I was recently engaged in an interesting conversation about this topic and began to revisit where I stand. Not much has changed…since it seems that as I get older and I mature in the faith and in biblical studies, my stance on certain issues have become more solidified. I hope that the position I set forth is received with grace and understanding. Please feel free to question and challenge what I have written here.
My question to you is: Can God use you to act on his behalf to be an agent of his retributive justice?
First, what is retributive justice? As opposed to what?
There are two kinds of justice, retributive and restorative. Retributive justice punishes the wrong-doer for their acts of injustice. Restorative justice on the other hand, attempts to aid a person back into society through certain remedies.
Does the Bible justify the use of war?
Now, I’m not going to go into all the stories and details in the bible about the legitimacy of war. I’m sure scholars can write volumes on this subject alone. So, I’ll quickly mention a few passages and go from there. First, the Old Testament. There are many scenarios found in the Old Testament about God using war to protect his chosen people or to destroy an evil people. In 1 Samuel, chapter 15, God commands his people to annihilate the Amalekites. That sounds awful right? But don’t be so quick to judge. The Amalekites were an ungodly and unjust people (Deuteronomy 25:18). This is one example of God using his power through his people to bring retributive justice to a people group.
In another example, God uses the Assyrians to punish Israel, and Babylon to both Assyria and Judah (Isaiah 10; Habakkuk 1). Yes, God even used another nation to punish his chosen people. Why? Because God is about justice. His people continued to rebel against him and live in unrighteous ways, so God had to do something about it. To God, it doesn’t matter if you’re a chosen nation or not. If a people group are committing acts against Justice, God will use whoever, whatever State to bring justice.
Now we turn to a passage in the New Testament. Here’s a statement Paul wrote to the people in Rome. “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience” (Romans 13:1-5).
Paul sees the State as God’s instrument of justice. The government exists for the benefit of society – to protect the public. The sword in the passage above is an emblem of war and symbolizes authority on both the national and international level. Participating in the conduct of war against an unjust people could be viewed as participating in a mission of Divine Justice.
Both the Old Testament and Paul shows that God uses nations for retributive justice. In addition, there are two other observations here. First, the reason for retributive justice is not just for punishment but to instill righteous fear in others so that they may act justly. Second, God even calls on his people to join in his action of retributive justice. In God’s mission of retributive justice, he may require his people to join along.
What about what Jesus said?
Below are some Jesus passages I think relates to violence and war. The conclusion of what the texts here says sets a foundational interpretative lens, I believe, to how we see those passages above.
• “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you that you must not oppose those who want to hurt you. If people slap you on your right cheek, you must turn the left cheek to them as well.” – Matt 5:38-39. Jesus is referring to the law of retaliation found in Exodus 21:23-25 and Leviticus 24:20. The context of these two Old Testamental passages is to make sure the punishment fits the crime, and no more. Jesus’ ethic was stricter, in that the retaliation should be lighter. Within the context of military involvement and action, this law was not applicable. Otherwise, the stories of war found in the Old Testament would have gone differently. Imagine, a life for a life in war. The act of war is not equal punishment, but eliminating the cause or causes of injustice. This passage is only in regards to personal conduct, not military engagement.
• “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you” – Matt 5:43-44. The enemy they had in mind were people they were in social conflict with, such as the Samaritans, Barbarians, Gentiles, Romans, etc. Jesus wasn’t referring to enemies in war, but “social enemies”. Like the passage preceding this (v. 38-39), the context is about personal conduct with others, not military engagement.
• He made a whip from ropes and chased them all out of the temple, including the cattle and the sheep. He scattered the coins and overturned the tables of those who exchanged currency. – John 2:15. This was an act of violence. The whip he made – a weapon – was a symbol expressing holy indignation and authority. This is righteous anger. Or, in other words, passion for justice. The men who were conducting illegitimate business in the temple deserved God’s wrath. So they were chased out and their booths destroyed.
• Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse. Its rider was called Faithful and True, and he judges and makes war justly. From his mouth comes a sharp sword that he will use to strike down the nations. He is the one who will rule them with an iron rod. And he is the one who will trample the winepress of the Almighty God’s passionate anger. – Rev 19:11, 15. – The white horse is an emblem for justice. Jesus is a warrior who makes war on those against him. It’s referring to people here. And he will conquer them. This is good news. For Jesus will bring justice by punishing the wicked and liberating the oppressed.
Conclusion: While Jesus did teach people to love others who would persecute them, yet, because he was driven by justice, he expressed righteous anger, or divine wrath, by committing acts of violence. The Scriptures show that Jesus has and will use violence and war as a means to justice. It is exactly that concluding statement about Jesus that I find no contradiction to the rest of Scripture – in light of what both the Law says and Paul. This is why the use of violence and war can be justified. That when it is used for justice, it is blessed.
