The following is my response to Dr. Heimbach’s blog “For the Record (Daniel Heimbach): Why I am Not a Pacifist.” In his post, Dr. Heimbach summarizes his thoughts concerning the affirmation of the “Just War Theory” over “Pacifism” as a superior Christian ethic. For those who are on the outside of this classic ethical debate among Christians, let me offer a quick working definition of these two theories:
Christian Pacifism: the belief that any form of violence is morally incompatible with the Christian faith
Just War Theory: the belief that under certain circumstances armed military combat is both necessary and morally justifiable
I am neither a pacifist or a just war theorist. Unlike Dr. Heimbach I am not an ethicist in the professional, vocational sense. I am a pastor and I am the son (and grandson) of veteran. I have not served in the military. I have not worked in the service of any political official. Like Dr. Heimbach, I too am a follower of Jesus Christ and I seek to form ethical positions based on the life and teachings of Jesus. I do not claim to have found a clear resolution in the tension between Christians who hold a pacifist position and those who hold a just war position. I do not have a stock pile of answers to all the “What about….?” questions. I offer this response to Dr. Heimbach’s blog in an attempt to wrestle with these weighty issues.
Dr. Heimbach’s foundational reasoning for rejecting pacifism is rooted in his conviction that Jesus was neither a pacifist, nor did he teach ethical pacifism. My initial response is neither did Jesus teach what we understand as the just war theory, an ethical theory developed initially by Augustine in the fifth century. There were a group of Jews in the day of Jesus who approved of justifiable violent (military/militia) action to establish the kingdom of God in Israel. These were the Zealots. Jesus was not one of them. He did not join their initiative to take Israel back by the armed combat. What Jesus taught was enemy-love, an ethical love he demonstrated on the cross when he offered a prayer of forgiveness instead of violent retaliation.
Dr. Heimbach further believes the Bible as a whole does not teach a pacifistic ideology, but that “God expects, and in fact requires, morally responsible rulers sometimes to use deadly force to defend weak and innocent people against unwarranted aggression….” My assumption is his conviction of God’s so-called requirement of political nations to use deadly force is rooted in the Romans 13 passage speaking of rulers who “do not bear the sword in vain.” He doesn’t mention this passage specifically, but I am not sure where else in the New Testament we see a reference to both rulers and violence. It seems to me that Romans 13 is speaking of the Christian’s relationship to the ruling authorities as citizens under the jurisdiction of the ruler. Nothing in the text mentions military action between ruling nations (i.e. war). Furthermore, the context of Romans 13 is Romans 12 with its commands to “live peaceably with all,” “never avenge yourselves,” “feed your enemy,” and “overcome evil with good.” Shouldn’t followers of Jesus be modeling and teaching this kind of living with civic peace to ruling authorities? Shouldn’t we be calling ruling authorities to submit themselves to Jesus and his teaching on enemy love?
Dr. Heimbach describes the non-violence of pacifism as unattainable and impossible in the world in its current arrangement without the full rule reign of Christ. I understand his concern here. We believe the kingdom of God (i.e. the rule and reign of God through Jesus on the earth) is here, but we also believe it is coming. We believe Jesus is presently the true ruler over all other political authorities and yet his kingdom is coming. It is not here in its fullness, but shouldn’t we be living according to the values of this coming kingdom? Shouldn’t we be living as if Jesus is Lord now, pledging our allegiance to him and observing his teaching now? Shouldn’t we be living now in light of this coming kingdom where “nations shall not lift up sword against nation” (Isaiah 2:4) and “every boot of tramping warrior…will be burned as fuel for the fire” (Isaiah 9:5)? I agree with Dr. Heimbach that do indeed live in a world filled with wicked people, but does the presence of wickedness and evil automatically create the need for war?
