THE SCRIPTURAL PERSPECTIVE ON WAR: PART ONE
PRESENTED ON 07-02-11
This coming Monday is the annual American celebration of our declaration of independence from British rule. The United States Declaration of Independence is a statement adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, which announced that the thirteen American colonies then at war with Great Britain, were now independent states and thus no longer a part of the British Empire. Written primarily by Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration is a formal explanation of why Congress had voted on July 2 to declare independence from Great Britain, more than a year after the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War. The birthday of the United States of America is celebrated on July 4, the day the wording of the Declaration was approved by the Continental Congress.
The Declaration justified the independence of the United States by listing colonial grievances against King George the third, and by asserting certain natural rights, including a right of revolution. Having served its original purpose in announcing independence, the text of the Declaration was initially ignored after the American Revolution had run its course. Its stature, however, grew over the ensuing years, with the second sentence of this Declaration coming to be viewed as a sweeping statement of individual human rights.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Although the wording of the Declaration was approved on July 4, the date of its signing has been disputed. Most historians have concluded that it was signed on August 2, 1776, nearly a month after its adoption, and not on July 4 as is commonly believed.
Several weeks ago I had the opportunity to accompany my Grandson Payton on his eighth grade graduation trip to Washington DC where I was able to once again view the original document of the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives. This document is much faded but you can still make out portions of it, including some of the signatures.
While this was my fourth trip to Washington DC, I did see things I had not had opportunity to see on past trips. A Korean War Memorial, World War Two Memorial, Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial and a 911 Memorial have all been built since my last trip to Washington back in the 1980’s. I also had opportunity for the first time to visit the National Cathedral and the Holocaust Museum.
What struck me most as I was touring around Washington DC was how so much of what is there is associated with war. The Vietnam, Korean, World War 11, 911 and Iwo Jima Memorials all reflect human conflict and all the pain, suffering and death associated with such conflict. Even the tribute Memorials to Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and the recently completed Memorial to President Roosevelt all reflect times of war. With Washington and Jefferson it was the Revolutionary War. When we think of Lincoln we think of the Civil War. In looking at the Roosevelt Memorial what immediately comes to mind is World War 11. Even a visit to the Air and Space Museum, which is part of the huge Smithsonian Complex of attractions in Washington DC, reflects our nation’s involvement in war as there are various war planes on display at this museum. Then there’s the Holocaust Museum. Some years ago I visited the Holocaust Museum in Israel and on this trip to Washington I was able to tour the Holocaust Museum in this country.
The Holocaust Museum reflects upon the atrocities of the Nazi Regime during World War 11. The Museum is filled with photographs of the torture inflicted on millions of Jews and millions of others who where believed to be unfit to be part of the German culture. There are video’s of the gas chambers and ovens where multiple thousands met their doom. In one room are thousands of pairs of shoes left behind by those murdered in the gas chambers. Some years ago Barb and I visited Dachau Germany where we saw first hand the ovens and gas chambers used to do away with those deemed to be unworthy of life in German society. The policies of the Hitler regime were in absolute contradiction to the tenets of our Declaration of Independence.
Our nation has gone to war a number a number of times since 1776 to preserve life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, not only for the American people but for peoples around the world. War, however, is a horrific event with many painful ramifications. There are pacifist groups that believe we should never go to war. During the Armstrong years we took a pacifistic stance on war.
Some years ago a movie was made entitled, “Saving Private Ryan.” The first half hour of this film depicted the allied invasion of Normandy France which led to the eventual defeat of the German armies in Europe. Veterans of the Normandy invasion applauded the films depiction of the invasion as realistically showing how things really were. The first half hour of the film shows American soldiers disembarking in carrier boats from the ships that transported them close to the beaches of Normandy. You see the terror in their eyes as the carrier boats approach the beaches and they know that within minutes the doors on these boats will open and they will have to begin advancing through the water and try to reach the shore without being killed by German machine guns firing away from the cliffs overlooking the beaches. As the carrier boats approach the beaches, you can see the men shaking in fear, some praying, some counting rosary beads, some puking. As the doors on the carrier boats open, some are shot dead before stepping into the water. Many more are killed and wounded as they scramble to reach shore. You see the water actually turning red with blood. This is war in all its horrific and gory detail.
As horrific as war is, it has been a dynamic of human behavior throughout recorded history. I remember taking a political science class back in college where the instructor defined war as a governing authority advancing its policies through violent means. Governments have been doing this for thousands of years. The present US wars in Afghanistan and Iraq represent our government’s policy to thwart terrorist attacks against America. World War II began as a result of the leadership of the German people developing a concept of German superiority leading to a policy of destroying those believed to be inferior to the German people and culture. This German policy was met with a collective policy of the Allied forces to deter the Germans from being successful in their efforts to exercise their policy though violent means.
As horrific and painful as war is, it has been the means throughout history to resist and conquer the forces of evil. Wars are seen as just when they are fought to defend basic human rights such as expressed in our nations Declaration of Independence. Wars are seen as justified when fought to relieve oppression and facilitate righteousness.
