Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Just Jesus

There is no such thing as a "just war" according to the New Testament. That's why most Christians who argue for a "just war" appeal to the Old Testament. But, to use the Old Testament to justify war is about as precarious as justifying polygamy (Gen. 30) or divorce (Ezra 10:3) or adultery (Gen. 38). No doubt, some might point out: but God never told them to marry another or divorce their wives or commit adultery to preserve a blood line. He did say to Joshua to "utterly kill every enemy." Ah, but therein lies the rub: God used to say "kill your enemies," but now he says "love your enemies." He used to say "an eye for an eye," but now he says, "take no revenge." At least, that's what Jesus said God says. Was Jesus right about God? Has God "changed his mind"--once he was for genocide but now he's against it? That's the question "just war" theorists must answer. Be careful little mouths what you say! You might just find yourself disagreeing with the one you claim to follow.

Jesus didn't have the same sense of justice as we do. For me, the classic example is found in Luke 12. A man asked Jesus to take up his cause. The injustice? His brother was not obeying the Torah. So, the man appealed to Jesus: "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me." What Jesus should have said was, "Let's go find this scoundrel and teach him a lesson about greed." Instead, Jesus warns the victim about the dangers of "every form of greed." If Jesus were out to right every wrong, he shouldn't have walked away from this fight. He should have corrected the injustice. He is, after all, the righteous one. But, this injustice wasn't worth his time. Instead, he said (somewhat callously), "What's that got to do with me?"

Jesus wasn't out to make sure people get what they deserve. In fact, he lived and died so that none of us would get what we deserve. In a "just" world, everyone is supposed to get what they deserve. We make laws and wars to make sure of it. We know that law and order doesn't work sometimes. We know that war is bad. Innocent people can suffer from both. But, we believe the lesser of two evils is required if we're going to strive for justice. And yet, most of the time, preserving our justice comes at the expense of another. Justifying war seems just as easy as justifying our sin.

So, how did Jesus deal with this mess? What did he do? Jesus believed the only way we can do justice is to show mercy. That's what the cross proves to us. To quote Paul, "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." And, here's the hard part: Jesus expected us to follow his lead. Paul did. Peter did. John did.

Do we?

Honestly, I'd rather have "justice" on my terms than his.


Michael Gilley said...

The hardest part of discovering this ethic of Christ's, is the look on people's faces when you explain it to them. I suspect they think you're crazy and surely don't know know anything. And this, especially when you apply it to individual terms. Then, there's the inevitable question from females: "What do I do if I'm being raped?"

I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to be there with Jesus when he spoke such things and seen the impact it made on some people. Then, other times I realize with as much as America has in common with the ancient Roman Empire I know I am living it right now. Our reactions can't be as bad though, can they?

Andrew Walker said...

I want to add only the following to the discussion:

"Here is an invitation to a way that strikes hard against what the world already knows, what the world defines as good behavior, what makes sense to everybody. The Sermon on the Mount, by its announcement and its demands, makes necessary the formation of a colony, not because disciples are those who have a need to be different, but because the Sermon, if believed and lived, makes us different, shows us the world to be alien, an odd place where what makes sense to everybody else is revealed to be opposed to what God is doing among us. Jesus was not crucified for saying or doing what made sense to everyone."

- Stanley Hauerwas & William Willimon. Resident Aliens: Life in the Christin Colony, pg. 74.

Darryl Schafer said...

This is a hard saying. Who can accept it? : )

It seems that many disciples (myself incuded, at times) would much rather bear a sword and slay their enemies rather than bear a cross and give their very lives to them. It makes me wonder if belief and sacrifice aren't mutually exclusive...The gospel, after all, is what we DO, or so I was taught. ; )

Josh Hall said...

Romans 13:4 says rulers are "God's ministers... avengers to execute wrath on him who practices evil." I think governments have divine authority (indeed, responsibility) to respond to injustice in ways that individuals do not.

Rodney Reeves said...


I don't see how Rom. 13 is a justification for war. Paul is talking about how to overcome the Roman Empire (evil) with good. If an individual does what is "evil," he will suffer the consequences. God gave the powers that power. But, is that a justification for war?

