A chap in a Facebook group posted a few points in a post, of which I took this point up to respond to.
…My moral values have a simple root…if an action causes harm to another person, that act is immoral. If my inaction causes harm to another person, that inaction is immoral…
I first posted this as a response:
You would have to define and then implement this definition in a way that non-theistic governments would accept (like the many Eastern-block countries of our past for example). Some countries would view the disabled and farmers as harming society, and thus view the moral rout for said society as a whole to rid themselves of these persons/groups. They would say to NOT do so causes harm.
BUT, I didn’t have to really do any heavy lifting… this person did it for me. After reading through the discussion, the same person said this:
…Morality actually derives from human self interest in preserving the group they needed to be part of to survive in a hostile world. It had to be a feature in the lives of the earliest human ancestor species…
To which I replied:
Oh, this comment refutes you OP [original post]. “Morality actually derives from human self interest in preserving the group they needed to be part of to survive in a hostile world.”
So another group’s morality to survive in a hostile world (say, Pol-Pot, Stalin, Hitler, Caesars, etc) are just as “moral” then. Unless you are saying that there is a universal code you are tapping into to compare/contrast, and put on a higher plane? Not only that, but you would need to argue that another person would have to have that same ability…. At least if you are expecting your OP to carry any weight.
Otherwise you are merely here expressing your preference (emoting), like my children telling me they prefer chocolate ice cream over vanilla.
Not only that, but the majority group, whether in a country or in the world, would decide this ethos (what it “means” to survive). And thus, to speak out against this consensus (whether is science or in morality) would be immoral.
A couple examples of this ethos at work:
“Everything I have said and done in these last years is relativism by intuition…. If relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories and men who claim to be bearers of an objective, immortal truth… then there is nothing more relativistic than fascistic attitudes and activity…. From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable.”
Mussolini, Diuturna (1924) pp. 374-77, quoted in A Refutation of Moral Relativism: Interviews with an Absolutist (Ignatius Press; 1999), by Peter Kreeft, p. 18.
“The stronger must dominate and not mate with the weaker, which would signify the sacrifice of its own higher nature. Only the born weakling can look upon this principle as cruel, and if he does so it is merely because he is of a feebler nature and narrower mind; for if such a law [natural selection] did not direct the process of evolution then the higher development of organic life would not be conceivable at all…. If Nature does not wish that weaker individuals should mate with the stronger, she wishes even less that a superior race should intermingle with an inferior one; because in such a case all her efforts, throughout hundreds of thousands of years, to establish an evolutionary higher stage of being, may thus be rendered futile.”
Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, translator/annotator, James Murphy (New York: Hurst and Blackett, 1942), pp. 161-162; found in: Norman L. Geisler & Peter Bocchino, Unshakeable Foundations: Contemporary Answers to Crucial Questions About the Christian Faith (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 2001), 206.
“What’s to prevent us from saying Hitler wasn’t right? I mean, that is a genuinely difficult question.” — Richard Dawkins
Stated during an interview with Larry Taunton, “Richard Dawkins: The Atheist Evangelist,” by Faith Magazine, Issue Number 18, December 2007.
Atheist Daniel Dennett, for example, asserts that consciousness is an illusion. (One wonders if Dennett was conscious when he said that!) His claim is not only superstitious, it’s logically indefensible. In order to detect an illusion, you’d have to be able to see what’s real. Just like you need to wake up to know that a dream is only a dream, Daniel Dennett would need to wake up with some kind of superconsciousness to know that the ordinary consciousness the rest of us mortals have is just an illusion. In other words, he’d have to be someone like God in order to know that.
Dennett’s assertion that consciousness is an illusion is not the result of an unbiased evaluation of the evidence. Indeed, there is no such thing as “unbiased evaluation” in a materialist world because the laws of physics determine everything anyone thinks, including everything Dennett thinks. Dennett is just assuming the ideology of materialism is true and applying its implications to consciousness. In doing so, he makes the same mistake we’ve seen so many other atheists make. He is exempting himself from his own theory. Dennett says consciousness is an illusion, but he treats his own consciousness as not an illusion. He certainly doesn’t think the ideas in his book are an illusion. He acts like he’s really telling the truth about reality.
When atheists have to call common sense “an illusion” and make self-defeating assertions to defend atheism, then no one should call the atheistic worldview “reasonable.” Superstitious is much more accurate.
Frank Turek, Stealing from God (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2014), 46-47.
….Darwin thought that, had the circumstances for reproductive fitness been different, then the deliverances of conscience might have been radically different. “If . . . men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters, and no one would think of interfering” (Darwin, Descent, 82). As it happens, we weren’t “reared” after the manner of hive bees, and so we have widespread and strong beliefs about the sanctity of human life and its implications for how we should treat our siblings and our offspring.
But this strongly suggests that we would have had whatever beliefs were ultimately fitness producing given the circumstances of survival. Given the background belief of naturalism, there appears to be no plausible Darwinian reason for thinking that the fitness-producing predispositions that set the parameters for moral reflection have anything whatsoever to do with the truth of the resulting moral beliefs. One might be able to make a case for thinking that having true beliefs about, say, the predatory behaviors of tigers would, when combined with the understandable desire not to be eaten, be fitness producing. But the account would be far from straightforward in the case of moral beliefs.” And so the Darwinian explanation undercuts whatever reason the naturalist might have had for thinking that any of our moral beliefs is true. The result is moral skepticism.
If our pretheoretical moral convictions are largely the product of natural selection, as Darwin’s theory implies, then the moral theories we find plausible are an indirect result of that same evolutionary process. How, after all, do we come to settle upon a proposed moral theory and its principles as being true? What methodology is available to us?
Paul Copan and William Lane Craig, eds., Contending With Christianity’s Critics: Answering the New Atheists & Other Objections (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing, 2009), 70.
Dawkins spells out the contradiction: “As an academic scientist, I am a passionate Darwinian, believing that natural selection is, if not the only driving force in evolution, certainly the only known force capable of producing the illusion of purpose which so strikes all who contemplate nature. But at the same time as I support Darwinism as a scientist, I am a passionate anti-Darwinian when it comes to politics and how we should conduct our human affairs.” A Devils Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003), 10-11.
In another place, he admits to the logic of his own determinism (that people cannot be held responsible for their actions), but emotionally he cannot accept this. See the Dawkins interview by Logan Gage, “Who Wrote Richard Dawkins’s New Book?,”Evolution News (website), October 28, 2006:
Manzari: Dr. Dawkins thank you for your comments. The thing I have appreciated most about your comments is your consistency in the things I’ve seen you’ve written. One of the areas that I wanted to ask you about, and the place where I think there is an inconsistency, and I hoped you would clarify, is that in what I’ve read you seem to take a position of a strong determinist who says that what we see around us is the product of physical laws playing themselves out; but on the other hand it would seem that you would do things like taking credit for writing this book and things like that. But it would seem, and this isn’t to be funny, that the consistent position would be that necessarily the authoring of this book, from the initial conditions of the big bang, it was set that this would be the product of what we see today. I would take it that that would be the consistent position but I wanted to know what you thought about that.
