ReThink everything you thought you Knew

The Heresy of “Just War”

Since the time when the Jesus-looking kingdom movement was transformed into the Caesar-looking “militant and triumphant” Church, there has been a tradition of Christians by-passing the enemy-loving, non-violent teachings of the NT and instead appealing to the precedent of divinely-sanctioned nationalism and violence in the OT whenever they felt the need to justify engaging in violence, especially when it was in the interest of their religion, nation or political regime to do so.

Given Paul’s view of the law as a negative object lesson, and given how intertwined the nationalism and violence of the OT are with the law, I believe we have biblical warrant for suspecting this all-to-common strategy is not merely misguided; it is heretical.

My claim is grounded in Paul’s conviction, reflected at several points in his epistles, that anyone who continued to appeal to the precedent of the law as part of their right-relatedness with God was setting aside “the grace of God,” was “alienated from Christ,” had “fallen away from grace” and had in effect said, “Christ died for nothing” (Gal. 2:21; 5:14); Rom. 4:14). In short, for Paul, appealing to the precedent of the law in a positive way was simply heresy. The principle behind Paul’s harsh teaching, I submit, is that one cannot make a positive appeal to something the cross has revealed to be a negative object lesson without thereby invalidating the very cross that the negative object lesson was intended to lead us to.

I see no reason why this principle should not be applied to those who appeal to the violence of the OT as a positive precedent to justify engaging in violence. Not only is the violence of the OT intertwined with the law, but I would argue that Jesus’ self-sacrificial death on the cross reveals God’s non-violent character just as decisively as it reveals God’s gracious character and will. Hence, it exposes the negative pedagogical intent of the violent dimension of the old covenant as definitively as it exposes this intent concerning its law-oriented dimension. Indeed, as important as the teaching that we’re saved through faith alone is, I would argue that the teaching that we’re to love enemies and refraining from violence is more clearly and emphatically taught by Jesus and NT authors.

In this light, I do not see how those who by-pass this teaching and appeal to violence in the OT to justify their own violent behavior are doing anything significantly different from those who appeal to the precedent of the law. They are each treating as positive something that the cross reveals was intended as a negative object lesson. They are, therefore, both negating aspects of the revelatory and salvific message of the cross.

Someone might object to my argument on the grounds that Paul was thinking soteriologically, not ethically, when he contrasted living by the law with faith in Christ. His concern was solely with professing Christians who were trusting in the law for salvation, not with people who merely lived in accordance with the law for ethical and/or cultural reasons.

I believe this objection misses the broader application of Paul’s reasoning regarding the law primarily because it presupposes a narrower understanding of “faith” and “salvation” than what we find in Paul and other NT authors. While it would take us far astray to attempt to adequately flesh out these two concepts, suffice it to say that “faith” (pistis) in the NT (as well as in the OT) is primarily a covenantal rather than a cognitive concept. It is not merely intellectual assent, but rather involves trust as well as a pledge of trustworthiness. To place faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, therefore, is inseparable from the pledge to live faithfully as a disciple of Christ.

We can discern the inseparable connection between our relationship with God and with others, between faith and faithfulness, and between salvation and the way we actually live, reflected in Paul’s profound teaching that even if one possesses mountain-moving faith, it is completely worthless—viz. it does nothing in terms of forging a right relationship with God—if it’s not motivated by love for others (I Corinthians 13:1-3). And, finally, this same inseparable connection is reflected in Jesus’ instruction to his disciples to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors“ that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:44-45 [emphasis added]).

These teachings challenge any paradigm that would construe faith primarily as intellectual assent or salvation primarily in individualistic or forensic terms, but make perfect sense once we accept that faith is inseparable from faithfulness and that salvation involves participating in, and being transformed by, God’s abundant life.

If we understand faith and salvation along these lines, it is clear that those who by-pass the message of the cross and the teachings of the NT and treat the violence of the OT as if it provided a positive precedent to follow are not doing anything significantly different from those who similarly by-pass the message of the cross and treat the law of the OT as if it provided a positive precedent to follow. In both cases, people are treating a negative object lesson as though they were positive in order to justify actions that are fundamentally incompatible with being rightly related to God in the new covenant. In both cases, people are using the OT in ways that invalidate the message of the cross, and that therefore conflict with the nature of faith and salvation in the new covenant. To this extent, each group is in its own way saying, “Christ died for nothing.”

Image by magdalar via Flickr.

The Heresy of “Just War”