According to your interpretation, Paul offered justification for the Roman Empire to go to war.

josh h. said...

Hi Dr. Reeves,

I certainly do not think Paul is trying to lay out a case for "just war" in Romans 13. However, I believe there is a principle in play... As Aquinas points out, if a government has divine authority to protect its citizens from internal danger (unruly citizens), does it not stand to reason that it also has a divine right to protect its citizens from external danger (aggressor states)? If there is no such thing as "just war," what is a "Christian nation" to do? Simply be led captive from one nation to the next? Help!

Kaylor said...

Is there such a thing as a "Christian nation"? And if there is, why would the collective be allowed to act differently than the individuals? If an individual Christian is to turn the other check, why not the group of Christians?

It seems that the biggest problem with the "just war" paradigm is that it has been used to justify every single war. Surely there is a problem when every war is called "just" by Christian leaders. It seems that many proponents of "just war" seem to shrug and say "oh well, it just (as in simply) war."

matt gallion said...


I think the first potential problem the church must face is to answer exactly what divine rights any nation has. Does a nation have authority? Yes. Did God give that authority? Yes. But is that institution a "Christian" one simply because God gave it authority? I don't think so. I believe governments are governments and the church is the church. A national government is an institution working from the top down to maintain the safety of its citizens. I can find almost no traces of institutionalism in the New Testament. I suppose one might argue for it in the structures of church hierarchy that Paul sets forward, but even there it may be skewed.

Paul encouraged his converts to live according the "good news about Christ" (Philippians 1.27). This expression, "good news," was often used to describe Caesar's reign. Paul is encouraging Christians who live in the midst of a certain national institution to live according to a different set of citizenship standards.

As far as church organizations go, Paul was pragmatic. I don't think he held a set pattern for the way the church should operate. I don't think he had a "church planning program" that he stuck to. Rather, I think Paul utilized whatever worked wherever he was.

So for me, as a disciple and as an American, my faith comes first. I live in the midst of a society that is and must be in separate categories from my faith. There is no way to reconcile and meld a mentality that governs from the top down and a faith that loves from the bottom up. Civil matters are important, and they should be thought out and even acted on. At the same time, "my first allegiance is not to democracy or blood. it's to a king and a kingdom."

So the question I would pose is this: How do we (who are followers of Jesus Christ and therefore, live his gospel of love, acceptance, devotion and perfection) live in the midst of a society that necessarily contradicts the gospel? What steps are we taking in our everyday lives to make a difference? Perhaps that means we should vote. Perhaps that means we should join city council or some other office. Perhaps. I know for certain that it means we must love our neighbors and our enemies perfectly, and we must follow him.

Secondly, and more philosophically, does a just war theory even stand up? I don't think so. And the reason is that a just war theory demands a standard of justice. Who defines what just motives are? The standards of a just war could be applied by anyone who feels they are being threatened. The only one who can define justice has shown it through mercy.

Therefore, I do not believe that there is anyway to justify any form of violent action in the name of justice, UNLESS, one is willing to ignore Jesus and his teachings.

josh h. said...

First of all, to clarify, I guess I meant by "Christian nation" a nation that is generally guided by Christian principles. I don't think that exists anymore, but let's pretend that it did... In fact, let's say (for discussion's sake) that America met this description during WWII. Should we then have "turned the other cheek" to Pearl Harbor? Should we have "walked the extra mile" with Hitler? I mean, how does this view that there is no such thing as "just war" play out in reality? I'm not trying to be obnoxious, I really want to know!

I personally don't think that Jesus' teachings on such matters were meant to prevent us from defending the defenseless, or to prevent God-ordained governments from protecting their people. They were meant for the individual, in individual matters.

Rodney Reeves said...


These are difficult matters, aren't they? Thanks so much for joining the conversation (and thanks to Michael, Andrew, Darryl, Brian, and Matt for their helpful comments).

