On Monday, CBC spoke to Kathy Moorhead Thiessen of Christian Peacemaker Teams, who says Canada "could take a different approach" to fighting ISIS -- one that emphasizes diplomacy over military intervention.
Moorhead Thiessen told the CBC that her pacifism is linked to her faith as a Mennonite Christian.
But is pacifism really a biblical, Christian value?
I asked Rev. Dr. Joseph Boot. He's a theologian, the founding pastor of Westminster Chapel in Toronto and the founder of the Ezra Institute for Contemporary Christianity (EICC).
Here's our conversation:
How does Christian morality justify Canada’s war against ISIS?
There is no question that war and violence are a consequence of sin in history. If there were no evil and injustice in the heart of man, there would be no conflict and hence, no war. It is also true that war has been typically seen in Christian theology as a last resort, not the first recourse to conflict situations. Certainly diplomatic solutions should be pursued wherever possible to prevent bloodshed.
Without getting into the details of the conflict raging in Iraq and Syria, those who believe ISIS are interested in compromise and diplomatic solutions manifest only their ignorance of the ideology, which motivates these fighters.
As desirable as a cessation of conflict is, men who remove the heads of Christian children in front of their parents if they refuse to convert to Islam and slaughter their own people in the name of God, are not interested in sitting around a table with Christian “peacemakers” to drink coffee and discuss peaceful settlements... that is a fool’s errand.
True peacemaking in Christianity is not synonymous with peacekeeping.
A group of Christian peacemakers in Iraq are urging Canada’s federal government to take a pacifistic approach to the war – one that urges diplomatic solutions over the use of force. Does Christianity teach pacifism?
That would depend on whether the Bible is considered the authority for defining Christianity or not. There have certainly been groups in the history of the church who have held to pacifistic ideals and Christian professing nations have usually respected conscientious objectors in the instances of military conscription.
However, if the Bible is considered to be the benchmark of Christian belief it is simply impossible to get pacifism from scripture. First, God is described in the Bible as a warrior and man of war (Ex 15:3)! Second, God appears in what theologians call a theophany to Joshua, as a military captain of a heavenly host with a drawn sword in his hand prior to the destruction of Jericho (Josh 5: 13-15). God repeatedly required Israel, as an act of his justice and judgment against a perverse and cruel nation, to use military force to defeat and drive out the Canaanites. On route, through Moses, God destroyed the Egyptian Army in the Sea. Clearly, God used war and supported just wars throughout the history of Israel.
Moreover, without getting into a detailed study, from Genesis 9 onwards, God required capital punishment for murderers in Scripture, and just war has been seen by Christians as the extension of the states right to defend citizens against violence and murder. St Paul explicitly affirms the right of the state to bear the sword (Rom 13). This helps us understand why some of God’s greatest servants were warriors.
Our spiritual father Abraham, the friend of God, pursues with his “trained men” a confederacy of kings who have kidnapped his nephew Lot, and he makes war on them to rescue Lot and his family (Gen 14). David, the greatest King of Israel, the man after God’s own heart and ancestor of Jesus, was one of the greatest warriors in history.
Some will say that this is all in the Old Testament, and try to suggest that an unchanging God has changed his mind about war, but this is absurd.
The character and nature of God does not change. He fights for justice against evil and indeed the Christian life is pictured as one of conflict against a spiritual foe.
In all the interactions that Jesus, Peter, Paul and John the Baptist had with soldiers (especially centurions) in the Bible, not once are they told to repent of soldiering and to leave the military! Jesus states explicitly that had his kingdom had been of the world (i.e. the source of its authority being merely human), his followers would have fought to prevent his arrest (John 18:36). We do not spread the gospel by the sword, but earthly kingdoms will and do fight in a sin-ravaged world.
In the gospel account of Jesus telling Peter to put away his sword when he cut off the servant’s ear when they came to arrest him, the pacifists fail to notice the obvious – Peter was armed! Jesus knew the Father’s will that he suffer and be crucified, and so did not resist arrest. Yet Peter was armed and ready to use his weapon to defend Christ. Jesus had clearly not banned the disciples carrying swords for self-defense. In fact at one point he tells them to buy swords (Luke 22:35-38).
St Paul likewise had no scruples about appealing to civil authority and accepting armed escort when his life was threatened (Acts 23: 12-25). Moreover, scripture is clear that Christ will return as the faithful and righteous judge and makes war on his enemies (Rev 19:11).
In other words, it is simply impossible to derive pacifism as a Christian doctrine from the Bible. In fact the failure to resist the murder and abuse of our fellow man can be a great evil.
A commonly quoted passage in scripture is to “turn the other cheek,” when describing violent interaction between human beings. What does this passage say about the morality of engaging in war?
This passage in the Sermon on the Mount says nothing about the morality of engaging in war.
