Three Article On Pacifism and Just War Theory (+Dennis Prager)


  1. Matthew Alexander Flannagan, “Thank God for New Zealand Anti-Terrorist Squad
  2. Keith Pavlischek, “Can a Pacifist Tell a Counterterrorism Strategy?
  3. J. Daryl Charles, “Can a Pacifist Tell a Counterterrorism Strategy?


The following is taken from Philosophia Christi Vol. 18 Num. 1 (Summer 2016). You can purchase back issues (this current issue) HERE. These articles were in response to two pacifist authors theologians. I did not include them herein, but you can see the index of the issue I am excerpting from in order to see the other authors on the opposing side of this debate, HERE. Here is a description of this journal issue:

  • The Summer 2016 issue features a new and updated discussion on “Just War as Deterrence Against Terrorism” with contributions from Paul Copan, Myles Werntz, Gregory Boyd, Matthew Flannagan, Keith Pavlischek, and J. Daryl Charles. These papers offer philosophically attentive engagements from pacifists and just war advocates.

  • Matthew Alexander Flannagan, “Thank God for New Zealand Anti-Terrorist Squad,” Philosophia Christi Vol. 18 Num. 1 (Summer 2016), pp. 129-135.

[p.129>] ABSTRACT: On November 14, 1990, David Gray’s twenty-two hour shooting spree ended when the New Zealand Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS) shot Gray dead. In this paper I argue that Chris­tians should support the existence of state agencies like the ATS who are authorized to use lethal force. Alongside the duty we as Christians have to love our neighbors, live at peace with others and to not repay evil for evil, God has authorized the government to use force when necessary to uphold a just peace within the geographical area over which it has jurisdiction.


“Aramoana,” in Maori, means “pathway of the sea.” It is the name of a small coastal town, population 261, which is located about 27 kilometers (15 miles) North East of Dunedin in New Zealand’s South Island. When I did my doctoral studies in Dunedin, my family and I visited Aramoana. The town is friendly and peaceful, and it has spectacular wild life and scenery. With flat whites—frothy New Zealand coffee beverages—from the local café in hand, we took in the breathtaking beauty of the harbor, walked along the shell-covered, white sandy beach, and enjoyed up-close encounters with dozens of sea lions on the rocky point. All the while we were watching albatrosses fly into the land on the hill across the harbor. The hill on the other side of the harbor is one of the few places in the world where albatrosses make contact with land on their long journey from Antarctica to Argentina across the South Pacific.

Aramoana is not known in New Zealand for any of these features. Ara-moana is a name forever etched in the memory of New Zealanders for a very different reason. On the evening of November 13, 1990, Aramoana resident, David Gray, had a verbal dispute with his neighbor. He then went on a shooting rampage.

For twenty-two hours Gray terrorized the people of Aramoana who, unable to flee, hid in their homes while he stalked the tiny township hunting them down and shooting everyone he found. Gray would not be reasoned with or negotiated with; he opened fire on everyone.

[p.130>] The terror ended at 5:50 p.m. the next day. Gray charged police, firing at them with a semiautomatic rifle; the police returned fire and Gray was fatally wounded. He died at 6:10 p.m. en route to Dunedin’s hospital after having taken thirteen members of his community—including four children and a police officer—with him to the grave. He left another three wounded: two children and another police officer.

In New Zealand police do not typically carry firearms; at least they did not back then. The police who shot Gray that day were members of a special unit called the Anti-Terrorist Squad (ATS). The ATS is authorized to respond to terrorist activity with lethal force if necessary, and after Gray pretended to surrender and then shot a police officer dead, the ATS issued a shoot-on-sight order. Although Gray was a lone individual, had he been acting on behalf of an organization, the result would have been the same: he would have been shot.

The question I want to ask in my essay is this: As Christians, should we condemn the existence of state agencies like the ATS who are authorized to use lethal force? Is there justification for the existence of state forces, armed with automatic weapons, for this purpose?


A widely-held view among my fellow theologians is that there is no justification for the state to use lethal force, even against terrorism. I once raised the question of David Gray’s killing at an Auckland panel discussion in which I was participating. The topic was on the ethics of killing. The response I received from those theologians present with pacifist tendencies was evasive. While none of them seemed able to bring themselves to pub­licly condemn the state authorized killing of David Gray, they did not approve of it either. The general response was to cite Jesus’s teachings to love your enemies, refrain from seeking revenge and overcome evil with good. Encouragement was given to those listening to think on how these things can be reconciled with the concept of allowing governments to kill.

I want to look a little more closely at what Paul had to say on these things. My starting assumption is that Paul was a faithful expositor of Jesus’s teaching; in Romans 12:17-20 Paul expounded on Jesus’s teaching on this topic as follows:

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear 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;
[p.131>] 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.

Note the words Paul uses here. Paul talks about not taking “revenge” upon those who do “evil”; instead he instructs us to leave room for the “wrath of God.” Note also that the reason he gives for this: taking revenge is a kind of metaphysical vigilantism. The right to take revenge belongs to God; if his readers take revenge, they are usurping for themselves an authority they don’t have.

Many stop reading there; however, the text immediately proceeds into Romans 13:1-6:

Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are es­tablished by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condem­nation upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; for it is a min­ister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil. Therefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath, but also for conscience’ sake.

Paul is saying that the governing authorities that exist on earth have been “ordained by God,” that they do not “bear the sword” for nothing, and that God’s servant is an “avenger who brings wrath on the one who practices evil.” The words I have italicized in the passages from chapter 12 are the same (or cognate) words in the Greek as the words I highlighted in the pas­sages from chapter 13.

Paul is saying that governments not only do these things but that they have the authority of God to do so. “The authorities that exist have been established by God” (v.2); whoever rebels against them “is rebelling against what God has instituted” (v.3); and, it is necessary to submit to governments “not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience” (v.5). Governments, therefore, act as God’s servants when they do so.

The chapter division between chapter 12 and chapter 13 is not in the original text; so these passages should be read together. When they are, these verses show Paul drawing a distinction between authorized and unauthor­ized uses of force. The very thing Paul’s audience lacks the authority to do in regard to not repaying evil for evil is what the government has been given the legitimate authority by God to do.

In other contexts, this distinction between what governments have a right to do and what private individuals have a right to do is commonplace.

[p.132>] It would be wrong and criminal for a private citizen to take another person’s property by force, even if they believed the money was going to a worthy cause. However, governments do this all the time when they impose taxes. It would be blackmail and false imprisonment for me to lay down laws for my neighbor to obey and then deprive her of her liberty if she fails to comply. Yet governments can legitimately lay down laws for others and incarcerate criminals who do not comply with them. Governments hold a monopoly on certain uses of force and, hence, have rights to use force that private citizens do not. The fact that people who don’t hold any political office have duties to refrain from certain forms of violence, force, and retribution does not mean that governments have the same duty.


Classically the just war theory is based on the premise that Paul appears to affirm: that a government has the right and duty to use force to uphold a just peace within the geographical area over which it has jurisdiction. If a criminal attempts to rape or kill a person within the geographical realm over which a government has authority, then that government can justifiably use force to prevent this, and it can also legitimately use force to try and punish anyone who does these things—hence, the existence of a legislature, police force, courts, and prisons.

Just war theorists simply argue that there seems no reason why this would not extend to when the person committing the offence is a soldier from another country as opposed to a domestic criminal. In his book Princi­ples of Conduct, John Murray captures this idea well when he asks: “by what kind of logic can it be maintained that the magistrate, who is invested with the power of the sword (Romans 13:4), may and must execute vengeance upon evil doers within his own domain but must sheath the sword of resistance when evil doers from without invade his domain.”1 Just war theorists argue that for a war to be just, it must meet six requirements (though the sixth is often divided into two):

(1) It must be fought for a just cause and aim.

(2) It must be prosecuted by someone with the lawful authority to do so.

(3) It must be a last resort.

(4) There must be a reasonable chance of success in prosecuting the aims.

(5) The cost incurred by going to war must not be greater than the evil being opposed.

[p.133>] (6) The force used in prosecuting the war must be both proportionate and discriminate, force must be aimed at combatants and not non­combatants.

