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Just-War Tradition, Pacifism, and Nonviolence : A Critical Review

B. Steven Matthies


War is one of the greatest social problems of our day. Indeed, considering humankind's technological developments, war now has the potential to totally end life on our planet. That being said, an adequate account of the causes of war would require an extensive examination of views, cultures, and world history. Such an account is not a task that a small article could do justice to, thus, this article will not attempt to do the impossible. I am therefore restricting myself to a secular examination of one question: does Christianity provide a viable system of guidelines for war and peace? My rationale for an examination of the Christian perspectives on war is threefold. First, Christianity is one of the world's largest and most influential religions and often is associated with the promotion of peace. Second, Christianity certainly influences governmental policy here in the United States--especially in light of our current administration's overtly Christian posture. Third, as a former Christian myself, Christianity is an area that I still have interest in. Moreover, in accordance with the spirit of honest inquiry and the humanist's value of all life, any system that has the potential to adversely affect life should be critically examined. What follows is my modest attempt at doing that.

The History of the Church

Historically, Christianity has had three broad attitudes on war: pacifism, the just-war, and the crusade. The early Church was pacifist until the reign of Constantine. Then due to Constantine's close association of Church and state, and the constant threat of barbarian invasions on the Roman Empire, Christians were soon serving in the army and actively killing for the state. In the fourth and fifth centuries, Christianity adapted a just-war approach. This approach was based on the classical world's view of just-war, meaning that the only acceptable war was one that had the intent to vindicate justice and restore peace. This classical view was expanded upon by the church father Augustine, who added the guiding principle of love and who also exempted priests and monks from combat. Later still in the thirteenth century, the Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas added to Augustine's view. According to Aquinas, the church and state were one and the same. Thus, a just-war had to be waged by the ruler of a state and sanctioned by the church. Once it met these criteria, the just-war was thought to be ordained by God. Finally, the Crusade approach to war added one additional criterion to the just-war tradition: the preemptive eradication of evil through violent means.[1]

These views would reappear throughout history starting after the late Middle Ages and up until the present day. So, throughout history we have seen variations of the just-war doctrine among the Catholics, Lutherans, and Anglicans, the crusade in the Reformed Churches, and pacifism (or nonresistance) in the Anabaptists and Quakers. Presently, the major Protestant denominations subscribe to the just-war approach, as does Catholicism, while the Church of the Brethren, the Quakers, and the Mennonites advocate nonresistance or pacifism.[2]

Defining War

Before we can critique the Christian views of war, we must arrive at an operating definition of war itself. Based on my investigation, the most comprehensive definition of war is the definition that Alexander Mosely offers:

War is an open-ended condition of organised violence--it may involve states and it may be declared, but not necessarily; it always involves some form of organisation and it must be considered to involve a condition rather than the existence of violence--for sometimes wars involve no battles or clashes of arms.[3]

Seen in this light, we have a definition that stresses organization in conflict, thus, separating itself from the more sundry forms of unorganized violence (e.g., murder, riots, etc). Moreover, this definition considers states of conflict that do not necessarily require violence (e.g., organized cyberwarfare on an enemy government). Finally, this definition of war encompasses all of the known types of war that humankind is currently capable of waging. This includes animal warfare which emphasizes a biological component to organized violence, civilized warfare which stresses the role of society and government in war, modern warfare which stresses the economic factors of war, nuclear warfare which stresses the technological intensification of war, and postmodern warfare which describes low-intensity wars that rely on computer technology.[4]

The Views Critiqued

The following review will focus on those views that are currently exhibited by Christianity: nonresistance, pacifism, and the just-war approach. Though the crusade approach to war certainly played an important part in Christian history, it is largely a product of the past, and is not being sanctioned by any of the major denominations today therefore, it is excluded from this review.


