Can a war ever be Christian? Is war contrary to the teachings of Christianity? Is Christianity a religion in which men and women are commanded by God to always turn the other cheek and love their enemies or is there a time when the sword must be taken up? Is it possible to conduct a just war in a Christian manner or is war by its very nature contradictory of such ideas?
The Constitution of the United States is a Christian document. It is a Christian document not because it was drawn up by Christians, although the overwhelming majority of the framers professed Christianity and many were ministers, but it is a Christian document because it is based upon Christian principles of government. For a war to be Christian in orientation every person fighting in it does not have to be a Christian, but in principle it must be conducted by the precepts of Christianity.
The Bible teaches, “There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven … A time to give birth, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot what is planted. A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to tear down and a time to build up … a time for war and a time for peace.“1 The recent war in the Persian Gulf offered just such a time.
The Bible teaches, “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil.“2 The Bible records the Christian idea of government, “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities … for rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior but for evil. For it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.“3
The framers of our Constitution understood this concept. They believed that the chief end of civil government was for the protection of the life, liberty, and property of its citizens and to provide for their common defense. So undisputable was this belief that they clearly spelled it out in the opening Preamble to the Constitution so that it could not be mistaken:
“We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain, and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
James Madison, Father of the Constitution, aptly stated, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” It was the founders understanding of human nature, based on the Christian view of man and original sin – coupled with their knowledge of history – that caused them to feel that peace through strength was the only successful policy our nation should embrace.
As Cleon Skousen explains in his book, The Making of America, “The founders were optimistic as well as realistic about human nature. they realized that all human nature is a mixture of sunshine and shadow. The sunshine consists of the perfectibility of human reason. This makes government and civilization possible. The darker side of human nature is the imperfectibility of human passion and man’s faulty sense of judgment that make government necessary.“4
James Madison stated, “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust, so there are other qualities in human nature which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.“5
This darker side of human nature is what Christians down through the centuries have called the “depravity” of man. The Bible teaches that man has fallen away from God into sin, rebellion, and evil. It is deliverance from this sinful nature and restoration of right relationship to God that Jesus came to give. The Bible also teaches that man was made in the image of God. While still a fallen creature, the image of God still remains. It is this side of man that Jesus came to lift up and transform into His own image.
It was the desire of those who framed the Constitution to build our national government on governmental principles revealed in the Bible which they believed would allow the sunshine side of human nature to enjoy virtually unlimited freedom, while setting up appropriate safeguards to prevent the doleful shadow of human passion, greed, and lust for power from spreading a permanent dark age across the face of the globe.6
The founders of America understood human nature and acknowledged that there were clear-cut values of right and wrong in this world. This caused them to set 17 checks and balances in the Constitution to protect the citizen from government abuse. The Constitution was intended, as Thomas Jefferson stated, to “lace them (the government) up straitly with enumerated powers.”
It was this same clear-cut understanding of human nature that caused the founders to hold fast to the doctrine of “peace through strength” as the only safeguard of liberty. They felt that vigilance was the price for freedom, and felt that neither politics nor world circumstances should lure the American people into a posture of careless ease.
Benjamin Franklin wrote: “The very fame of our strength and readiness would be a means of discouraging our enemies; for ‘tis a wise and true saying, that ‘One sword often keeps another in the scabbard.’ They that are on their guard, and appear ready to receive their adversaries, are in much less danger of being attacked than the supine (drowsy, careless, reclining with face upward) secure and negligent.“7
Peace Through Strength
The practice of keeping peace though strength dates back to the earliest days of this country. The Pilgrims were a peace-loving people, who came to America seeking a land where they could live their lives in peace and freedom and have the liberty to worship God according to the dictates of their own conscience.
After the Pilgrims had managed to survive the first winter in the New World, some friendly Indians were able to help them plant and reap a harvest to store for the following winter. However, 35 new settlers arrived from England with nothing to eat and little to wear to become part of the Plymouth colony. The number to be fed was doubled and the settlers soon found themselves threatened with a famine.