These criteria come from reflection on the circumstances in which govern­ments are permitted to us force to uphold justice in general. Criteria (1) and (2), read together, reflect the notion that private citizens do not have a right to pass laws binding on—in the present case—all New Zealand citizens and back these up with force—only the government can do this. It is only morally permissible for the government to do this when it does so to uphold justice—to protect people living within its borders from injustice and to punish those guilty of crimes. Governments do not have the right to take people’s life, liberty or property at whim.

The idea of war being a last resort, (3), is also simply an extension of principles of normal governance. The police are expected to not use force unless arrest is resisted. If they are dealing with a hostage situation, they try to negotiate with the hostage-taker first. However, in the world we live in, hostage-takers sometimes start shooting, people refuse to come quietly, or they pretend to surrender so they can gain an opportunity to do more harm; force then becomes necessary and justified, albeit regrettably so.

It is also a principle of normal governance that things need to be fea­sible; this comes through in (4), the government should not authorize force, even to prosecute a just cause, unless it believes there is a reasonable chance of success in doing so. It is unjust to ask persons to sacrifice their property, resources, freedom, or themselves in vain for an end that cannot actually be achieved.

There are plenty of unjust actions that governments do not criminalize or aggressively prosecute because the evils of doing so are greater than sim­ply tolerating the offense. It is unjust to be lied to. It is unjust for people to give insults. It does not follow that the government should invest time and resources trying to prevent these actions through legislation and enforcement. Police often refuse to prosecute offenses they consider trivial or not worth police time and resources; they limit their focus to what is serious. We do not expect the police to do anything about liars, but we do expect them to act against serial killers and rapists because the evil being done by the latter outweighs these concerns. War is not in a special category here, which is the idea behind (5): the cost incurred by going to war must not be greater than the evil being opposed.

Finally, we get to (6)—the idea that any force used must be proportion­ate and discriminate. If a state uses force justly, then the force used will be proportionate to the injustice being rectified. A just government imposes more severe coercive penalties on a premeditated killer than it does against a teenager who smashes windows. While someone smashing my windows is engaging in unjust aggression against my property, the force used to stop this [p.134>] should be more measured than that employed in a hostage situation where the criminal has started killing hostages.

The force must also be discriminate. Paul’s contention is that the gov­ernment “are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” When functioning as God’s servant, “rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.” Governments can justly use force against people engaging in aggression against citizens but not in­tentionally against third parties who are not engaging in this aggression.

Of course, no war ever meets these criteria perfectly but neither does any court system, legislature, or police force. Even in a relatively just soci­ety, courts make mistakes and innocent people go to jail. Sometimes armed police mistakenly shoot the wrong person. There are difficult situations where criminals use human shields. Even in a relatively just society, there are corrupt police and judges. None of this inclines us to reject the idea that a government has the right and duty to use force to uphold justice within the geographical area over which it has jurisdiction.

We accept that people are fallible. We expect that governments should take reasonable precautions to avoid such errors and that rules governing investigation, evidence, corruption, and so on will be put in place and that honest attempts will be made to enforce them. We know that, despite this, the system will still fail on occasion and innocent people will be harmed, and we accept this. We don’t demand an end to courts, police or legislation because of this. Just war theory submits that we should take the same approach to force used by the state against external aggressors.

This conclusion applies whether the external aggressor is a uniformed soldier in a conventional army or a terrorist, who is ostensibly a member of the civilian population whose aim is to indiscriminately kill and maim people. As Alexander Pruss argues, “When the invading army marches in, burning crops and murdering citizens, they are breaking the victim country’s laws. If problematic violence is permitted to enforce the laws of one’s ter­ritory, it should be permissible to use problematic violence to stop them.”2 Terrorists kill and burn in the same way the soldiers of invading armies do, and their actions are no less contrary to the victim country’s laws.


The events at Aramoana on November 13, 1990, brought home an un­pleasant truth to New Zealanders who were used to believing these kinds of things happen overseas, typically in America, and not here at home. This truth is that there are people in the world who intentionally terrorize and indiscriminately kill men, women, and children, and who can only be realis‑ [p.135>] tically stopped with violence. For that reason, the New Zealand government has the ATS.

Alongside the duty we as Christians have to love our neighbors, live at peace with others—as much as it depends on us—and not repay evil for evil, God has ordained the government to use force when necessary. It is not “either-or.” It is “both-and.”


1. John Murray, Principles of Conduct: Aspects of Biblical Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1957), 115.

2. Alexander Pruss, “Pacifism,”

  • Keith Pavlischek, “Can a Pacifist Tell a Counterterrorism Strategy?” Philosophia Christi Vol 18 Num. 1 (Summer 2016), pp. 137-145.

[p.137>] ABSTRACT: In this essay I distinguish between classic Christian pacifists who embrace the dual­ism of the Schleitheim Confession, who believe that it is unjust, immoral, and in opposition to the teachings of Jesus for Christians to fight in wars or, more generally ever to threaten or employ lethal force, and modern Christian pacifists who believe this proscription also extends to secular government officials and legislators. For distinct reasons, neither have much to say to Christian just warriors or public officials seeking ways to combat the scourge of terrorism. I conclude by suggesting that attempts to find a “third way” between just war and either form of pacifism are theologically perilous.

I’m gonna lay down my heavy load down by the riverside, /down by the riverside /down by the riverside. /I’m gonna lay down my heavy load / down by the riverside, / and I ain’t gonna study war no more.

I ain’t gonna study war no more; / I ain’t gonna study war no more; / I ain’t gonna study war no more; /I ain’t gonna study war no more; /I ain’t gonna study war no more; / I ain’t gonna study war no more.

I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield /down by the riverside, /down by the riverside, /down by the riverside. /I’m gonna lay down my sword and shield /down by the riverside, /And I ain’t gonna study war no more.

Christian just warriors and pacifists can both sing that old spiritual, “Down By the Riverside,” and mean what they say. But what they mean to say is profoundly different. The just warrior has no problem singing along so long as the declaration, “I ain’t gonna study war no more” is understood as an eschatological hope and expectation. Swords will be beat into plowshares,1 to be sure, but not until after the Lord returns. Unlike the pacifist, or, if you [p.138>] prefer, the Christian committed exclusively to “nonviolence,”2 the Christian just warrior thinks that it would be unwise and unjust to cease and desist from the study of war prior to the coming of the Lord. He will resist the in­clination to “immanentize the eschaton.”3

When Christian pacifists sing, “I ain’t gonna study war no more,” they take this to be a requirement of the Gospel in the here and now and resist the idea that this is merely an eschatological hope. Pacifists insist that to be a faithful disciple of the Prince of Peace you really shouldn’t go about studying war, which means eschewing, one would think, military strategy, operational art, tactics, force structure, weapons development and employ­ment military history and the like.

For some Christian pacifists—what I call classical Christian pacifists (or perhaps sectarian Christian pacifists)—the moral requirement proscribing the study of war extends only to Christians. This seems to be the view of the Schleitheim Articles of 1527 (widely regarded as the theological consolida­tion of Anabaptist pacifism),

Concerning the sword we have reached the following agreement: The sword is ordained by God outside the perfection of Christ. It punishes and kills people and protects and defends the good. In the law the sword is established to punish and to kill the wicked, and secular au­thorities are established to use it.

This classical Christian pacifist position declares that while Christians “ain’t gonna study war no more” it is nevertheless a good thing that some­body does, namely “secular authorities.” This is why they leave no doubt that not only should Christians not study or practice warfare, but that Christians really shouldn’t be serving as secular authorities.

[I]t is asked about the sword, whether a Christian may hold a posi­tion of governmental authority if he is chosen for it. This is our reply: Christ should have been made a king, but he rejected this (John 6:15) and did not view it as ordained by his father. We should do likewise and follow him. In this way we will not walk into the snares of dark‑ [p.139>] ness…. Also, Christ himself forbids the violence of the sword and says, ‘Worldly princes rule,’ etc, ‘but not you’ (Matthew 20:25).