At the beginning of this great Sermon Jesus makes it emphatically clear that he has not come to abolish the law of Moses but to “fulfill” it, which in the Greek language means to complete or ‘put into force.’ He is clear that until heaven and earth pass away, not one punctuation mark from the law will disappear (Matt 5: 17-20).
Thus, whatever Jesus teaches here is not in contradiction to what God has already taught his people. Rather, Jesus sets about correcting the misinterpretations of the law that have proliferated among the Scribes and Pharisees. These were usually ‘fences’ for the law to excuse people’s disobedience.
One major issue in people’s relationships Jesus was addressing was lawless retaliation. People were taking the law into their own hands and getting each other back for wrongs done to them. In Matt 5: 38-39, Jesus does not reject the foundation stone of justice, “the law of the talons" or just retribution (the requirement for exact justice in a court of law), rather he condemns the practice of God’s people taking personal vengeance on each other.
Moreover, the illustration of being slapped across the cheek as something to overlook and not seek personal vengeance for by taking it upon yourself is hardly akin to marauding invaders overrunning your town, murdering your family and raping your wife.
In Matt 5: 41, Jesus also gives further practical guidance as to how to deal with someone forcing you to go a mile with them. In Roman Judea, soldiers were permitted to press people into military service to carry their packs for a mile. Jesus says, carry it for two miles! But wouldn’t that be assisting a soldier in his work?
In short, the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount is Christ’s teaching with regard to our interpersonal relationships. It is not a treatise on the obligations of the father to protect his children, or the state to give justice in court and defend the citizenry in war. In fact Jesus was quite ready to heal the centurions servant because of his faith and he makes no call for him to leave the Roman military.
How do you respond to Jesus’s command to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” What does “loving your enemies” look like in the context of war?
The confusion of the pacifist here is in their understanding of the meaning of love and the purpose of prayer.
It is clear that the Christian is to pray for those that persecute them and to love our enemies – but what do these things mean in a context of violent hostility and aggression against our person or nation?
Prayer is appealing to God on behalf of our enemies. That may be for their redemption; for their conversion; for a change in their hearts and actions; or even for God’s justice to be realized in their lives.
The imprecatory Psalms (which have Jesus full stamp of authority) pray for God’s vengeance on his enemies. Second, loving our enemies is not about our feelings.
The fact is, we cannot work up emotional feelings of affection for our enemies and that is not what it means to love them. Don’t forget, in this Sermon Jesus is interpreting the law, which already required love for enemies (Ex 23:4-5; Lev 19: 17; Deut 10: 19; Prov 24:17; 25:21).
But as these passages make clear, love for enemies has nothing to do with how we feel, but our obedience to God. Thus to love your enemy is to obey God’s law with respect to them. So, we do not steal from, murder, commit adultery with, or lie, even about our enemies. St Paul is clear in Rom 13: 10 that love is the fulfillment of the law.
God’s law does not forbid just war. In fact it requires exact justice and the execution of murderers and rapists and kidnappers by legitimate authority to realize justice and restore peace.
‘Just War’ Theory has its origins in Christian theology, beginning with Saint Augustine. Can you elaborate?
Because of the Christian emphasis on peace, kindness, justice, reconciliation etc. war has usually been seen by Christians as something to avoid as far as is humanly possible.
Christian ‘Just War’ theories (including Augustine’s) are not attempts to find ways of sanctioning war as far as possible, but to limit it as far as humanly possible. God does not make war in scripture accept on the basis of bringing about his perfect justice and vengeance against evildoers.
Moreover, God has rules of war to prevent the abuse of people and creation (i.e. Deut 20: 19-20; 20:10; 21:14). Christian theologians then, in a world plagued by conflict, have sought to argue that war should only be countenanced when self-defense and justice demands it, and other routes to realizing that defense and justice are either exhausted or impossible to pursue.
Wars pursued for the purpose of profit, aggressive unprovoked warfare for seizures of land and property from other nations, are nowhere sanctioned in Just War theory.
In Augustine’s world, just war was easier to define because it was clear when the enemy was at the gates of the city and had no desire for peace.
Today however, when nuclear missiles can be fired from submarines and inter-continental missiles can reach nations from vast distances, defining what constitutes defensive action can be more difficult. Moreover, in a world where global news reaches everyone, can we turn a blind eye to genocide, and the horrendous abuse of other human beings?
How has this theory been used throughout history to justify going to war?
What is a war of illegal interference, and what is a war for the protection of the innocent? These lines are harder to draw in the modern world.
World War II is perhaps a good illustration of a just war in modern history. The aggression of the Nazi’s was unprovoked, ideological hatred that spilled over into total war with no regard for treaties, peace agreements or human life.
The holocaust is one of the worst evils perpetrated in history. Would it have been more “loving” for the British not to have declared war on Nazi Germany and to have allowed the Nazi’s to rule much of the world elimination the worlds Jews? Or was the military defeat of Nazism by the allies ultimately a work of justice?
I don’t think there is more than one rational, moral and biblical answer to that.
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