Loving Our Enemies in the Context of War

The question of loving our enemies in war is very divisive among Jesus’ followers. Some believe we should never participate in war, while others develop a military family heritage. I cannot say my view is the one all believers must hold, and I cannot say that those who disagree with me are less serious about Jesus or his teaching than I am.

Let me share how I came to my position and why I hold it.

war

How a Library Book Seriously Inconvenienced My Life

I was raised in a small church with very little awareness of church history. When I was a senior in high school, I discovered a thrilling book in the library called Handbook of Denominations. I never realized how connected denominations were and what they believed.

The book listed contacts for the denominations, and I corresponded many of them. The Mennonites sent me material on pacifism that was quite compelling. I had never considered pacifism before, but after giving it a lot of thought I became a pacifist.

The change was inconvenient. My Dad, a Baptist minister, served in the Air Force during the Korean conflict. He took my new belief as a personal affront and a rejection of his proud service. Later, I left the Baptist church.

The timing was also inconvenient; we were in the middle of the Vietnam war. My friends at school talked about the draft. The parents of one friend offered to send him to Canada if necessary, but I didn’t consider going to Canada; I was prepared for prison.

As it turned out, my draft board granted me conscientious objector status.

How Vocal Pacifism and Evangelical College Didn’t Mix Well

During my senior year of college I became co-editor of the school newspaper.

We received a submission with the title X College Joins Hand with the Military; it was about the chaplaincy program. We ran the notice, but I wrote an editorial on how our denomination used to embrace pacifism. This started a back-and-forth that became a tremendous controversy, and finally I was removed as co-editor.

Pacifism was NOT popular at the school. I knew perhaps eight pacifists among students and faculty. But even they did not all agree with me. One student insisted no Christian could be a member of the military.

Classical pacifism involves non-resistance as well as opposing military service, so a pacifist professor took me to task for taking Kung-fu, even though I tried to explain that I was creating a third option between reacting to an attacker or being victimized–stopping the attack.

How I Changed from Pacifism to Valuing Others

As my understanding of Jesus’ teachings matured, I realized some of the biblical support offered for pacifism was inadequate. I came to believe that, though Jesus taught us to love our enemies and turn the other cheek instead of reacting to provocations with hate, anger, and revenge, he did not teach total non-resistance under every circumstance.

A second foundation for my pacifism was refusal to kill someone who might go to hell. For many years people asked me the common question of whether I would kill someone who was attacking my wife or child. I always answered No. I could not send someone to hell.

I no longer believed in hell or total non-resistance.

As I realized I could possibly kill someone in the unlikely case of imminent danger to my family, I no longer called myself a pacifist. However, I still valued Jesus’ teaching for us to love others as we love ourselves. People are still more important than property, and they are more important than my trivial ‘rights’.

Should I as a Believer Go to War?

I cannot answer this question for another person. But for me the answer is an unambiguous No. I will not be forced to participate in war.

People often mention the necessity of stopping Hitler; it is perhaps the clearest case in recent memory for going to war. But few wars are truly wars of simple defense, they are ongoing confrontations between enemy groups with roots deep in the past. Defense of the nation often becomes protecting the ‘interests’ of the nation, and we end up killing for purely economic and political reasons.

However, even in a case such as the predations of Nazi Germany I cannot participate in the government’s war effort either as a soldier or in a factory. If threatened with death for not serving—I will die. But that is all I can give; I will not kill.

Killing is not the way Jesus approached bad people; he loved them and offered them new life. When an enthusiastic crowd tried to force him to become their king against Rome, he refused. His purpose was not political; his purpose was to bring the good news of the Father’s love, reconciliation, and eternal life. The agenda of the country does not trump the agenda of the kingdom of God.

I certainly don’t expect every believer to share my view. It’s a personal commitment to Jesus’ teachings as I understand them. Others understand the question differently. I’m interested in how you understand it.

