Questioning the Just War Assumption: A Response to Daniel Heimbach

04 May

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.”


Posted by on May 4, 2012 in Theology


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3 responses to “Questioning the Just War Assumption: A Response to Daniel Heimbach

  1. Daniel Heimbach

    May 8, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    This is Daniel Heimbach responding to Derek’s interaction with my article posted at the link given above. I will begin by saying how much I appreciate Derek’s thoughtful intaction. While I do not agree with all he says, I would like him and others to know that I appreciate (1) his spirit, (2) his thoughtfulness, (3) his faith, and (4) his commitment to the authority of scripture. With that, here are a eight points on which I challenge Derek to cogitate further.

    1: You point out that while you accept my convicion that Jesus was not a pacifist, you react by saying “neither did Jesus teach what we understand as the just war theory.” That is fair enough, but you miss my point here. Of course Jesus was not a proponent of any specific human theory, and I never suggested that he was. Jesus was God teaching and applying God’s true morality to life on earth. Rather I would hold that just war theory does in fact reflect God’s true ethical approach to war and peace where in concerns the role God assigns human rulers for the here and now. And I would say this fact can be seen rather clearly in Deuteronomy 20 and Amos 1 & 2. God does not say “I am applying what you call just war theory” in these chapters. He is merely acting as Moral Ruler of the Universe. But when God judges the actions of human rulers in matters of war it can be seen over and over again that the moral principles applied by God assume the same structure of moral judgement that frames the just war ethic.

    2: You tell readers that just war is “an ethical theory developed by Augustine in the fifth century.” That is not historically accurate. Augustine did contribute to Christian understanding of just war tradition. But he did not start it off, did not establish its initial framing, and never systematically presented what it entailed. The just war tradition comes from two separate streams–one biblical and on classical–both of which predated Augustine by many centuries. The earliest evidence of just war morality is Abraham’s batter to rescue Lot and other hostages taken by a coalition of kings from Messopotamia. It is also the ethic God lays out for Israel’s relations with nations beyond the Promised Land, and it is the ethic by which God as Moral Ruler of the Universe judges the war actions of all governing authorities anywhere on earth.

    3: You say that “what Jesus taught was enemy-love, an ethical love he demonstrated on the cross.” True enough. But you are mistaking a part for the whole. The ethical love he demonstrated on the cross was PART of what Jesus taught to be sure. But it was not a lesson that applied to how Jesus expected responsible goverment to behave. At least the non-resistent MANNER Jesus demonstrated enemy-love on the cross is not the way he expected it always to be expressed, because Jesus tells his own disciples in Luke 22:36 to carry swords for self-defense (obviously to use as necessary) in the future after he left them.

    4: You question the basis for my claim that the Bible as a whole teaches the fact that “God expects, and in fact rrequires, morally responsible rulers to sometimes use deadly force to defend weak and innocent people against unwarranted aggression” and imply this may not be so because you suspect I may be hanging it all on Romans 13:1-7. While the Romans passage does support this, there are multiple passages throughout the OT & NT supporting my point. Take the following for example: Eccl 3:8 “There is a time for war, and a time for peace”; Psa 144:1 “Praise the LORD … who trains my hands for war”; Luke 14:31 Jesus affirms thata wise kings must sometimes to to war; Psa 82:3-4 God requires human rulers to “defend the cause of the weak … (to) rescue the weak and needy,(and to) deliver them from the hand of the wicked”; Prv 2:7-8 God “holds victory in store for the upright … and guards the course of the just”; and Heb 11:33-34 Some are commended for pleasing God by expercising faith by which they “conquored kingdoms … become powerful in battle and routed foreign armies.”