So this is just one man’s interpretation, right?
Well, no, not really. In addition to my interpretation, I also sought out 5 of the most well-known theologians of the past. After some research, here’s their essential position to this topic:
• Augustine – to bring peace with the least amount of force
• Aquinas – to bring justice by eliminating/preventing evil
• Luther – use of force to restore social order
• Calvin – use of violence as long as it doesn’t overstep (biblical) justice
• Barth – if it could save more lives, but church should challenge and hold it accountable
So it seems that the consensus here is that the government can use violence as a way to bring justice, and God ordains it. The scriptures show, too, that war not only punishes, but it protects a people, and it save lives.
So God uses the governments?
The State acts as a minister of God, as an avenger which promotes good and punishes evil. The government exists for the benefit of society – to protect the public. The citizens of the State trust their governments to protect them, and Christians within the State place their trust in God to use the State if it be his will. Only governments, and not individuals, have the right under God to carry out retribution. So it is through the government the sword of God is drawn and ready to strike.
When a government goes to war against another to liberate a people and/or to protect itself from casualties and/or to punish a people who are committing acts of injustice against humanity, it is to be regarded as the act of God taking vengeance. Because God gave life, he can take life away. And he will do so through an agency, such as the State. It is upon this principle that the agent who works on behalf of the agency acts not by his own doing, but as the extension of Divine Justice.
So, violence and war isn’t evil?
Not necessarily…if it can be justified. Justice is grounded in God. He is holy. There are times justice is manifested in retributive ways, such as violence and war. These acts are justified…they are holy. Violence and war is a means to an end. It is when it becomes abused that it becomes an evil. If we continue to believe that violence and war are evil, then we set ourselves up into making God a demon. I think we need to move away from this view of equating violence and war with evil towards a view that sees it as a possible means of justice for God.
What about loving enemies?
Let’s take a look at the social context surrounding this quote (Matthew 5:43-44). The opposite of loving your enemies is, obviously, hating your enemies. Jesus is recorded to have said, “it was told to hate your enemies…” This may have been a recent interpretation of a text (Lev 19:18), because there is no such quote in the Scriptures which says to “hate your enemies”. Think about it. That’s crazy! What Jesus was then doing, as he usually had done, was correcting false views and interpretations.
Somehow, someway, at some time, people began believing that they should only love those who were part of their culture. They had their religious-ethnic barriers set up. And those outside the fence were considered enemies. The Jews were xenophobic and had become extremely prejudiced. They were God’s chosen and gift to the world, a privileged people, and everyone else were a despised people – hated.
Hating enemies then wasn’t about punishing enemies against humanity but about discriminating against people of other ethnicities, religions, and everyone else who were in a state of uncleanness. So when Jesus taught about loving people, he was not referring here to enemies of war but cultural, religious, social outsiders. This text then is about loving everyone as if they are part of your own people. It has nothing to do with taking a pacifist stance.
What about the Church? What’s their aim when it comes to Justice?
The State’s primary mission is retributive justice, while the Church’s mission is restorative justice. But that does not prevent certain Christians from engaging in retributive justice within the State. The State punishes as an agent of God, the Church restores as an agent of God. Christians individually should not affiliate themselves with the military solely out of patriotism, and especially for vengeance. Rather, the primary concern is to create a just society by defending the innocent, punishing the wrongdoer, and saving lives.
As an agency of restorative justice, the Church seeks out “enemies” to include and not reject. It welcomes all who so desires to venture into the faith community. Food, health-care, and shelter is offered to any who accepts its hospitality and neighborliness. But, the Church must remember that it is still in submission to its State, and using wisdom, the Church must give the enemy it encounters up to the State. However, if outside of the domain of its State, the Church may bring the enemy into its redemptive community to begin its restorative process.
Aren’t we supposed to endure persecution?
Of course. But, let’s not confuse the Church with the State. If there’s an attack on your nation, it cannot be counted as persecution. And it’s not persecution if it just so happens that church establishments were destroyed and Christians harmed during the process of the assault on the State. It’s only persecution if the primary target is the Church.
If the Church is targeted, then it can be counted as persecution. It is at this point where the Church must pray for their enemies and to the God of Salvation to protect his people, to refrain as much as possible from engaging in violence with the enemy, to follow in the way of Jesus towards death as martyrs, and believing in faith that the Church will remain strong and grow from it. The Church must endure persecution and count it as joy.