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos via Compfight cc
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27 Responses to Loving Our Enemies in the Context of War

  1. Phil Johns says:

    Earlier this week we commemorated Armistice Day. We thought of those who sacrificed all in World War 1 and 2. My late father served in the British Army in both North Africa and in the liberation of Europe. He served alongside many brave American and Commonwealth soldiers in defeating Nazi tyranny. It’s worth remembering that the Axis powers had America in its sights. I hope you keep in mind that the luxury of your pacifism was paid for by these brave men. I’ve never given any thought to pacifism. Do you think that our armies were wrong to fight or is it a sort of ‘opt out’ clause for those who prefer to let others do the fighting? You have also neglected to mention the other Jesus verse, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’.
    As for your being unwilling to defend your family because you regard such as ‘trivial rights’.. I’m speechless!

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    • Thanks for the challenging perspective Phil. I said in the post that this is a divisive issue among believers, and I also said I do not consider those who disagree with me as inferior in their devotion to Jesus.

      I could not discover whether you have a blog or website, but would you consider writing a guest post on my blog with a counter-point view? If you are interested, contact me at jesuswithoutbaggage@chastaincentral.com and we can discuss it further.

      Unfortunately my statement was insufficiently clear; so let me clarify that defending my family and defending my trivial rights are different things.

      Some of your comments bring back memories of accusations I received when I was a vocal pacifist:

      > “I hope you keep in mind that the luxury of your pacifism was paid for by these brave men.”
      > “Is it a sort of ‘opt out’ clause for those who prefer to let others do the fighting?”
      > “You have also neglected to mention the other Jesus verse, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends’.”

      I can assure you I am no coward. I am not afraid to die; in fact there were times I expected I might die for admitting I was a pacifist. I do not disparage the service of those who fight in wars, but I don’t want them to fight in my place–I don’t want them to fight at all.

      Hopefully this doesn’t seem insensitive or dismissive, but I don’t think Jesus had in mind, ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man kill others for his friends’. I am willing to lay down my life, but I am not willing to kill enemy combatants in war.

      I am serious about the guest post. Let me know.

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      • Phil Johns says:

        I wouldn’t accuse you of being a coward Tim. That would be insulting and that isn’t the issue. We had our conscientious objectors (‘Conchies’) and they were given a pretty miserable time too. I agree that many wars are waged for spurious reasons. But when you are threatened with national annihilation – or that of a neighbour – I believe it falls to all to partake in defending our freedom. I simply believe that pacifism is an impossible position to defend. You infer that it is ‘unloving’ to kill but is it not equally unloving not to protect someone from being killed or subjugated ? The Nazis bombed our cities murdering woman and infants. Could we seriously have said we won’t retaliate or defend ourselves because we don’t believe in killing enemy combatants on the grounds of faith? You mention that you don’t want servicemen fighting in your place. This is an impossible position. The person next to may want to be defended. Where’s ‘Love thy neighbour’ and all that? We all get the benefit of our soldiers military efforts whether we want them or not. You’ve heard it all Tim. You don’t need this from me. Thanks for the offer of the blog. Opinions on here are pretty much fully formed and I don’t think I’m going to make any difference to them. I’ve said loads and I’m done now. Faith is the privilege of the free and it has to be fought for.

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  2. michaeleeast says:

    This is a very good post , Tim.
    You explain your position very well.
    My personal understanding of Jesus’ teaching
    is that you do not respond to aggression with aggression
    but turns the other cheek
    My experience of the Father is that not only does He
    not respond violently but He removes the cause of violence
    which is oppression and fear.
    War may be necessary to stop monsters like Hitler.
    But we should not neglect what makes the monster in the first place.
    And remove our part in it.

    Like

  3. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James’ Ramblings.

    Like

  4. lotharson says:

    “I no longer believed in hell or total non-resistance.”

    Well, you believe in the disappearance of the wicked, right?

    I believe in salvation BY LOVE http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/08/30/salvation-by-love-erlosung-durch-die-liebe-unten/ but I would still say that the people rejecting God’s love land into eternal hell in the sense that they will be dead forever.

    Cheers from the UK.

