Context: This is a talk that I gave at the Red Letter Christians Convocation Series at Pepperdine University, September 29, 2008. It was posted on Lew Rockwell's daily commentary site on February 5, 2009. I presented a slightly revised version at Convocation at Pepperdine University, April 5, 2010.

The Christian and War

The theme of this series is the application of the teachings of Jesus to contemporary social and political issues. A timely topic in view of the current war in Iraq is the attitude of the Christian toward war. The thesis of this presentation is that Jesus teaches simply and unequivocally that war is evil and that Christians should refrain from participation in it.

A Story

As an example of the importance of this issue, here is the story of Sgt. Curtis Greene, who served in Iraq. [1]

Curtis Greene was angry about the war and frustrated with his wife Lisset for not understanding what it had been like there. Gone was the man smiling with her and the kids in family photos. “He was not the person I knew when he came back from Iraq.”

One night he disappeared from their home outside Fort Riley, Kansas. Lisset and the kids went to stay at her father's house in Hernando County. When he called her to apologize for running out, he promised he would come home to Fort Riley. But he wasn't about to return to Iraq.

“I knew he was having dreams, nightmares,” Lisset said. “He would wake up at night really sweaty.”

Sgt. Greene told his stepfather that he had to kill a few people, and that the guilt was weighing on him. “Curtis seems to think that he was a murderer,” his stepfather said. “Curtis was raised to respect life; in the military you’re taught to take it. I think he struggled with that.”

On December 6, he showed up for work, his uniform pressed, his boots polished. He sang cadence. That night, he was found hanging in his barracks. Sgt. Curtis Greene, 331st Signal Company, was 25.

Curtis Greene’s suicide was not unusual. The suicide rate for Iraq war veterans is twice the rate of nonveterans. At the time of this writing, more Iraq veterans have died by taking their own lives than have been killed in battle.

The Words of Jesus

Here are the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount as recorded in the fifth chapter of Matthew.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?”

Here are the words of Jesus from the 26th chapter of Matthew, which is an account of his arrest.

While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people. Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him.

Jesus replied, “Friend, do what you came for.”

Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.

“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”

We know from other Gospel accounts that the servant who drew his sword was Peter. The phrase, “When Christ disarmed Peter, he disarmed all Christians,” became a motto of the early church.

The History of the Early Church

The words of Jesus are easy to understand. The simple straightforward interpretation of them, that is, taking them at face value, is not difficult. What is difficult is accepting them as the will of Jesus in our personal lives. The human mind has an incredible capacity to rationalize. Rationalization is the process of justifying by human reason why a bad action is a good one, when we want to embrace that action for other unspoken reasons.

To illustrate the power of human rationalization, consider the history of the early church. [2] We know for certain that first-generation Christians did take the above words of Jesus at face value. For 300 years after the life of Jesus on this earth the church taught that Christians were to reject violence and were to love their enemies. The Christian was to imitate the nonviolent Jesus, who was called the Lamb of God. In the time of the Roman Empire, Christians were to walk as lambs among wolves. Even in the face of major campaigns by the government to exterminate their movement, they were consistently taught to reject homicide, to reject killing of all kind, to love their enemies, and to return good for evil.

As just one example of the teachings of the early church, consider the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolites, a document that describes the functioning of the church about 215 A.D. In its guidelines for the preparation for entrance into the church it states that if you are in the military, and you seek entrance into the church, you must tell your commanding officer that you will no longer kill on his orders. If the state does not accept that conduct, then you must resign before membership in the church will even be considered. On the other hand, if you are already a Christian and are not in the military, you may not enlist.

Imagine the persecution of the early Christians. They were burned on crosses and literally thrown to the lions. If a single member of a family were to convert to Christianity, it could mean the death by torture of the entire family. Through all this persecution, we do not have one word of teaching that the Christian is morally justified in taking a life to save his own or his family’s, much less to protect his state. It is an uncontrovertibly historic fact that the early Christians took Jesus’ teaching about nonviolence and love of enemies simply at face value.

This teaching is no longer the majority one in the church, neither Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, nor Protestant. A few religious groups have pacifism as a prominent doctrine including Quakers, Amish, Mennonites and Church of the Brethren. The church of Christ at one time had a pacifist movement led by David Lipscomb. [3]

So, how did the teaching change? Therein lies a classic case of human rationalization.