…[I]t is not fitting for a Christian to be a magistrate because the authorities’ governance is according to the flesh, but the Christian’s is according to the spirit. Their houses and dwellings remain in this world, but the Christian’s is in heaven. Their weapons of conflict and war are carnal and only directed against the fortifications of the devil. Worldly people are armed with spikes and iron, but Christians are armed with the armor of God.4

Now, this is a rather old-fashioned type of Christian pacifism, and my gen­eral impression is that many contemporary Christian pacifists are rather em­barrassed by it. When I bring this old-fashioned sectarian pacifism to the attention of my pacifist friends, the typical response is, “But there are many different types of Christian pacifism,” or “We have ‘developed’ beyond that,” or something along those lines. But rarely do contemporary pacifists take up the challenge to explain exactly why this position is unbiblical, or unwise, or impractical, such that more knowledgeable, mature, and progressive twenty-first-century Christian pacifists should reject it.

I suspect that the modern Christian pacifist is embarrassed by this form of classical or sectarian pacifism, because it clearly holds that secular rulers have the authority from God himself to use lethal force to protect and defend the good. These classical pacifists didn’t feel compelled to create ever-in­creasingly novel ways to reinterpret the clear thrust of Romans 13:1-7. The sword for them is ordained “outside the perfection of Christ” to be sure, but it is nevertheless ordained by God per Romans 13. But for many of our con­temporary Christian pacifists who have “gone beyond” or “developed” this classical position, the sword, it would seem, is ordained never and nowhere.5

[p.140>] For these modern Christian pacifists, the gospel’s demand to be “peacemak­ers” and advocates of nonviolence, and the gospel’s purported prohibition on the threat and use of lethal “violence” (and probably nonlethal violence as well), and the insistence that Christians cease and desist-from “studying war” also extends to secular rulers. Modern Christian pacifists insist that not only should Christians be singing “Ain’t Gonna Study War No More” (and insist that it is not merely an eschatological hope and expectation), but so should all presidents, and senators, members of Congress, diplomats, and even the military. At best, these “secular rulers” should be studying nonviolent con­flict resolutions strategies.

Some modern Christian pacifists go even further in their condemnation of those who study war. The New Testament scholar (and current Duke Di­vinity School President), Richard B. Hays, for instance, finds military ser­vice so obviously unbiblical and profoundly anti-Christian, that he has stated publicly, at an Evangelical Philosophical Society meeting in 2000, that he considers Christian military chaplains who attempt to recruit seminary stu­dents for the Chaplain Corps to be committing a form of prostitution-tanta­mount to a “Pimps for Jesus” organization.6

So, what can Christian just warriors learn about counterterrorism from either (1) classical evangelical pacifists of the old-fashioned Schleitheim Confession variety or (2) modern evangelical pacifists of the Richard Hays variety? What can either of these forms of Christian pacifism contribute to an informed discussion of how to structure a coherent counterterrorism strategy that is part of a broader military and national defense strategy? I would sug­gest that from a just war perspective neither form of pacifism (and that would include a variety of offshoots from these positions)7 has much to offer to the Christian just warrior.

First, what are we just warriors to make of a modern Christian pacifist such as Richard Hays? If you are inclined to think that military chaplains are the moral equivalent of pimps, it wouldn’t be too farfetched to think this would apply a fortiori to Christians who serve in the military since the work of military chaplains doesn’t center on devising strategies and plans to fight terrorists and who certainly don’t serve as “trigger pullers,” who do the actual fighting and killing. Aside from that, what could a Richard Hays or his many followers possibly have to say to a Christian who does study war, or, more to the point, does study counterterrorism strategy and doctrine? The [p.141>] answer is rather obvious. These kinds of pacifists really can’t say much more than “You ought to find another line of work.”

That is to say, modem Christian pacifists such as Richard Hays seem to believe that the professional calling of being a soldier or an armed police officer prepared to use lethal force is an illegitimate profession and call-ing—certainly for the Christian and seemingly for the non-Christian as well. This is not unlike being a pimp or a prostitute, an illegitimate calling for a Christian certainly, but for the non-Christian as well. The owner of a brothel dedicated to running a successful business isn’t likely to expect wise counsel on how to run a successful enterprise from a Christian pastor or theologian who believes that his entire enterprise is intrinsically immoral in the first place, or who believes that the “office and calling” of being a pimp cannot be a legitimate calling for a Christian, or anybody else, for that matter. The Christian who believes that pimping and brothel management are intrinsical­ly immoral activities, and who believes that the owners and managers of the brothel should repent of such sinful activity—”go and sin no more”—isn’t in a particularly good position to provide recommendations on the best sexual tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs in military parlance) required to run a successful prostitution enterprise.

Likewise, the last place you are going to go for wise advice and counsel if you are an expert in counterterrorism strategy, operations, and tactics is to a disciple of Richard Hays or other contemporary neo-Anabaptist theolo­gians. If military strategy and war fighting are an art and a craft, which they are, and if the prudent application of military force is an indispensable part of any coherent counterterrorism strategy, which it is, then you aren’t going to get particularly wise counsel from pacifists who think that the art of war is intrinsically immoral or who believe (to state it in theological terms) that the sword is ordained by God never and nowhere.

What about the classical Christian pacifist? While the sectarian paci­fist believes his Christian just war neighbor really shouldn’t be “studying war no more,” really shouldn’t be studying counterterrorism strategy, and really shouldn’t serve as a combatant in the fight against terrorists, he would have, in principle, little problem with military force being part and parcel of a national military strategy and national security strategy to combat ter­rorism. After all, the classical Christian (sectarian) pacifist believes, in ac­cordance with the Schleitheim Confession, the following: “In the law the sword is established to punish and to kill the wicked and secular authorities are established to use it.” Classical (or sectarian) Christian pacifists, unlike modern Christian pacifists, do not believe that service in the military is an intrinsically evil profession, per se. They simply believe it is an intrinsically evil profession for Christians. The classical Christian pacifist would surely not want non-Christian secular authorities to sing “Ain’t gonna study war no more” other than as an eschatological hope and expectation, for how else are [p.142>] those “outside the perfection of Christ” going to learn how to properly “pun­ish and kill the wicked,” including terrorists!

It is precisely because the classical Christian pacifist understands that secular authorities must “study war” while they reject for themselves the study of war that the sectarian pacifist would be generally not be inclined to “give advice to Caesar” on national military strategy in general and counter­terrorism strategy and tactics in particular. “What do I know?” the classical Christian pacifist will ask, “about those skills and procedures that are ‘out­side the perfection of Christ’? What do I know about the best and most effec­tive use of unmanned aerial vehicles, whether our national military strategy should have a counterterrorist focus at this time in this particular region of the world, while it should have more of a counterinsurgency focus in this particular region, or whether we should use coercive diplomacy at this time, but military direct action at other times, etc.?” You’ve got to study a little war and statecraft to become knowledgeable on those sorts of issues.

So the Christian just warrior will not expect the modern Christian paci­fist to provide informed and wise advice on how to address the scourge of terrorism because the latter believes to fight such terrorism using military force is intrinsically evil (like owning and managing a brothel). Nor will the Christian just warrior expect such advice from the classical pacifist. But he will not expect advice from the sectarian pacifist for a different reason. The classical Christian pacifist is likely to abstain from giving advice because, by his own account, he is in no position to do so, and being a wise Christian pacifist, he doesn’t want to talk on things he is no position to discuss. The classical pacifist will indeed sing “I ain’t gonna study war no more” but would immediately add that he isn’t about to give advice on the tactics and strategy of warfighting to those who do.

Christian pacifists of both sorts would do well, then, to understand that they really don’t have much to offer the Christian just warrior on counter­terrorism by way of informed advice. Now, I suspect many pacifists will concede this point but are not willing to give up “engaging in dialogue” with Christian just warriors. Christian pacifists may not be able to provide wise counsel on counterterrorism policy, but at least they can embrace the role of keeping Christian just warriors honest, by insisting that we hold to the jus ad bellum and jus in bello principles to which we claim to subscribe. In prin­ciple, of course, there should be nothing particularly problematic about this, as long as the pacifist doesn’t rig the game, and insist upon jus ad bellum and jus in bello criteria that are aligned to what these pacifist desire they should be, rather than what they really are.