Those Christians who subscribe to pacifism do so based on the belief that it "is clearly taught in the Word of God."[5] Moreover, proponents of this view can generally be described as dispensationalists in regards to scripture. In other words, they believe that "the two Testaments present different moral standards for different dispensations".[6] Thus, they believe that the Old Testament focus on the law and retributive justice was replaced by the New Testament emphasis of love--so, they place a greater importance on New Testament scriptures to back their assertions. This, of course, stands in stark contrast to just-war Christians who see an ethical agreement between the Old and New Testaments. For the just-war Christian, both the Old and New Testaments are in agreement and are equally relevant.

Christian pacifists also emphasize a separation from all worldly things. In other words, a saved person is commanded by God via the scripture to be divorced from all things that are associated with our evil world. This is based on the idea that true Christians are not meant for this evil world, their time here is finite, and they should be concerned with their final destination, which is the new kingdom of God on earth. Some relevant Bible verses that are used in support of this view are as follows: Romans 12:2, John 15:19; 17:15; and 17:16.[7]

Flowing from the "not of this world view" is the notion that the church and the state are separate. Christian pacifists believe that the church is associated with the world to come, while the state is considered part of this presently evil world. Therefore, since violence is part of this present world, Christians who hold this view are explicitly forbidden to use it to accomplish any purpose--be it personal or associated with the state. Some relevant Bible verses that are used in support of this view are as follows: John 18:36, Colossians 1:13, Philippians 3:20, Hebrews 11:8-16, Matthew 5:38-48; 13:37-43; 25:31-46, 1 John 2:6, and 1 Peter 2:21-24.[8]

Finally, Christian pacifists are instructed to use spiritual methods to fight evil in this world. In other words, faith, prayer, and witnessing are the only acceptable tools that a Christian can use to oppose wrongs in this presently evil world. This means that a Christian who subscribes to this view cannot use violence--even in self-defense or the defense of another, and is instructed "to display good and stand against evil by spiritual means."[9]

It is my opinion that the Christian idea of absolute pacifism presents a serious problem. The Christian that subscribes to this view is explicitly forbidden to use violence in any situation, period. Thus, according to the Christian pacifist (or any absolute pacifist for that matter), one cannot use force to oppose violently evil governments. Nor is one allowed to use violence in self-defense or in the defense of a defenseless person. In fact, despite being a very moral position in principle, it is my opinion that it is not very practical or realistic, given the current state of affairs in our global and often historically violent world. Moreover, medical science has shown that there are people who are criminally insane. Sometimes these people may be serial killers who operate solo; other times they may be dictators in charge of large armies. Whichever the case, based on the time I spent in the human service field, it has been my personal experience that faith, prayer, and witnessing will do little good against a criminally insane person who is bent on killing. Simply put: violence is sometimes unavoidable if you want to protect the innocent.

However, the key flaw in Christian pacifism is that it places a greater emphasis on the world to come rather than the here and now. Thus, the Christian pacifist sincerely believes that the true kingdom of God will eventually be established here on earth. In the meantime, prayer, testimonial, and faith are the only acceptable means of combating evil because violence is seen as a part of this presently evil world, hence it is explicitly forbidden. So, according to this type of Christian, "whenever an entire nation reaches the point that all within its boundaries are Christian and practicing the principle of nonresistance it may be fairly concluded that the kingdom of God has been established on earth."[10] In my estimation, with a greater concern for the world to come, this position has the potential to lead to indifference insofar as the very non-Christian portion of humanity is concerned. Therefore, I have to conclude that Christian pacifism is not a viable solution to the problem of war.


Nonresistance is very similar to Christian pacifism. Both explicitly forbid Christians to use violence in any situation. Both, for the most part, are based on the same interpretations of biblical passages--the main distinction being that the nonresistant Christian believes that it is acceptable for Christians to serve in noncombatant roles (e.g., chaplains, support staff, medical corps) under the authority of the state. Despite this distinction, nonresistance still suffers from the same problems that absolute pacifism does. Namely, it is moral in principle but, to a lesser degree, it suffers from naivet' as far as world history is concerned. Moreover, it also has the potential to promote indifference because it stresses a greater emphasis on the world to come.

