Every year we celebrate Memorial Day and honor our fallen soldiers who have died in wars over the years. While the vast majority of Christians believe there are times when it is appropriate to use deadly force (or go to war), they have struggled throughout the ages to understand when and how this ought to be done. The reluctant use of deadly force has been a topic of philosophical and theological consideration for centuries. Augustine (354 – 430) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) attempted to formulate what is now called the “Just War Theory”. Like other Christians who have wrestled with the issue, they tried to develop a set of principles guiding the responsible use of deadly force. Here is a very brief summary of several Christian principles guiding the incredibly difficult decision to exercise deadly force (especially in the context of war):
1. Any Consideration of War Must Begin With Prayer
Every use of deadly force must be carefully and prayerfully considered. For the Christian, no thought of entering into war can begin without our first consulting God to ask Him for wisdom on the part of our leaders, mercy for our enemies and peace for all those involved:
1 Timothy 2:1-4
I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone- for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.
But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Prayer is a powerful weapon, even before we resort to the weapons of war:
2 Corinthians 10:3-4
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world.
2. Any Thought of War Must Follow Efforts for Peace
Before we ever consider the option of war, we must pursue the path of peace:
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it
But there are times when it may be appropriate (and even morally obligatory) to prevent a greater evil by using whatever force necessary to stop an evil doer. If the lives of innocents are at stake (for example), our failure to act (when we could have stopped an atrocity) would be an equally egregious act of omission. There are times when the failure to use deadly force to stop the even greater loss of life could be considered the greater sin:
If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.
The challenge, of course, is to know when we simply must act to the extent we can (“as far as it depends on you”) to stop evil. First we must use diplomacy and negotiation, but when that path reaches its end, it may be time to act. The protection of the innocent must be a primary motive for us as we consider the use of deadly force.
3. Any Justification for War Must Be Morally Appropriate
Motive is incredibly important to God. War is the last line of defense to protect those who are threatened by evil aggressors. It is not to be used to advance our worldview or force our views. It is not to be used to exact revenge or to harm or exploit those who disagree with us. War is justified when all else has failed and the use of deadly force is the only option to defend those who are mortally threatened by an evil aggressor.
All a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the LORD.
Unfortunately, there may be times when war is the only way:
…a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.
It’s important for us to have God’s Holy motives in mind as we begin to contemplate the act of war:
I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war.
4. Any Plan for War Should Rely on Wisdom and Counsel
This may sound simplistic, but the worst decisions are those made without consulting the depth and breadth of all available wisdom. The best decisions are possible once we have the wisdom of others to support our choices:
Make plans by seeking advice; if you wage war, obtain guidance.
…for waging war you need guidance, and for victory many advisers.
5. Any Declaration of War Should be Initiated by Legitimate Governments
God has given us the institution of government for a reason. Governments have the responsibility of protecting the innocent and punishing those who do wrong. We are not to act as individuals and take matters into our own hands. We must patiently trust the government for matters such as these:
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
It may be tough to submit ourselves to the government under which we live, particularly if this government is engaged in a war with which we disagree. But we must do our best to work within our limits and respect the authority that God has placed over us:
1 Peter 2:17
Show proper respect to everyone: Love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, honor the king.
6. Any Consideration of War Must Have Victory In View
We also need to make sure our actions are within our means (“as far as it depends on you”). We need to know with certainty, before we begin to act, that we can accomplish our goals:
“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.”
Why is this so important? Because the use of deadly force is tragic enough, even when it successfully accomplishes a greater goal; if we take the life of others and then fail to accomplish this goal, we have simply become another source of evil.
7. Any Act of War Should Not Cause More Evil Than It Eliminates
The decision to use deadly force (even to accomplish a greater good) is incredibly difficult. But when we have certainty our actions will eliminate more evil than they create, the choice is a little easier. For this reason we must be very wise about how we proceed:
O LORD my God, if I have done this and there is guilt on my hands — if I have done evil to him who is at peace with me or without cause have robbed my foe — then let my enemy pursue and overtake me; let him trample my life to the ground and make me sleep in the dust.
Even in the midst of war, we must always seek to minimize the aggression needed to accomplish the goal:
When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city.
8. Any Civilian Casualties of War Should Be Minimized
This is perhaps one of the most difficult tasks to achieve, but the responsible use of deadly force demands we minimize suffering in our effort to eliminate the greater threat. This means we simply must do all that we can to avoid civilian causalities. God does not honor violence done toward those who are innocent and undeserving:
Psalm 10:2, 8
In his arrogance the wicked man hunts down the weak, who are caught in the schemes he devises… He lies in wait near the villages; from ambush he murders the innocent, watching in secret for his victims.
James 5:1, 6
Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you… You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.
9. Any Prisoners of War Must Be Treated Justly
Wars inevitably create (and result in) prisoners of war. It is imperative we take the high road in our handling of these prisoners. Even in ancient times, when harshness in war was the accepted cultural pattern of the time, the Old Testament Israelites were instructed to mitigate the harm they did to prisoners and their land:
When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees of the field people, that you should besiege them?
It was the custom of the time for all defeated peoples to be utterly destroyed, and although God also commanded the Israelites to do this in the most severe of situations, the Old Testament allowed for the women and children of these captives to remain unharmed (Deuteronomy 20:13-14 and Deuteronomy 21:10-14)
10. Anyone Involved in War Should Be Supported and Honored
Times of war are heartbreaking and tragic. They are filled with stress and hardship, even when they are waged on the opposite side of the world, far from the native soil of the combatants. It is during times like these Christians need to behave in a way honoring to our God:
Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.
During times of war, we should draw close to each other and demonstrate the love of Christ in our own lives and relationships. We must do our best to recognize God alone is our source of strength.
In difficult times of war, even the faithful begin to wonder if things will ever return to normal or if peace will ever be ours again. But those of us who are Christians have a promise of peace in which we can place our trust and hope. God has promised us a day is coming when peace reign in spite of our human failings (and without any achievements on our part):
He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.
He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.
Jesus will put an end to all conflicts, all war and all strife as he takes the throne once and for all:
“Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.”
A day is coming when we, as humans will not have to make the difficult decision for war. A day is coming when God will be the final judge and Jesus will be the final peacemaker. Until then, however, there may be times when deadly force is the only way to stop a greater evil. As we reluctantly and prayerfully consider the use of deadly force, we must always consider the timing and manner in which we will act to achieve the greatest good while inflicting the least harm.