On the evening of October 28, 311 at a place called Melvian Bridge, the pagan Constantine was at war to determine who would be the emperor of the western empire. He was to do battle the next day, and there was a real possibility that he would lose. That night he had a dream in which he saw a cross in the sky with the Latin words, “With this sign thou shalt conquer.” He rose from his bed and that night had the sign of the cross painted on the armor of his soldiers. The next day he was victorious and became emperor of the western half of the Roman empire. Later he became emperor of the entire Roman empire.

As a result of that battle, Constantine in the year 313 made Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire. He confiscated many of the pagan temples and gave them to the Christians, who converted them into houses of worship. After Constantine died, the ruling class criticized the Christian community for receiving benefits from the state while still preaching nonviolence and not supporting its wars. So, the state made the church choose between adjusting its teaching to accommodate the state, or losing its state sanctioned privileges. In 368 A.D. for the first time in the history of the church, St. Ambrose offered the first justification for the Christian to participate in the violence of war. His student, St. Augustine, codified the teaching in his so-called Just War Theory that is used by most churches today.

In 311 A.D. you could not be a Roman soldier and at the same time be a Christian. By 416 A.D., that is, within the space of about a hundred years, you could not be a Roman soldier unless you were a Christian.

The Current Church

This capitulation by the church to the state ushered in the horrors of the Crusades, where Christians were promised eternal life in exchange for the homicide of a Muslim, of the Inquisition where people were burned at the stake for rejecting Christianity, and for the religious wars in which opposing Christians slaughtered each other over the meaning of the Eucharist.

To show how far we have sunk, during World War I about 10% of the casualties were civilians and the world was horrified at that fact. But in World War II with the concept of total war established in the so-called Christian nations, civilian casualties were 48% with hardly any protest from religious communities.

Economic sanctions used to be considered acts of war because by design they kill civilians. Yet today countries routinely impose economic sanctions with no protest from their citizens, Christian or otherwise. Economic sanctions by the United States against Iraq by the previous administration, not to mention the war itself by the current administration, is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians. For the most part, organized religion does not only meekly acquiesce in the killing, some Christian denominations cheer the killing of pagan men, women, and children in foreign countries because they believe it will hasten the second coming of Christ.


When people consider the simple teaching of the nonviolent Lamb of God about love of enemies and returning good for evil, a whole host of rationalizations comes to the fore.

One way to rationalize the killing of human beings in war is to dehumanize the enemy. For example, in World War II the Nazis who wanted to depopulate conquered lands referred to Bosnians, Slavs, Jews, and other undesirables as “Untermenchen,” in other words, less than human, or subhuman. Nor was dehumanization an exclusive practice of the evil Axis forces. According to war historian N. Ferguson, “To the historian who has specialized in German history, this is one of the most troubling aspects of the Second World War: the fact that Allied troops often regarded the Japanese in the same way that Germans regarded Russians – as Untermenschen.” In Vietnam and Korea, the enemy were gooks. Today in the Middle East, the enemy are Hajis, camel jockeys, and sand niggers.

Military trainers know that the enemy must be dehumanized before the killer instinct can be implanted in its trainees. Contrast that training with these words of Jesus from the 22nd chapter of Matthew.

One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Another rationalization is that Jesus’ teachings will never work in practice. For example, one argument made to justify the war in the Middle East is that if we do not kill the enemy over there, then the enemy will kill us here. After all, the argument goes, we must be practical. Otherwise, our very survival is at risk.

Part of this argument is the belief that if we do not kill the enemy first, they will kill us later. That part of the argument is debatable. However, even if that part of the argument is true, another implied part of the argument is that self survival is a primary good. Did Jesus teach that survival is a primary good? Here are his words from the tenth chapter of Matthew. The setting is Jesus’ warning to his disciples about the hardships they would encounter because of their acceptance of him.

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don't be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. “Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.

“Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Another rationalization is based on the insidious philosophy of utilitarianism, which claims that the action is best which provides the greatest good to the greatest number of people. An application of utilitarianism to the war issue is the following argument: It is true that the willful killing of individuals is wrong. However, if by killing a certain number of human beings one prevents the killing of a greater number of human beings, then killing the lesser number of human beings is ethically justified.