This I do personally struggle with. Who wants to submit to an enemy, willingly, and die? What about families with little children? Could they not fight back? I believe that the Church should act non-violently during persecution and endure it with joy, but I wonder…Is this what God the Father, Jesus, Paul, wants?
So you’re saying a Christian can join the military?
This is the question one must ask him/her-self: “Is this God’s will that I be used as his agent of retributive justice?”
Christians should never volunteer in the military out of patriotism or vengeance. A Christian may be a citizen of a country, but that country isn’t their primary and eternal kingdom. Love for justice over love for country.
The big reason a Christian shouldn’t go join the military or take part in war out of patriotism is because of possible deception. The Christian can begin to elevate his country above God’s kingdom. The kingdom’s mission, values, and ethics are overshadowed by the secular government. And then Scripture is viewed and interpreted falsely to justify the State’s acts of injustice. The only government a Christian should be patriotic about is God’s Kingdom.
Before joining the military, the Christian should seek counsel and pray about it. It shouldn’t be rash, or because it’s the cool thing to do, or because of the benefits it might offer. It should be a divine calling. And if that person be so called into the military, then may that Christian be no longer hindered to act as an agent of Justice.
If you disagree that a Christian can join the war, but another disagrees, don’t judge. Agree to disagree. Don’t let your personal conviction condemn a fellow brother or sister in Christ.
How do we know if it’s just?
Simply, there is what is known as a Just War Theory. Just War theory has two parts:
• Jus ad bellum—justice in going to war.
• Jus in bello—justice in conducting a war that is in progress.
Below are the criteria for a war to be considered justifiable:
Justice in Going to War
• Just cause – if the war is necessary for life to continue
• Right intention – to restore peace that has been disturbed or to impose order on disorder
• Legitimate authority – In the United States, the Constitution gives Congress the legal authority to declare a war
• Proportional to the problem – Combatant forces of the opposition may not be subjected to greater harm than is necessary to secure victory and peace.
• Last resort – Other means of resolution such as diplomacy and economic pressure must have been reasonably exhausted before war.
• Hope for success – Military victory is restoring peace and order
• More in the right – Must be more right (justified to engage in warfare with the other people group) than they have against you
Justice in the Conduct of War
• Produce more good than evil, for both – Minimizing casualties on both sides
• Differentiate between soldiers and civilians – Abstain as much as possible from fighting where there are civilians
When governments do the punishing, they must do so in the character of God. And when done so, it must be regarded as if it’s done on behalf of God. This is what makes the act of war against a people group right and justified, because it is founded on the Scriptures. If it doesn’t meet all criteria, it is not justified. If they overstep these established boundaries, the Christian is to obey God and not human authorities by removing himself from engaging in an unjust mission.
How do we keep the agency accountable?
If it seems that the engagement is not justified or no longer justifiable, something must be done. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr, “the Church is to be neither the master nor the servant of the State, but its conscience”. The Church should question and hold the government accountable according to the Just War Theory.
There are two ways the Church can keep its government accountable: creating awareness and joining the ranks within. There are many ways to create awareness. Social media has become the fastest and most effective way for spreading news. From one’s mobile device, all they have to do is “share” a status, and include link, a picture, a video. If the injustice is socially recognized, all it takes is a few influential individuals to catch wind of it, and boom, spreads like wildfire.
Yes, change can happen through external pressure. But, another way of seeing change happen is to be part of the organization that needs change. We need Christians in the military, in every department, in defense and intelligence, at every level. We need them in there to make better, more ethical, decisions. We need them to be the conscience within.
If the State requires a Christian to fight, how does the Christian know it is an act of justice?
Upon reviewing Romans 13 as a guiding reference, and all that has been said here, I think it depends on a couple things. If there is no war but it’s a requirement for citizens to join the military, then it seems, biblically speaking, a Christian must comply and join. But, if it’s a draft for war, then the Christian should evaluate the mission and decide if it’s justified based on the Just War Theory. If so, then (s)he must comply and join. (S)he would act as an agent of Justice. However, if it doesn’t meet all the criteria in the Just War Theory, then (s)he must conscientiously object. If unsure, (s)he’s to pray and seek advice.
How does participating in “Holy War” play in the grand scheme of things?
The Mission of Divine Justice paves the way for New Creation. One day the Kingdom will fully come and it will involve a violent correction on humanity and for all creation. King Jesus will lead a final Holy War against every evil, rebellious, unjust person. The old world of wickedness will die, and a new world with a new humanity will be birthed. Yes, one day there will be a better, peaceful, and just place. But until then…
This is the aim of scripture, that we not avenge our enemies with revenge but with justice. Retributive justice by the State, and restorative justice by the Church.