Posted by: stpowen | April 16, 2018

Book Review: ‘Warlike Christians in an Age of Violence’

Isaiah 59:8.  ‘’Their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed innocent blood.  Their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; wasting and destruction are in their paths; the way of peace they have not known.’

Matthew 5:9. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”

John 14:27. “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.”

On May 15th 1527 in the Austrian Imperial city of Rottenburg, Michael Sattler, an Anabaptist, was tried for the crime of heresy.  Nine charges were laid against him, and for several of them he might have been burned, but the ninth was the most damaging:  ‘He says that if the Turks invaded the country, we ought not to resist them, and if he approved of war, he would rather take the field against the Christians than against the Turks, notwithstanding, it is an important matter to set the greatest enemies of our faith against us.’

Yet Sattler was by no means abashed.  In his defence he stated,  ‘If the Turks should make an invasion, they should not be resisted, for it is written: “Thou shall not kill.”  We ought not to defend ourselves against the Turks and our persecutors; but earnestly entreat God in our prayers, that He would repel and withstand them.  For my saying, that if I approved of war, I would sooner march forth against the so-named Christians, who persecute, imprison and put to death the pious Christians, I assign this reason:  the Turk is a true Turk, knows nothing of the Christian faith, and is a Turk according to the flesh; but you, wishing to be Christian, and making your boast of Christ, persecute the pious witnesses of Christ and are Turks according to the Spirit.’

Needless to say, Sattler’s defence did not go down well.    At that time there was great fear of the Turks under their leader, Suleiman the Magnificent who had recently conquered most of Hungary and in 1529 would lay siege to Vienna.  Sattler was executed in a most cruel and barbaric fashion.

This episode came to my mind as I read a book given to me by one of my daughters as a Christmas present.   Warlike Christians in an Age of Violence by Dr Nick Megoran (Cascade Books, 2017. ISBN 978-1-4982-1959-4).  The title is obviously a play on Ron Sider’s book, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.  Dr Megoran is not a qualified theologian, but a Reader in Geography, Politics and Sociology at Newcastle University where he is also an honorary Chaplain.  He is a member of a Baptist church and the book reveals him to be a conservative Christian of a Reformed persuasion.  The book is subtitled, The Evangelical Case against War and for Gospel Peace.

Receiving the book put me in mind of 2003, when Prime Minister Tony Blair was leading the country into the Second Iraq War.  My three children, who were then in their teens or early twenties, all took part in the massive demonstrations against the war, but I would not go with them.  My reasoning was firstly that I could not believe that Blair would go to war unless he had absolutely certain evidence that Iraq had ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and the intent to use them, and secondly that Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 tell us that governments are responsible protect the nation and that they ‘bear the sword’ in order to do so.  In retrospect, I believe I was reading those verses too literally (more on that anon) and deeply regret not adding my voice to the opposition to the war at that time.

Megoran is at pains to stress that he is not proposing ‘liberal pacifism’ but Gospel peace.  He states, ‘The whole life [on earth] and teaching of Jesus and the apostles is utterly incompatible with warfare and we are commanded to follow his example.’  He cites Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ understanding (1) that war is a consequence and manifestation of sin, and wartime Bishop George Bell’s insistence (2) that the Church’s function during war is ‘at all costs to remain the Church.’  By this Bell meant that the Church of England in particular must not be merely a rubber stamp for what politicians decide but to preach the ‘Gospel of peace’ (Acts 10:36; Eph. 6:15).

We have to be careful here; the peace that the Lord Jesus Christ gives is ‘not as the world gives’ (John 14:27).  It is something much more than the mere absence of war (Rom. 5:1).  Yet our Lord  never promoted violence to gain His ends:  when the people wanted to use force to make Him king (John 6:15), He departed from among them; He rebuked James and John who wanted to destroy those who rejected Him (Luke 9:54-56), and would not allow His disciples to defend Him in Gethsemane (Matt. 26:51-54; John 18:11).

Megoran is eager to separate ‘Gospel Peace’ from the ideas of Pacifism and Nonviolence.  Pacifism, he says, displays a ‘naïve optimism in the possibilities of advanced humanity to overcome violence.’  In this, pacifism is humanistic and evolutionary and has been shown since the last war simply not to work.  Nonviolence is the philosophy espoused by Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King and used by them to great effect.  ‘It is based on a theory that even brutal regimes depend on the cooperation of the population and can thus be weakened if this cooperation is withdrawn.’  However, it is not specifically Christian, and depends for its success upon a degree of conscience in those it opposes.  Thus it failed in Tianenman Square in China, and its failure to soften the Syrian regime of President Assad led to the horrific civil war of the last several years.

