by Kaleb Amare
The Christian perspective on war can generally be grouped into two categories: just war and pacifism. Proponents for just war argue that war is allowed in Christianity if the reasons for entering the war (jus ad bellum) and conduct during the war (jus in bello) are just. In contrast, pacifists argue that no war is acceptable for Christians, regardless of circumstance.
From a Christian point of view, no war can be just. Just war’s supporters claim that through war, humanity can create a peaceful and just world. However, Christian ethics are rooted in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, which showed that peace and justice are brought through sacrifice, not violence.
Arguments for Just War
Those in favor of just war argue that war is just if it is waged with the “object of securing peace, of punishing evil-doers, and of uplifting the good”1. A war can only be just if it is fought as a last resort, by a legitimate authority, to redress a wrong, with a reasonable chance at success, with the goal of establishing peace, with only the necessary use of force and with discrimination between combatants and non-combatants.2 If a war is fought in alignment with these goals, it helps to build a world aligned with the Christian virtues of justice and peace.
Objection 1. To live as a pacifist, never judging anyone or using violence to stop sin, is unrealistic for Christians on Earth. Some pacifists argue that all humans are sinners and thus have no right to judge others, making all war an act of hypocrisy. However, it is unrealistic to structure a society around this belief. To imagine a world in which judges did not condemn murderers or the Allies did not fight the Nazis is to imagine a world in which murderers go free and the Nazis conquer Europe, a world that would not align with God’s vision for humanity. “Hypocrisy is an inevitable by-product of moral aspiration3”, and although Christians must acknowledge this hypocrisy when seeking justice, they cannot abandon moral aspiration.
Objection 2. Just war is for the protection of the innocent against evil, so it does not contradict with the Christian belief of forgiving one’s enemy. Pacifists claim that Christians must turn the other cheek, and not do harm to those who harm them. Yet, a just war is not about doing harm in self-defense, it is about doing harm to those who hurt the innocent with the goal of stopping the harm. In World War II, many soldiers took on immense personal risks to fight the Nazis and protect the innocent people the Nazis were harming. This violence was not done because of selfishness, but from a desire to seek justice for the innocent.
Objection 3. Just war helps create peace, a Christian virtue. In a just war, war is only waged to bring peace as a result. Saint Augustine said, “Be peaceful, therefore, in warring, so that you may vanquish those whom you war against, and bring them to the prosperity of peace4”. For example, violence was used to defeat the Nazis, leading to a more peaceful Europe.
Objection 4. Christians acknowledge the right of the state to use violence to enforce God’s will. Romans 13:4 states “For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer”. Here, the state is given the authority to use violence, because those in authority are seen as agents of God’s rightful wrath, not agents of human rage or revenge.
Furthermore, the state exists to punish wrongdoing, not to act in revenge for being personally wronged. Taking revenge is a sin, but the state does not take revenge, it acts to preserve justice. For example, if one person robs another, the state intervenes to put the robber in jail, even if the state itself is not harmed. Similarly, in a just war, the state uses violence to enforce good and defeat evil, not to seek personal revenge.
The protection of the innocent, ensuring peace, and the right of the state to use violence, are all grounds to argue that the Christian point of view does support just war.
Yet, these arguments in favor of just war contradict the paradigm of the cross. Jesus Christ saved humankind through nonviolence and sacrifice. To achieve this salvation, Jesus avoided the use of violence to stop the crucifixion and instead, suffered on the cross to save mankind. In doing so “he gave us an opportunity to see how we can live in the world without killing those who would kill us5”. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is a central part of the Christian religion, and all Christian morality should be judged on the paradigm it provides.
All Christians are sinners and have no right to use violence to stop others from sinning. Jesus instructs Christians, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 18.37). Here, we see that Christ only allows those who are sinless to pass judgement on those who sin, and of course, no human is sinless. Pacifism is Christians acknowledging that they cannot “judge their neighbors because they cannot fool themselves into a sense of superior righteousness6” and if Christians cannot judge their neighbors, they certainly have no right to kill them.
Reply to Objection 1. Christians should not do what seems realistic, but instead have faith in Christ and imitate him. Christians should attempt to “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Chron. 11.1). Christ did not use violence or force to defeat sin, he was instead sacrificed. Yes, to forgive a murderer or to not use violence to stop a murderous regime seems unrealistic, but Christians should have faith that imitating Christ’s model of nonviolence will lead to the best possible world.
Jesus instructs Christians to avoid violence when they are wronged, so the redress of wrongs is not a legitimate use of force. Christians are told, “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5.39). Here, Christians are told to face evil and wrongdoing with forgiveness, not with violence.
Jesus did not use violence to make a better world, even as a last resort. When Jesus was about to be arrested, one of his disciples cut off the ear of the high priest who was trying to arrest Jesus. When this happened, Jesus admonished him and said “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” (Matt. 26.53-54) Jesus could have used violence to protect himself and he still choose to be crucified. By imitating Christ, Christians refuse the use of violence, even as a last resort, because sacrifice is preferable to using violence.
Reply to Objection 2. Jesus was perfectly innocent, and still, he refused to allow others to protect him using violence, so Christians must not use violence to protect the innocent. Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18.36). As the Son of God, Jesus was perfectly innocent and he still refused to allow his servants to use violence to protect him, so to follow his example, Christians should also not use violence to protect the innocent from evil. No one is more innocent than Jesus Christ, so if violence was not justified to protect Jesus, violence is not justified to protect anyone.
Reply to Objection 3. Jesus gave mankind salvation through sacrifice, not through violence, so Christians must not use violence to create peace. The just war position that peace must be achieved through violence is in opposition to the paradigm of the cross, which states that defeating sin and bringing “the prosperity of peace” is done through sacrifice and nonviolence. If Christ avoided violence to create peace, then Christians should avoid violence as well.
Reply to Objection 4. Legitimate authorities are required to follow Christ’s example, just as individual Christians are. Romans 12 states “Do not repay anyone evil for evil” and Romans 13 states “there is no authority except that which God has established”. When Romans 12 and 13 are read together, we see that for an authority to be legitimate it must follow the same rules that God has laid out for mankind. The state is composed of human individuals must follow the paradigm of the cross like all Christians.
The Christian point of view on violence must rest on Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and the model it established for all Christians to follow. Christ’s refusal to use violence in the face of evil should mean that Christians should also always practice nonviolence, even in the face of great evil against themselves or against the innocent. Christians cannot decide for themselves what is just or how history should turn out; they should simply follow Christ’s example as best as they can, which requires the complete disavowal of violence.
Kaleb is a rising senior, studying political science, with minors in history and philosophy. He enjoys reading, writing and watching basketball.
 Of Hippo, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologiae. Cambridge University Press, 1265.
 Johnson, James T. Definition of Just War.
 Niebuhr, Reinhold. “Must We Do Nothing?” The Christian Century, 30 Mar. 1932.
 Augustine of Hippo, and Thomas Aquinas. “Whether It Is Always Sinful to Wage War?” Summa Theologiae, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1265.
 Moore, Charles E., and Stanley Hauerwas . “Peacemaking Is Political.” Plough Quarterly, 16 Mar. 2021.
 Niebuhr, H. Richard. “‘The Grace of Doing Nothing’ .” 23 Mar. 1932.