Christianity and Pacifism

Christians are peaceful people; the Bible tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18). But when we are attacked, as we were on September 11, 2001, what is the appropriate response? Is the Christian permitted to use violence in self-defense? Many people say that Jesus was a pacifist, and so Christians should support a non-violent response to terrorist attacks. Is this right? Should we turn the other cheek to bin Laden?


Those who feel that Christians should refrain from retaliation point to Jesus' words, "Whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also"(Matthew 5:39). While it might seem that Jesus is calling for pacifism at first glance, a simple analysis of the words used reveals that this is not the case. Note the specification of right cheek. Why would He need to make such a specification? In fact, it doesn't really make much sense, because if someone were to hit you on your right cheek, it means they either hit you from behind or they caught you with a left hook. Most people, however, are right-handed, and have not had boxing lessons. Therefore, in the majority of cases, you are going to get slapped on your left cheek. Indeed, this was apparently the chosen method of insult among Roman soldiers of the time.

Paul Cohan goes into further detail:
...a hit on the right cheek is a back-handed slap, which even today in the Middle East expresses a gross insult. This idea of a slap as an insult is seen in Lamentations 3:30: “Let him give his cheek to the smiter and be filled with insults.” This slap would be roughly equivalent to spitting in someone's face in our society.

Jesus is not saying, “Don’t defend yourself when you are attacked” or “Don’t help a woman who is being raped” or “Don’t defend your country when it is being attacked.” He is not negating the judicial principle of an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”; he speaks against the abuse of that judicial principle to justify personal retaliation or vengeance.1
People who use this verse further fail to mention that this is a situation involving individuals and does not apply to governmental affairs. The government is not a personality and has no thoughts or actions of its own. It exists to see that justice is done. Timothy J. Demy notes,
Critics of pacifism note that the principal problem with pacifism is that it misidentifies the morality of the individual as justification for (or morality of) the behavior of the state. 2
In fact, in this very sermon Jesus made the distinction between individuals and governments when He said:
Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny. (Mat. 5:25-26)
Jesus did not tell the judge or the officer to turn the other cheek or to void the law. God has commanded the governing authorities to uphold the law without mercy (Heb. 10:28; Rom. 13:3-4).


Further justifications for pacifism are given based on the Lord's Prayer. "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors"(Matthew 6:10-12). Once again, two points are missed. First, forgiveness does not equal pardoning the offense. When God forgives us He doesn't necessarily remove the consequences of our sins. Second, you cannot forgive/pardon someone for something they did to someone else. If someone owes you money, I can't come out of nowhere and tell that person that they don't need to pay you. Similarly, those who have lost loved ones can forgive bin Laden for the grief he has caused them, but they can't forgive the crime committed against their loved ones, nor against the other victims of the attacks.


People who claim that Jesus was a pacifist are ignoring more than half the Bible. Jesus was not a prophet with His own agenda; Jesus was and is God. He is the God of the Old Testament. Jesus is Jehovah, the God who commanded the Israelites to go to war. David said, "Blessed be the LORD my Rock, Who trains my hands for war, And my fingers for battle (Psalm 144:1)." We know that Jesus was not a pacifist (someone who denounces all forms of violence for any reason) because the Bible says that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forevermore (Hebrews 13:8). He did not change His mind suddenly in the New Testament, so any teachings must be taken in that context.

Some pacifists have objected to this reasoning by proposing the heretical idea that God's dealings with the ancient Israelites took into consideration their "uncivilized" nature. Not only does this ignore the simple fact that the ancients were just as civilized as we are today, it forces us to conclude that our holy God lowers His standards when we can't meet them. This would negate the need for a Saviour and therefore must be rejected as heresy.

We have a record of Jesus meeting a Roman centurion--an army officer who most likely achieved his rank because he was skilled at battle. After talking with this soldier for a few minutes, Jesus did not tell him to put down his sword, nor did he tell him to retire from the military. Instead, he praised the man's faith, saying that he had more faith than anyone He had met (Matthew 8:5-13).


In Exodus 22:2, we read, "If the thief is found breaking in, and he is struck so that he dies, there shall be no guilt for his bloodshed." Rashi, a famous Jewish commentator states,
"He has no blood. [This signifies that] this is not [considered] murder. It is as though he [the thief] is [considered] dead from the start. Here the Torah teaches you: If someone comes to kill you, kill him first. And this one [the thief] has come to kill you, because he knows that a person will not hold himself back and remain silent when he sees people taking his money. Therefore, he [the thief] has come with the acknowledgement that if the owner of the property were to stand up against him, he [thief] would kill him [the owner]. - [From Talmud Sanhedrin. 72a]".3
There are also commands to defend the weak and assist those who are attacked. Psalm 82:3-4 says, "Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked." It is hard to come up with a pacifist interpretation of this injunction. According to a Jewish translation, Leviticus 19:16, reads, "You shall not stand by [the shedding of] your fellow's blood. I am the Lord."  Shlomo Yaffe writes,
We cannot exempt ourselves of this obligation – even though in this country we have a wonderful and dedicated corps of law enforcement officers and other emergency personnel. We should respect them and support them in every way possible, as they have devoted their lives to the rescue of their fellows –but our obligation to our fellow remains: if we see someone in trouble we cannot absolve ourselves of our obligation by the fact that "professionals" exist somewhere.4
To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven...A time of war, And a time of peace (Ecclesiastes 3:1,8)
Demy continued with the following statement after criticizing pacifism:
At the other end, the principal problem with the crusade is that the church incorrectly identifies itself with the function of the state, and a theocratic one at that.5
We are not a theocracy. Our situation, therefore, is different from that of ancient Israel. God is not using the United States to punish evil nations. Demy quotes Christian philosopher Arthur Holmes, who said, "To call war anything less than evil would be self-deception. The Christian conscience has throughout history recognized the tragic character of war. The issue that tears the Christian conscience is not whether war is good, but whether it is in all cases avoidable."6