Dawkins: The philosophical question of determinism is a very difficult question. It’s not one I discuss in this book, indeed in any other book that I’ve ever talked about. Now an extreme determinist, as the questioner says, might say that everything we do, everything we think, everything that we write has been determined from the beginning of time in which case the very idea of taking credit for anything doesn’t seem to make any sense. Now I don’t actually know what I actually think about that, I haven’t taken up a position about that, it’s not part of my remit to talk about the philosophical issue of determinism. What I do know is that what it feels like to me, and I think to all of us, we don’t feel determined. We feel like blaming people for what they do or giving people the credit for what they do. We feel like admiring people for what they do. None of us ever actually as a matter of fact says, “Oh well he couldn’t help doing it, he was determined by his molecules.” Maybe we should… I sometimes… Um… You probably remember many of you would have seen Fawlty Towers. The episode where Basil where his car won’t start and he gives it fair warning, counts up to three, and then gets out of the car and picks up a tree branch and thrashes it within an edge of his life. Maybe that’s what we all ought to… Maybe the way we laugh at Basil Fawlty, we ought to laugh in the same way at people who blame humans. I mean when we punish people for doing the most horrible murders, maybe the attitude we should take is “Oh they were just determined by their molecules.” It’s stupid to punish them. What we should do is say “This unit has a faulty motherboard which needs to be replaced.” I can’t bring myself to do that. I actually do respond in an emotional way and I blame people, I give people credit, or I might be more charitable and say this individual who has committed murders or child abuse of whatever it is was really abused in his own childhood. And so again I might take a…
Manzari: But do you personally see that as an inconsistency in your views?
Dawkins: I sort of do. Yes. But it is an inconsistency that we sort of have to live with otherwise life would be intolerable. But it has nothing to do with my views on religion it is an entirely separate issue.
Manzari: Thank you.
2 Peter 1:5-8:
“For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In other words, there is no absolute moral ethic, Dawkins wants to have a consensus of people agreeing what is “right” and “wrong” — he says as much in the audio above. Which means that rape and murder are only taboo… not really wrong.
Secondly, there can be no concept of “ought”
What about human actions? They are of no more value or significance than the actions of any other material thing. Consider rocks rolling down a hill and coming to rest at the bottom. We don’t say that some particular arrangement of the rocks is right and another is wrong. Rocks don’t have a duty to roll in a particular way and land in a particular place. Their movement is just the product of the laws of physics. We don’t say that rocks “ought” to land in a certain pattern and that if they don’t then something needs to be done about it. We don’t strive for a better arrangement or motion of the rocks. In just the same way, there is no standard by which human actions can be judged. We are just another form of matter in motion, like the rocks rolling down the hill.
We tend to think that somewhere “out there” there are standards of behaviour that men ought to follow. But according to Dawkins there is only the “natural, physical world”. Nothing but particles and forces. These things cannot give rise to standards that men have a duty to follow. In fact they cannot even account for the concept of “ought”. There exist only particles of matter obeying the laws of physics. There is no sense in which anything ought to be like this or ought to be like that. There just is whatever there is, and there just happens whatever happens in accordance with the laws of physics.
Men’s actions are therefore merely the result of the laws of physics that govern the behaviour of the particles that make up the chemicals in the cells and fluids of their bodies and thus control how they behave. It is meaningless to say that the result of those physical reactions ought to be this or ought to be that. It is whatever it is. It is meaningless to say that people ought to act in a certain way. It is meaningless to say (to take a contemporary example) that the United States and its allies ought not to have invaded Iraq. The decision to invade was just the outworking of the laws of physics in the bodies of the people who governed those nations. And there is no sense in which the results of that invasion can be judged as good or bad because there are no standards to judge anything by. There are only particles reacting together; no standards, no morals, nothing but matter in motion.
Dawkins finds it very hard to be consistent to this system of belief. He thinks and acts as if there were somewhere, somehow standards that people ought to follow. For example in The God Delusion, referring particularly to the Christian doctrine of atonement, he says that there are “teachings in the New Testament that no good person should support”.(6) And he claims that religion favours an in-group/out-group approach to morality that makes it “a significant force for evil in the world”.(7)
According to Dawkins, then, there are such things as good and evil. We all know what good and evil mean. We know that if no good person should support the doctrine of atonement then we ought not to support that doctrine. We know that if religion is a force for evil then we are better off without religion and that, indeed, we ought to oppose religion. The concepts of good and evil are innate in us. The problem for Dawkins is that good and evil make no sense in his worldview. “There is nothing beyond the natural, physical world.” There are no standards out there that we ought to follow. There is only matter in motion reacting according to the laws of physics. Man is not of a different character to any other material thing. Men’s actions are not of a different type or level to that of rocks rolling down a hill. Rocks are not subject to laws that require them to do good and not evil; nor are men. Every time you hear Dawkins talking about good and evil as if the words actually meant something, it should strike you loud and clear as if he had announced to the world, “I am contradicting myself”.
Please note that I am not saying that Richard Dawkins doesn’t believe in good and evil. On the contrary, my point is that he does believe in them but that his worldview renders such standards meaningless.
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.
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,”2the 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).
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:
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.31Someone 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.42And 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.”44Among 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).
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,
War texts (as a genre) include hyperbole and exaggeration.
I did not put the footnotes into this excerpt… you will have to purchase the book to follow through. I left out a few pages (104-107) that are titled three implications of this reading. Very interesting and again the book is worth a read. Chapter 9 is titled “Objections from the Biblical Text to the Hyperbolic Interpretation.” So for the skeptical, again, the entire book is worth your attention. This is posted for a pastor and for a professor I know… enjoy. (BTW, here is a quick synopsis of Jericho referencing Copan’s great book, Is God a Moral Monster, at Tough Questions Answered.)
Paul Copan and Matthew Flannagan, Did God Really Command Genocide? Coming to Terms with the Justice of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014), 84-104, 107-108.
7 ~ The Question of Genocide and the Hyperbolic Interpretation of Joshua
Earlier, we noted philosopher Raymond Bradley’s quoting from Joshua 6-12, in which we read that Joshua “utterly destroyed everything in the city, both man and woman, young and old,” that “he utterly destroyed every person who was in it,” “he left no survivor,” and “there was no one left who breathed.” We have cited Bradley’s assessment of Israel’s/God’s “genocidal policies.” We’ve also noted that thinkers such as philosopher Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and zoologist Richard Dawkins cite Joshua to make the same argument. Bradley, Sinnott-Armstrong, and Dawkins do have a point when they say that if we read such verses in isolation from the rest of the narrative and do so in a straightforward, literal way, it appears that Israel committed genocide at God’s command, slaughtering every last inhabitant of the land of Canaan.
There are, however, good reasons why these passages should not be read in a straightforward, literal way. Nicholas Wolterstorff, who taught philosophical theology at Yale, puts forward two strong arguments for rejecting the kind of literalistic reading that Bradley and his atheistic comrades-in-arms promote. First, it’s quite implausible that those who authorized the final form of the text were affirming that all Canaanites were exterminated at God’s command. Second, the accounts that appear to say otherwise are utilizing extensive hyperbole and are not intended to be taken literally. In this chapter and the next, we’ll develop and defend these arguments. If Wolterstorff’s arguments are correct—and there are a number of biblical scholars who take this view—then the author(s) of the biblical text aren’t affirming that God commanded genocide.