In the Scriptures we see many wars initiated by God to facilitate His will in the affairs of men. God has time and again used violent means to advance His policies just as is seen within human governments. We know from Old Testament (OT) history that God directed Israel to go to war against nations that stood in the way of Israel gaining possession of the Promised Land. Not only did God direct Israel to go to war to free up the land, God also used war to punish nations that stood in Israel’s way. A classic example of this is found in 1 Samuel 15.
1 Samuel 15:1-3: Samuel said to Saul, "I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the LORD. This is what the LORD (YHWH) Almighty says: `I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.'"
As the story unfolds, Saul puts together an army of 200,000 foot soldiers and goes to war against the Amalekites and pretty much wiped out the Amalekites but spared their king and the best of the sheep and cattle which he intended to use as a sacrifice to God. God was very displeased with Saul because he did not follow His orders exactly and kill all the animals along with the Amalekite king.
1 Samuel 15: 19-26: And he sent you on a mission, saying, `Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites; make war on them until you have wiped them out.' Why did you not obey the LORD? Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the LORD?" "But I did obey the LORD," Saul said. "I went on the mission the LORD assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the LORD your God at Gilgal." But Samuel replied: "Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the LORD, he has rejected you as king." Then Saul said to Samuel, "I have sinned. I violated the LORD's command and your instructions. I was afraid of the people and so I gave in to them. Now I beg you, forgive my sin and come back with me, so that I may worship the LORD." But Samuel said to him, "I will not go back with you. You have rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD has rejected you as king over Israel!"
So here we have the Eternal God over all creation, not only directing the Israelites to totally obliterate an entire nation of people including their children, infants, cattle, sheep camels and donkeys, we also see God becoming very angry when His orders to facilitate this massacre were not carried out to the full extent intended. There are multiple examples of Israel being directed by God to go to war against their enemies. There are additional OT examples of nations foreign to Israel being used by God to punish Israel through war for their failure to obey God.
In the New Testament (NT) we have the Olivet Discourse where Jesus predicts a war that would result in the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem. This occurred during the war between Israel and Rome that began in A.D. 67 and ended with the death of the rebel holdouts at Masada in A.D. 73. Other NT Scriptures reveal this was a war mediated by God to bring judgement upon Israel for not accepting Christ as the promised Messiah.
Luke 19:43-45: The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God's coming to you.
This was fulfilled when the Romans built an embankment around the city of Jerusalem and crucified anyone trying to escape, setting up the crosses on the embankment as a warning to potential escapees.
In the Revelation given to John we see pictured catastrophic events involving the obliteration of many peoples in war seemingly orchestrated by God. What is more interesting is that in the Revelation we see war in heaven involving non-physical beings such as angels.
Revelation 12:7-9: And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down--that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.
This brief glimpse into events occurring in the non-physical world indicates that war is not limited to us humans but is a reality in the world of non-physical beings as well.
Now some have looked at the Biblical record of war and have had a difficult time committing to and worshiping a God that would instruct a king of Israel to put to death not only the men and women of a nation but also the children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys. The question has been asked as to what sin the children and infants committed let along the animals to warrant such a complete obliteration. I have read books written by former Christian pastors who have abandoned Christianity and belief in the God of the Biblical Scripture because of an inability to accept that a loving God could facilitate what they believe to be atrocities.
In the second and third centuries A.D. a quasi Christian movement developed called Gnosticism. Gnostic's believed there were two God’s revealed in the Scriptures. There was the God of the OT who created the world and human life into which he entrapped preexisting beings. This God was seen as an evil God who facilitated war with all its associated pain and suffering. The God of the NT was a good God who facilitated release from being entrapped in an evil body through knowledge facilitated by Jesus. Therefore, Gnostic's dealt with the recorded war like behavior of the OT God by believing this God was evil.
I think we understand that the same God is the God of both Old and New Testament history. There is only one God who directly involved Himself in the affairs of man in OT times and facilitated the birth, death and resurrection of a Son in NT times to atone for sin. Those who abandon God because of what they perceive as atrocities committed by this God fail to realize the most important dynamic about the one and only true God.
God is sovereign over the entire universe. To be sovereign is to have complete power and authority to do what one wants to do without having a value judgement assigned to what one does. We humans cannot place a value judgement on what God does. We humans cannot judge what God does based on what we believe is right or wrong. Human value judgements cannot be applied to God. Humans don’t have the right to judge what God does. When we humans do place value judgements upon what God does, we show our ignorance of God’s status as the Supreme Sovereign over all things. To reject God over disagreement with how He behaves is to have the created thing tell the creator how to conduct Himself.
Apostle Paul dealt with this very issue in his letter to the Roman Church. In chapter 9 Paul is dealing with the sovereignty of God in dealing with Israel. He writes about the wife of Isaac giving birth to Esau and Jacob and that before the children were born, and neither one having done any good or evil, God determined that the elder Esau, would serve the younger Jacob. Paul talks about Pharaoh and shows how God raised up Pharaoh for the specific purpose of showing His power and that His name might be declared throughout all the earth. Apparently some in Paul’s day, as some today, felt God was unjust in arbitrarily choosing one person over another and then punishing them when they behaved in a way contrary to righteousness.
