The example of Jesus is central to Christians’ attitude to war. He was presented with an opportunity to lead an armed uprising, but he refused. Instead he chose to endure brutality without resisting. It was this choice, Christians believe, that set him on a path that led to the salvation of humankind.
There are, however, difficulties for Christians as they seek to uphold total opposition to violence. Firstly there is the fact that the Bible (particularly the Old Testament) portrays a God who encouraged his people the Jews to use violence in order to secure themselves a homeland. And secondly, Christians have to face up to their own lamentable history, because previous generations of Jesus’ followers waged war in his name in a way that is now remembered with shame.
In our own age, Christians find their opposition to violence is challenged when they are confronted with evils that are so great that the only way to bring them to a close seems to be military intervention. This has intensified in recent decades because of the rise of nuclear weapons and terrorism.
Over the centuries Christians have developed guidelines to help them think about whether they might have to set aside their usual rule of non-violence. They were first proposed in the fourth century by an African bishop called Augustine. His theory of a ‘just war’ still shapes the way Christians think about these dreadful circumstances:
- There must be a just cause. War can only be tolerated to defend people in response to tyranny. It is forbidden to wage war in order to dominate others, increase territory or gain mineral resources.
- The decision must be made by the highest government authority. In recent decades Christians have looked to the United Nations for this.
- Every possible means of resolving the crisis by peaceful means must have been attempted first.
- It must be judged that the war will not unleash an even greater evil than the one currently being suffered.
- The war must be fought with specific constraints: civilians must be protected from attack, there must be a reasonable prospect of success, it must cease when justice has been restored, and the level of violence must match the severity of the evil that is being addressed.
During the first centuries of the Christian church, all followers of Jesus were absolute pacifists. A large number of Christians still hold to those principles, led notably by the Society of Friends (Quakers). They point out that Jesus did not tell his followers to submit pitifully when confronted by evil. Instead he showed a way to be non-violent that was active, defiant and sacrificial.