Page 3 of 7
Jesus and the New Testament
The first difficulty anyone faces when turning to the words of Jesus in the gospels as a source of guidance on war in the twenty-first century is that he did not even offer guidance on war in his own century. Isaiah had prophesied that the Messiah would come as a Prince of Peace, but when Jesus commenced his public ministry, as recorded in Luke’s gospel, it was not the words of Isaiah 2:4 that he claimed to fulfil but another, later prophecy recorded in Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour ... Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”9
Given that the land of Israel was occupied by a foreign power and controlled by the Roman Army, if ever there was a time for Jesus to provide clear instructions on participation in war, or the rejection of participation in war, this was it. The priority, instead, was to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour and declare: “The kingdom of God is near.”10 As part of his bringing in of the kingdom of God, Jesus emphasised non-violence on a number of occasions. For example, he said: “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.”11 Again, like the Ten Commandments, there is an elegance about these words. However, like the brutal wars instituted by God after he gave his people the Ten Commandments to follow, things are not as straight forward as they seem. For example, in advocating that resistance should not be offered to evil people and the other cheek turned instead, Jesus refers to individual actions and not to the assembled ranks of soldiers on the field of battle. Should an individual turn the other cheek when faced with the sword of a good and honourable soldier on the battlefield? Such an ethical choice appears to fall outside of the constraints set out by Jesus.
There are have always been a number of Christians who have held the view that the path of non-violence is the only ethical way to live and who would not defend themselves, or others, with force when faced by personal attack or a rampaging enemy. Supporting this view is another example of Jesus encouraging a non-violent attitude; this time towards the end of his life as he was being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane in the build-up to his crucifixion:
Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.”12
The first thing to note is that the crowd that came for Jesus did not represent the civil (that is, Roman) authorities: it was sent by the ‘chief priests and the elders of the people’13, and the members of the crowd had armed themselves with swords and clubs. No one in this dispute had any right to take up arms, neither the individuals seizing Jesus nor the person who sought to protect him.14 Contrast Jesus’ stern rebuke of the companion who tried to defend him with a sword with Jesus’ attitude towards the centurion who came to him on another occasion seeking healing for his servant. Jesus said to the centurion: “I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith ... Go! It will be done just as you believed it would.”15 Jesus had called many of his disciples to leave their previous careers and livelihoods to follow him,16 and he had also called others to give up lifestyles that did not conform to the requirements of the kingdom of God.17 Yet Jesus’ encounter with the centurion resulted in only praise for the soldier’s great faith and no instruction to hang up his sword or seek a new non-violent career.
The basis of the disparity in Jesus’ response to the companion who defended him with the sword and the centurion who wielded the sword professionally is found in his attitude to the authorities (civil authorities, not religious authorities). Jesus – who on one occasion took a whip and violently drove out traders and money-changers who were desecrating the temple in Jerusalem – instructed that taxes should be paid to the authorities, saying, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.”18 The centurion bore his sword as a soldier whose authority to do so was granted by Caesar himself. The individual rebuked by Jesus had no such right to wield a sword. Jesus’ attitude to the legitimate and illegitimate bearing of arms is reinforced later in the New Testament by the apostle Paul, who also wrote about the Christian’s responsibility to the authorities: ‘Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established’.19
The linking of authority and legitimacy concerning the bearing of arms is crucial, not only to Jesus and Paul in a Christian context but to those who would take up arms on behalf of their states today. Furthermore, since the time of Jesus the issue of legitimacy and authority has been central to debate surrounding when, and how, a Christian should serve as a soldier: in what we now know as the just war tradition. It is to some of the key writers and ideas in the just war tradition that we now turn.