As we’ve seen, the case can be made for Christians’ involvement in war from both sides of the argument. Upon analysis of the scriptures, biblical support can be found for either position. Ultimately, it comes down to the individual to determine which position makes the most sense and aligns most with their personal beliefs on the participation of Christians in war.
However, upon closer examination of the original words and differences in translation, there may be an argument for a critique of the soldier’s profession in the words of John. The translation of Luke 3:14 in the NRSV makes no reference to violence and John’s exhortation is merely concerning corrupt monetary practices. In the KJV and YLT translations of the Bible, violence is explicitly mentioned as one of the practices from which the soldiers must abstain (Enemy Love). The variation in translation could stem from the fact that John’s advice is a negative command followed by three verbs. The third verb in John’s command, arkeo, is widely understood to mean “content” or “satisfied” (Enemy Love). Additionally, the second verb, diaseio, is understood from its limited appearance in the Bible to mean “intimidate by force” or “to do violence to another” (Enemy Love). Meaning the above interpretation is partially correct as part of John’s command was indeed for the soldiers to quit their corrupt practices of extortion and was fairly radical as extortion was commonplace. The third verb John uses is sykophanteo, which means to oppress through extortion, is derived from the root word syke, which means fig tree (Enemy Love). According to Easton’s Bible Dictionary, the fig tree, or fig, was a symbol of peace and prosperity. Therefore, sykophanteo seems to mean to take away someone’s security or peace. After looking at the verbs used by John, a case could be made for the condemnation of a soldier’s violent acts.
Furthermore, we see in Luke 3:14, John the Baptist does not disapprove of a military career. He is given a golden opportunity to confront the soldiers with their dishonorable profession, however, John doesn’t take it. His only advice to soldiers was to avoid extortion and intimidation for monetary gain. It seems there is a second argument from silence reaffirming the idea that to be a soldier is to have an honorable profession. John’s command rather seems to indicate the common practice of soldiers using their position of authority for financial gain at the expense of others. He condemns such corrupt practices but makes no mention of the soldiers’ profession.
We get a clear picture of the character of Christ through the gospel accounts of his life and ministry. Multiple times we see Jesus interacting with soldiers and centurions. One of which is recorded in Matthew 8:5-13. Here we see a Roman centurion come to Jesus and pleading with him on behalf of his servant. As Rome was in power, the centurion would have been completely within his rights to order any Jew around. It points to the man’s faith and character that he humbled himself and appealed to Christ rather than attempting to order him. Jesus’ response to the centurion’s faith is more positive than many of Jesus’ responses to Jewish people, saying the centurion had more faith than anyone else in all of Israel. This comment would have made waves as any I can imagine any Jew who heard it would have been indignant at Jesus’ claim that a Gentile, much less a Roman oppressor, had more faith than them. It was not uncommon for Jesus to rebuke those who did things that displeased him. He has a history of confrontations with the Pharisees as well as personal confrontations with the rich young ruler and the woman at the well. Simply put, Jesus was not afraid to be blunt. Concerning the centurion’s profession, I think it serves as an argument from silence that Jesus does not disapprove.
I feel we can’t talk about pacifism without talking about the idea of divine providence. Romans 8:28 says, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” Some quote this verse in support of adopting a worldview of complete trust in God. Stating that we as Christians should abstain from military involvement and allow God to work things out. It’s also worth noting the dependent clause. God works all things together for those who are called according to his purpose. In the context of this verse, Paul is likely referring to Christians. And following two verses talk about the conforming of all Christians into the image of Jesus. The next question we need to ask is what then is this good? If conformity to Christ is the good and the purpose of all things, we should then judge actions based on how they will bring us closer to what we know of the character of Christ.
Once more we see a case for pacifism forming in the Garden of Gethsemane in Matthew 26:47-56. One of the disciples responded quickly to the party trying to take Jesus away, cutting off the ear of one of them. Jesus then rebukes the disciple’s use of violence, “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” This quote of Jesus is sometimes taken as a rebuke to all against retaliating with violence, portraying violence as an endless cycle of destruction. However, it’s worth noting if Jesus resisted and wanted to escape without violence, it would have been so, but it would have meant certain Old Testament prophecies would not have been fulfilled, resulting in an even larger problem as stated in the following verse. I believe the disciple drawing his sword and Jesus’ rebuke stem from a confusion about the conflict at hand. The disciple saw a conflict on earth whereas Jesus saw the situation as a pivotal moment in the Kingdom of God.