Anyone involved in debates about just war and pacifism over the past few decades can’t fail to recognize this problem. Michael Walzer (a secular Democratic socialist with no Christian, evangelical, or conservative axe to grind) summarizes what happens all too frequently when pacifists enter into [p.143>] the debate on the use of force and seek to instruct just warriors on the re­quirements of the jus ad bellum and jus in bello.

Many clerics, journalists, and professors, however, have invented a wholly different interpretation and use, making the theory more and more stringent, particularly with regard to civilian deaths. In fact, they have reinterpreted it to a point where it is pretty much impossible to find a war or conflict that can be justified. Historically, just war theory was meant to be an alternative to Christian pacifism; now, for some of its advocates, it is pacifism’s functional equivalent — a kind of cover for people who are not prepared to admit that there are no wars they will support.8

As I have argued elsewhere,9 following the lead of James Turner Johnson and others, this cryptopacifist or functional pacifist approach of the just war tradition tends to wreak havoc on both the jus ad bellum and jus in bello such that, for example, the prudential jus ad bellum criterion of “last resort” is rendered a supercriterion of the traditional deontological criteria of legiti­mate authority, just cause and right intention while the jus in bello principle of proportionality gets distorted beyond recognition as does the relationship between discrimination (or distinction) and proportionality. But this way of viewing the just war tradition also has rather pernicious theological conse­quences that both Christian just warriors and Christian pacifists alike should reject.

The theological roots of this cryptopacifism or functional pacifism or the jus bellum contra bellum is the mistaken belief that Christian just war theory really is what Darrell Cole refers to as “a limited exception to gen­eral pacifism.”10 Whether it takes the form of Niebuhrian realism or Just Peacemaking or whatever is the latest third-way theological developments trying to strike a so-called middle way between just war and pacifism, these various approaches toward and understandings of the Christian just war tra­dition tend to boil down to the belief that while Jesus wants his disciples to completely eschew the resort to force and to embrace nonviolence, we can’t be absolutists, especially in a world of totalitarians (in the twentieth century) and ruthless terrorists (in the twenty-first). Motivated by what is no doubt a sincere attempt to find “common ground,” too many pacifists and nonpacifists alike assume that just war doctrine is fundamentally a “limited excep­tion to pacifism.” But it isn’t.

[p.144>] Christian pacifists, of course, think that just war theory developed pre­cisely because early Christians had to figure out a way to harmonize their nonviolent assumptions with the desire to aid their neighbors with acts of force. This is factually wrong. Pacifists cannot point to a single Church Father who helped develop the Christian just war doc­trine out of “nonviolent assumptions.” On the contrary, just war theory arose out of assumptions of justice and the virtue of charity. Assump­tions of nonviolence had nothing to do with the genesis of Christian just war theory.11

Because, as Cole notes, the view that Christian just war is a limited excep­tion to pacifism was unheard of prior to the twentieth century, any number of Christian theologians could be mustered to prove the point. But because it is directly relevant to the issue of terrorism I will simply cite the following passage from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion:

But here a seemingly hard and difficult question arises: if the law of God forbids all Christians to kill (Exodus 20:13; Deuteronomy 5:17; Matthew 5:21)… how can magistrates be pious men and shedders of blood at the same time? Yet, if we understand that the magistrate in administering punishments does nothing by himself, but carries out the very judgments of God, we shall not be hampered by this scruple. The law of the Lord forbids killing; but, that murderers may not go unpunished, the Lawgiver himself puts into the hands of his ministers a sword to be drawn against all murderers….

Now if their [i.e., civil magistrates] true righteousness is to pursue the guilty and the impious with drawn sword, should they sheathe their sword and keep their hands clean of blood, while abandoned men wickedly range about with slaughter and massacre, they will be­come guilty of the greatest impiety, far indeed from winning praise for their goodness and righteousness thereby!

But kings and people must sometimes take up arms to execute such a public vengeance. On this basis we may judge wars lawful which are so undertaken. For if power has been given them to preserve the tran­quility of their dominion . . . can they use it more opportunely than to check the flay of one who disturbs both the repose of private individu­als and the common tranquility of all?…. Therefore, both natural equity and the nature of the office dictate that princes must be armed not only to restrain the misdeeds of private individuals by judicial [p.145>] punishment, but also to defend by war the dominions entrusted to their safekeeping, if at any time they are under enemy attack.12

Two points are worth highlighting here. First, Calvin argues a fortiori that if it is reasonable and just to expect the civil authorities to punish private in­dividuals who murder and go about committing other criminal activity, then it must be much more reasonable and just when such activity threatens not merely “the repose of private individuals” but the entire commonwealth, the entire society, or as Calvin puts it, “the common tranquility of all.”13

Second, Calvin is making a critical point that gets to the core of the difference between Christian pacifism and Christian just war. Calvin insists that it would be impious; it would be disobedient to the Lord for the civil magistrate not to wield the sword in defense of the innocent and in defense of the commonweal when, like modern terrorists, “abandoned men wickedly range about with slaughter and massacre.” It would be disobedient to God for the civil authorities to sheathe the sword and keep it clean from blood, if that is what is required to execute justice on those terrorists and terror­ist organizations who wickedly range about with slaughter and massacre. Calvin, and again, not only Calvin for he is simply summarizing the broader Christian theological tradition here, is not suggesting that the civil magistrate is doing evil so that good may come when he—Christian or not—unsheathes his sword. To the contrary, he is teaching that it is evil, for even the Chris­tian magistrate, or the Christian soldier, to keep that sword clean of blood if wisdom and prudence dictates that shedding the blood of terrorists is nec­essary to protect the innocent and to defend the commonwealth from their wickedness. The necessary corollary to this position is that modern Christian pacifists, in arguing that civil authorities disobey God by refusing to protect the commonwealth are themselves urging impiety and are counseling those in civil authority to disobey the Lord. In an age of terrorism, we would do well to recover that fundamental theological insight of the Christian just war tradition.


1. Mic. 4:3: “He will judge between many peoples and will settle disputes for strong nations far and wide. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

2. I use the terms “pacifist” and “advocate of nonviolence” interchangeably. It is fashionable for Christian pacifists these days to declare that they prefer the term “nonviolence” to “pacifism” because the latter term seems to imply that they are “passive” in the face of injustice, and they want to stress that their advocacy of nonviolence is not passive but “active.” By this they seek to stress that they do not merely advocate passive nonviolent nonresistance, but also various forms of nonviolent direct action, protests, sit-ins, political activity and the like—the sort modeled by Jesus on the way to the cross. How pacifists (or advocates of nonviolence) can claim to adopt a posture that models the nonviolent, nonresistance of Jesus—”the way of the cross”—while also embracing the latter is a mystery to me. To be sure Jesus didn’t resort to violence on the way to Calvary, but he didn’t engage in nonviolent direct action protest either, and he didn’t implore his disciples to engage in nonviolent direct action to prevent his unjust death.

3. The term is from Eric Voeglin’s The New Science of Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952).

4. The Schleitheim Confession is available at:

5. See Paul Ramsey’s essay, “Can a Pacifist Tell a Just War?,” in The Just War: Force and Political Responsibility (New York: Scribner, 1968). Ramsey’s justified frustration with the pacifist James Douglas is evident throughout the essay but is summarized in a single paragraph: It is hard to know how to deal with some who, like James Douglas, announces the same premise [Christian perfectionism of Menno Simmons] and yet wishes, in the tradition of the great churches, to continue to talk relevantly about politics. This leads him to the conclusion that the sword is ordained nowhere and never at all—at least not in the modern period. Throughout the centuries these two positions have been locked in struggle within Christian conscience: the sword may sometimes be a Christian’s secular duty and calling or a requirement of civil righteousness (the tradi­tion of the great churches: Lutheranism, Calvinism, Roman Catholicism). Douglas abolishes this perennial tension at the heart of a Christian’s double wrestle over the meaning of faithfulness to Christ and the meaning of his faithfulness to his fellow­man and to the claims of political justice. He solves the problem by the simple expe­dient of proclaiming the perfection of responsible politics. He simply declares that justice-making can now be accomplished by suffering love alone, or that the nuclear age has so radically changed the nature of politics today that this can be the only way to secure the political good. (ibid., 262)

6. This interchange with Richard Hays took place at the Evangelical Philosophical Society meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. The paper James Skillen and I presented there was published in this journal: “Political Responsibility and the Use of Force: A Critique of Richard Hays,” Philosophia Christi 3 (2001): 421-45.

