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Arguments against military service

December 15, 2010

A friend of a friend was curious about my arguments against military service so I put together the following brief piece for the world to critique – drawing largely on John Howard Yoder and Lee Camp.




  1. For the first 300 years until Constantine Christians generally refused to fight and serve in the military and the arguments they offer are theological and based in the implications of following Jesus. “All extant Christian writings prior to the fourth century reject the practice of Christian killing in warfare” (Lee Camp, Mere Discipleship, p. 134). Here are some representative comments:

“If we are enjoined to love our enemies, whom have we to hate? If injured we are forbidden to retaliate. Who then can suffer injury at our hands.” (Turtullian)

“If you enroll as one of God’s people, heaven is your country and God your lawgiver. And what are his laws?… Thou shalt not kill…. Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. To him that strikes thee on the one cheek, turn also the other.” (Clement of Alexandria)

“And what more – that you should not curse; that you should not seek again your goods when taken from you; when buffeted you should turn the other cheek; and forgive not seven times but seventy times seven… That you should love your enemies and pray for your adversaries and persecutors? (Cyprian)

Indeed the catch-cry “Jesus is Lord” is a counter cultural challenge to the Roman slogan “Caesar is Lord”. Thus the early Christians understood it not merely in terms of an alternative leader, but an alternative mode of existing politically. Where Caesar commanded them to kill their enemies, Jesus commanded them to love them. So Turtullian could say:

“Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law? And shall he apply the chain, and the prison, and the torture, and the punishment, who is not the avenger of his own wrongs”

2.  The foundations of the Christian ethic of non-violence and the refusal of militarism is grounded in the fundamental conviction that “God was in Christ”. It is the very source of Christian faith. Thus the nature of morality for Christians is grounded in the fact that the life of God transforms and calls forth human obedience through the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth. Our obedience is caught up in and follows from his obedience. We are made human by the Spirit as a consequence of his fulfillment of human life by the Spirit.

3.  Jesus, following in the tradition of dispersion Judaism looked forward to God establishing justice and judging the unrighteous in the kingdom. Because of this they refused to take vengeance and retribution into their own hand

4.  Jesus radicalized this position in various ways. He called his followers to love their enemies, he called them to go beyond ‘not killing’ to limiting their anger, he told Peter that those who live by the sword will die by it (implying a rejection of the way of the sword), he advocated a form of resistance that was non-violent and ‘turned the other cheek’. When on trial he declared “If my kingdom were from this world my followers would fight to defend it”. He thus clearly indicated that the ‘kingdom from elsewhere’ that he announced and brought near was fundamentally non-violent. All of this is ultimately validated in that he completed his mission by refusing to resist the religious and political violence arrayed against him and went to his cross. This is not merely his calling. It is also a constant theme of his teaching that his disciples will ‘take up their cross and follow him’. Although they failed to follow him at the Garden of Gethsemane, however, the fact remains that he wanted them to go with him, not to run. This final act of non-violent resistant is the defining point of his life. It is as the ‘crucified one’ that God raises him for our salvation. If we are to ‘imitate him’ as Paul suggests in Philippians, it is this aspect of his life which defines our imitation. The hymn in Philippians 2 about the mind of Christ enacted in humility to the cross reinforces the fact that this is the shape of divine life and of our life of conformity to his ‘mind. Thus the heart of the politics of peace as Christians understand it lies in the centrality of the cross and the self-emptying act of service which lies at the heart of the life of God, invading history in the life of Jesus Christ.

For the most sustained and, in my view, convincing argument for Christian pacifism I recommend the work of the theologian John Howard Yoder. In particular his posthumously published volumes:

  • The War of the Lamb: The Ethics of Nonviolence and Peacemaking (2009)
  • Christian Attitudes to War, Peace and Revolution (2009)
  • Nonviolence: A Brief History—The Warsaw Lectures (2010)

Another very helpful and accessible introduction to the Christian life as ‘following Jesus’ I also recommend the book cited above,

  • Lee Camp: Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World, 2nd Edition (Brazos Press, 2008)
One Comment leave one →
  1. Andre permalink
    December 16, 2010 1:33 am

    Hey Bruce. Good post. This isn’t a proper response (which I might venture in the future)… and it might sound like I’m being overly pedantic, but I wonder whether it’s possible for Christians who oppose the just war tradition to nevertheless recognize that tradition as an attempt at Christian discernment and not just an exercise in political or cultural expediency? You might of course construe that attempt to have failed, but the sort of cynicism represented in, say, the Leunig cartoon is, well, embarrassing (even when one allows that cartoonists purchase a certain kind of access to truth by way of caricature). To put the issue slightly differently… to reject the just war doctrine is to reject a whole political tradition and that comes at a certain price. What we need to do is to grapple with the cost of abandoning in a violent world the effort to make violence answerable to justice. And this problem is not, I think, just a political one, but rather, first and foremostly, a theological one, for to refuse to engage in such an effort is to run the risk of failing to bear clear witness to the gospel’s insistence that evil no longer has the last word. Put in a more concrete way, to abandon the just war tradition is to allow amnesty to a Slobodan Milosevic, and this, I contend, would be a failure in Christian charity, a witness not to the peace of Christ but rather to the triumph of a demonic, lawless violence.

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