Just-War Tradition

The tradition of just-war consists of several criteria that are used to determine whether going to war is justified. Among Protestant and Catholic Christians there is not one uniform set of just-war rules. However, both divisions of Christianity share commonalities in their just-war thinking which can be summarized as follows:[11]

  1. A just-war can only be waged as a last resort. All nonviolent options must be exhausted before the use of force can be justified.
  2. A war is just only if it is waged by a legitimate authority. Groups or individuals who are not sanctioned by the society cannot wage war--even if the cause is just.
  3. A just-war can only be fought to redress suffered wrongs. Further, a just-war can only be fought with "right" intentions (i.e., the only permissible objective of a just-war is to redress the initial injury).
  4. A war can only be just if it has a reasonable chance of success. Deaths and injury as a result of a hopeless cause are not morally justifiable.
  5. The ultimate goal of a just-war is to re-establish peace. Moreover, the peace established after the war must outweigh the peace that would have existed if the war had not been fought.
  6. Proportionality: the violence used in the war must be proportionate to the injury suffered. Legitimate authorities are prohibited from using excessive force to achieve peace.
  7. The weapons and tactics used in war must discriminate between combatants and noncombatants. Civilians are never permissible targets of war, and every effort must be taken to avoid killing civilians. The deaths of civilians are justified only if they are unavoidable victims of a deliberate attack on a military target.

As I alluded to earlier, proponents of the just-war tradition believe that there is scriptural integrity between the Old and New Testaments. They see the violence that is often portrayed in the Old Testament as retributive justice, not as vindictive and reckless. Further, they truly believe that Jesus came to fulfill the law (i.e., the Old Testament), not to destroy it (Matthew 5:17-20). Finally, they believe that the Old Testament notion of an "eye for an eye" is a reference to punishment that is just, loving, and state sanctioned. In other words, the punishment must be proportionate to the crime. Some relevant Bible verses that are used in support of this view are as follows: Exodus 21:24; Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14; and Deuteronomy 2.[12] Moreover, proponents of the just-war tradition generally believe that the New Testament prohibits individual violence (e.g., Jesus orders Peter to put away his sword in John 18:1-11), but they also believe that nowhere in the New Testament is there a prohibition against the use of government-sanctioned force.[13]

Several critics[14] have observed problems with the just-war tradition. For example, Alan Geyer and Barbara Green made several keen observations including the following: the just-war tradition provides no clear guidelines in situations where both parties are equally responsible, it only responds to singular events and does not consider the long-term consequences of waging war, it sees morality as being a part of some other world, it does not condemn institutional evils, and it encourages unilateral action and discourages shared decisions in a global environment.[15]

Adding to Geyer and Green's argument, Walter Wink observes the following: no Christian denomination has ever opposed their government going to war based on the just-war criteria,[16] and there has never been a Christian-supported war that has met the just-war criteria. He also observes a problem of ambiguity: in other words, what does "legitimate" authority mean? Finally, the just-war tradition also suffers from faulty logic. Simply put, do all of the criteria have to be met before waging war? Or, are some criteria more important than others, and if so, how do we determine this?[17]

To these I would add that the just-war tradition is simplistic in its definition of what constitutes a war. That is, it narrowly defines war as always involving violence, when, in fact, wars often include low-intensity conflicts.[18] Some recent examples include the trend of cyber-warfare between governments, or the Cold War--the latter being an arms race that sought the defeat of a rival government through economic means. More to the point and irregardless of eventually bringing democracy to Soviet Russia, the Cold War adversely affected countless Soviet citizens, so, at the very least, there was an ethical issue here that the just-war criteria could not answer. Therefore, I must conclude that when faced with similar types of low-intensity conflicts, the Christian who consults the just-war criteria has virtually no guidance whatsoever.

