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Jesus and Justified Warfare

Updated: Oct 31, 2023

Today the world is on the brink of ruin because the church refuses to be the church, because we Christians have been deceiving ourselves and the non-Christian world about the truth of Christ. There is no way to follow Christ, to love as Christ loved, and simultaneously to kill other people. It is a lie to say that the spirit that moves the trigger of a flamethrower is the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ. It is a lie to say that learning to kill is learning to be Christ-like. It is a lie to say that learning to drive a bayonet into the heart of another is motivated from having put on the mind of Christ. Militarized Christianity is a lie. It is radically out of conformity with the teaching, life, and spirit of Jesus.’

-Father George Zabelka

(Photo- Dresden after Strategic Bombing)

In a world steeped in violence, fuelled by terrorist attacks and the notions of both redemptive violence and justified warfare, the church is tasked with embracing and conveying a different narrative. It's a story of non-violent love, a love that reaches not only to our neighbors but even to our enemies. To the world, this narrative may seem utopian, foolish, and impractical, but for Christians, it mirrors the path of Christ.

We're all familiar with the ancient adage, "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth." There's an instinctive impulse within us that resonates with retribution. Nevertheless, the message from the peace-loving preacher from Nazareth is unequivocal: we must never respond to evil with violence (Matthew 5:38). Similarly, we've been taught to "hate your enemy," a belief perpetuated and glorified by popular media and nationalistic stories. However, the path of the compassionate Jewish Palestinian is clear; love your enemies (Matthew 5:43).

Throughout history, the church hasn't consistently conveyed this vision of the kingdom. Unfortunately, since the time of Constantine, it has often embraced extreme violence, assuming the roles of chaplains and cheerleaders for war.

It's surprising that, despite the unequivocal teachings of Jesus on this matter, it remains a fringe position within the christian community to argue that Christians shouldn't be combatants or support war. Instead, by and large, the church perpetuates the myth of redemptive violence and is complicit, through our silence, with the killing of both enemies and civilians.

Father George Zabelka, a Catholic military chaplain who conducted a mass for the Catholic bomber pilot responsible for dropping the atomic bomb on Nagasaki in 1945, ultimately experienced a profound change of heart regarding his involvement in the bombing of civilians. His recollection of that period serves as a powerful indictment of the church's complicity this acts of extreme violence against civilian populations.

‘To fail to speak to the utter moral corruption of the mass destruction of civilians was to fail as a Christian and as a priest as 1 see it…. I was there, and I’ll tell you that the operational moral atmosphere in the church in relation to mass bombing of enemy civilians was totally indifferent, silent, and corrupt at best—at worst it was religiously supportive of these activities by blessing those who did them….

Catholics dropped the A-bomb on top of the largest and first Catholic city in Japan. One would have thought that I, as a Catholic priest, would have spoken out against the atomic bombing of nuns. (Three orders of Catholic sisters were destroyed in Nagasaki that day.)

One would have thought that I would have suggested that as a minimal standard of Catholic morality, Catholics shouldn’t bomb Catholic children. I didn’t. I, like the Catholic pilot of the Nagasaki plane, “The Great Artiste,” was heir to a Christianity that had for seventeen hundred years engaged in revenge, murder, torture, the pursuit of power, and prerogative violence, all in the name of our Lord.

I walked through the ruins of Nagasaki right after the war and visited the place where once stood the Urakami Cathedral. I picked up a piece of censer from the rubble.

When I look at it today I pray God forgives us for how we have distorted Christ’s teaching and destroyed his world by the distortion of that teaching. I was the Catholic chaplain who was there when this grotesque process that began with Constantine reached its lowest point—so far.’

Blessed are the peacemakers.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

- Jesus of Nazareth

‘Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…. Live in harmony with one another…. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’

-The Apostle Paul


In response to some good points raised on a Facebook post to this blog post, I wrote the following.

How should one respond to Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, Isis etc?

When faced with embodied evil and acts of violence two options immediately spring to mind.

One option is that of ‘redemptive violence’ whereby lethal force is used to destroy and kill the enemy. It is maintained that this is how one shows love for a neighbor. In this line of thinking, having its roots in the Christian tradition since Augustine, war—extreme lethal violence towards an enemy—can be morally justified (jus ad bellum).

This idealizes as only the death of combatants, and this could be true in isolated cases of snipers/police using a gun to kill the hostage taker, lone shooter, etc. However, as we know, modern conflict—with drones, tanks, rockets, etc.—involves the death of non-combatants. Some would argue that it is theoretically possible to have a just war. For instance, 2 million civilian deaths in the Vietnam War, 400,000+ deaths in Iraq. In WW2, the Allies killed many hundreds of thousands of civilians, including 30,000 in two days in bombings in Dresden, 140,000 in Hiroshima, and 74,000 in Nagasaki. Even if one were to grant jus ad bellum, one also needs to ask questions about behavior during a war (jus in bellum).

Another option is to offer no resistance to the violent aggressor. To stand on the sidelines doing nothing to stop wholesale slaughter. This is the caricature of the pacifist, the one who does nothing while evil prospers.

With these two polarities, the choice is either between using lethal extreme violence to kill and destroy an enemy or doing nothing.

My contention is that these are not the only two options available when confronting enacted evil.