To further that question, is military service dishonorable to God? Let’s take a look at the New Testament and see what Jesus has to say. Matthew 5:43-48 calls us to love our enemies juxtaposed to the well-known saying of “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” Upon looking further, I found that Ellicott’s Commentary says that the latter clause of this well-known phrase in Jewish communities was an addition by scribes who made an extension of the law. Jesus’s teachings go against this entrenched belief of the Jewish people, calling them to extend love to those which their natural impulse inclined them to despise. Additionally, the greeting of “Peace be with you” was typically reserved for those deemed to be friends and brothers. Jews often greeted Jews, and Gentiles greeted Gentiles. However, Jesus calls his audience to greet all as brothers, whether Gentile or Jew, in the same manner. If Jesus is calling us to love the people we see as less than us, i.e. the Gentiles to the Jews, then should we not abstain from fighting against them?
The second and fourth cases reveal the roots of Jewish society in honor. The parent is viewed as God’s representative in the family and to attack them is to insult God (Ellicott). Additionally, to curse a parent is an attempt to gain the support of God in our attack against his own representative (Ellicott). It is also a very shameful thing in Jewish society to have your children dishonor you through disobedience or rebellion. It also goes to show how much Jews valued bringing up a godly and obedient child. I believe the reason these infractions against parents are punishable by death is because of this extension of the crime to God. When you are honoring your parents, you honor God. When you dishonor your parents, you dishonor God. And if one is to die if they bring dishonor to God, it begs the question, what is dishonorable to God?
The latter three cases mentioned in Exodus 21:15-17 display the values held by the Old Testament Jews. In the third case, to kidnap a man, and have that be punishable by death, reveals a deep value of personal liberty. Now, the Jewish people were not against slavery, even of their own, but if a Jew was enslaved to another Jew he still maintained rights and was guaranteed his freedom after six years of service. They had a system in place for slavery of their own and each member of the process had a say in the matter. Kidnapping, deprives the Jew to become a slave of his say in the matter. Additionally, from what I understand about Jewish communities, they were very tight-knit. It wouldn’t make sense for a Jew to be kidnapped and then put on market anywhere near to his hometown. Meaning, if a Jew was kidnapped he would likely be sold to Gentiles and taken to some far-off country with no compensation for his work and no guarantee of freedom. If death is a required consequence of a relatively nonviolent crime, again, the law would paint the enforcers just as bad as the kidnappers. Additionally, what Jew would ever want to be in a position of authority if they are doomed to sentence others to death? It leads to a snowball effect of deaths with drastic consequences.
In the proceeding chapter, Exodus 21, we find four cases in which death is a suitable punishment. The four cases are killing another person, striking a father or mother, kidnapping a person, or cursing a father or mother. The first case for a translation of “murder” can be found in the analysis of case one, found in Exodus 21:12-14. Here in Exodus, it is explicitly said that an accidental killing does not result in the death of the assailant. God will specify a place to which the killer must flee, but nothing is mentioned about harming him. Additionally, v. 14 specifies an attacker who “willfully attacks and kills another”, meaning only in the case of premeditated murder is the attacker deserving of death. Here we run into an issue if we translated Exodus 20:13 as “You shall not kill.” God is instructing the Jews to put someone to death, while one chapter ago he was telling them not to kill? Would not the enforcers of the law be no better than the perpetrators of the crime? The discontinuity between chapters just doesn’t make sense and how would the Jews interpret this book as law if it doesn’t agree with itself?
The most prominent instance of teaching relating to this issue would have to be the sixth commandment found in Exodus 20:13, “You shall not murder.” (NRSV) There is some discrepancy when it comes to translation of this commandment. The verb ratsach in Hebrew can mean “to kill” or “to murder” (Beecham). Both of these translations carry with them very different implications. If the sixth commandment were to be translated, “You shall not kill” then it is a very incriminating teaching to all who serve in the military or any law-enforcement career. However, upon closer examination of the surrounding text, we find such a translation of the commandment to be unlikely.
In April of 1942, Desmond Doss joined the United States Military because he believed in the cause. However, a devout seventh day Adventist, he opposed the use of violence and enlisted as a conscientious objector vowing never to touch a rifle. Doss’s choice to deploy into battle without a firearm infuriated many of his fellow soldiers to the point where he was abused, taunted, and looked down upon. However, as history tells us, Doss went on to save 75 men at Hacksaw Ridge, most of whom had been the very soldiers who had made his life hell back at camp. Doss’s story serves as an example of the interrelatedness of one’s faith and one’s profession, namely military service. There is a broad spectrum of beliefs which Christians hold on whether they should serve in the military. Some Pacifists on one extreme would say that Doss had crossed a line and shouldn’t have even enlisted in the first place, while others might say he didn’t do enough. But what does the Bible say and are these opposing views supported by scripture?