An Argument against Literalism
Wolterstorff’s first argument rejects a literalistic reading of these Joshua texts: “A careful reading of the text in its literary context makes it implausible to interpret it as claiming that Yahweh ordered extermination.” What is this literary context? “Joshua as we have it today was intended as a component in the larger sequence consisting of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings…. I propose that we interpret the book of Joshua as a component within this larger sequence—in particular, that we interpret it as preceded by Deuteronomy and succeeded by Judges.” Jews and Christians accept the final form of Joshua as part of a sequence in a larger canonical arrangement. When reading it this way, certain features of the narrative become apparent. The first feature is that a tension exists between early chapters of Joshua and the opening chapters of Judges, which is the literary sequel to Joshua: Joshua 6-11 summarizes several battles and concludes with, “So Joshua took the entire land, just as the LORD had directed Moses, and he gave it as an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal divisions. Then the land had rest from war” (11:23). Scholars readily agree that Judges is literately linked to Joshua. Yet the early chapters of Judges, which, incidentally, repeat the death and burial of Joshua, show a different picture:
After the death of Joshua, the Israelites inquired of the LORD, “Who shall go up first for us against the Canaanites, to fight against them?” The LORD said, “Judah shall go up. I hereby give the land into his hand.” Judah said to his brother Simeon, “Come up with me into the territory allotted to me, that we may fight against the Canaanites; then I too will go with you into the territory allotted to you.” So Simeon went with him. Then Judah went up and the LORD gave the Canaanites and the Perizzites into their hand; and they defeated ten thousand of them at Bezek. (Judg. 1:1-4)
On the surface Joshua appears to affirm that all the land was conquered, yet Judges proceeds on the assumption that it has not been and still needs to be.
Similarly, Joshua 10-11 appears to state that Joshua exterminated all the Canaanites in the land. Repeatedly, the text states that Joshua left “no survivors” and “destroyed everything that breathed” in “the entire land” and “put all the inhabitants to the sword.” Alongside these general claims, the book of Joshua identifies several specific places and cities where Joshua exterminated “everyone” and left no survivors. These include Hebron (10:36), Debir (10:38), the hill country, the Negev, and the western foothills (10:40).
In contrast, the first chapter of Judges affirms eight times that the Israelites had failed to conquer the land or the cities; they could not drive the inhabitants out. The narrator states that the Canaanites lived in the Negev, in the hill country (v. 9), in Debir (v. 11), in Hebron (v. 10), and in the western foothills (v. 9). Moreover, they did so in such numbers and strength that they had to be driven out by force with great difficulty. These are the same cities noted in Joshua 10, which claims all inhabitants had been annihilated with no remaining survivors. The opening section of Judges finishes with the angel of the Lord at Bokim rebuking them for failing to drive out the inhabitants of these areas (Judg. 2:1-5).6 And further along in the text, the affirmation that Joshua did not destroy all the Canaanites in the land becomes even more explicit: “I will no longer drive out before them any of the nations that Joshua left when he died”; the text continues: “The LORD had left those nations, not driving them out at once, and had not handed them over to Joshua” (vv. 21,23 NRSV). Contrast this with the sweeping affirmation made in Joshua 11:23: “So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the LORD had spoken to Moses, and Joshua gave it for an inheritance to Israel according to their divisions by their tribes. Thus the land had rest from war” (NASB).
We see other passages that seem to suggest extermination—only to be told shortly afterward that nothing of the sort happened:
At the end of the book, Joshua refers to “these nations . . . which remain among you” (23:7 NASB), and he warns against clinging to “the rest of these nations” (v. 12 NASB).
So, on the surface, Joshua appears to affirm that these cities were conquered and their inhabitants completely exterminated. Judges proceeds, however, on the assumption that they are yet to be conquered and the Canaanites still live there in significant numbers, although Joshua gives indications of this as well. Yet Joshua and Judges sit side by side in the biblical canon, the latter being a continuation of the narrative of the former. Old Testament scholar John Goldingay makes this observation: “While Joshua does speak of Israel’s utterly destroying the Canaanites, even these accounts can give a misleading impression. When a city is in danger of falling, people do not simply wait there to be killed; they get out. . . . That may be one reason why peoples that have been annihilated have no trouble reappearing later in the story; after Judah puts Jerusalem to the sword, its occupants are still living there ‘to this day’ (Judg. 1:8, 21).”
Finally, the account of what God commanded differs in the two narratives. Joshua states: “He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed, just as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded” (Josh. 10:40) and “exterminating them without mercy, as the LORD had commanded Moses” (11:20). However, when this command is retroactively referred to in Judges 2:1, there is no mention of genocide or annihilation. Instead we read of how God had promised to drive them out and of God’s commands not to make treaties with the Canaanites but to destroy their shrines. This silence is significant in the context. If God had commanded genocide, then it is odd that only instructions concerning treaties and shrines were mentioned (a theme we also see in Deut. 7:1-6). So there are obvious tensions between a surface reading of Joshua and Judges (a sequel to Joshua). However, these tensions do not merely occur between Joshua and Judges. The same tension occurs within the book of Joshua itself. Chapter 11 finishes in this manner: “So Joshua took the entire land, just as the LORD had directed Moses, and he gave it as an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal divisions. Then the land had rest from war” (v. 23). Note that the conquered region is the same land that is later divided among the Israelite tribes.
However, when the text turns to giving an account of these tribal divisions only a chapter (or so) later, God says, “You are now very old, and there are still very large areas of land to be taken over” (13:1). Then, in the next five chapters, it is stressed repeatedly that the land was not yet conquered, and the Canaanites were, in fact, not literally wiped out. As we have seen, when we examine the allotment given to Judah, we see Caleb asking permission to drive the Anakim from the hill countries (14:12), describing how he has to defeat the Anakim living in Hebron, and, after this, marching against the people “living-in Debir” (15:13-19).
Similarly, it is evident with several of the other allotments that the people still had to drive out Canaanites entrenched in the area and were not always successful in doing so. We read, for example, that the Ephraimites and Manassites “did not dislodge the Canaanites living in Gezer; to this day the Canaanites live among the people of Ephraim” (16:10). Similarly, chapter 17 states, “Yet the Manassites were not able to occupy these towns, for the Canaanites were determined to live in that region. However, when the Israelites grew stronger, they subjected the Canaanites to forced labor but did not drive them out completely” (vv. 12-13). We read that “when the territory of the Danites was lost to them, they went up and attacked Leshem, took it, put it to the sword and occupied it. They settled in Leshem and named it Dan after their ancestor” (19:47). Here we see the same land said to be subdued and conquered by Joshua in battles where he exterminated and left alive nothing that breathed. This land was yet to be occupied by the tribes of Israel and was still occupied by Canaanites, who were often heavily armed and deeply entrenched (17:16-18).
So a surface reading of the passages that Bradley and Sinnott-Armstrong cite not only seems to contradict Judges, but also the preceding chapters of the book of Joshua itself.
