ll contact you by email about them.
        I’ve always felt that I was a bit of square peg in a round hole** on this site because I’m not a theologian. I posted because I got inner ‘nudges’ to offer a different perspective (in addition to asking questions!). If I’d had no response to my posts, ever, I would have faded out long ago, but that has not been the case. But I take stock if there seems to be a high percentage of ‘nil responses’, because I don’t want to impose on people, and because I wonder if I am wasting my own time.

        * I’m not surprised if you don’t respond to comments on Open Mike Thread, because the topics there are chosen by other people and are often more random.
        ** That was just my own feeling about myself

      • mnpetersen37 says:

        I also will be sad to see you go. Non-theologian input is extremely important.

      • quinnjones2 says:

        I think now that there could be some ways in which I could post on here:
        -posting a smiley (in lieu of hitting the favourite button on Twitter)
        – brief comments* such as this one I made to a pupil in an R.E. cover lesson:

        Pupil: I don’t believe in God
        Me: No, I know you don’t…but God believes in you.**

        This came following much prayer after I’d been struggling to respond to many such comments from reluctant R.E.-students.

        * though not on this subject!
        **After I said this, the pupil became very pensive – a remarkable change from his usual vociferous presence in the classroom!

  2. quinnjones2 says:

    Hi Cal,
    I’m not sure what you mean by ‘lying’ in your first paragraph? Whilst I am aware of cases where military personnel have been court-martialed for lying, in my post above I briefly sketched out a hypothetical scenario of Christians honestly and openly being conscientious objectors and also being ready to take the full legal consequences of this. I would apply this scenario to regulars, reservists and conscripts, should conscription be deemed necessary by the authorities.
    Conscientious objection is controversial. I can’t post links here (due to a combination of my old PC and my not-very -IT-savvy self) but I was interested in a fairly recent article (Jan. 2014) called ‘Conscientious Objection to Military Service in Human Rights Law ‘.
    Re: the Bible verses quoted and discussed on the podcast and your comments in your post above, it seems to me that, given that we are all subject to the laws of whichever country we live in*, both Christians who submit to the laws about military service and Christians who have conscientious objections about doing so will be left with costly and painful choices – but they will be left with choice.
    The justness or otherwise of any war (including the justness or otherwise of the conduct of military personnel during the course of any war) is certainly an interesting (and fraught) topic and I respect those Christians who can, and do, support war, and also those who have conscientious objections about doing so.
    We have heard a great deal about disagreeing agreeably in the context of SSM debates – why not in this context, too?
    *I live in the UK

    • Cal says:

      I’m speaking from an American context. What I mean by lying is in terms of oath-breaking. You’re swearing that you will obey those over you, the Constitution of the US, and the office of the President. If you have no intent on keeping that oath by placing your conscience, the Scriptures, or Christian conviction above them, you have no right in taking that oath.


  3. quinnjones2 says:

    I used the word ‘hypothetical’ ( and the conditional tense) in the first paragraph of my second post because I don’t know:
    -how many (if any) Christians participated in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
    -how many (if any) participants raised conscientious objections
    -details of the laws on conscientious objections at that time

    • quinnjones2 says:

      I’ve been thinking of the phrase ‘support war’ in the context of participating in military action, but in the event of another war involving our own countries most of us won’t be called to participate in military action and our support (or otherwise) of it will be in our hearts and minds – and maybe also in our ‘pens and pencils’!
      I have followed the discussion on Matt’s site, and the many ethical concerns and Bible references.
      Close to my heart and mind is February 24th 1991 when George Bush Senior announced a news blackout on ‘Operation Desert Storm’ and asked us all to get on our knees and pray. I did just that, which was remarkable as I hadn’t prayed for almost 30 years and was more interested in Kahlil Gibran at that time.
      I prayed for ‘our boys out there’ – three members of the family of my daughter’s fiance, all of whom were soldiers on active service in Iraq and about to march to Basra. I prayed for my daughter’s fiance, an ex-soldier who was a class1 reservist and already kitted out with chemical-warfare clothing. I prayed for my son, who was in the age-group for conscription -and we’d heard that call-up papers were ready to be sent out, in the event of that being deemed necessary. I prayed about the planned wedding of my daughter and her fiance (May 1991) and their fourth choice for best man, their first three choices being in Iraq. We had sent out parcels to them containing food and other supplies and were hoping that someone would benefit from these parcels, if not ‘our boys’.
      Then I found myself praying for the Iraqi women and children who were drinking water out of puddles because their infrastructure had been so damaged by air attacks from ‘our side.’ I was drawn to Christian friends. I was thankful for the candlelit vigils. I became a Christian seven months later. (I was a church-goer from the age of 8-18, but not really a Christian).It is significant to me that my journey towards becoming a Christian began with prayer not only for ‘our boys’ but also for the Iraqi women and children whose lives had been so disrupted by the war.
      Our soldiers returned and the sun shone on the bride and groom and on all of us in May 1991. Our youngest soldier was 18. He drove a tank and then walked into Kuwait. He had nightmares for months, but was unable to speak about his experiences for a long time. He was not a Christian. He told me recently that he had surprised himself by praying not only for himself and his mates but also for the families of the legless, armless corpses he saw in Kuwait.These realities of war are gut-wrenching and I find it hard to reconcile them with the morality of a ‘just war’. Yet I do try to reconcile the two, and I do believe that the decision to go to war against Nazi Germany was just, though the bombings of Dresden and Hamburg were heinously unjust.

  4. Can Christians ever support war?

    I certainly hope so, because I think that–in this mortal life, prior to the heavenly life and the kingdom of God–it is a crucial component of the life of a fully realized human being that he be *able* to *support* (i.e. advocate, affirm) a given war. If the capacity to support a war is completely foreclosed by a prior philosophical or religious mandate, then he will be–in this life–something less than a complete human being.

    My reasons for saying this are somewhat elaborate. Suffice it to say that I think it is of the essence of a human life to make a decision that is fraught with perilous responsibility, without so to speak a philosophic safety-net–and there really can be no more perilously responsible decision than to advocate and support a war. When we’re directly inhibited from advocacy or support of wars by religious conviction, then we cut ourselves off from the highest responsibility of this-worldly life and thus the highest possibility of our humanity. I’d like to think that Christians can be fully-realized human beings in this life as well as the next.

    Political responsibility is arguably the highest responsibility we have in worldly life. Politics, properly speaking, has everything to do with decisions for war–contra the spirit of modern or contemporary so-called politics. When we irresponsibly abstain from that duty, we unwittingly subhumanize ourselves. Please do note that I’m emphasizing the *ability* or *capacity* to support a war in its crucial relation to the *fullness* or *perfection* of human life. When that *ability* or *capacity* is missing, then I say an essential human attribute is absent. One is certainly entitled to oppose a specifically given war, on specific particular grounds.

    • Cal says:

      Firstly, that’s a huge overstretch to say that warring is a part of a fully realized human life. Quite the contrary, unless you are insinuating that violence is ontologically prior, which no Christian theologian has ever done. Our God is a Warrior, but He is the Prince of Peace. The World was made not in battle, but in the Life-Giving Word.

      Secondly, the argument for a ‘fully realized human life’ is contrary to the Scriptures language of where we are. We have not yet arrived. We are aliens, pilgrims, strangers seeking a City from God. We do not yet see face to face but through a mirror darkly. We should not expect a fully realized life, and sadly Western Christians have bought into such a lie out of prosperity and luxury. Christians across the globe have a better perspective.

      And even so, thirdly, war-making is not cut off from the Christian life. We are to make war on our flesh, mortifying the deeds of sin in our lives. We are making war on the Devil and the World, but not with carnal weapons. We use prayer and the Sword of the SPirit, the name of Jesus Christ, to do battle with powers that aren’t flesh and blood. The Church is a political body at full war, but it’s not the same as the wars the cities of men wage. As a people, we should not be so deceived.


      • “Quite the contrary, unless you are insinuating that violence is ontologically prior”

        I’m not so much “insinuating” it, as I am saying it outright.

        “We should not expect a fully realized life, and sadly Western Christians have bought into such a lie out of prosperity and luxury.”

        I realize that my language here is confusing. You seem to be conceiving a “fully-realized (human) life” in something like the modern sense of extensive bourgeois self-fulfillment characterized by “prosperity and luxury.” That is precisely what I do *not* mean.