First, it's pretty dangerous to limit Jesus' teachings only to individuals. I'm not sure you want to do that (Jesus had nothing to say to the nations?). Even if you take Jesus' teachings as only applicable to individuals, you would have to argue against self-defense (and, I don't think you want to hold that position, either).

Second, try to think of the issue without resorting to American nationalism/patriotism. In other words, could you argue for a "just war" for other countries (even if it meant that country should attack the U.S.)? It seems to easy for us Americans to justify protecting our own interests (which, I'm sure you would agree, isn't a "Christian" teaching--we're supposed to sacrifice our interests for the sake of others).

Third, I think my observation still stands: there is no New Testament justification for war. What's the implication? There is no Christian justification for war (despite what goes on in churches on July 4th).

Hard words, aren't they?

Michael Gilley said...

I think a common agent in nationalistic thinking is the myth that America is guided by (and was built on) Christian principles. I can remember this being taught in elementary school.

Even if this were true, government and the Kingdom of God are not meant to be one in the same in the new covenant. Not until the eschaton I believe. (Dr. Reeves, you'll know more about that me.) Jesus redefined it. Now, we fight evil with good and love. This is the sacrifice pleasing to God so that we might see His will, which is to become like His Son, who did the same for us (Rom 12).

Everything changes in light of a resurrection faith. Why do you need to defend yourself??? A government is different. It's pagan. (oops.) It is an agent used by God to keep evil at bay in the world, yes, but we are to have no part in it as far as I'm concerned. At least, that's how Paul saw the Roman Empire.

amberburger said...

dr. reeves. again, thank you for your post. i have been awaiting this particular post since the last post said it was coming. i am not sure what all you know about what vernon and i are doing in sudan, but we feel this topic is always at the forefront of our decisions dealing with the warring country (and therefore warring mentality) of Sudan. it is hard to be an american christians training Sudaneese in truths like those in this posts, while all the while benefiting from the protection of our military. It is hard to teach these truths to our friends in Sudan knowing what they have faced and will face...but all the while worth it.
I especially appreciate the comment to josh "In other words, could you argue for a "just war" for other countries (even if it meant that country should attack the U.S.)? It seems to easy for us Americans to justify protecting our own interests (which, I'm sure you would agree, isn't a "Christian" teaching--we're supposed to sacrifice our interests for the sake of others)."

dr. reeves thanks again.

if you would like (but dont feel obligated) you can look at our website... hisvoiceforsudan.com

josh h. said...

I stand by my statement that Jesus' teachings are to be understood on an individual level. That's not to say there's not applications to the nations, but Jesus' mission was to reach hearts, not change public policy.

On the subject of nationalism, I can think about war from any given perspective (American or otherwise), and it doesn't change the underlying question, "Is there such a thing as just war?" I thought I threw out an obvious example of aggressor states clearly in the wrong in the WWII example. If we can't agree on that, I'm not sure we're going to get anywhere. If that makes me a nationalist, than so be it!

A few thoughts on Biblical justification for war...

1) I am troubled by how easily we dismiss the OT. God never changes. God instructed His people on numerous occasions in the OT to go to war. I'm not clear on why this is irrelevant. This (as I see it) is not a "law vs. grace" issue. Rather, it is an issue of the unchanging nature and character of God.

2) It stands to reason that if governments have divine authority to protect their citizens from internal danger (Romans 13), they have the right to protect their people from external danger.

3) Augustine... "If the Christian Religion forbade war altogether, those who sought salutary advice in the Gospel would rather have been counselled to cast aside their arms, and to give up soldiering altogether. On the contrary, they were told: 'Do violence to no man . . . and be content with your pay' [*Lk. 3:14]. If he commanded them to be content with their pay, he did not forbid soldiering."

4) Rev 19:11... "And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him [was] called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war."

Happy Memorial Day to all!

Love in Christ,
Josh H.

Rodney Reeves said...


I didn't challenge the OT. Jesus did.

If you believe #2, then any nation can justify their war.

Regarding #3, Augustine was quoting the Baptizer (who was the "greatest" in the old covenant [according to Jesus]. But the least in the new covenant is greater than he. In other words, I don't think Augustine was on good ground to base his pro-soldiering position on the Baptizer).