The Indians, seeing their distress, began to harass them. The Narrogansett Indians sent a messenger to the Pilgrims with a bundle of arrows tied in a snakeskin, which their interpreter told them was a threat and a challenge.
Did the Pilgrims cower to the challenge and send back a list of concessions they were willing to make if the Indians would only keep the peace? No! The Pilgrims responded that if the Indians would rather have war than peace they might begin the fight whenever they wanted to. To demonstrate their sincerity, the Pilgrims filled the snakeskin full of bullets and sent it back by another messenger.
Canonicus, the sender of the arrows, was terrified by the bullets. He would not touch the snakeskin, nor allow it to stay in his wigwam nor among his people. It was hurried from one post to another until someone was found bold enough to carry it back to Plymouth.8
Another incident demonstrating both the effect of weak resolve and the effect of peace through strength was chronicled in the colony of Wessagusset. These settlers were not as wise as the Pilgrims had been in preparing for their own self-defense. Learning of a plot that some of the Indians had laid to attack the white settlements, Captain Miles Standish took eight men from Plymouth colony and sailed to Wessagusset where the trouble was expected to begin.
He found that many of the colonists there had died from cold and hunger. Others were so base that they became servants to the Indians, cutting wood and fetching water for them for a cap full of corns. Most of them had left their dwellings and were scattered up and down in the woods or by the water, where they could find ground nuts and clams. The Indians had ceased to fear or respect them. Many times, as they lay scattered abroad, and had made a pot of ground nuts or shellfish, the Indians would come and eat it up as soon as it was ready. When night came, some of them had a sorry blanket to wrap themselves in, and the Indians would take it and leave the owner to lie all night in the cold.
Standish did what he could to rally their courage. He busied himself trying to get all the people back to their settlement and waited for a chance for action. The Indians began to suspect that their plot had been discovered. Several of the Indian leaders came to talk to Standish in the cabin where he was staying to tell him they were not afraid of him and that they would carry out their plans.
Suddenly, in the midst of their conversation, Standish gave a signal to his friends. In an instant they made fast the door. Standish then sprang upon the Indian chief with his own knife and killed him. The rest of his friends overtook the other Indians present and the combat ended. There were a few more skirmishes in the days following. Some Indians were killed. A panic finally seized them, and not knowing where else the English might strike they fled in terror.9
The Founders’ Formula for Peace
The majority of men who sat at the council tables at the Constitutional Convention were battlefield veterans. While they viewed war as a monstrosity which should eventually be wiped from the face of the earth, they realized that as long as warmongering nations roamed the earth, they would be impelled to keep the peace by providing a secure and powerful defense.
Alexander Hamilton wrote in his defense of the provision in the Constitution of using tax money to build up national defense, “Let us recollect that peace or war will not always be left to our option, that however moderate or unambitious we may be, we cannot count upon the moderation, or hope to extinguish the ambition of others …
“To judge from the history of mankind, we shall be compelled to conclude that the fiery and destructive passions of war reign in the human breast with much more powerful sway than the mild and beneficent sentiments of peace; and that to model our political systems upon speculations of lasting tranquility is to calculate on the weaker springs of the human character.“10
George Washington is often described as “first in peace, first in war, first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Washington had risked everything that he had for the cause of freedom. Skousen writes, “He had fought the Revolutionary War with no navy of any consequence, no trained professional army of either size or stability and no outpouring of genuine support from the very states he was striving to save.
“Washington’s position on national defense was in terms of grim realities experienced on the field of battle. No man wanted peace more than he. And no man was willing to risk more in life and property to achieve it. Washington gave this advice:
“To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace … There is a rank due to the United States among nations, which will be withheld, if not absolutely lost, by the reputation of weakness. If we desire to avoid insult, we must be able to repel it; if we desire to secure peace, one of the most powerful instruments of our rising prosperity, it must be known that we are at all times ready for war.“11
Former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, speaking in behalf of the strengthening of our national defenses during Reagan’s Presidency stated. “The real measure of success … is in the freedoms preserved, the wars deterred, the confidence of our allies, and the restraint of our adversaries … A consequence of what we have learned since the Second World War is that the security of the West and the peace of the world is absolutely dependent upon U.S. military strength. Strength is the price we pay for peace – it is the price we must continue to pay.“12
Thanks to former President Reagan’s prophetic insight in his insistence on beefing up the military equipment and personnel, we were ready for the day of battle with the most accurate and sophisticated weapons ever used on the battlefield and we were able to protect the innocent as well as our armed forces from innumerable casualties.