7. See David C. Cramer, “A Field Guide to Christian Nonviolence,” Sojourners, January 2016,30-5. This article lists a variety of supposedly different kinds of pacifism. While this sort of taxonomy is somewhat interesting, it does little to clarify either the distinct points of con­tention and disagreement between various forms of pacifism and tends to obscure rather than clarify the fundamental differences they all have with just war doctrine.

8. Michael Walzer, “Responsibility and Proportionality in State and Nonstate Wars,” Parameters (Spring 2009): 42; available at:

9. See Keith Pavlischek, “Proportionality in Warfare,” The New Atlantis (2010): 21-34, which quibbles with Walter’s handling of the principle of double effect and of proportionality. Available at:

10. Darrell Cole, “Listening to Pacifists,” First Things, August 2002,

11. Ibid. Cole perceptively notes that this view “would allow the pacifist a meaningful voice” in contemporary public policy and international affairs.” This goes a long way in explaining why modern pacifists are embarrassed by classical or sectarian pacifism and why so many pacifists are intent on giving “advice to Caesar” regarding international affairs. In any case, as Cole says, this way of looking at the just war doctrine was unheard of before the twentieth century.

12. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.20.10-11 (emphasis in the second para­graph and in the second sentence of the third paragraph added).

13. Aquinas makes a similar a fortiori argument in Summa Theologiae IIaIIae, q.40, a.l.: And just as it is lawful for them to have recourse to the sword in defending that common weal against internal disturbances, when they punish evil-doers, accord­ing to the words of the Apostle (Rom. 13:4): “He beareth not the sword in vain: for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil”; so too, it is their business to have recourse to the sword of war in defending the com­mon weal against external enemies. Hence it is said to those who are in authority.” (The Summa Theologica of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. the Fathers of the English Dominican Province)

This is a partial excerpt from a larger article…

  • J. Daryl Charles, “Can a Pacifist Tell a Counterterrorism Strategy?” Philosophia Christi Vol 18 Num. 1 (Summer 2016), pp. 153-163.

[p.153>] …Full disclosure on my part is perhaps in order at this point. I grew up in an Anabaptist—and specifically Mennonite—tradition and thus understand and appreciate the pacifist mind-set from the inside. To its credit, the pacifist perspective is sensitive to the violent tendencies that permeate both human experience in general and American culture in particular. In addition, it rec­ognizes diverse—and, in many ways, creative—avenues for social action. In the words of Jean Bethke Elshtain, pacifism puts “violence on trial” in that it views social life from the vantage-point of the potential victim and not the victor.14 Furthermore, it is keenly sensitive to the distortions of faith that come with an uncritical view of the state and fade into nationalism, a continual problem throughout history and not one that is uniquely American. Elsewhere I have critiqued the pacifism of Mennonite theologian John How­ard Yoder,15 whose influence is enormous even outside of narrowly Anabap­tist circles. Yoder’s work is worthy of serious critique, not least because of the thoroughness with which his theological justification of pacifism—errant and unrepresentative of the Christian moral tradition though it is—is built.16 [p.154>] In the end, the convictions represented in this response-essay represent not only my own position but classic “just war” thinking through the ages.17

The Ethico-Hermeneutical Fallacy

At the most basic level, given the natural moral law (as expressed, for example, in the Ten Commandments), it needs emphasis that there is no such thing as a “new morality” introduced in the New Covenant as most religious pacifists maintain. Jesus did not come to set aside the moral law but to af­firm and clarify it (as Matthew 5:17ff. makes quite clear). Murder, adultery, dishonest speech, taking justice into one’s hands (that is, revenge or retali­ation), and enemy-hatred,18 all of which are based on moral law revealed in the Old Testament, are not being set aside by Jesus; they are still prohibited.19 For this reason, Aquinas and the magisterial Protestant reformers distinguished between ceremonial, judicial, and moral law as they read and interpreted Old Testament law. Jesus, Paul, and James all agree: the New Covenant sums up-rather than changes-the ethical standard revealed in the Old?20 Thus, any hermeneutic that creates discontinuity of the moral law between the Old and New Testament is illegitimate and not representative of the historic Christian tradition.21 C. S. Lewis expresses it this way in his essay “On Ethics”:

The idea that Christianity brought an entirely new ethical code into the world is a grave error… for… its Founder, His precursor (the [p.155>] Baptist), [and] His apostles came demanding repentance and offering forgiveness, a demand and offer both meaningless except on the as­sumption of a moral law already known and broken.”22

It is no more possible, Lewis insists, “to invent a new ethic than to place a new sun in the sky.”23

The Textual and Contextual Fallacy

A second error plagues standard pacifist interpretations of Christian moral obligation. The image of “turning the other cheek” is meant to ad­dress issues of the heart—that is, personal reaction to abuse and insult, and personal revenge, not statecraft and public policy.24 This is made clear by the context of Matthew 5:39-42, in which “turning the other cheek” is one of four personal illustrations.25 The other three images are giving the shirt off your back, walking the second mile (likely a conscription to carry some­thing, such as a soldier’s gear, a common Judean occurrence), and giving to anyone who asks. If “turning the other cheek” is universally binding, at any level, then giving the shirt off your back, walking a second mile when com­pelled, and giving to whoever asks—including every irresponsible child and every irresponsible person on the street corner—are as well.

In this light, the text of Romans 12:17-13:6, consisting of two comple­mentary hortatory units needing to be taken together, offers a helpful paral­lel to Matthew 5, as Matthew Flannagan reminds the reader. Justice is pro­scribed in Romans 12 while it is prescribed in Romans 13. While I am free not to defend myself, I am not free not to defend the innocent third party who [156>] is suffering and needing protection.26 Pacifism is an option for individuals but not for communities, neighborhoods, or nations, wherein basic freedoms and rights need protecting, and often forcefully so. Since there will always be thieves, murderers, bandits, rapists, and wrongdoers, and since without the enforcement of law there will always be gangs of these wrongdoers, coercive power will always be a necessity in a relatively just and civil society.27 To not resist evil coercively is a moral absurdity, as Reinhold Niebuhr, Elizabeth Anscombe, and C. S. Lewis (among others) insist.28

The Politico-Cultural Fallacy

Given the pacifist tendency to speak in terms of “violence” or “nonvio­lence,” it needs to be emphasized that a qualitative moral distinction can be made—and should be maintained—between “violence” and “force.” It is for this reason that we conventionally speak of “military force,” not “military violence.” Analogically, it is the difference between romance and rape. Force may be defined as “the measure of power necessary and sufficient to uphold the valid purposes both of law and politics. What exceeds this measure is violence, which destroys the order both of law and politics.”29 Force, then, is morally neutral and can be used for either good or ill.

What needs reiterating in light of pacifism’s utopian tendency is that so­ciety without coercive power is impossible (not to mention fully unbiblical). Law and justice without force is a myth—try not paying your taxes! Justice without force is mythical because there will always exist evil men. And evil men must be hindered, in order that the very goods of human flourishing be [p.157>] protected; otherwise, human sinfulness would destroy everything. Peace at any price is not the Christian position. In the words of Aquinas, “peace is not a virtue, but the fruit of virtue.”30 That is to say, peace is a human good, but it is not an absolute good; peace must be justly ordered. After all, the Mafia, tyrants, terrorists, bandits, and pirates maintain a general orbit of “peace” in which they carry on their business. What then, we may ask, is “criminal justice”? And what happens to society without it? Here pacifism, with its fundamental commitment to “nonviolence,” is tragically irrelevant, despite its best intentions.