    Like

    • Yes I do Lothar,

      I don’t think the Father will force anyone into his new world. If there are those who decline the offer of eternal life with the Father, I suspect they will cease to exist. This is not punishment; it is what happens naturally if you don/t have eternal life.

      Like

  5. Mere Dreamer says:

    Hmm … this is interesting. Like you, I can’t imagine putting myself in a position where someone else tells me what to kill others over. That is a level of trust I hold for no human, no matter how right they think they are. Therefore, military service wouldn’t be an option.

    On the other hand, I would definitely protect the people I can reach and my own body, also, though perhaps to a lesser extent. If someone with a weapon decides that this particular crowd or individual is to be treated as the enemy, then I will disagree with them, hopefully actively, though I’ve never been in this situation literally so I don’t know if I would have the courage or the ability. Words are much easier, and even those are difficult to speak sometimes.

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    • I agree Dreamer. Like you, I will defend myself and others depending on the severity of the circumstances–such as a credible threat of murder. But this seems quite different than being sent to war by someone in authority.

      Like

  6. sheila0405 says:

    I don’t condone killing unless it is in self defense or to save the life of another. I am opposed to any type of military action unless there is a clear threat to our nation, as was the case in WW II. Japan clearly wanted to destroy us. And, I believe Hitler needed to be defeated. I come from a military family, I am a firm supporter of our troops, (who don’t make the decision about which war to enter, but merely do their best when deployed.) I have to say I am more of a pacifist than I am a hawk. Leaders of nations too often use war to further their own agendas, and it is the troops who pay the price. Unless there is a real need for self defense, I cannot, in general, support war. I’m just glad I’m not the one who has to assess the threats to our nation and make decisions about when to go to war. I will say that I opposed both Iraq wars, the intervention in Libya, and any kind of military action against Syria. Afghanistan was a war I didn’t really understand, but didn’t like at all. I wanted the bad guys taken out and then our troops brought back. Since we have been there for over a decade, I have to say it seems that going into Afghanistan was a huge mistake. I don’t think we are any safer because of that war.

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  7. I personally can’t take a single idealogial stance on an issue as big as “war.” For me it is a caveated decision based on lots of data points in any given situation. Bottom line, we live in a tricky world, and I think is that “loving others as we love ourselves” sometimes means defending them, come what may.

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  8. Michael Snow says:

    Yes, Hitler always pops up in this topic, but this was really the sequel to WWI which prepared the seed bed in which a Hitler could arise. And that Great War was one that no Christian should have born arms in, pacifist or not.
    [There’s a bit about this in my book on the Christmas truce. I’d be glad to send you the pdf.]
    Charles Spurgeon speaks faithfully on this subjectL
    http://spurgeonwarquotes.wordpress.com/

    Like

    • sheila0405 says:

      I know very little about WW I. Are there sources to which I can turn? Thanks. (Sheila)

      Like

      • Phil Johns says:

        I’m not sure what part of the world you are Sheila but the British historian Max Hastings has recently written the book ‘Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War’. It explains step by step how the war escalated. It’s a thoroughly good read. He has many other books if you are interested. If you google the title or the author I’m sure you will get a copy somewhere.

        Like

    • Phil Johns says:

      Hitler always ‘pops up’ in this topic… hilarious! At least you made me laugh!

      Like

    • Michael, I was aware that WWII was actually WWI-part two, but I am not as familiar with the context of WWI as I would like, though I know it was a European balance of power issue.

      Can you give a few bullet points on why Christians should not have participated in WWI specifically?

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  9. Chuck Gatlin says:

    I am much inclined toward believing that Christians should not participate in killing of human beings, and yet I can’t quite believe that it is something completely proscribed. I’m reminded of something Chesterton said, something to the effect that murder was a sin not because it is violent but because it is unjust. Plus there is the occasion on which Jesus himself used violence to cleanse the temple, which implies that its use can sometimes be legitimate.

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  10. Pingback: Loving Our Enemies—Tough Cases | Jesus Without Baggage

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