The practice of utilitarianism requires some agent, whether an individual or a group of individuals, to be responsible for measuring the total good in many different future scenarios and imposing its choice on other individuals. Think of the moral dilemma required to establish such a system of ethics. Who should the deciding agent be? An elected president who gives the order to detonate a nuclear bomb over a city? A colonel in the field of battle, perhaps assisted by planners in some remote war room? How does such an agent acquire the moral authority to make such decisions? Certainly such a system is nowhere described in all of scripture, much less in the teachings of Jesus.

Utilitarianism also requires adoption of moral relativism, whereby the ends justify the means. In other words, the argument goes, one must sometimes use evil to combat evil. Advocates of this philosophy claim that to do otherwise is naive because the world just does not work that way. Sometimes good people have no choice but to use evil in the short run, they claim, to accomplish good in the long run.

But is this not the opposite of Jesus’ teaching to return good for evil? There are no examples of the ends justifying the means in the teachings of Jesus. Instead, he teaches that God is the source of goodness. The tenth chapter of Mark contains the following dialog.

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good – except God alone.”


Ultimately, all these rationalizations are symptomatic of a deeper malaise. For the follower of Jesus, it should be sufficient to simply accept his teachings on faith. Do we believe that when Jesus told us to love our enemies and return good for evil, that he wanted us to use our human reason to deduce that he really does not want us to do that?

What is faith? Faith is Noah building a ridiculous ark out in the middle of nowhere. Faith is Abraham leaving his country of Haran and setting out for Canaan. Faith is the martyrs in the first centuries after Christ, going to their deaths because they loved their enemies and returned good for evil.

Faith is not easy. Why did Jesus say the following, as recorded in the seventh chapter of Matthew?

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Perhaps it is because so many of us have been seduced into serving the kingdom of man, as represented by the State, and in so doing have weakened our allegiance to the Kingdom of God. It is comfortable to be allied with the State, especially when it teaches that pride of country, patriotism, and military service are virtues. It is radical to take a stand against the overwhelming majority. Perhaps we should look anew at these words of Jesus, as recorded in the fifth chapter of Matthew.

“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”

A Personal Note

Allow me to conclude my presentation on a personal note. I have a confession to make. At one point in my professional career I was an aerospace engineer with a company whose revenue was derived entirely from government contracts from NASA and the Pentagon. I have always been fascinated with mathematics, physics, and technology and in my youth did not pay much attention to the ethical implications of my work. While I worked on civilian projects like the Viking mission to Mars and the Space Shuttle, I also worked on military projects. Some of my work is in the Minuteman ballistic missile deployed in silos across the United States, and some is in the Polaris missile deployed in nuclear submarines around the world.

My regret is the number of years it took for my conscience to evolve to the point where I could no longer participate in warfare projects. One reason I resigned from my position and came to Pepperdine was the desire to influence students like you. My hope is that this talk will prompt you to consider the nature of war in light of the teachings of Jesus. Perhaps my experience will influence someone in this audience so that the years of your youth will not be spent as a proponent of war, which you will later grow to regret.

Acknowledgements and resources

[1] This story of Sgt. Curtis Greene is an excerpt, almost verbatim, from an article in the St. Petersburg Times, February 13, 2005.

[2] Many of the ideas for this talk were inspired by a series of lectures titled “Behold the Lamb” given by Emmanuel Charles McCarthy, a priest in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. The complete series is available in audio form at the Center for Christian Nonviolence at the web site

I highly recommend at least the first five lectures in the series. Especially compelling is the fifth lecture titled “The Church: A Fold of Lambs” which describes the history of the early church as it relates to the war issue.

[3] Those with a background in the church of Christ might be interested in the book Civil Government. Its Origin, Mission, and Destiny, and the Christian’s Relation To It, by David Lipscomb (1831 – 1917). Lipscomb believed that the evil that afflicts the world comes from the rejection by man of the authority of God, for which man substitutes the authority of the State.

[4] The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder, second edition, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994, is a scholarly development of the thesis that Jesus’ teachings should be the basis of a Christian social ethic.

[5] The book Mere Discipleship by Lee C. Camp, Brazos Press, 2003, is similar to Yoder but more accessible.

Personal web page.
Seaver College Faculty Profile.