Biblical scholar Brevard Childs notes the apparent contradiction:
Critical scholars have long since pointed out the tension—it is usually called a contradiction—in the portrayal of the conquest of the land. On the one hand, the conquest is pictured in the main source of Josh. 1-12 as a unified assault against the inhabitants of the land under the leadership of Joshua which succeeded in conquering the entire land (11.23; 18.1; 22.43). On the other hand, there is a conflicting view of the conquest represented by Judges 1 and its parallels in Joshua (15.13-19, 63; 16.10; 17.11-13; 19.47) which appears to picture the conquest as undertaken by individual tribes, extending over a long period beyond the age of Joshua, and unsuccessful in driving out the Canaanites from much of the land.
More recently, Kenneth Kitchen has taken issue with Childs’s picture of Joshua 1-12. He notes that, when one takes into account the rhetorical flourishes common to ancient Near Eastern war accounts of this sort, a careful reading of Joshua 1-12 makes it clear that it does not portray Israel as actually occupying or conquering the areas mentioned. Kitchen notes that after crossing the Jordan, the Israelites set up camp in Gilgal “on the east border of Jericho” (Josh. 4:19). He points out that after every battle in the next six chapters, the text explicitly states that they returned to Gilgal:
The conflict with Canaanite city-state rulers in the southern part of Canaan is worth close observation. After the battle for Gibeon, we see the Hebrews advance upon six towns in order, attacking and capturing them, killing their local kings and such of the inhabitants as had not gotten clear, and moving on, not holding on to these places. Twice over (10:15, 43), it is clearly stated that their strike force returned to base camp at Gilgal. So there was no sweeping takeover and occupation of this region at this point. And no total destruction of the towns attacked.
What happened in the south was repeated up north. Hazor was both leader and famed center for the north Canaanite kinglets. Thus, as in the south, the Hebrew force defeated the opposition; captured their towns, killed rulers and less mobile inhabitants, and symbolically burned Hazor, and Hazor only, to emphasize its end to its local supremacy. Again Israel did not attempt to immediately hold on to Galilee; they remained based at Gilgal (cf. 14:6).
Kitchen notes that “the first indication of a real move in occupation outward beyond Gilgal comes in 18:4.” This is “after the first allotment (14-17) of lands-to-be-occupied had been made,” and as we saw above, the Israelites did not find occupying these allotments easy. He concludes, “These campaigns were essentially disabling raids: they were not territorial conquests with instant Hebrew occupation. The text is very clear about this.”
Joshua as we have it today, then, occurs in a literary context in which the language of “killing all who breathed,” “putting all inhabitants to the sword,” and “leaving no survivors” is followed up by a narrative that affirms straightforwardly that the Canaanites were not literally wiped out or exterminated in this manner. Moreover the text of Joshua itself mixes and juxtaposes these two pictures of the entrance into Canaan. If one reads the whole narrative as a sequence, these are not subtle contrasts; they are, in Wolterstorff’s words, “flamboyant” ones.
It is worth emphasizing how “flamboyant” these tensions are. Joshua 6-11 rhythmically and repeatedly emphasizes that Joshua “put all the inhabitants to the sword” and “left no survivors.” It additionally spells out specific places this occurred. The section finishes in this manner: “So Joshua took the entire land, just as the LORD had directed Moses, and he gave it as an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal divisions. Then the land had rest from war” (11:23). Yet, at the same time, after every battle it is stressed that Israel returned to base camp at Gilgal. So there was no sweeping takeover and occupation of this region at that point.
Then, in the next five chapters, it is stressed repeatedly that the land was not yet conquered, and the Canaanites were, in fact, not literally wiped out. Furthermore, the very same regions were still occupied by the Canaanites who remained heavily armed and deeply entrenched in the cities. This is then followed by the opening chapters of Judges, which affirm eight times (in a single chapter) that the Israelites had failed to conquer the land or the cities and had failed to drive the inhabitants out. As we noted earlier, the account finishes with the angel of the Lord at Bokim rebuking them for failing to drive the inhabitants out. While one might contend a human author could make an editorial error, it is unlikely that an intelligent editor or arranger would have missed something this blatant. Wolterstorff concludes: “Those whose occupation it is to try to determine the origins of these writings will suggest that the editors had contradictory records, oral traditions, and so forth to work with. No doubt this is correct. But those who edited the final version of these writings into one sequence were not mindless; they could see, as well as you and I can see, the tensions and contradictions—surface or real—that I have pointed to. So what is going on?” Wolterstorff’s point is that regardless of what sources or strata of tradition are alleged to be behind the final form of Joshua, those who edited the final version of these writings into one sequence would have been well aware of the obvious tensions in the passages mentioned above. Moreover, they were not mindless or stupid. Consequently, it is unlikely, when read in this context, that those who authorized the final form of Joshua were using the text to assert literally that Joshua carried out an extermination of all the inhabitants of Canaan at God’s command. Evidently, something else is going on.
The Use of Sources and Not-So-Intelligent Editors
Some critics have objected that this argument from Wolterstorff relies on the uninformed claim that if an editor put two contradictory sources together, the editor was either truly intellectually challenged or not affirming both in a literal sense. These critics object that Wolterstorff offers an utterly false dichotomy.
Consider, though, what the objector is implying by this “false dichotomy” charge. The critic suggests that the final editors of the text could be affirming both that Israel killed every single person in Canaan and that Israel did not do this, which, of course, makes no sense.
To back up their claim that the final editors are including blatantly contradictory materials, critics may appeal to influential positions proposed from within the camp of “source criticism.” The argument states that the ancient editors weren’t bothered by such contradictions in the way we moderns are. The ancient editors’ literary modus operandi—which included political or aesthetic considerations—was to faithfully preserve the source material despite its obviously contradictory nature when taken literally. Consider the political motivation: different groups of people with divergent traditions came together as one group, and so the traditions were woven together not for the sake of consistency but to reflect the unity of the group. The goal was to preserve the distinctiveness of the material and also to unite the people. Ancient editors cared about the material not because they thought it was “inerrant” but because it reflected the different traditions of the various peoples within that group.
Or maybe an editor would take a well-known tradition that was also subversive to establishment orthodoxy; he might add elements to it in order to make it conform to the official position. Ecclesiastes could be an example here, where the message of “the Teacher” contradicts long-standing orthodoxy, but a later editor deliberately contradicts its message by adding passages to subvert the original message (Eccles. 12:9-14).
The problem is that even if it is correct that genuine contradictions exist in the text, this charge fails to show that Wolterstorff’s argument relies on a false dichotomy. For one thing, the editor isn’t assuming that both affirmations—say, extermination and nonextermination—are literally true. The editor preserves them to show unity, which doesn’t counter Wolterstorff’s assumption; in fact, Wolterstorff would readily affirm this. The editor clearly has something else in mind in preserving statements that affirm both extermination and nonextermination.
What about the even clearer example of Ecclesiastes, in which we find two “voices”; there is the cynical “Preacher/Teacher” and the godly editor, who in the end exhorts the reader to “fear God and keep His commandments” (12:9-14 NASB). The final editor is not assuming both positions are true. He repudiates the voice of the Preacher, who did say some provocative and even wise things (vv. 9-11). But the second voice stands to affirm a hope-filled stance that is quite distinct from the Preacher’s message of cynicism, emptiness, and despair.