Regarding #4, God's war is fought by divine intercession (notice, there is no "holy" army of crusaders who belong to God to fight the final conflict. God fights Armageddon. And, notice, this is a battle without war. The One on the Horse slays those opposed to Him with his tongue/sword of his mouth. To quote Martin Luther, "one little word will fell him [Satan]).

There is no NT justification for war.

Happy memorial day.

Thanks, Amber. I'll check out your website soon.

josh h. said...

Thank you, Dr. Reeves, for the challenging thoughts/words. Bless you. I'll pop in and say "hi" one of these days. Enjoy your summer!!!

JR. said...

anyone interested in this topic should read "What About Hitler?" by Robert Brimlow.

responding to comments made by Josh... I think you make a fundamental interpretive error when you assume Jesus was addressing individuals. None of the NT teachings were meant for an individual; they are directed at people groups.

and really, they are directed to one people group: the Kingdom of God, comprised of those who are now in Christ, rather than in Adam.

and because this national identity (kingdom citizen) supersedes any other national identity (including American), we cannot think of America as a Christian nation, or even as one that follows Christian principles [though I am interested to know when exactly in our illustrious history you think we were a good Christian nations - was it when we were slaughtering Native American Indians by the thousands, owning millions of blacks as slaves or continually oppressing women and other minority groups (like Hispanics)?]

Through his death, Jesus has created a people that is called to self-sacrificial love in imitation of our Founding Father. As such, I don't think (possibly contrary to you, Dr. Reeves?) that we are even allowed self-defense. After all, is there NT evidence even for self-defense?

We must remember that the OT does not teach universal principles; what God instructed his people to do can apply ONLY to his people, his chosen nation, and that is not America, modern Israel, Iran or any other political entity you'll find on a map. The Church is the Israel of God, and we have been shown what Jesus thought of war and of self-defense.

Darryl Schafer said...

JR., I was about to accuse you of replacement theology, but I thought I should ask you to clarify what you mean by "church" before I do that. ; )

And I'm also curious about your self-defense stance, Dr. Reeves. I vacillate quite a bit on that, especially when it comes to protecting my family (whatever that means). Life through death is great for me, but don't ask my wife and son to do that, because I'll want to stop you, despite what I say I believe.

Michael Gilley said...

These are difficult teachings. Who can hear them?

JR. said...

i stand by Paul... God has only ever had 1 people - the children of Abraham. [I find it interesting that even the "Israelites" leaving Exodus were not an ethnically unified people (an argument I first found from Rodney Clapp, citing Brueggeman)].

We Gentiles are grafted onto the tree of Israel, and we (the Church/Israel/People of God) have become the Tree of Life whose leaves are for the healing of the nations (per Rev 22).

Of course, the modern Gentile Church and the modern secular state of Israel confuse our (modern) language, but the biblical writers felt no confusion or ambiguity (at least in their own minds... there was clearly some conflict in the synagogues).

We have not replaced Israel; we have become Israel. Jesus redefined what it means to be Israel when he redefined so much of the rest of the old covenant as per the good doctor's discussion above.

Rodney Reeves said...


I'd love to see you. Hope your church continues to do well.

JR and Darryl,

I'll give my take on the issue of defending self/others in an upcoming post.

I can't help but think our passion on this subject is heightened a little bit by the American/British war in Iraq. It reminds me of the 60's! Which leads me to an interesting question, since Americans "lost" the war in Vietnam, did that make it an "unjust" war (even for those who once defended it)? Before you answer, think of Vietnam now. All of the dire predictions about the assault of communism taking over the world--one domino at a time--didn't come true in Vietnam. Today, America is somewhat on "friendly" terms with this former "communist" country because of its economic potential. Which begs the haunting question: were all the lives lost in that war nearly forty years ago worth it? I can't help but wonder if part of the reason we argue over the justice of war is because of our collective guilt over the thousands of human casualities. "So many people didn't die in vain; this war must be just." But, I don't hear very many people say that now about Vietnam.

Dara said...

Keep up the good work.