Jesus proposes a third way of non-violence whereby one opposes evil, even fights against evil, without violence. If we are to love one's enemy, we cannot kill them, whether by sword, bullet, or missile. If we are to love our neighbor, this includes civilian populations near the enemy. We cannot deliberately kill them or act in such a way that they are very likely to die. So what might non-violent resistance look like? We see examples in Gandhi and Martin Luther King, etc. Before asking if violence in WW2 was justified, we need to first see the utter failure of Western Christendom in aligning with militarism and nationalism. The most Christianized countries were at war during WW1 (which itself led to WW2), and the German church, with few exceptions, was silent in the rise of Nationalism Socialism. If every professing Christian refused to fight in WW2, both the deaths of combatants and civilians would have been seriously reduced. Furthermore, we do not know what would have happened if, in case Christians, following Jesus, had challenged the enemy by loving them while also non-violently undermining their power through refusal to pay taxes, strikes, etc. Yes, there would have been deaths of those who opposed the rise of Nazis, but as India shows, the strength comes in pursuing non-violence over time and with numbers.

‘The gospel cannot be interpreted only from Jesus’ teaching in Mt. 5.’

You’re right; we could also look at his teaching elsewhere and the example of his life. When we do so, we would see a consistency from Jesus in terms of enemy love and non-violence. Up until Constantine, the early church understood this.

‘Because when evil strikes the helpless, *it is not our cheek*. Do we turn our face away when another is struck? Or do we defend the helpless?’

As above, Jesus offers a third way. We defend the helpless through non-violent engagement. Let me quote to you some words from a sermon I preached a few years back which unpacks ‘turning the other cheek.’

Let me turn to some explicit statements of Jesus regarding how one should engage in a context of oppression and violence. (15 mins)


Matthew Chapter 5

38 "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.

Let's go over this line by line:

v38: You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'

Jesus announces that we no longer need to keep the old testament law because a new ethic is at work. The ethical code of ‘Violence as a response to violence’ is now over.

In the words of Gandhi, "An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind," or as Martin Luther King said, "Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars."

Jesus continues in v39 by saying, according to the NIV translation, 'Do not resist the one who is evil.'

There are two immediate and understandable responses to this.

Some see Jesus’ command as a call to passivity, non-resistance, and compliance in the face of evil. Others, perceiving the implications of this as functionally irrelevant to a real-world of power, protest, and politics, reject this teaching of Jesus as unworkable. Some would argue that Jesus is asking us to be doormats in the face of evil and to collude with the oppressors.

Following a close reading of this passage, I want to encourage us to see that taking the teaching of Jesus seriously does not mean that we need to be 'doormat disciples.'

The word 'resist' as a translation is unhelpful, for the Greek word behind this is 'anti-stenei,' which means literally to against (anti) the stand (steno).

What many translators have overlooked is that 'steno' is most often used in the Greek version of the Old Testament as a technical term for warfare. It describes the way that opposing armies would line up against each other to 'take a stand' and fight with violence.

The sense then is that we should not read this passage as an encouragement towards passivity, non-resistance, and compliance in the face of evil, but rather as a command from Jesus that we are to refrain from violence even when we are faced with Herod-like oppressors.

Many scholars are in agreement with Tom Wright, a world-class biblical scholar and former Bishop of Durham, who translates the words of Jesus as 'Do not violently oppose an evil doer.'

Then Jesus mentions in quick succession three examples of how to creatively respond to different oppressive situations. Firstly, Jesus says in verse 39, if someone hits you on the right cheek, then turn to him the other.

In the time of Jesus, to strike someone on the right cheek was to hit someone with the backhand. Receiving a backhanded slap implies that you are a person of inferior standing; slaves, women, and children would be treated in this way.

Jesus says in that situation, you can turn the other cheek, which means, hit me again if need be, but you will treat me as an equal and with dignity.

Hitting back would bring more violence, but this creative non-violent and cheeky response exposes the unjust structures of society and prepares the ethical imagination for a new way of doing life.

In the second example, V40, Jesus says 'And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.' The context here is of a poor person being dragged to court, perhaps for non-payment of a large debt. Unethical business practices and oppressive economic policies were rife in the ancient world.

When the person of power, as payment for the debt, requires your inner garment as payment (and in the ancient world you would just wear two garments), then Jesus suggests that we give him the other, outer garment, also.

If they accepted the offer, you would end up standing there butt naked in court; you would potentially not only expose your nakedness to those in court but would also be exposing just how unjust the economic structures are in reducing the poor to open shame.

The third example takes place in the context of Roman military occupation. Jesus says in verse 41, ‘And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.’

Let's pick up Tom Wright's understanding of what is going on here:

'Roman soldiers had the right to force civilians to carry their equipment for one mile. But the law was quite strict; it forbade them to make someone go more than that. Turn the tables on them, advises Jesus. Don't fret and fume and plot revenge. Copy your generous God! Go a second mile and astonish the soldier (and perhaps alarm him—what if his commanding officer found out?) with the news that there is a different way to be human, a way that doesn't plot revenge, which doesn't join the armed resistance movement (but which wins God's kind of victory over violence and injustice).'

These examples (turn the other cheek, naked in court, and the extra mile) act as playful and powerful ideas illustrating what a creative, courageous, and non-violent response may be to situations of oppression and injustice.

As followers of Jesus, the peacemaker, we are to act as peacemakers, seeking to stand non-violently against injustice and oppression.

As individuals and as a community, we are being called to be the hands and feet of Jesus in speaking truth to power and challenging where possible the Herodian structures, systems, power, and politics of our age. For those of us who have privilege, possessions, and power, we can use our words, actions, votes, skills, and creativity to challenge injustice, oppression, and violence.

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Oct 29, 2023

Some years ago a senior British rabbi told me that even at the time of Jesus, Jews understood an eye eye an eye as a metaphor and that the better way of justice was the value of an eye for an eye,

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