How indeed could Wolterstorff argue that even a half-intelligent editor would knowingly affirm both that Joshua exterminated every person in Canaan and that after he did so, abundant numbers of Canaanites were still alive? Ancient standards of accuracy or aesthetics are relevant here. Whatever differences they had from us, it is clear that ancient Near Easterners knew that if an enemy left absolutely no survivor in a city, then the people of that city were dead. It doesn’t make sense to affirm otherwise.
Wolterstorff’s first argument, therefore, appears sound. When the passages Bradley cites are read in context, it seems quite implausible to affirm that the final editor and arranger of Joshua was using this text to assert that absolute (or something approximating) extermination took place at God’s command. Something else is going on.
8 ~ Genocide and an Argument for “Hagiographic Hyperbole”
If those who edited the final version of these writings into one sequence were not using the text to affirm that genocide occurred at God’s command, what then is going on? This brings us to Wolterstorff’s second line of argument. He uses the term hagiography (“holy writing”)—which refers to certain idealized, sometimes exaggerated accounts of events. In the United States, for example, we have a hagiography of the Pilgrims interacting with noble savages, Washington chopping down a cherry tree, and Washington crossing the Delaware—events that may reflect historical realities but are “sanitized” or “air-brushed” to remove any defect, messiness, or nuance. These might have the benefit of teaching a moral lesson, and the storytelling is not intended to tell us exactly what occurred historically. Some literary liberties are being taken.
Nicholas Wolterstorff suggests that hagiography—though properly clarified and qualified—serves as a helpful way of looking at Joshua’s exploits:
The book of Joshua has to be read as a theologically oriented narration, stylized and hyperbolic at important points, of Israel’s early skirmishes in the promised land, with the story of these battles being framed by descriptions of two great ritualized events. The story as a whole celebrates Joshua as the great leader of his people, faithful to Yahweh, worthy successor of Moses. If we strip the word “hagiography” of its negative connotations, we can call it a hagiographic account of Joshua’s exploits. The book is not to be read as claiming that Joshua conquered the entire promised land, nor is it to be read as claiming that Joshua exterminated with the edge of the sword the entire population of all the cities on the command of Yahweh to do so. The candor of the opening chapter of Judges, and of Yahweh’s declaration to Joshua in his old age that “very much of the land still remains to be possessed,” are closer to a literal statement of how things actually went.
Wolterstorff alludes to several features and literary figures of speech in the text to support this view. He notes that the early chapters of Judges, by and large, read like “down-to-earth history.” However, he continues, anyone carefully reading the book of Joshua will recognize in it certain stylistic renderings—”formulaic phrasings” and “formulaic convention[s]” —and stylized language like “utterly destroy,” “put to the edge of the sword,” “leave alive nothing that breathes,” and “man and woman, young and old,” as well as “the highly ritualized character of some of the major events described.” “The book is framed by its opening narration of the ritualized crossing of the Jordan and by its closing narration of the equally ritualized ceremony of blessing and cursing that took place at Shechem; and the conquest narrative begins with the ritualized destruction of Jericho.” A related ritualistic feature is “the mysterious sacral category of being devoted to destruction.” However, the most significant is the use of formulaic language:
Anyone who reads the book of Joshua in one sitting cannot fail to be struck by the prominent employment of formulaic phrasings…. Far more important is the formulaic clause, “struck down all the inhabitants with the edge of the sword.”
The first time one reads that Joshua struck down all the inhabitants of a city with the edge of the sword, namely, in the story of the conquest of Jericho (6:21), one makes nothing of it. But the phrasing—or close variants thereon—gets repeated, seven times in close succession in chapter 10, two more times in chapter 11, and several times in other chapters. The repetition makes it unmistakable that we are dealing here with a formulaic literary convention.
So while the accounts in Judges appear as “down-to-earth history,” the passages in Joshua referring to “leaving alive none that breathes” and “putting all inhabitants to the sword” appear in contexts full of ritualistic, stylized, formulaic language. It therefore looks like something other than a mere literal description of what occurred. In light of these facts, Wolterstorff argues that Judges should be taken literally whereas Joshua is hagiographic history, a highly stylized, exaggerated account of the events designed to teach theological and moral points rather than to describe in detail what literally happened.
Ancient Near Eastern Conquest Accounts
Wolterstorff’s thesis has been substantially confirmed in a study he cites in a footnote. In a comprehensive comparative study of ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts, Lawson Younger Jr. documents that Joshua employs the same stylistic, rhetorical, and literary conventions of other war reports of the same period.’ Three conclusions of Younger’s research are pertinent.
The first is that comparisons between the book of Joshua and other ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts demonstrate some important stylistic parallels. According to Ziony Zevit, “when the composition and rhetoric of the Joshua narratives in chapters 9-12 are compared to the conventions of writing about conquests in Egyptian, Hittite, Akkadian, Moabite, and Aramaic texts, they are revealed to be very similar.” Younger notes similarities in the preface, structure, and even the way the treaty with the Gibeonites is recorded in Joshua and various ancient Near Eastern accounts. Joshua follows this convention in describing numerous battles occurring in a single day or within a single campaign. Like Joshua, ancient Near Eastern accounts also repeatedly make reference to the enemy “melting with fear.” Even the way post-battle pursuits are set out and described shows similarities with comparable pursuits in ancient Near Eastern literature. Commenting on the structure of the campaigns mentioned in Joshua 9-12, Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen reminds us:
This kind of report profile is familiar to readers of ancient Near Eastern military reports, not least in the second millennium. Most striking is the example of the campaign annals of Tuthmosis III of Egypt in his Years 22-42 (ca. 14581438)…. The pharaoh there gives a very full account of his initial victory at Megiddo, by contrast with the far more summary and stylized reports of the ensuing sixteen subsequent campaigns. Just like Joshua against up to seven kings in south Canaan and four-plus up north.
He adds, “The Ten Year Annals of the Hittite king Mursil II (later fourteenth century) are also instructive. Exactly like the ‘prefaces’ in the two Joshua war reports (10:1-4; 11:1-5), detailing hostility by a number of foreign rulers against Joshua and Israel as the reason for the wars, so in his annals Mursil II gives us a long “preface” on the hostility of neighboring rulers and people groups that lead to his campaigns.” Kitchen offers other examples. He observes that the same formulaic style found in Joshua is also used in two of the Amarna letters—a correspondence written in Akkadian between Egyptian administrators in Canaan and Amurru and two particular pharaohs, Amenhotep III and Akhenaten (fifteenth and fourteenth centuries BC). Similarly, before his major campaigns, “Joshua is commissioned by YHWH not to fear (cf. 5:13-15; 10:8; 11:6). So also by Ptah and Amun were Merenptah in Egypt, and Tuthmosis IV long before him; and likewise Mursil II of the Hittites by his gods (Ten-Year Annals, etc.), all in the second millennium, besides such kings as Assurbanipal of Assyria down to the seventh century.”