‘Gospel Peace,’ says Megoran, ‘is based solely on God’s revelation to humanity through Jesus Christ, testified to in the Bible.’  It is surely impossible to imagine that the Christ who taught Matthew 5:38-48 and acted as described in 1 Peter 2:21-24, ‘leaving us an example,’ would ever advocate violence.  The problem, he claims, is not understanding our Lord’s teaching, but following it.  He quotes Kierkegaard who declares that “Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible.”

Megoran then goes on to look at warfare in the Old and New Testaments.   The battles and massacres in the Old Testament have been fertile ground for the ‘new atheists’ such as Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.  At the same time they (the battles and massacres) have also provided many with an excuse for supporting wars.  Megoran shows that in the First World War, as in others, both sides were claiming God’s blessing on their cause and praying to Him for victory.  His answer to this second group is to say that Israel’s wars were nothing like the wars that so-called Christian countries fight today.  Firstly, Israel was usually outnumbered; in the case of Gideon’s army (Judges 7), God instructed him to make his forces so ridiculously small that no one could suppose that they won by their own power.  In another case, victory was based upon Moses stretching out his arms in prayer (Exod. 17), and in two other instances, the Israelites were not called upon to fight, but merely to stand firm (Exod. 14:13-14; 2 Chron. 20:17).  Secondly they were forbidden to use the latest military hardware—horses and chariots (Joshua 11:6; Psalm 20:7).  Thirdly, the Israelites were forbidden to make military alliances with the surrounding nations (2 Chron. 16:7-9; Isaiah 31:1).  Those Christians who support warfare should really be advocating these methods.

Megoran is slightly less sure-footed when it comes to answering the ‘new atheists.’  He rightly points out that the massacres recorded in Joshua were for the purpose not of politics or economics, but of holiness, but the Crusaders might have pleaded the same thing as they massacred the population of Jerusalem in 1099.  I think it may be better first to see Israel’s conquest of Canaan as the judgement of God upon those wicked people (Gen. 15:16; Deut. 9:5) and then to take the view of the Puritan John Owen that under the Mosaic Covenant, the kingdom of God had the appearance of an earthly nation, Israel, into which the Messiah was to be born and was therefore involved with wars against its neighbours, but that since the coming of our Lord, and the going out of the Gospel to the nations, that kingdom ‘is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight…..’ (John 18:36).  Christians are among the nations, but our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20).  We obey the laws of the country in which we live and pay its taxes (Rom. 13:1-7), but our ultimate obedience is to the Prince of Peace (Acts 5:29).

Megoran makes particular reference to two sayings of the Lord Jesus.  The first is Matt. 10:34. “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth.  I did not come to bring peace but a sword.”  He tells us that the text was used by Thomas Aquinas to justify Christian participation in warfare.  But this can hardly be sustained since the immediate context is that of family life (v.35ff).  Its meaning, quite obviously, is that becoming a Christian can bring one into conflict with family members, and ultimately we must put Christ before even family.

The second text is Luke 22:36, 38.  ‘“….And he who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.”………..So they said, “Look, Lord, here are two swords.”  And He said to them, “It is enough.”’  This is rather more difficult, but again the context of v.37, where the Lord Jesus quotes from Isaiah 53 to prophesy His own sacrificial death, and the fact that when Peter did use one of those two swords to defend Him, He rebuked him, saying, “All who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matt. 26:52), means that is far more sensible, says Megoran, to see the word ‘sword’ as being metaphorical.  ‘The meaning is that in the circumstances that are about to arise, the eleven will need all the courage they can muster’ (William Hendricksen).  When the disciples misunderstood Him once again, and supposed that two swords among eleven would be sufficient to defend themselves, the Lord Jesus cut the discussion short.  “Enough of that!”

Megoran goes on to look at the attitude of the Church down the ages towards warfare.  I was interested to learn that the attitude of the Early Church Fathers was totally against it.  He gives quotations from Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian and Lactantius.  The latter described Christians as “Those who are ignorant of wars, who preserve concord with all, who are friends even of their enemies…….It will not be lawful for a just man to serve as a soldier….[as] it is always unlawful to put to death a man, whom God willed to be a sacred animal” (Divine Institutions 6:20).  He quotes the Apostolic Tradition attributed to Hypolytus as declaring, “The catechumen or believer who wants to become a soldier is to be rejected, for he has despised God.”  Tertullian accused Christians in the army of pretending they could be servants “Of two masters, of God and Caesar” (De Corona ch. 12).  Megoran also mentions three men who were martyred because they refused to be inducted into the Roman Legions because of their Christian faith.   My only criticism here is that Megoran has taken most of his quotations from other modern writers.  It would have been helpful to have the references directly from the ECFs.