I happened to grow up in Pennsylvania, the “Quaker state.” Students of American history will recall that Quakers did have a go of it with their “holy experiment” of Quaker nonviolence. How long did the experiment last? Roughly seventy years (ca. 1680 to 1750). Well before the end, however, the high hopes for a “peaceable kingdom” were disintegrating. Forbidden to use violence, Quaker legislators hired others to fight the Indians, among others. In the end, it needs to be said, there is something very wrong with the religious attitude that basically says (or assumes), “Well, let the Gentiles—the unbelievers—do the messy business of maintaining justice in society.” Neither is this biblical, nor is it just, nor is it charitable.31 Someone must protect the neighborhood. Someone must protect the citizenry. Someone must protect society. Indeed, someone must perform those untidy public services that are often taken for granted, including guarding and transporting the life savings of pacifists from ABC Savings and Loan to XYZ Savings and Loan (as security guards routinely do).

To argue that Christians cannot serve in such positions or that political power (inclusive of “sword-bearing”) is inherently evil or that force cannot serve just purposes (as in fighting terrorism) is simply misguided at best and morally irresponsible at worst. Even the apostle Paul himself requested military protection when his own life was under threat (Acts 23). He does not take matters into his own hands, but asks the rightful authorities to do so—as, in fact, Romans 12 and 13 teach. What’s more, it finds no support from the Christian scriptures. Surely this is why neither Jesus nor John the Baptist nor the apostles ever call soldiers away from their vocation. Accord­ing to Matthew 8:5-15, Jesus commends an officer in the Roman legions for a faith that is truly incomparable: “Assuredly I tell you, I’ve not found such great faith throughout all of Israel.” In a context of repentance, the Baptist exhorts soldiers to do two things: “Don’t intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14). Were the pacifist’s arguments [p.158>] valid, we would expect the Baptist to tell the soldiers, “Repent and leave your military service if you confess authentic faith, for the ‘kingdom of God’ is nigh; otherwise, you are practicing idolatry.” Alas, such a call is not forth­coming. And, shockingly, God uses an officer in the Roman legions as the primary vehicle by which to adjust Peter’s theological understanding of the New Covenant (Acts 10:1-11:18). What’s more, this army officer becomes the first Gentile convert to be baptized.

The Philosophical and Theological Fallacy

Yet another point of correction is in order. It concerns the widespread misunderstanding of what constitutes charity or neighbor-love. Charity can take various forms, including coercive force and retributive justice. Augus­tine and Aquinas are at pains to be clear about this. Augustine speaks of benigna asperitas—”benevolent harshness”—in a letter to his friend Mar-cellinus, a Roman official in Carthage, and insists that it is a loving thing to prevent a criminal from further victimizing the community; it is best for” he offender, for the community watching, and for future potential offenders.32 And in the Summa, Aquinas subsumes his discussion of justified war, inter­estingly, under the broader topic of caritas. In the just war tradition—and in the Christian moral tradition—charity and justice are wed; thus, to separate them or place them in opposition is to do irreparable harm to both virtues.33 Justice will always seek a humane, dignified, and morally appropriate way of manifesting itself, while charity will always seek to uphold what is true, right, and just. Neighbor-love and justice, when wed together, yield an or­dered peace both at the international level and in domestic affairs (the latter being what we call “civil society”).

A principal error of pacifism, then, is that it mistakes the principles and forms of charity. Calculating consequences or effects of an action can never establish the rightness or wrongness thereof; rather, its intention and aim determine its moral quality, which in turn inform the means. At bottom, the “just war” criterion of right intention is a principal and necessary expression of “Golden Rule” ethics. Viewed positively, not only do we treat others as [p.159>] we wish to be treated ourselves, but in negative terms we do not treat oth­ers-nor do we permit others to be treated-as we ourselves would not wish to be treated. The implications for humanitarian intervention and for a mor­ally relevant response to terrorism are obvious. In the context of catastrophic geopolitical events, charity will take the form of coming to the aid of the grossly oppressed, for which coercive force will be a moral necessity. For this reason, the West’s failure to prevent genocide in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Sudan in our time remains a scar on our collective conscience.34

It is unsurprising that among religious and secular pacifists alike, Gan­dhi is hailed universally as a model of “nonviolent” resistance. Yet one could well argue that Gandhi’s pacifism was easier in India, a British colony; it could not have existed in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. Precisely this doubt was lodged in the mind of George Orwell, who spent years as a jour­nalist in India: “It is difficult to see how Gandhi’s methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard from again.”35 What’s more, most people have either forgotten or are unaware of Gandhi’s advice to European Jews who were being delivered to death camps by the Nazis during WWII. And what was his advice? That they should commit suicide in order to get the world’s attention and speak forcefully to the conscience of nations.36 Consider the unspeakably tragic irony here in Gandhi’s thinking: violence (in fact, any coercive force) is morally prohibited against others, but lethal violence per­petrated against myself (if I am a Jew in a death camp) is permissible. This is neither just nor charitable.

The tragedy of pacifism as a policy, in the face of unspeakable horror, has been expressed by political theorist Michael Walzer in this way:

Nonviolent defense differs from conventional strategies in that it concedes the overrunning of the country that is being defended. It estab‑ [p.160>] lishes no obstacles capable of stopping a military advance or preventing a military occupation…. This is a radical concession, and I don’t think that any government has ever made it willingly.37

Walzer’s point is to take the “nonviolent” position consistently to its logical end, and his point is obvious. There are no cases in which civilian defense, based on “nonviolence,” has caused either an invader to withdraw, a poten­tial invader not to invade, or a tyrant to cease and desist from terrorizing. Merely to say with the religious pacifist that as public policy we should fol­low the example of the “crucified Lamb” will not do. Not to resist is to con­done the evildoing in the moral sphere of human relations. In the end, one can be assured that European Jews were grateful for Allied intervention near the end of World War II; for this reason, the truth of the ancient proverbial wisdom remains:

Rescue those who are being led away to death;
Hold back those staggering toward slaughter.
And if you say, “But we knew nothing about this,”
Does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?
Does not he who guards your life know it?
Will he not repay each person
According to what he has done?38

In the context of genocide and mass human rights violations, this rescue—this “holding back from slaughter”—will require coercive force and restraint, and such is the fruit of charity or neighbor-love—what one Christian ethicist called a “preferential ethics of protection.”39 Christian love, then, will always be in search of a responsible social policy.40 That is to say, it will always seek to incarnate itself; it will always take on flesh, in this way lending itself toward social policy. It will do so, however, without becoming a “Christian politics” or “Christian economics” per se, since idolatry by means of democ­racy or contractual agreement can become entrenched and institutionalized.

The Historical Fallacy

[p.161>] Finally, a major flaw in pacifist thinking needs revisiting. It is the re­markably widespread assumption—so widespread, in fact, that even many nonpacifists have imbibed it—that the early Church, until the fourth century, was uniformly pacifist. For example, in his influential Christian Attitudes toward War and Peace, the Quaker historian Roland Bainton asserted that “no Christian author to our knowledge approved of Christian participation in battle.”41 Virtually all pacifist writers make the same assertion, with not a few following John Howard Yoder’s line of reasoning, namely, that the early Christians rejected anything remotely related to the Empire and Caesar as “inherently evil,” including the military.

But this viewpoint is historically inaccurate and cannot hold up to scru­tiny. Far from there being a univocal witness against soldiering and military service, the picture is one of ambiguity. There is little evidence of a unified and unambiguous “Christian” view of war and military service, or that most Christians opposed war or military service per se.42 And for the earliest gen­erations of believers—until the mid-to-late second century—military service was a nonissue, since as a sociological group, Christians were insignificant, not wanted, and lacking the requisite Roman citizenship to join the Roman legions. This, however, would begin to change for purely demographic rea­sons in the second century.

More recent scholarship has tended to confirm that the early church was indeed not univocally pacifist, and that diversity rather than uniformity—as we might expect—characterized Christian attitudes toward war, soldiering, and military service. A bit of recent history at this point is in order. Up until roughly 1980, it was broadly assumed that the early Christians were “paci‑ [p.162>] fist,” based on a supposed aversion to bloodshed. By the late second century it was acknowledged that some Christians were serving in the military-a number that grew during the third century. It was further assumed that by the end of the fourth century a “Christian accommodation” to political changes was being mirrored-what some have called a “Constantinian fall” from the Church’s pristine purity (so Roland Bainton, John Cadoux, Jean Michel Hornus, John Howard Yoder, among others). Historical research done by people such as John Helgeland, James Turner Johnson, and Louis J. Swift in the late 1970s and early 1980s questioned the more or less uncritical acceptance of the pacifist interpretation of the early fathers.