Dr. Heimbach and I both worship Jesus as the Prince of Peace, but unfortunately Dr. Heimbach limits this peace to primarily “the peace of reconciling sinners to God.” Didn’t Jesus also make a way for reconciliation (and thus peace) between people? Paul in Ephesians 2 describes the death of Christ as a place where the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and Gentiles has been broken down. These two people groups have now become one new humanity. He has made peace between groups of people by reconciling them to God, and thus “killing the hostility” between Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 2:16). Why do we assume justifiable war is all we are left with when God in Christ has killed the very hostility that leads nations to war?
In Dr. Heimbach’s reading of the New Testament, “peace” is not normally a reference to civic peace. However Jesus lived and taught in a world where violent revolution lay just under the surface. So while modern readers cannot read civic non-violence into every appearance of the word “peace” in the New Testament, we can certainly not remove the notion of non-violence from statements like, “Blessed are the peacemakers” in the Sermon on the Mount or “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!” when Jesus drew near to Jerusalem weeping. The context of both of these references to peace implies the restraint of physical violence.
Dr. Heimbach does see civic non-violence in Jesus statement to his disciples: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace on the earth, I did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). However implying that Jesus did NOT come to bring civic nonviolence from this verse is a gross misreading of the text. Jesus is clearly using hyperbole in his instructions to his disciples describing to them the possibility of the violent persecution they will receive for testifying to the truth of Christ. Jesus is not literally bringing the sword of violence, but rather the sword of persecution and division will fall in light of their fidelity to the truth Jesus is bringing. Dr. Heimbach further assumes far too much in his reading of Jesus’ description of a king going out to war (Luke 14:31-32). Jesus is using this description as an example of counting the cost in order to follow him. He is not making a comment about the justifiability of war. Dr. Heimbach’s proof text of Luke 14:31 makes his argument seem forced and contrived.
In the final section of his blog, Dr. Heimbach appeals to the unity of the character of God as revealed in both the Old Testament and the New Testament as evidence that Jesus did not teach pacifism. His reasoning is based in the God-sanctioned wars of the Old Testament. I do agree that the Old Testament and New Testament tell the story of the one and same God. (Although in strict Trinitarian terms, I would say the God of the Old Testament is the God and Father of the Jesus of the New Testament, but I do not mean to belabor this point.) Dr. Heimbach’s logic could be stated in the following syllogism:
Premise 1: The God of the Old Testament sanctioned just wars.
Premise 2: The God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament without change in his character.
Conclusion: The God of the New Testament cannot prohibit just war.
The weakness of this argument is found in the assumptions behind Premise 2. The assumption is for God to prohibit war he would have to change his character. This is not true. God in Christ did not change who he was, rather he gave us a fuller revelation of who he is. This fuller revealing of his nature did not change who God was, but it did change how God was going to relate to humanity. God in Christ changed how he expected humanity to relate to him and each other. The Sermon on the Mount is the clearest picture of how Jesus changes things. He said time and again, “You have heard it written, but now I tell you….” Jesus was not declaring a change in the character of God, but he proclaiming a change in how we would live as the covenant people of God. One of the changes included no more “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth,” no more retaliatory violence, no more killing enemies in the name of God. Jesus, in no way, announced a change in who Yahweh is. He did not say, “You thought Yahweh is like this, but really is he someone altogether different.” Jesus did say, in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, a new covenant between God and humanity is coming. With this new covenant comes new commandments including the commandment to love one another (including your enemies).
Some would ask, “But isn’t this a command for followers of Christ and not civic ruling authorities?” Enemy love is just one of the commands we are called to teach people (including those in civic authority) to observe in our work of making disciples (Matthew 28:19-20). The command to love our enemies is one that continues to challenge me as a pastor and a follower of Christ. As I stated in the beginning I do not have all the answers to questions like, “What about Hitler? What about militant Islam? What about drug lords, serial killers, and slave traders?” I do believe that ruling authorities have the responsibility to protect their citizens and enforce laws that maintain order, but is deadly force the answer? I pray God gives us a renewed imagination to work for peace-making solutions without the use of war. If God has put the sword in the hands of ruling authorities then we should echo the words of Jesus to Peter saying, “Put away the sword.”