    5: You say that while we both worship Jesus as the Prince of Peace, “Dr. Heimbach limits this peace to primarily ‘the peace reconciling sinners to God.’” I think you are confusing biblical and logical categories here. I never suggested anywhere that Jesus urged his disciples to be beligerant. Rather I was only stressing the rather obvious fact that his primary emphasis when instructing his disciples about “peace” concerned escaping the Wrath of God by reconciling sinners to God through faith–not civil tranquility. And it is not hermeneutically fair to read other definitions or meanings of “peace” into such statements. We must take Jssus teaching on avoiding beligerance only from passages where he is teaching it (turn the other cheek for example), not from passages where Jesus is teaching something else. As for worshiping the Prince of Peace, I think it is you, not me, who is reading more into the biblical title than is textually warranted. That title for Jesus comes from Isa 9:6 where “Prince of Peace” certainly does NOT mean non-violence because he will “establish” (enforce) his rule “with justice” meaning he will empose it with effective force upon all opposing forces. That much is made most clear in Psalm 2:9 where God says “You will rule them with an iron scepter; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.”

    6: You fault me for reducing the teaching of Jesus on “peace” to nothing more than reconcililng sinners to God. But I think you lay that charge on me unfairly because I said or suggested nothing of the sort. Rather I denying that we should read into the teaching statements of Jesus different meanings than communicated to his original audience. I agree so far as it goes with your caution to avoid unnecessary reduction. But you should agree with my caution also to avoid reading in more than was communiicated in the original context. Though I agree biblical references to “peace” can sometimes be used generally to cover a range of meanings, whether that is the case or not is governed by the textual and grammatical context and should not be stretched to cover everything readers happen to desire. Finally on this point, it seems to me that you are confusing an ethic of “avoiding unnecessary violence” with an ethic of “always rejecting violence no matter what.” Of course Jesus demonstrated an ethic of “avoiding unnecessary violence,” but he did NOT teach or demonstrate an ethic of “always rejecting violence no matter what.”

    7: You dogmatically assert that where Jesus says “Do not suppose I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Matthew 10:34), he “is clearly using hyperbole.” But if so, then you would have to dismiss his warning in the same place that “a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household” is nothing more than hyperbole. But since that is quite literally the case, I have more contextual grounding for asserting that his statement about NOT teaching an ethic of avoiding violence no matter what is intended quite literally. Understand here that I am NOT saying Jesus was teaching his disciples to BE violent, only that he was not teaching them to avoid violence at all costs.

    8: Finally I obviously agree with where you say that you “believe that ruling authorities have the responsibility to protect their citizens and enforce laws that maintain order.” But then you in effect take back what you say by asking “but is deadly force the answer?” Of course it is not always the answer, and we should always prefer upholding order and justice in this life by as much as possible by non-violent measures. But the point is that SOMETIMES in a fallen world rulers must rely on violent measures AS A LAST RESORT. If that were not the case, then neither Jesus nor Paul would ever have refered to good kings going to war, or soldiers serving in the army in God-pleasing ways, or professional military officers continuing in their profession after joining the church, or governing authorities being agents of “terror … for those who do wrong, or of followers of Jesus using “swords” for protectin in dangerous circumstances.

    Again I appreciate the tone and depth of this interaction.

  2. Derek Vreeland

    May 8, 2012 at 4:57 pm

    Dr. Heimbach, thanks for the response! Thank you for taking the time to dialogue with me. I am convinced that growth in Christ requires respectful, humble dialogue on issue that tend to divide Christians. Name-calling, finger-pointing, and mud-slinging over points of disagreement in Christian theology and ethics does little to help either side. Conversation is much better. I too appreciate your faith and respect for the Scripture. Here are my responses to each of your eight points:

    1. You wrote, “Jesus was God teaching and applying God’s true morality to life on earth” and so, I would ask: Where do we see Jesus teaching anything related to the just war theory? I understand that you can build a just war theory on passages from the Old Testament where God did in fact sanction wars, but it would seem that Jesus was quiet on this issue. I certainly do not want to build an argument from silence. So what did Jesus say? If Jesus is the embodiment of moral truth, then I want to form my moral opinions through him, interpreting all of the Scripture (OT and NT) through him. While Jesus does not speak of the ethics of war, per se, he does have a lot to say about peace-making, forgiveness, and enemy love.

    2. On the issue of the history of just war, I will concede, as my knowledge is limited in his area. My question would be: Do we see the just war theory in patristic writings before Augustine? Maybe there was no need for Christians to write on the subject of justifiable war pre-Constantine. I am not sure.