Pacifists note that there will never be a "war to end all wars." While this is true, it does not mean that we should not strive to eliminate as much evil as we can. There will never be peace without war. No one can argue that America's peace with Germany and Japan are not the direct result of America defeating them in war. Nor can anyone argue that Hitler would not have continued his quest if no one had stood up to him. If good people simply looked the other way when evil people did terrible things, this world would be run by people like Hitler, Stalin and bin Laden.

War is never a good thing. War is a result of man's fallen nature. The root cause of war is sin. Ken Ham writes this about the terrorist attacks:
The Bible makes it clear that death is the penalty for our sin. In other words, it is really our fault that the world is the way it is. When we sinned in Adam, we effectively said that we wanted life without God. All of us also sin individually—Romans 3:23. God had to judge sin, as He warned Adam He would (Genesis 2:17, cf. 3:19). In doing so, God has given us a taste of life without Him—a world that is running down—a world full of death and suffering. As Romans 8:20–22 says, the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs. Man in essence forfeited his right to live.7
A further objection is that the Church in the apostolic period abstained from combat and military service. While this is not wholly true (please see Absolute Pacifism?), it should be noted that any military campaigns at the time would not have satisfied the requirements of the just war theory. Throughout history, Christian theology has put forth the idea of "just war." Demy explains what is involved in the just war:
Just cause--All aggression is condemned in just war theory. Participation in the war in question must be prompted by a just cause or defensive cause. No war of unprovoked aggression can ever be justified. Only defensive war is legitimate.

Just intention (right intention)--The war in question must have a just intention, that is, its intent must be to secure a fair peace for all parties involved. Therefore, revenge, conquest, economic gain, and ideological supremacy are not legitimate motives for going to war. There must be a belief that ultimately greater good than harm will result from the war.

Last resort--The war in question must be engaged in only as a last resort. Other means of resolution such as diplomacy and economic pressure must have been exhausted.

Formal declaration--The war in question must be initiated with a formal declaration by properly constituted authorities. Only governments can declare war, not individuals, terrorist organizations, mercenaries, or militias.

Limited objectives--The war in question must be characterized by limited objectives. This means that securing peace is the goal and purpose of going to war. The war must be waged in such a way that once peace is attainable, hostilities cease. Complete destruction of a nation's political institutions or economic institutions is an improper objective.

Proportionate means--Combatant forces of the opposition forces may not be subjected to greater harm than is necessary to secure victory and peace. The types of weapons and amount of force used must be limited to only what is needed to repel the aggression, deter future attacks, and secure a just peace. Therefore, total or unlimited warfare is inappropriate. ("You don't burn down the barn to roast the pig.")

Noncombatant immunity--Military forces must respect individuals and groups not participating in the conflict and must abstain from attacking them. Since only governments can declare war, only governmental forces or agents are legitimate targets. This means that prisoners of war, civilians, and casualties are immune from intentional attacks.8
I would classify the war against terrorism as a just war. I think the seven qualifications above have been met. Christians are called to "Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy. Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked (Psalm 82:3-4)." Our hearts and minds must be set on spiritual things, but this does not merit ignoring the evils of this world while pursuing our lofty goals. We are not here by accident. I think that Christians can support this war with a clear conscience, and if called into it can participate without fear of condemnation.

God bless America.


---Additional comments----

Why I believe the war in Iraq was justified.

  1. Just cause. It was originally a war to protect our ally, Kuwait. The Gulf War never ended, because Iraq did not comply with the terms of surrender. The White House did not emphasize this point enough, in my opinion. This was not a matter of simply pre-empting the use of WMD. The production of WMD was forbidden by the terms of surrender in 1991, and since they were still being produced (regardless of whether or not they were successful, although I believe they were), the war was never officially over.

  2. Just intention. The intent was to prevent Hussein from using his WMD. This is justified, in my opinion.

  3. Last resort. Over a period of 12 years, Hussein defied the resolutions of the United Nations. He was in direct violation of his terms of surrender. Further resolutions would not have helped at all. This war was a last resort (and should have taken place in 1998 when the original inspectors were kicked out).

  4. Formal declaration. Congress has the authority to declare war. They granted authority to the President to declare war in this situation, and he rightly exercised it.

  5. Limited objectives. Since Iraq was a dictatorship, deposing the dictator eliminated the political institution by default. There was no objective to eliminate the state of Iraq, and in fact, the United States is actively helping to rebuild Iraq, even though this is not our responsibility (blame for the war lies solely on Hussein). In the past, the losing party was required to pay reparations.

  6. Proportionate means. This war had the fewest casualties of any in history.

  7. Noncombatant immunity. No civilians were targeted.


1.Copan, Paul Jesus, Religions, and Just War - CDC Panel Discussion
2.Demy, Timothy J. Onward Christian Soldiers? A Christian Perspective on War
3.Yaffe, Shlomo. Of Weapons and Wickedness
5.Demy, Timothy J. Onward Christian Soldiers? A Christian Perspective on War .
7.Ham, Ken. Terrorists and Death
8.Demy, Timothy J. Onward Christian Soldiers? A Christian Perspective on War