        What I mean by a “fully-realized human life” has to do with what I take to be the essence of being human–making serious decisions that are fraught with the prospect of risk, error and sin. Like it or not, this is what being human means. Our humanity isn’t fully realized when we choose (exercise free will) what flavor of ice cream we want. We are, however, entering deeply into our specific human essentiality and potentiality when we make a deliberative decision concerning who our enemy is and contemplate violent action against him. If we refuse ever to contemplate that point of entry into our human essence, out of misguided desire to preserve ourselves from wrong, then we effectively subhumanize or animalize ourselves. A human being is neither an animal, angel or a god, but something intermediate to these.

        “The Church is a political body at full war, but it’s not the same as the wars the cities of men wage.”

        This overlooks the fact that, for a thousand years or more, the church–the body of Christian believers–and the citizens or subjects of the states of Christendom, were largely one and the same and thus necessarily human beings who simply had to make war from time to time, as all human polities must until kingdom come.

  5. quinnjones2 says:

    ‘We are, however, entering deeply into our specific human essentiality and potentiality when we make a deliberative decision concerning who our enemy is and contemplate violent action against him…’
    On which source have you based this claim? I’ve never heard it before and I don’t go along with it one bit, but then I am more than happy to settle for being stupid and ignorant 😉
    Anyway, if it’s true, I hope that those who subscribe to it will take up boxing, or buy a punch-ball or something, and that they won’t come within striking distance of me!

    • While I appreciate the good humor of your reply, I do think you’re doing my argument a bit of an injustice.

      Are you saying that “when we make a deliberative decision concerning who our enemy is and contemplate violent action against him”, we *aren’t* “entering deeply into our specific human essentiality and potentiality”?

      “Anyway, if it’s true, I hope that those who subscribe to it will take up boxing, or buy a punch-ball or something, and that they won’t come within striking distance of me!”

      But what would you do if they did? Then you would find yourself smack-dab in the milieu of my argument–and you ought to think seriously about that, because in that event you would be forced to confront the essence of what it is to be a freely-willing human being.

      • quinnjones2 says:

        Thank you for your reply.
        Yes there are those who ‘practise’ ‘the works of the flesh’…and also those who long to ‘walk in the Spirit’. [Galations: 5]
        ‘For the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against these things there is no law.’
        [Galations 5:21,22]

      • Yes, but my point is that when we refuse to make the determination of who our enemy is and contemplate violent action against him, then we aren’t ascending to the life of the spirit but rather descending ever more deeply into the life of the flesh–to such a degree that we subhumanize or animalize ourselves. Many Christians are confused about this, in my view, and are living a life of hollow piety that only masks the fact that they are religious animals.

  6. quinnjones2 says:

    Wade, I think our enemy is ‘the world, the flesh and the devil’ and all the manifestations of these. ‘religious animals’? Oh, come on, we are mammals, as are some animals, but we are not animals. God gave us minds, and in Christ the Holy Spirit is at work in us. Yes, we can learn from animals, for instance when we become too self-conscious, and have our eyes on the impression we are making on others. …unlike a swan, who glides beautifully across a lake, without any concern about whether or not anyone is looking.

    • Whether we are truly human or not depends on whether or not we actualize the essence of being human–and as I’ve already said, we do that by making serious decisions that are fraught with the prospect of risk, error and sin. Like it or not, this is what being human means. When we resolve beforehand that we will abstain from making those decisions–out of a misguided desire to avoid wrong–we unwittingly hold ourselves back from being fully human and thus we subhumanize ourselves.

  7. quinnjones2 says:

    ‘Being human’ – are you familiar with Jean Vanier, who has been awarded the Templeton prize for his work with disabled people in l’Arche communities? I’ve not had much success in posting links on this site but you could Google some if you’re interested – Alastair has tweeted a YouTube video link and there is also an article in the Guardian newspaper. Henri J. Nouwen also devoted time to working in the l’Arche community in France.
    Regarding what you have said about ‘being human’, everything we have has been given to us by God, and God created us in His image. I don’t actually think there is such a thing as ‘abstaining from making a decision’. For instance, in a dispute between between two people, we can make many decisions about what to do or say to each person, including laying one hand on the shoulder of one person, and the other hand on the shoulder of the other person. I don’t think that is abstention. In fact, it is often a tough decision, because you could end up with both people turning against you.

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