    3. Jesus demonstrated enemy love on the cross, but you assert that he did not expect responsible governments to behave in like manner. I would disagree with your assumption. Again because of Jesus’ silence on the issue of war, we are left to speculate. I would disagree, because Jesus has called us to make disciples of the nations and call even those who are rulers to repent and “observe all” Jesus commanded. Jesus did tell his disciples to carry swords, but he did not tell them what to do with them. I do think self-defense is a good assumption, but self-defense would need to be defined in the context of “not resisting an evil person,” an ethical dilemma that I continue to struggle with. Nevertheless, carrying a sword does not imply “use deadly force” and it does not negate the command to love our enemies.

    4. Your list of texts supporting your assertion that God expects rulers to use deadly force is heavy-ended on the Old Testament. You mentioned the Luke 14:31 text and as I mentioned in my original response, I found your use of this text to be a bit contrived. It seems that the context of this verse is counting the cost to follow Jesus and the mention of kings going to war is a mere illustration of Jesus’ larger point about discipleship and NOT about the ethics of war. The Hebrews 11 reference is again recounting the stories of the OT. Outside of Romans 13, I do not believe there is a clear NT passage that could be used to justify your position. If we are using the OT as our moral guide on the ethics of war then wouldn’t we be left with forming church-sponsored militias who use deadly force to destroy God’s enemies? I think we both find such a proposition as absurd.

    5. I am interpreting “the Prince of Peace,” (Isaiah 9:6) within the context of Isaiah’s messianic vision of when “every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire” (Isaiah 9:5). So I do interpret “peace” here in terms of non-violence. Jesus is currently establishing his rule with justice and he is not doing it by using “effective force upon all opposing forces.” Jesus is establishing justice through love, forgiveness, and mercy in and through the church. This way of interpreting peace is some-what eschatological. The coming kingdom will see an end to war and Jesus is ruling and reigning over that kingdom now.

    6. I found your charge that pacifists read civic non-violence into “into every mention of ‘peace’ in the New Testament,” to be a bit too strong. I think that many references to “peace” in the New Testament refer to civic peace, i.e. peace between people. All I am saying is that peace is a “both/and” situation…both peace with God and peace between people. And I very well may be confusing matters in my comments on violence. I am still wrestling with these issues. It depends on how you define “violence.” I guess where I am today is that violence as deadly force, as killing another human being, should be rejected. I am working towards forming a consistent ethic of the sanctity of life. After all, who would Jesus kill?

    7. I do not believe Jesus was telling his disciples that he literally came to bring the literal sword of war and violence. The reference to the sword is the hyperbole illustrating his literal comments related to members of their household becoming enemies. The context is literal family conflict, in my reading of the text, and not literal bloodshed (i.e. violence). Jesus is saying that we cannot avoid family division. I do not see anything in this passage connecting the sword with violence. Furthermore, if you interpret peace as “civic non-violence,” then are you interpreting the sword as “physical violence.” I would assume not, but that would seem to be a part of where you are trying to go with interpreting this as Jesus NOT teaching civic non-violence.

    8. It seems to me that as long as ruling authorities see war as an option, even as a last resort, war will continued to be waged and dismissed as necessary to protect citizens. And so I agree with you that “we should always prefer upholding order and justice in this life by as much as possible by non-violent measures.”

    Thank you for your thoughtful reply and interaction.

  3. Michael Snow

    May 31, 2012 at 2:17 pm

    An example of Christian teaching, pre-Constantine:
    Hippolytos wrote in c. 200:
    “A soldier of the civil authority must be taught not to kill men and to refuse to do so if he is commanded, and to refuse to take an oath. If he is unwilling to comply, he must be rejected for baptism. A military commander or civic magistrate who wears the purple must resign or be rejected. If an applicant or a believer seeks to become a soldier, he must be rejected, for he has despised God.” (Hippolytos, Apostolic Tradition 16:17-19)

    My journey from Marine to Christian pacifist, highlights some of the OT issues raise in Prof.Millard Lind’s classic, Yahweh Is a Warrior.


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