Most problematic though, is the fact that the just-war tradition (or any of these positions, for that matter) is built upon a presupposition that the Bible is true. From this follows the idea that the Bible clearly states what the Christian is to do concerning war. Of course, the mere fact that there are three broad Christian views on war (four if you separate pacifism from nonresistance) seems to pose a serious problem here--especially when you consider that all of these differing views are based on differing interpretations of the same inspired Bible. Moreover, both Islam and Judaism have specific rules concerning the waging of wars, and these rules are also based on the correct interpretation of their sacred scriptures. In other words, one would expect a disparity of guidelines if human hands created these guidelines. But, all of the aforenoted rules concerning war are touted as products of an oft-described omniscient and omnipotent God. Therefore, in my opinion, a reasonable person would have to conclude that this disparity is likely an indication that, at the very least, God did not reveal his wishes in regards to the rules of war via the Bible, the Koran, or the Talmud.

Many Christians are also aware of the apparent ambiguity concerning the biblical guidelines for war. For example, Jesus is often depicted as the "Prince of Peace" among Christians, and these verses seem to support this view: Luke 4:29-30; 9:52-56;13-31-32; 22:49-51, 23:34, Mark 3:6-7, Matthew 26:51-52, and John 18:10-11.[19] Yet despite these verses, Jesus is often in conflict with those who hold opposing views (Matthew 23:1-36, Luke 11:37-52), gets angry and displays violent behavior himself (John 2:13-17, Mark 11:15-17), acknowledges his duty to the Roman Empire (Mark 12:13-17), and associates with Simon the Zealot who is a member of a group that would often use violence to resist the Romans (Mark 3:18, Matthew 10:4).[20] More telling is the fact that Jesus is widely quoted as saying the following in Matthew 10:34: "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth, I have not come to bring peace, but a sword." Many Christians are quick to argue that the reference to the word "sword" in Matthew is properly translated as "division" as in Luke 12:51-53, therefore it should not be taken literally.[21] This argument having been noted, I would point out that most biblical scholars believe that the book of Matthew was written before Luke. Moreover, we have no original copies of the Gospels, nor do we know who authored them, and what we do have is based on translator copies that are long-since removed from the originals.[22] Thus, it is just as likely that that the reference to the sword in Matthew means exactly that: a sword. Whatever the case, it is safe to say that there is no clear consensus among Christians regarding the biblical guidelines for war and peace, nor is there a clear consensus insofar as the sayings of Jesus are concerned. Thus I have to conclude that the just-war tradition fails, as do the other Christians views on war. Or, as Drew Christiansen, of the United States Catholic Conference honestly observes:

While the church teaching remains influential, it does not carry the weight it once may have had. There is pluralism--one hesitates to say--fragmentation--of moral authority in contemporary American society. Just-war thinking is broadly shared by a host of professions including law and philosophy. The multiplicity of sources of moral authority makes it difficult to arrive at a societal consensus on the meaning of the just-war cannons and their application ... Furthermore, as at all times, the application of just-war thinking is subject to ideological distortion ... as a system of social constraints on the use of force it remains a weak social force.[23]

This brings us to the present day. As far as the recent war in Iraq is concerned, the majority of Christian leaders were able to come close to a consensus in applying the just-war criteria. Prior to the war, numerous international church bodies (e.g., the World Council of Churches, the Middle East Council of Churches, etc.) issued statements that did not support the war in Iraq.[24] Moreover, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Vatican both issued statements that did not support the war.[25] In fact, it is safe to say that the vast majority of mainstream Christian denominations did not feel that the just-war criteria had been satisfactorily met. That is, with the exception of the Southern Baptists, who, at their June 2003 convention, passed a resolution in support of the Iraq War.[26] However, despite the majority of Christian denominations who opposed the war based on just-war criteria, America still went to war. So, I can't help but wonder if Christiansen is right in his assertion that the Christian tradition of a just-war is indeed a "weak social force."[27]