Dealing with Evil
The Bible makes it very plain. The governing authority is God’s minister for the good of the people and bears the sword to execute wrath on him who does evil. The Bible teaches that God is merciful, forgiving and slow to anger, but He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished.13
It might be helpful to note the difference between sin and evil according to their Biblical definition. Sin is a natural tendency to break God’s law. Sin is impulsive. Because of the fall, man by nature is a sinner, being afflicted with original sin and separation from God.
Evil, however, is a very advanced form of disobedience to God. Evil is premeditated, planned, and strategic. While sin causes people to turn away from God, evil causes men to actually attack and challenge God’s sovereignty. Evil causes men to defiantly disregard and discount God’s laws and encourages others to do the same. Individuals are not the only ones who are capable of being evil – nations are also.
There is also in the Bible a difference between murder and killing. The literal meaning of the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” is “thou shalt not murder.” Murder, by its Biblical definition, is a premeditated design to take away the life of another for your own purposes. Murder is evil. To kill, on the other hand, may be accidental. Killing may also be done in self-defense or to fulfill God’s commandment to execute justice on murderers. The one who commits a murder, which is an evil act of planned destruction, is to be executed.
In this regard the government of Saddam Hussein along with the conduct of his soldiers as apparent in the rape, pillage and torturing of innocent men women and children in Kuwait, can be said to be evil. His practices were premeditatively evil. The sword must be executed against it according to Biblical standards.
The Biblical perspective of the state of war and self-defense as the founders viewed it were set forth by John Locke in the 17th century. Locke explains: “A sedate, settled design upon another man’s life puts him in a state of war with that man as well as with others who might join in on the quarrel. Reason tells every man that he has a right to defend himself. When all cannot be preserved, the safety of the innocent is to be preferred.
“It is lawful to destroy one who makes war upon you for the same reason it is lawful to kill a lion or a bear in an impending attack. Because such men are not under the ties of the common law of reason, since they are violating God’s law within, and since they have no other rule but that of force and violence, they may be treated as beasts of prey who will be sure to destroy you if you fall into their power.
“He who attempts to get another man into his power without his consent is in a state of war with that man. Anyone who would take away your freedom has a design to take away everything else you have, perhaps even your life. To be free from such force is your only preservation.
“This also makes it lawful in principle for a man to kill a thief, even if the thief has not planned to take away anything else but money. Because the thief is using force to get you into his power, when he has no right, you have no guarantee that he will not take your life as well. It is therefore lawful for you to treat the thief as if he was in a state of war with you and to kill him if you can.
“To this hazard, the one who has attacked you has exposed himself. Force, or a declared design of force upon another, without a common superior on earth to appeal to is the state of war. The want of this appeal gives men the right to war against an aggressor.
“A thief who has stolen your possessions when you were gone from home, you cannot harm. You must appeal to law and a common judge for justice. However, if a thief is at that moment attacking you, trying to rob you, you have a right to defend yourself, and if necessary, kill the aggressor. The law, made for your own preservation, cannot at that moment secure your life from present force. If you lose your life it cannot be restored. The aggressor allows no time to appeal to your common judge.
“When the actual force is over, or the state of war ceases, there may be appeal to law for settlement because there lies open remedy of appeal for past injury and to prevent future harm. However, when there is no appeal, no judge, the state of war continues until the aggressor offers peace. The innocent party has a right to destroy the other whenever he can. Where laws are not respected and justice perverted, where violence is done through the hands of one appointed to administer justice, it is still violence and injury, no matter what pretense or name called.
“The end of government, then, is to protect the innocent by an unbiased application of law to all under it. Whenever that is not done, war is made upon the sufferers who have no appeal on earth to right them. The only appeal left is an appeal to the God of heaven for justice. To avoid this state of war is one great reason why men put themselves into society and quit the state of nature. For where there is a judge on earth by which relief can be had by appeal, the state of war is excluded and the controversy decided by that power.