Summarizing aspects of the emergent new consensus in his 1982 essay “Pacifism and Military Service in the Early Church,” K. W. Ruyter notes that while the very early fathers tended to borrow the eschatological imagery of the Old Testament prophets as they envisioned future peace, successive generations wrestled more and more with how to relate Christian faith to the present social order. In the end, Ruyter too rejects the portrait of a “purely pacifist” early Church: “On the basis of the sources, the picture seems to be more complex and pluriform.”43 Writing on the state of the question in 1989, David G. Hunter sought to add perspective to the emergence of “new consensus.” Hunter observed that “the former ‘pacifist consensus’ has been definitively revised in the light of contemporary discussion.”44 Among the findings of the “new consensus,” according to Hunter, were the following: (a) opponents of military service objected on the basis of a variety of factors, not merely bloodshed; (b) evidence from the late second century onward indicated divergence of opinion among Christians; (c) even among some pre-Constantinian fathers we see evidence of concern for a “just” case in going to war. Elsewhere Hunter has argued that “the pluralism of Christian witness today has a ground in the pluralism of the early church. From the very time when military service became a real option for Christians, there is evidence that Christians responded to it in a variety of ways. . . . The witness of the first three centuries does not provide the Christian today with a univo­cal mandate for pacifism.”45

What is striking about patristic writings of the early centuries is how infrequently the subject of Christians, war, and soldiering occurs. This is significant, for if it were the source of controversy, we would expect heated exchanges, conciliar declarations, and excommunications. Alas, these never materialize. Elsewhere I have weighed the patristic evidence and, with re‑ [p.163>] cent scholarship, have concluded that Helgeland, Johnson, Swift, Hunter, and Ruyter—and more recently, John Shean and Despina Iosif—are correct. There is indeed a scholarly consensus—and an ecumenical one at that—but it is not the consensus that pacifists would wish to salvage.46

Scholarly and theological integrity demand an accurate accounting of the complexity and diversity of pre-Constantinian Christian attitudes toward the military. It is surely worth noting that dissenting attitudes toward Chris­tian enlistment in the Roman army during this period are individual and not collective or ecclesial. No controversy on the matter involving the entire Church or even between churches erupted. And we are justified in asking whether those individuals who did dissent were in fact representative of the Church at large.47….


14. Elshtain, Women and War, rev. ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 123, 132.

15. See David D. Corey and J. Daryl Charles, The Just War Tradition: An Introduction (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2012), chap. 11 (“Why Have Our Churches Lost the Tradition? Two Temptations: Christian Realism, Christian Pacifism”), and J. Daryl Charles, Between Paci­fism and Jihad: Just War and Christian Tradition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005), 88­106, esp. 88-93. Yoder is well known inter alia for suggesting the diversities of pacifism—see, e.g., his Nevertheless: The Varieties and Shortcomings of Religious Pacm, rev. ed. (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1992), wherein he posits nearly twenty different pacifist varieties (flavors?). If it is consistent ideologically, however, pacifism rejects the possibility that coercive force can ever be used for just purposes.

16. In some respects this thoroughness—as well as moral seriousness—is absent from the work of Stanley Hauerwas, whose debt to Yoder is considerable. In addition to Yoder, another influential contemporary pacifist voice has been New Testament scholar Richard Hays, whose book The Moral Vision of the New Testament (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996) received effusive praise from the moment that it appeared in 1996. In his important 2013 volume In Defence of War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), British theologian Nigel Biggar has subjected Hays’s work—and specifically chap. 14 (“Violence in Defense of Justice”) of The Moral Vision—to withering (and much needed) criticism.

17. The “just war” concept should not be viewed as a theoretical justification for going to war but rather as an ethic of restraint by which we severely qualify whether or not to enter conflict and how to limit and guide the conduct of such undertakings. It affirms not what may be done but what should be done.

18. The command to love one’s enemies is already present in the Old Testament (Exod. 23:4-5 and Prov. 25:21). Affirmed by Paul (Rom. 12:20), it is not at odds with Israel’s civic laws that include punishments. Carrying out punishments under the Mosaic Law, according to the lex talionis, is not opposed to loving one’s personal enemies or the “law of Christ.”

19. What is being set aside are rabbinic re-interpretations of the law (i.e., the so-called “fence around the law”) that have distorted its meaning—hence, the repeated use by Jesus of the rabbinic kelal (“You have heard it said but 1 tell you . . .”) in the six case-illustrations used by our Lord (Matt. 5:21-48). See in this regard to J. Daryl Charles, “‘Do Not Suppose That I Have Come’: The Ethic of the Sermon on the Mount Reconsidered,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 46, no. 3 (2004): 47-70.

20. The radical ethical discontinuity presumed by religious pacifists has the effect of creat­ing two Gods, not entirely unlike the heretic Marcion, for whom the ethical codes of the Old and New Testaments were discontinuous.

21. Those who object to God’s “warrior” character in the Old Testament (e.g., Ps. 18:34; 24:8; Jer. 20:11; Zeph. 3:17) typically argue that the New Testament reveals a God of love and peace, replacing a more “primitive” view of the Almighty. From the standpoint of orthodox Christian theism, such a view—”God the Warrior” vs. “God the Pacifist”—is untenable. Inter alia it ignores the mercy and Iovingkindness of God as pronounced in the Old Testament (e.g., Exod. 20:6; 34:6; Num. 14:18; Ps. 136; Isa. 55:3; Hos. 2:19; Mic. 7:18). Here I am presupposing the unity of the two Testaments as well as the unchanging nature of the divine character.

22. C. S. Lewis, “On Ethics,” in Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1967), 46.

23. Ibid., 53.

24. In this vein, the difference between retribution and revenge or retaliation needs under­scoring. At its base moral outrage expressed through retributive justice is first and foremost anchored in moral principle, not mere emotional outrage or hatred. Retribution properly un­derstood is concerned with the welfare of the population as well as those doing wrong. Any parent intuits the truth of this reality. Indeed, not to act against the will of an evildoer is to hurt both the community and the offender himself. Whereas revenge strikes out at real or perceived injury, retribution speaks to an objective wrong. Whereas revenge is wild, insatiable, and not subject to limitations, retribution has both upper and lower limits, acknowledging the moral repugnance both of draconian punishment for petty offenses and of light punishment for heinous crimes. Vengeance, by its nature, has a thirst for injury and delights in bringing further evil upon the other party. The avenger will not only kill but torture, rape, plunder, and burn what is left, deriving satisfaction from his victim’s direct or indirect suffering. In addition, because of its retaliatory mode, revenge will target both the offending party and those perceived to be akin. Retribution, by contrast, is targeted yet impersonal and impartial, not subject to personal bias. For this reason, Lady Justice is depicted as blindfolded. The difference between revenge and retribution is the difference between Rom. 12 and Rom. 13.

25. It is therefore wrong to view these four images as commands, which would render them moral absolutes.

26. Notice that Jesus did not say, “Turn the other cheek of the third party being accosted.” Theologian Donald Bloesch has rightly observed that pacifism mistakenly substitutes the prin­ciple of nonviolence for divine commandment (Freedom for Obedience: Evangelical Ethics for Contemporary Times (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987), 293-4).

27. It is not the prerogative of the state to forgive evil. South African Justice Richard Gold­stone, who served as Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, had this to say in a speech at the United States Holocaust Museum re­garding evil from the recent past: “where there have been egregious human rights violations that have been unaccounted for, were there has been no justice, where the victims have not received any acknowledgement, where they have been forgotten, where there’s been a national amnesia, the effect is a cancer in the society.” See “War Crimes: When Amnesia Causes Cancer,” The Washington Post, February 2, 1997, C4. Goldstone’s comments serve to remind us that bad theology is a cruel taskmaster and makes for horrendous social policy.

