The Kingdom, Just War Theory, and Ukraine

140304072348-04-ukraine-0304-horizontal-galleryHistory textbooks often read like surveys of how countries handled war with other nations. The stuff between the conflicts reads like precursors and aftermath to the history-making actions of war. Now we observe the rising tension between Russia and Ukraine along with other world leaders as they try to determine how to respond. Sadly, church history also reads like God’s people have been full participants in the ups and downs of war, as if it is the church’s duty to join forces with the “just” side. If we determine that a war is just, then Christians have the right and even the duty to support it. This is the common way we have been taught in the Christian church to think about war. However, we don’t often think about where this line of reasoning originates, and rarely do we ever question its validity. Here are some thoughts about this from Greg:

For the first three centuries of the church, Christians understood that it was their Kingdom duty to follow Jesus’ example of forgoing the use of violence and expressing God’s self-sacrificial love toward enemies. Unfortunately, this mindset was the first thing we lost when the Church acquired political power in the fourth century. Because many leaders viewed this political power as a blessing from God rather than a temptation from the enemy, Jesus’ refusal to use coercive power had to be radically rethought.

Augustine employed his formidable intellectual skills toward this end. He speculated that Jesus’ decision to suffer unjustly rather than use coercive force was not intended to be a permanent example for all Christians to follow. Rather, he reasoned, Jesus had to suffer and die unjustly because he was the Savior, and his suffering and death were necessary in order for us to be freed from the devil and reconciled to God. Now that this has been accomplished, however, and now that God (allegedly) had given Christians the power of the sword, it was not only permissible for Christians to use violence when the cause was “just”, they had a responsibility before God to do so.

This was the beginning of what’s called the ‘just war’ tradition within Christendom.

Now, we could at this point debate the relative merits of various versions of just war theory as applied to nations. Under what circumstances is a country justified in going to war? What warfare tactics are justified once a nation is involved in war? Some would even want to debate how various just war theories might be applied to a nation’s war on crime inside its own borders.

I have no problem with people applying just war theory in these ways. Since the New Testament assumes the kingdoms of the world will rely on the power of the sword, it may (or may not) be helpful to debate what constitutes a just use of the sword. There’s no inconsistency in a person holding that following Jesus entails that one should never engage in violence while also believing that there may be circumstances in which, as a last resort, nations may be justified in going to war.

My issues with just war theory arise when people follow Augustine’s lead and think it has something to say about how Kingdom people respond to enemies. For, contrary to Augustine, the New Testament is as clear as it can be that Kingdom people are called to follow Jesus’ example of sacrificing themselves for enemies rather than resorting to violence to resist or conquer them.

Jesus’ willingness to suffer out of love for his enemies rather than use coercive force against them is consistently identified in the New Testament as the ultimate expression of God’s love and the ultimate means by which the Powers are defeated. It’s what Calvary is all about. And so, the willingness of Kingdom people to suffer out of love for our enemies rather than use coercive force against them must still be considered the ultimate expression of God’s love.

Related Reading

Should Christians really only use non-violent resistance to things like war/genocide?

Question: Greg Boyd describes himself as a pacifist. I am curious to know what he thinks about wars or any other situation where genocide is happening. When such evil things are being done by force and violence, how should Christians, and other moral, loving people for that matter, respond? Are we really to use only non-violent…

Was Jesus Violent in the Temple?

Many adopt the attitude depicted in the picture above, saying that Jesus used violence when he cleansed the temple. But Jesus’ stance on nonviolence is clear not only from how he responded to threatening enemies at the end of his life; it’s also strongly emphasized his teachings. We need to understand what Jesus was up…

Responding to Driscoll’s “Is God a Pacifist?” Part I

I’m sure many of you have read Mark Driscoll’s recent blog titled “Is God a Pacifist?” in which he argues against Christian pacifism. I’ve decided to address this in a series of three posts, not because I think Driscoll’s arguments are particularly noteworthy, but because it provides me with an opportunity to make a case against what I’ve…

Love and Violence

What does it mean to confess that “God is love” and that we are called to “live in love” (Eph. 5:2)? One of the more common ways of understanding God’s love has its roots in the teachings of Augustine. He adamantly affirmed that the revelation that “God is love” lies at heart of the Gospel…

What Can We Do About Gun Violence? The Rex Harsin Interview (podcast)

Dan talks with Rex Harsin about his new documentary called “Beating Guns,” made with Shane Claiborne and Michael Martin of RAWTools. What does it mean to believe in and follow a non-violent savior while wielding a gun? Can a Christian be a peacemaker while being licensed to carry? What does it mean to be a follower…

The Image of Cross-Like Love: God’s Self-Portrait, Part 6

In the previous blog I argued that God is cross-like love. In this blog I’d like to take this a step further by demonstrating why the cross alone could function as the definitive revelation of God’s true character and by showing how this revelation weaves together everything Jesus was about. If you want to know…