Second, Younger also notes that such accounts are “figurative” and utilize what he calls a “transmission code”: a common, frequently stylized, stereotyped, and frequently hyperbolic way of recording history. The literary motif of divine intervention is an example. Both The 10 Year Annals of Mursil (also known as “Mursili”) and Sargon’s Letter to the God record a divine intervention where the god sends hailstones on the enemy Tuthmosis III has a similar story regarding a meteor—or what appears to have been a meteor shower. Younger observes that these accounts are very similar to parallel accounts in Joshua 10 where God rains hailstones on Israel’s enemies. Similarly, Younger points out that in many ancient Near Eastern texts, “one can discern a literary technique in which a deity is implored to maintain daylight long enough for there to be a victory,” which has obvious parallels to Joshua 10:13-14. The numbers of armies and enemy casualties are rhetorically exaggerated. The fact that similar events are narrated in multiple different accounts suggests they are “a notable ingredient of the transmission code for conquest accounts” — that is, they are part of the common hyperbolic rhetoric of warfare rather than descriptions of what actually occurred.
Third and most significantly for this discussion, part of this “transmission code” is that victories are narrated in an exaggerated hyperbolic fashion in terms of total conquest, complete annihilation, and destruction of the enemy, killing everyone, leaving no survivors, etc. Kitchen offers illuminating examples:
The type of rhetoric in question was a regular feature of military reports in the second and first millennia, as others have made very clear…. In the later fifteenth century Tuthmosis III could boast “the numerous army of Mitanni, was overthrown within the hour, annihilated totally, like those (now) non-existent” —whereas, in fact, the forces of Mitanni lived to fight many another day, in the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries. Some centuries later, about 840/830, Mesha king of Moab could boast that “Israel has utterly perished for always”—a rather premature judgment at that date, by over a century! And so on, ad libitum. It is in this frame of reference that the Joshua rhetoric must also be understood.
Younger offers numerous other examples. Merneptah’s Stele (thirteenth century BC) describes a skirmish with Israel as follows, “Yanoam is nonexistent; Israel is wasted, his seed is not.” Here a skirmish in which Egypt prevailed is described in terms of the total annihilation of Israel. Sennacherib uses similar hyperbole, “The soldiers of Hirimme, dangerous enemies, I cut down with the sword; and not one escaped.” Mursil(i) II records making “Mt. Asharpaya empty (of humanity)” and the “mountains of Tarikarimu empty (of humanity).” Mesha (whom Kitchen cited as stating “Israel has utterly perished for always”) describes victories in terms of his fighting against a town, taking it, and then killing all the inhabitants of the town. Similarly, The Bulletin of Ramses II, a historical narrative of Egyptian military campaigns into Syria, narrates Egypt’s considerably-less-than-decisive victory at the battle of Kadesh with the following rhetoric: “He took no note of the millions of foreigners; he regarded them as chaff…. His majesty slew the entire force of the wretched Foe from Hatti, together with his great chiefs and all his brothers, as well as all the chiefs of all the countries that had come with him, their infantry and their chariotry falling on their faces one upon the other. His majesty slaughtered and slew them in their places…; and his majesty was alone, none other with him.” Numerous other examples could be provided. The hyperbolic use of language similar to that in Joshua is strikingly evident. Though instances could be multiplied, but the point is that such accounts contain extensive hyperbole and are not intended to be taken as literal descriptions of what occurred.
Rhetorical Function and Ideology
Some critics will disagree with this hyperbolic interpretation of Joshua, but we should consider the point of hyperbole itself in such contexts. One conclusion Younger draws from his study is that the transmission code employed in Joshua 9-12 reflects the same imperialistic ideology as other ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts. This ideology means “victory must be described in black and white terms since there is only a ‘them’ vs. ‘us’ relationship.” Such rhetoric was used to inspire fear and obedience in those subjects who heard it. If the reader only heard such rhetoric as exaggeration, then the rhetoric would not have had the effect it was intended to have.
This inference is mistaken, firstly, because it is false that hyperbolic rhetoric must be taken literally in order to inspire fear and obedience. Suppose a boxer before a boxing match states that he is going to murder his opponent and make his children orphans. This sort of rhetoric is designed to inspire fear and intimidate. Does it follow that it is intended to be taken literally? Similarly, school bullies tell potential victims that if they “narc” on them, the bullies will “kill them and smash their heads in.” Do the victims have to believe they will literally be killed and have their heads actually smashed in to get the message?
Secondly, this objection fails to grasp the reasons Younger proffers for Joshua 9-12 reflecting the same imperialistic ideology as other ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts. Younger states: “Can one conclude that since the text of Joshua 9-12 manifests the same transmission code as other texts of ancient Near Eastern history writing, it is the product of the same underlying ideology? The indications from this study seem to point to an affirmative answer.” Younger concludes that Joshua 9-12 has the same ideology as other ancient Near Eastern accounts because it uses the same rhetorical transmission code—a code Younger documents as containing “extensive use of hyperbole.” He concludes: “Israelite ideology had certain similarities with the ‘Imperialistic’ ideologies of the ancient Near East,” which included “a similar view of the enemy, the calculated terror, the high use of hyperbole . . . and the use of stereotyped syntagms [linguistic units in ordered words/phrases like “utterly destroyed”] to transmit the high-redundance message of the ideology.’
Younger is clear on his meaning of hyperbole—namely, using “exaggerated terms for the purpose of emphasis and/or heightened effect,” adding that “more is said than is literally meant.” In fact, even when Younger talks of how victory must be described “in black and white terms,” he cites an example of the “figurative aspect” of such accounts and part of the “extensive use of hyperbole.”
Consequently, the critic cannot cite Younger’s conclusions (about Joshua reflecting the same imperialistic ideology as other ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts) as evidence that the rhetoric in these texts was intended to be taken literally. The whole reason Younger concludes that these texts reflect this ideology is because they follow the same rhetorical conventions common to such accounts, conventions that were not meant to be taken literally.
Younger’s study shows quite conclusively that Joshua is written in accord with the rhetoric and conventions of ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts. Such accounts narrate history in a highly rhetorical, stereotyped, figurative fashion and utilize substantial hyperbole, narrating battles in terms of total annihilation of everyone. To read these accounts as though the author were literally affirming that total extermination had taken place is simply to misread them. Younger states, “It is evident that the syntagms… (they completely destroyed it and everyone in it,’ he left no survivors’), etc. are to be understood as hyperbole. Just like other ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts, the biblical narrative utilizes hyperbolic, stereotyped syntagms to build up the account.” Younger suggests this misreading has led scholars like Brevard Childs to mistakenly see contradictions between Joshua and the early chapters of the book of Judges. “Thus when the figurative nature of the account is considered there are really no grounds for concluding that Judges 1 presents a different view of the conquest from that of Joshua or that it must be an older account.” And Kitchen states that Old Testament scholars have read into the book of Joshua “a whole myth of their own making, to the effect that the book of Joshua presents a sweeping, total conquest and occupation of Canaan by Joshua, which can then be falsely pitted against the narratives in Judges.” This myth is “based on the failure to recognize and understand ancient use of rhetorical summations. The ‘ails’ are qualified in the Hebrew narrative itself.”
Several other considerations can be added to bolster this point. One is the fact that such hyperbolic language is clearly being used within the book of Joshua itself, which we noted earlier. In Joshua 10:20 (NASB), for example, we are told that Joshua and the sons of Israel had been “slaying them with a very great slaughter, until they were destroyed.” Immediately, however, the text affirms that the “survivors who remained of them had entered the fortified cities.” In this context, the language of total destruction is clearly hyperbolic.