“When there is no earthly judge the appeal lies with God, the Judge in heaven. The children of Israel demonstrated this appeal when threatened by the Ammonites. With no earthly force or judge to settle the dispute, the leader of Israel called on God to act as judge, and then led his army out courageously to battle.“14
George Washington, recognizing the right of an appeal to heaven, prayed accordingly, during the Revolutionary War: “And now Almighty Father, if it is Thy holy will that we shall obtain a place and a name among the nations of the earth, grant that we may be enabled to show our gratitude for Thy goodness, by our endeavors to fear and obey Thee. Bless us with wisdom in our councils, success in battle, and let all our victories be tempered with humility.
“Endow also our enemies with enlightened minds, that they may become sensible of their injustice, and willing to restore our liberty and peace. Grant the petition of Thy servant for the sake of Him Who Thou hast called Thy Beloved Son; nevertheless, not my will, but Thine be done.“15
Patrick Henry demonstrated the founder’s understanding of this appeal to the God of heaven when he exhorted his fellow countrymen: “If we wish to be free, we must fight! … An appeal to arms and to the God of Hosts is all that is left us! They tell me that we are weak; but shall we gather strength by irresolution? We are not weak. Three millions of people, armed in the holy cause of liberty, and in such a country, are invincible by any force which our enemy can send against us. We shall not fight alone.
“A just God presides over the destinies of nations … There is no retreat, but in submission and slavery … Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God – I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”
The founders based their separation from England on this appeal. The Declaration of Independence states: “We therefore, the representatives of America, in general congress assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions … declare that these united colonies are … free and independent states … and for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”
Consequently the President’s appeal to prayer for Operation Dessert Storm as well as the plea for prayer given by many congressmen and ministers is in the main stream of American Christian thought. While Iraq was appealing to Allah who is believed to be dwelling in a rock in Mecca, the American appeal was to the Christian God, the Maker of heaven and earth.
With regard to the proper exercise of that leadership President Eisenhower instructed, “Resolutely, to hearten our friends; wisely to confound our enemies; constantly, to give hope to the hands of the enslaved; prudently, to guard the trust of the free, and courageously, to be worthy of the high commission history has conferred on us.“16
In the current Gulf Crisis, President Bush demonstrated such resolve. We are all thankful for President Bush’s leadership, for the direction of General Norman Swartzcoff and the contribution of Colin Powell and our men and women in service. Ultimately, all our thanks and praise go to Almighty God who decided the conflict and gave us mercy and justice in the midst of judgement with an unprecedented number of casualties that is in the words of General Swartzcoff nothing “short of miraculous.”
For the multitude of Iraqi dead, for the Allied casualties, and the ravaged Kuwaitis Saddam Hussein and his cohorts must bear the blame.
1 Ecclesiates 3:1-3,8. 2 Ecclesiates 8:11. 3 Romans 13:1-4.
4 Cleon Skousen, Making of America, (Center For Constitutional Studies Washington D. C., 1985) p.4. 5 Ibid. 6 Ibid..
7 Ibid, p.384. 8 Nina Moore, Pilgrims and the Puritans, (Gin and Co., 1888) pp.70-71. 9 Ibid. p.83-87. 10 Skousen, p.383.
11 Ibid, pp.385-386. 12 Casper Weinberger, “United States Defenses,” Vital Speeches of the Day (City News Publishing Do. Southold, N.Y., March 1, 1986. Vol. LII No. 10). 13 Exodus 34:7. 14 Hall and Slater, Christian History of the Constitution, (Foundation for American Christian Education, San Francisco, Calif., “Of the State of War,” John Locke) pp.61-62.
15 Willam Johnson, George Washington the Christian, (Mott Media Milfor, MI) p.127. 16 Weinberger, p.296. 17 David Gergen, U. S. News and World Report, March 4, 1991, p.64.
Copyright © Bob and Rose Weiner 2007, All Rights Reserved