28. For this reason, Niebuhr lampoons Protestant naiveté on the eve of World War II with sarcastic lament, suggesting that if only Christians had demonstrated more “nonviolent love” and “if Britain had only been fortunate enough to have produced 30 percent instead of two percent conscientious objectors to military service, [then] Hitler’s heart would have been soft­ened and he would not have dared attack Poland” (Christianity and Power Politics (New York: Scribner’s, 1940), 6).

29. John Courtney Murray, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1960), 288.

30. Aquinas, Summa Theologiae IIaIIae q.29.

31. This moral logic applies not only to the military or to police work and law enforce­ment; it applies to the myriad of vocations associated with civil and public service, including government work (of any type), holding public office, policy analysis, data collection, econom­ics, security, lawyering, as well as any public service dedicated to promoting or protecting the common good.

32. Augustine, epistle 138 (“To Marcellinus”). We may properly define charity as desiring the best—the highest—for the other.

33. Elsewhere I have attempted to address the tragic divorce of justice and charity in general ethical terms in “Toward Restoring a Good Marriage: Reflections on the Contemporary Divorce of Love and Justice and Its Cultural Implications,” Journal of Church and State 55 (2013): 367-83. Insofar as the unity of charity and justice underpins the just war tradition classically understood, see J. Daryl Charles, “Justice, Neighbor-Love and the Just-War Tradition,” Cultural Encounters 1 (2004): 47-67; “Between Pacifism and Crusade: Justice and Neighbor-Love in the Just-War Tradition,” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 8, no. 4 (2005): 86-123; and more recently, “The Moral Underpinnings of Just Retribution: Justice and Charity in Sym­biosis,” Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy (forthcoming).

34. These geopolitical tragedies illustrate why “peace” must be qualified and justly ordered. Correlatively, they expose the baseline fallacy of ideological pacifism, which proceeds from a presumption against coercive force and war rather than a presumption against evil and injustice. Hereon see J. Daryl Charles, “Presumption against War or Presumption against Injustice? The Just War Tradition Reconsidered,” Journal of Church and State 47 (2005): 335-69.

35. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus, eds., The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, 4 vols. (New York: Harcourt Brace Janovich, 1968), 4:469; see as well George Orwell, “Reflections on Gandhi,” Partisan Review 16 (1949): 85-92. Gandhi’s method indeed would appear powerless and inefficacious against tyranny as we’ve known it in the twentieth century. Consider, for example, estimates of the numbers of death in the twentieth century due to conventional war—ca. 30 million—and to political tyranny and totalitarianism—between 100 and 200 million. The combined estimate given by French historian Stephane Courtois, in the introduction of The Black Book of Communism, trans. J. Murphy and M. Kramer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), is approximately 100 million. The estimate of military historian Robert Conquest, in Reflections on a Ravaged Century (New York: W. W. Norton, 2001), is in the 170 million range. Truly, the stench of death is stunning.

36. Gandhi’s thinking would appear to be rooted in the principle of satyagraha, by which it is presumed that the sight of suffering would move an aggressor to desist from his violence.

37. Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 4th ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 329-30. In the end, a very troubling question for C. S. Lewis was why pacifists were tolerated only in liberal societies. This seemed to suggest a moral incongruity, since for pacifism to be a universal moral obligation it must be prescribed for all or for none. “This, then, is why I am not a Pacifist,” concluded C. S. Lewis. “If I tried to become one, I should find a very doubtful factual basis, an obscure train of reasoning, a weight of author­ity both human and Divine against me, and strong grounds for suspecting that my [personal] wishes had directed my decision” (“Why I Am Not a Pacifist,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, rev. ed. (New York: Macmillan, 1965), 53).

38. Prov. 24:11-12.

39. Paul Ramsey, Basic Christian Ethics (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993), 166­-70.

40. Ibid., 326-66 (chap. 9, “Christian Love in Search of a Social Policy”).

41. Roland Bainton, Christian Attitudes toward War and Peace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1960), 66.

42. Tertullian and Origen are typically cited as evidence of “normative pacifism” in the early church. But the earlier Tertullian, in Apology, speaks of the necessity of war in the service of protecting geographical borders, while observing that Christians help the emperor and the army through prayer. The later Tertullian, as represented in his two works On Idolatry and On the Military Crown, is worried about idolatry—idolatry in wider culture and idolatry in certain military practices and ceremonies. For his part, Origen writes in Contra Celsum—an apologetic work intended to argue that Christians were not unpatriotic—that Christians indeed served society by praying for the emperor and the soldiers to triumph in battle (8.73). Origen’s position was not one of pure pacifism, for although he was opposed to believers serving in the military, he did not oppose war. Clement of Alexandria, one of the earliest fathers to discuss war (late-second and early-third century), mirrors a positive attitude toward soldiering, anchoring this perspective in Jesus’s and John the Baptist’s dealings with soldiers. In his Exhortation to the Greeks, Clement observes that farmers, sailors and soldiers all are able to mature in their relationship with God (10.100.2). In the end, patristic evidence indicates that Tertullian, in his radical sectarianism, and Origen, in his selective pacifism, were not representative of the first four centuries. Moreover, it is well possible that the attitudes of both were due to an increasing number of Christians entering the military.

43. K. W. Ruyter, “Pacifism and Military Service in the Early Church,” Cross Currents 32 (1982): 54-70.

44. David G. Hunter, “A Decade of Research on Early Christians and Military Service,” Religious Studies Review 18, no. 2 (1989): 93 (emphasis added).

45. David G. Hunter, “The Christian Church and the Roman Army in the First Three Cen­turies,” in The Church’s Peace Witness, ed. Martin E. Miller and Barbara N. Gingerich (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 180.

46. See J. Daryl Charles, “Patriots, Pacifists, or Both? Second Thoughts on Pre-Constantinian Early Christian Attitudes toward Soldiering and War,” Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture 13, no. 2 (2010): 17-55; “Early Christian Attitudes toward Soldiering and War,” in The Just War Tradition, 23-51 (chap. 2); John Helgeland, “Christians and the Roman Army, A.D. 173-337,” Church History 43 (1974): 149-63, 200; “Christians and the Roman Army from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine,” Aufstieg and Niedergang der römischen Welt 2.23.1 (1979): 724-834; cf. as John Helgeland, Robert J. Daly, and J. Patout Burns, Christians in the Military: The Early Experience (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1985); James Turner Johnson, The Quest for Peace: Three Moral Traditions in Western Cultural History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987), 3-66; Louis J. Swift, The Early Fathers on War and Military Service (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1983); Hunter, “A Decade of Research on Early Christians and Mili­tary Service,” and “The Christian Church and the Roman Army in the First Three Centuries”; Ruyter, “Pacifism and Military Service in the Early Church”; John F. Shean, Soldiering for God: Christianity and the Roman Army (Leiden: Brill, 2010); and Despina Iosif, Early Christian At­titudes to War, Violence and Military Service (Piscataway: Gorgias Press, 2013).

That the ethical ramifications of contemporary accounts of the early centuries are indeed intended to be prescriptive and not merely descriptive should give us pause. Insofar as pacifism, by virtue of its refusal to participate in politics, cannot treat either criminal justice or interna­tional affairs seriously qua politics, it misconstrues—and severely limits—not only the church’s wider cultural mandate but also the manifold expressions of charity toward the oppressed that are affirmed by mainstream Christian thinking. By following pacifists’ prescription, we in truth make everyone unsafe.

47. More recently I have responded to pacifist claims regarding patristic evidence made by Ronald J. Sider in his essay “The Early Church on War and Killing,” Books & Culture, January-February 2016. In his review of recent scholarship that challenges the pacifist consen­sus and seems to confirm an emergent “new consensus,” Sider rather remarkably dismisses this historical (and countervailing) data as “speculation.” While Sider is surely free to disagree, he is not free to dismiss a different interpretation of historical data as mere “speculation.” See J. Daryl Charles, “‘The Early Church on War and Killing’ (Books & Culture, January-February 2016: A Response,” Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy, Janu­ary 29, 2016,