A similar phenomenon seems to occur in the account of the battle of Ai. After Joshua’s troops feign a retreat, the text states that “all the men of Ai” are pressed to chase them (Josh. 8:16). “Not a man remained in Ai or Bethel who did not go after Israel. hey left the city open and went in pursuit of Israel” (v. 17). Joshua lures the pursuers into a trap “so that they were caught in the middle, with Israelites on both sides. Israel cut them down, leaving them neither survivors nor fugitives” (v. 22). Then, after noting the capture of Ai’s military ruler (v. 23), the text immediately states: “When Israel had finished killing all the men of Ai in the fields and in the wilderness where they had chased them, and when every one of them had been put to the sword…” (v. 24). Taken literally, this is patently absurd. If there were no survivors or fugitives, whom were the Israelites chasing?
The account of the battle of Ai ends with the summary, “Twelve thousand men and women fell that day—all the people of Ai” (v. 25), yet earlier in the same account it says, “Not all the army will have to go up against Ai. Send two or three thousand men to take it and do not weary the whole army, for only a few people live there” (7:3). The text also describes Israel being routed when the men of Ai “killed about thirty-six of them” (v. 5). Clearly the casualty figures cannot be literally correct here. However, they are quite consistent with the conclusions drawn by Daniel Fouts that exaggerated numbers are common forms of hyperbole in ancient Near Eastern battle accounts. Archaeology suggests smaller numbers as well. Old Testament scholar Richard Hess notes that as with the “city [‘ir]” of Ai or other “cities” raided by the Israelites, Jericho was not a population center but a small, strategic military settlement or citadel. It was led by a commander or “king [melek],” also housing religious and political personnel. Jericho probably held a hundred or fewer men. This is why all of Israel could circle it seven times and then do battle against it on the same day!
Even if the numbers are not hyperbolic, matters seem complicated by the Hebrew term `eleph, commonly rendered “thousand.” A possible interpretation is that these numbers may not be as high as our translations indicate. This term can also mean “unit,” “troop,” or “squad,” without specifying the exact number. However, the massive numbers in biblical war texts fit quite nicely within the genre of ancient Near Eastern war texts with many examples of extraordinarily high numbers; thus we consider the hyperbolic numbers to be more plausible.
Similar hyperbole occurs in other biblical books, using the same phraseology we find in Joshua of “utterly destroying [haram]” populations “with the sword.” First Chronicles 4:41 states: “They attacked [nakah] the Hamites in their dwellings and also the Meunites who were there and completely destroyed [haram] them.” But only a few verses later, we read that the survivors fled to Amalek where they were later all “destroyed [nakah]” a second time (v. 43 NASB)!
Later in 2 Chronicles 36:16-17, the author narrates the fall of –Jerusalem: “But they mocked God’s messengers, despised his words and scoffed at his prophets until the wrath of the LORD was aroused against his people and there was no remedy. He brought up against them the king of the Babylonians, who killed their young men with the sword in the sanctuary, and did not spare young men or young women, the elderly or the infirm. God gave them all into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar.” Only a few verses later, however, the narrator states, “He carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and his successors until the kingdom of Persia came to power” (v. 20).
Similarly, compare verse 19: “They [the Babylonians] set fire to God’s temple and broke down the wall of Jerusalem; they burned all the palaces and destroyed everything of value there.” With verse 18, “He [king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon] carried to Babylon all the articles from the temple of God, both large and small, and the treasures of the LORD’S temple and the treasures of the king and his officials.” Taken literally this is absurd. How could they carry off all the treasure from the palaces and temple if everything of value had been destroyed? But this was not intended to be taken literally. This account was written to a post-exilic audience who knew full well that not every one of the Judahites had been killed. They, as the descendants of the survivors, knew that Judah had been exiled and was later restored under Cyrus: a fact pointed out only a few verses later (cf. vv. 21-23).
One finds the same language of killing all inhabitants with the sword also used hyperbolically in Judges. Judges 1:8 states, “The men of Judah attacked Jerusalem also and took it. They put the city to the sword and set it on fire.” A few verses later, however, the text states: “The Benjamites, however, did not drive out the Jebusites, who were living in Jerusalem; to this day the Jebusites live there with the Benjamites” (v. 21).
Similar language is used hyperbolically in the prophetic writings. In the context of the Babylonian invasion and Judah’s exile (sixth century BC), God said he would “lay waste the towns of Judah so no one can live there” (Jer. 9:11). Indeed, God said, “I will completely destroy them and make them an object of horror and scorn, and an everlasting ruin” (25:9). Note that this is the same verb (haram) used for “utterly destroying” the Canaanites. In Jeremiah, God threatened to “stretch out My hand against you and destroy you” (15:6 NASB; cf. Ezek. 5:16)—to bring “disaster” against Judah (Jer. 6:19). However, the biblical text suggests that while Judah’s political and religious structures were ruined or disabled, and that Judahites died in the conflict, the “urban elite” were deported to Babylon while many “poor of the land” remained behind. Similarly, in Isaiah God says, “I consigned Jacob to destruction [herem] and Israel to scorn” (43:28). Then in the very next verse (44:1), God tells “Jacob,” whom he has “chosen,” that God will restore his people and bring them out of exile under a new covenant in which he will pour out his Spirit upon them.
As a final example, consider the “covenant curses” of Deuteronomy 28. Verse 20 warns: “The LORD will send on you curses, confusion and rebuke in everything you put your hand to, until you are destroyed and come to sudden ruin.” But this is followed by the threat that “the LORD will plague you with diseases until he has destroyed you from the land” (v. 21). And once again we see the language of still further destruction: “The LORD will turn the rain of your country into dust and powder; it will come down from the skies until you are destroyed…. All these curses will come on you. They will pursue you and overtake you until you are destroyed” (v. 24, 45).
But the text goes on to state that though Israel has been “destroyed,” they will face further perils in exile: “Then the LORD will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other. There you will worship other gods—gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your ancestors have known…. There the LORD will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart. You will live in constant suspense, filled with dread both night and day, never sure of your life” (vv. 64-66). Those who were said to be destroyed are alive in exile.
The same kind of language used to describe the fate of the Canaanites is frequently used hyperbolically throughout the Bible. In all these cases, the language of destroying “all” is seen to be qualified by the fact that a significant number (in fact) fled, escaped, and survived. Kitchen notes that in ancient rhetorical summaries of this sort, “the ‘ails’ are qualified by the Hebrew narrative itself. In 10:20 we learn that Joshua and his forces massively slew their foes ‘until they were finished off’…, but in the same breath the text states that ‘the remnant that survived got away into their defended towns.’ Thus the absolute wording is immediately qualified by exceptions — ‘the quick and the dead,’ as one might say of pedestrians trying to cross our busy highways!”