Final Thoughts

Despite my conclusion that Christianity does not provide a viable system of guidelines for war and peace, this does not mean that it is not without merit. On the contrary, it is my opinion that any solution to war needs to include the best that humankind has to offer. Any proposed solution to the problem of war should consider the biological, social, and psychological reasons for war. It needs to consider the role that cultural institutions have to play in starting and preventing wars, and it also should account for the economic, religious, political, and moral theories of war.[28] Moreover, based on my cursory examination of Christianity, any solution to war should be met with constructive skepticism and should not be believed with absolute certainty. Finally, and most importantly, any viable solution to war needs to embrace critical rationalism and not rest solely on faith alone. Or, as Alexander Moseley correctly observes:

The philosophical common denominator to intentional violence and organized aggressive war is a rejection of reason as a tool for communication and its substitution by force. Once an individual decides to underplay the role of reason, or to reject it fully in intercourse with society, conflict almost inevitably results.[29]

Whether our global community will ever reach this state of critical rationalism is speculative at best, but until it does, I predict that we will continue to see the dogs of war march on.


[1] Guy F. Hershbercer, War, Peace, and Nonresistance (Pennsylvania: The Herald Press, 1946), 57-72.

[2] Herman A. Hoyt et al., War: Four Christian Views, ed. Robert G. Clouse (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1981), 25.

[3] Alexander Moseley, A Philosophy of War, (New York: Algora Publishing, 2002), 20.

[4] Ibid., 23-35.

[5] Hoyt, War: Four Christian Views, 34.

[6] Ibid., 65.

[7] Ibid., 32.

[8] Ibid., 32-39.

[9] Ibid., 34

[10] Ibid., 39.

[11] My summary of just-war thinking is based on the following: Bernard L. Marthaler, ed., New Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 14, "War, morality of," by R.A. Mccormick and D. Christensen. (New York: Thomson/Gale, 2003), 635-644; John Howard Yoder, When War is Unjust, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1996), 148-160; and Herman A. Hoyt et al., War: Four Christian Views, ed. Robert G. Clouse (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 1981), 120-121.

[12] Hoyt, War: Four Christian Views, 66-123.

[13] Ibid.,123.

[14] It should be noted that Geyer, Green, and Wink are Christians. Moreover, many of the Christian authors that are cited in this essay are not dissuaded by these apparent problems and see them as positive. Or, as Albert Curry Winn explains: "It moves our focus from the Book to the God to whom the Book testifies." See: Albert Curry Winn, Ain't Gonna Study War No More: Biblical Ambiguity and the Abolition of War, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 200.

[15] John Howard Yoder, When War is Unjust, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1996), 95, quoted in Alan Geyer and Barbara Green, Line is the Sand: Justice and the Gulf War (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993).

[16] Walter Wink made this observation in 1991. Subsequently, on March 19, 2003, the United States declared war on Iraq. This war was opposed by many Christian denominations and their opposition was based on the just-war criteria.

[17] John Howard Yoder, When War is Unjust, (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1996), 95, quoted in Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 212.

[18] Moseley, A Philosophy of War, 13-20.

[19] Albert Curry Winn, Ain't Gonna Study War No More: Biblical Ambiguity and the Abolition of War, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), 19-24.

[20] Ibid., 13-18.

[21] Ibid., 16.

[22] B.A. Robinson, "Christian Scriptures (New Testament): The Gospels," February 17, 2003, (Accessed April 10, 2004).

[23] Yoder, When War is Unjust, 116-117.

[24] John Mark Ministries, "WCC Press Release: Churches Opposed to War," February 3, 2003, (Accessed April 10, 2004).

[25] United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, "Statement on Iraq," November 13, 2002, (Accessed April 10, 2004).

[26] Jennifer Russell, "Christians' Views Differ on Iraq," March 19, 2004, (Accessed April 10, 2004).

[27] Yoder, When War is Unjust, 117.

[28] Moseley, A Philosophy of War.

[29] Ibid., 238.

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