On the other hand, it has to be said that John the Baptist did not tell the soldiers who came to him for baptism to desert (Luke 3:14) and we are not told that either the centurion whose servant our Lord healed Matt. 8:5ff) or Cornelius (Acts 10) was instructed to leave the army.  But neither are we told that Zacchaeus was told to stop being a chief tax collector, despite the appalling reputation that profession had at the time.   It may very well be that soldiers, after they had trusted in Christ, found their profession incompatible with their new-found faith.  That is certainly the impression gained from early Church history.  For a much later witness, Megoran quotes C.H. Spurgeon as declaring:  “To see a soldier a Christian is a joy; to see a Christian a soldier is another matter.  We may not judge another man, but we may discourage thoughtless inclinations in the young and ignorant.  A sweeping condemnation would arouse antagonism, and possibly provoke the very spirit we would allay, while quiet and holy influence may sober and overcome misdirected tendencies.”

Megoran goes on to show how the situation changed after Constantine became Roman Emperor and Christianity became first accepted and quite soon the official religion of Rome.  After AD 416, only Christians could serve in the Roman legions.  Church leaders became dazzled by their new-found official status, and Athanasius was found declaring that it is “Praiseworthy to destroy the enemy.”  Moving swiftly to the 19th and 20th Centuries, we find senior clergy on both sides of a war blessing their own side’s troops and declaring the conflict ‘just.’  Time is given to consideration of ‘Just War Theory,’ something that began with ancient philosophers like Aristotle and Cicero and found its way into Christian thinking with Augustine.   If such a theory has ever been workable, the era of total warfare, guerrilla wars and weapons of mass destructions make it exceedingly difficult to put into practice.  Former U.S. Defence Secretary Robert McNamara is quoted as saying that if America had lost World War II, he might well have been tried as a war criminal.

Megoran then tackles the most vexed question of all:  what about Hitler?  How should the world confront an evil dictator bent on conquest and slaughter, if not by war?   This question is particularly poignant as I write this (April 13th 2018) because at this very moment Britain, France and America are deciding how to respond to President Assad of Syria and his use of chemical weapons.  Megoran seeks to answer it by suggesting that the seeds of Hitler’s rise go back to the empire-building of the great powers in the 19th and early 20th Centuries.  Not every reader will agree with him, but it is sobering to read his accounts of the activities of the British, French, Americans and Japanese during those years.

Megoran also gives some accounts of successful non-violent opposition to Nazism and suggests that if these had been repeated on a larger scale, Hitler might have been resisted successfully.  But granted that he was not resisted in that way, we are left wondering what Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain could have done in September 1939 short of going to war and what might have been the consequences of Britain not doing so.  We are also left to wonder what might have been if Mussolini had been forcibly prevented from conquering Ethiopia in 1935 and Hitler from taking over the Sudetanland in 1936.

However, summing up, I believe that this book is important reading for every evangelical Christian.  It is hard to see how soldiering can be an appropriate calling for a Christian and we must surely do better than having some pope or archbishop pronouncing this or that war ‘just.’  We must insist with Lloyd-Jones that war is a manifestation of sin, call for peace at all times and above all things preach the Gospel of the Lamb who was slain, ‘Who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously.’

(1)    D.M. Lloyd-Jones: Why does God allow War?

(2)     G.Bell: The Church’s Function in Wartime.

 

 

 

 

 

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Responses

  1. While finding myself readily agreeing with the second half of one of your concluding sentences, I must offer a counter to its first half.

    “It is hard to see how soldiering can be an appropriate calling for a Christian and we must surely do better than having some pope or archbishop pronouncing this or that war ‘just.’”

    The issue of the relative justice or injustice of any or all wars in this fallen world aside, and while certainly appreciating how difficult it may be for many, if not most, Christians to see soldiering in a positive light, I humbly suggest that there are aspects to the issues involved that may not have been considered. Please consider the following questions, and perhaps it will not be so “hard to see how soldiering can be an appropriate calling for a Christian.”

    1. Are the higher powers, i.e. rulers, appropriate callings for Christians? Can this be denied since they are presented in Scripture as ordained of God, and as the ministers of God?

    “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake. For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.” (Rom. 13:1-6)

    2. How is the bearing of the sword to be understood in the ministration of good by rulers in the execution of their power? Is this sword bearing not to be seen as “an appropriate calling for a Christian” since they are ordained of God as His ministers? How then can the rulers be understood to bear the sword apart from capital punishment individually and nationally, i.e., judicially and militarily? Is sword bearing by those ministers ordained by God to do so even possible in Paul’s understanding and that of the Christians in the 1st century Roman empire apart from soldiers? Is is possible to sever soldiering “as an appropriate calling for a Christian” from that of rulers bearing the sword as God’s ordained ministers for good?

    Perhaps both yourself and Megoran have already considered these issues, but if not, I hope at least to provide some food for thought on the appropriateness of this calling.

    John T. Jeffery
    SFC, USA (Retired)
    1st Battalion 109th Infantry Regiment

    United States Army 1970-1973
    Vietnam 1971
    Pennsylvania Army National Guard 1989-2010
    Iraq 2005-2006


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