When we study the evidence, three things emerge. First, Joshua 1-11 occurs in a context where the so-called genocidal language of exterminating all and leaving no survivors occurs alongside a narrative that affirms matter-of-factly that large numbers of people were not killed and many survived. Second, as Wolterstorff comments, “Those who edited the final version of these writings into one sequence were not mindless,” and so it is unlikely they intended to affirm both these pictures as literally true. The biblical author clearly has something else in mind. Third, while Judges reads more like “down-to-earth history” (though not without mention of both destruction and many survivors [e.g., 1:8, 21]), a careful reading of Joshua reveals it to be full of ritualistic, stylized accounts and formulaic language. This third point is supported by research into ancient Near Eastern conquest accounts. Such studies show the following:
1 Such accounts are highly hyperbolic, hagiographic, and figurative, and follow a common transmission code;
2 Comparisons between these accounts and the early chapters of Joshua suggest Joshua is written according to the same literary conventions and transmission code;
3 Part of this transmission code is to hyperbolically portray a victory in absolute terms of totally destroying the enemy or in terms of miraculous divine intervention: “such statements are rhetoric indicative of military victory,” not literal descriptions of what occurred;
4 The same language and phraseology has a well-attested hyperbolic use in Joshua and elsewhere throughout Scripture.
Taken together, these points give persuasive reasons for thinking that one should interpret the extermination language in Joshua 1-12 as offering a highly figurative and hyperbolic account of what occurred. It seems sensible to conclude that the language of “leaving alive nothing that breathes,” “leaving no survivors,” and “put[ting] all inhabitants to the sword” is not meant to be taken literally.
After comparing the figures of speech and rhetoric used in numerous Hittite, Assyrian, and Egyptian conquest accounts with those of Joshua, Younger concludes, “The syntagms (…‘they completely destroyed everyone in it’) and (. . .’he left no survivors’) are obvious hyperbole. This is also true for these: (…‘Not sparing anyone who breathed’), and (…‘until they exterminated them’). That these are figurative is clear from numerous ancient Near Eastern texts.” (See such hyperbole in Mark 1:5: Is all Judea/Jerusalem emptied?)
This is a bit of a convoluted rant from YouTube by a cult member (or at least, a supporter). My response will not be my own, but Matt Flannagan and Paul Copan’s response to the verse mentioned by this cult member.
…the teachings of the Bible? You mean where “God” instructs Moses and them to slaughter entire cities including babies(except the virgin women) and rape women…or where Jesus allows his enemies to capture and crucify him? Who are you trying to fool…thank goodness Fard Muhammad came to kill religion…if you are standing by the Bible as your moral base then you have no moral base to stand on….you would mutilate your son’s penis because your poison bible tells you to….the Father Allah was a greater God than Jesus…at the very least he didn’t go out like a punk like your boy did…the enemy of the planet right now is the global system of white domination…and this system oppresses everyone including so called white folks…you seriously lack understanding…the Father Allah was not anti white or pro black…
…your poison book is in every hotel room and it states in the old testament….. “Moses, Eleazar the priest, and all the leaders of the people went to meet them outside the camp. But Moses was furious with all the military commanders who had returned from the battle. “Why have you let all the women live?” he demanded. “These are the very ones who followed Balaam’s advice and caused the people of Israel to rebel against the LORD at Mount Peor. They are the ones who caused the plague to strike the LORD’s people. Now kill all the boys and all the women who have slept with a man. Only the young girls who are virgins may live; you may keep them for yourselves.” ….om just trying to show you how ridiculous you look promoting such a filthy poisonous book and at the same time judging a cipher that was only founded to fix the mess that european christians started…and now we gotta fix the mess in your video….Allah the chosen one, who left temple 7 in 1963 and borned the first 5 percenters was no racist and if he was a racist he problably would be alive today…its like you damed if you do and u damned if you don’t with yaw people…nothing pleases you except for mucus, pus and white blood cells…
Number 31:15: “Have You Allowed All the Women to Live?”
The third example Morriston cites to make his point is the defeat of Midian as recorded in Numbers 31. The Israelites fought against Midian, as the Lord commanded Moses, and killed every man (v. 7). After the battle, however, Moses commanded Israel to kill all the boys and every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man. Morriston says Yahweh was angered by the fact that some young Israelite men had worshiped Baal alongside their new Midianite brides, writing, “Not only must the Israelites be punished, but the Midianites must be punished for causing the Israelites to be punished.” God’s stated reasons, according to Morriston’s thinking, are inadequate.
But Morriston appears to have misread the text. First, consider his claim that the text explicitly states that God’s reason for commanding the killing of the Midianite women and boys was “spiritual infection” because “some young Israelite men had worshiped Baal alongside their new Midianite brides.” There are several problems with this.
First is the fact that, in the text Morriston cites (Num. 31:17-18), God himself does not explicitly command Israel to kill all the Midianite women and boys. God’s command to Moses regarding the Midianites is actually recorded in Numbers 25:17-18 and 31:1-2. God explicitly commands Israel to respond to the Midianites’ spiritual subterfuge by fighting against the Midianites and defeating them. The reasons why Israel is to obey isn’t the spiritual infection of women as Morriston says, but rather the fact that Midian has been hostile toward and deceived Israel.
The Numbers 31 text does not explicitly attribute the command to kill the women and boys to God, but to Moses. Morriston acknowledges this, but suggests three reasons why this observation doesn’t come to much. (1) Moses is regularly characterized as being very close to Yahweh, faithfully obeying his instructions most of the time; (2) Yahweh expresses no disapproval of anything Moses does in this story; and (3) Yahweh himself is the principal instigator of the attack on Midian.
These responses, however, are inadequate. Consider the last point first. The fact that someone is the “principal instigator” of an attack doesn’t entail that he approves of every single action that takes place within the battle in question. Similarly with 2: the lack of explicit disapproval in the text does not entail approval. Morriston’s argument is an appeal to ignorance; absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. It is not uncommon in biblical narratives for authors to describe sinful behavior without expressing explicit disapproval. In most cases, no doubt, the author expects the reader to know certain actions are right and wrong.
Finally, regarding 1, the fact that someone is portrayed in the text as close to God or faithful to him does not mean that every action he is recorded as doing is commanded or endorsed by God. Consider David, or Abraham.
A second instance of Morriston misreading the text is that not only does he attribute Moses’s reasons to God; he also misstates the reasons Moses does give in the context. The real issue is that the Midianite women had been following the devious advice of the pagan seer, Balaam, who had been explicitly commanded by God not to curse Israel. Balaam had led the Israelites into acting treacherously at Baal-Peor. This is the clearly stated issue (31:16). What occurs, when the background is taken into account, is not that some Israelites marry Midianite women, but rather these women use sex to seduce Israel into violating the terms of their covenant with God—an event that threatened Israel’s very national identity, calling, and destiny. This act was in fact deliberate.
So Morriston’s comments are far off the mark when he insists that the Midianites could not have been trying to harm the Israelites by inviting them to participate in the worship of a god in whom they obviously believed. The whole point of the exercise was to get God to curse Israel so that a military attack could be launched by Moab and Midian. The picture isn’t one of innocent Midianite brides, but acts tantamount to treason and treacherous double agents carrying on wicked subterfuge.
Note that the problem wasn’t God’s opposition to Israelites marrying Midianites per se. Indeed, Moses married Zipporah, a Midianite, and he received wise counsel from his father-in-law, Jethro, a Midianite priest.