Romans 9:19-21: One of you will say to me: "Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?" But who are you, O man, to talk back to God? "Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, `Why did you make me like this?'" Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?
The question presented to Paul is how can God predetermine the behavior of someone who is unable to resist His will and behave in anyway different and still be blamed for how he behaves. Paul answers this hypothetical question by showing God has the right to do anything he wants and we humans don’t have the right to question what he does. We don’t have the right to evaluate what God does based on how we do things.
While the context of Paul’s statement in Romans 9:19-21 primarily involves various dynamics related to predestination and the issue of Israel gaining salvation not by works but through faith in the sacrifice of Christ, Paul does make it clear that God is sovereign and can do as He pleases and is not to be judged by human standards.
Do the judgements of God, often seen as facilitated by war, run contrary to the many Biblical passages that indicate it is God’s desire that we humans live in peace. There are many exhortations in Scripture as to we living in peace. God is called a God of peace a number of times in Scripture. Peace is considered a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Is there an inherent contradiction in promoting peace on the one hand and sanctioning war on the other hand?
The answer is that peace cannot be attained within a context of evil. It cannot co-exist with evil. Peace involves the exercise of the law of love. When the law of love is not mutually exercised in a given context, peace cannot prevail. When one nation tries to impose its will on another nation resulting in diminishing and degrading the basic rights of another people, peace cannot exist. War is often the only means of preserving peace and insuring basic human rights and the triumph of good over evil. This has been the case throughout all of human history and apparently is even the case in the heavenly realm as indicated in the passage we read from Revelation 12.
When Hitler invaded Poland, and proceeded to invade other European countries and embark on the systematic murder of people believed to be inferior, the only option was to war against such aggression. While war is a disruption of peace, it also is a defender of peace.
Some Christian fellowships take a strong pacifistic stance and refuse to fight in war. This was the stance taken by the World Wide Church of God (WCG) in its earlier years. Though the WCG was officially pacifist, there were glaring inconsistencies with that stance as witnessed by what WCG writers published in the Church's magazine called "The Plain Truth.". The editor of "The Plain Truth," Herbert Armstrong, wrote a lead article in 1971 that justified the American presence in Vietnam based on the need to fight communism. The Church never published a single article condemning American actions in Southeast Asia. Although the WCG officially considered killing other humans in warfare a violation of the sixth commandment against killing, it supported the killing of communists in Southeast Asia.
While WCG sought noncombatant status for its members, it tended to cheer our nation's soldiers. Members of WCG wouldn’t put their lives at risk but were very glad that others did. Prayers were offered up to God to protect our military and give us victory while at the same time the ministry taught that killing in war was contrary to God’s will. The inconsistency in this approach should be obvious.
WCG dropped its pacifist stance back in the 90’s. Members may now join police or military forces and may use deadly force when necessary. Some, however, may still question the righteousness of going to war. Many Scriptures can be cited that on the surface appear to prohibit going to war.
Matthew 5:9, Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
Some believe this passage is the antithesis of war and shows followers of Christ should not engage in warfare. Peacemaking, however, is not limited to the prevention of warfare. Peacemaking includes removing all sorts of stress, tension or violence in all realms of life. A family counselor might be a peacemaker. A labor negotiator might be a peacemaker. A pastor counseling someone about a deeply personal problem would be a peacemaker if he helped bring peace-of-mind to that person. Peacemaking is far more than simply preventing or stopping war. So while "blessed are the peacemakers" clearly places honor on those who promote peace, the verse does not advise how peace is to be created in all situations. Sometimes peace comes through war. Are the peace makers of Matthew 5:9 pacifists or are they those who pacify by what ever means it takes? Being a pacifist and being one who pacifies are not the same. "Blessed are the peacemakers" appears to speak of those who pacify. Sometimes one must go to war to bring about peace.
What about passages of Scripture which on the surface appear to speak against the use of force against evil.
Romans 12:17-21: Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord. On the contrary: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head." Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Paul, in Romans 12, admonished Christians not to seek vengeance. We must overcome evil with good. Wrath is seen as God’s business. He will repay. Yet, just a few verses later Paul said that government officials carry out God’s wrath with God’s blessing. That is why they carry the sword. They are God’s ministers to bring wrath on wrongdoers.
Romans 13:3-4: For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God's servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God's servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.
It seems that Paul was not against vengeance per se. Instead, he opposed Christians seeking private vengeance, allowing their anger to mushroom into vengeance against a brother. Paul does not appear to be prohibiting Christians from holding government jobs that may require the use of force to preserve the peace, including militarily service.
In preparing this sermon I realized this subject is complex and requires further investigation. So this will be part one of a mini series on the Biblical Scriptures and war. In this mini series we will deal with war in the OT, warfare and the ethics taught by Christ and warfare as discussed in the NT epistles.