Jesus on War

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Source: Chapter in Cadoux's The Early Christian Attitude to War: A Contribution to the History of Christian Ethics, with a Foreword by the Rev. W.E. Orchard, D.D. (London: Headly Bros, 1919).


The Range of JesusTeaching on the Subject of War.—There is a sense in which it is true to say that Jesus gave his disciples no explicit teaching on the subject of war. The application of his ethical principles to the concrete affairs of life was not something which could be seen and taught in its entirety from the very first, but was bound to involve a long series of more or less complex problems; and the short lapse and other special conditions of his earthly life rendered it impossible for him to pronounce decisions on more than a very few of these. Upon large tracts of human conduct he rarely or never had occasion to enter, and hence little or no specific teaching of his is recorded concerning them. A familiar instance of this silence of Jesus on a matter on which we none the less have little doubt as to the import of his teaching, is the absence from the Gospels of any explict prohibition of slavery. And what is true of slavery is also true—though to a much more limited extent—of war. Whatever be the bearing of his precepts and his example on the subject, the fact remains that, as far as we know, no occasion presented itself to him for any explicit pronouncement on the question as to whether or not his disciples might serve as soldiers. It does not however follow that no definite conclusion on the point is to be derived from the Gospels. The circumstances of the time suffice to explain why an absolutely definite ruling was not given. Jesus was living and working among Palestinian Jews, among whom the proportion of soldiers and policemen to civilians must have been infinitesimal. No Jew could be compelled to serve in the Roman legions; and there was scarcely the remotest likelihood that any disciple of Jesus would be pressed into the army of Herodes Antipas or his brother Philippos or into the small body of Temple police at Jerusalem. But further, not only can the silence of Jesus on the concrete question be accounted for, without supposing that he had an open mind in regard to it, but a large and important phase of his teaching and practical life cannot be accounted for without the supposition that he regarded acts of war as entirely impermissible to himself and his disciples. The evidence for this last statement is cumulative, and can be adequately appreciated only by a careful examination of the sayings in which Jesus utters general principles that seem to have a more or less direct bearing on war and those in which he explicitly alludes to it, and by an earnest endeavour to arrive at the meaning that is latent in them.

Statements of Jesus inconsistent with the Lawfulness of War for Christians.—I. The first precept of which account has to be taken is Jesus’ reiteration of the Mosaic commandment, Thou shalt not kill. This commandment appears in the Sermon on the Mount as the first of a series of Mosaic ordinances which, so far from being narrowed down as too exacting, are either reinforced or else replaced by stricter limitations in the same direction.1 It is included in the list of commandments which Jesus enjoined upon the ruler who asked him what he would have to do in order to inherit eternal life.2 ‘Acts of homicide’ () are mentioned by him among the evil things that issue from the heart of man.3 It is commonly argued that this commandment of Jesus refers only to acts of private murder, and does not apply to the taking of life in war or in the administration of public justice. It is true that the Hebrew word used in the Mosaic commandment has almost exclusively the meaning of murder proper, and is not used of manslaughter in war, and that the Mosaic Law in general certainly did not prohibit either this latter act or capital punishment. On the other hand, it has to be noted (1) that the Hebrew word for ‘murder’ is used two or three times of a judicial execution,4 (2) that the Greek word which appears in the Gospel passages quoted has the more general sense of ‘killing,’ and is used of slaughter in war both in classical Greek5 and in the Septuagint,6 and (3) that, while there is undoubtedly an ethical distinction between murder or assassination on the one hand and slaughter in war on the other, there is also an ethical similarity between them, and the extension of the Mosaic prohibition to cases to which it was not commonly thought to apply, but with which it was not wholly unconnected, was just such a treatment as we know Jesus imposed upon other enactments of the Jewish Law.1

II. Still more explicit is the well-known non-resistance teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. I quote from the version of that Sermon in Mt v : (38) “Ye have heard that it was said : ‘Eye for eye’ and ‘tooth for tooth.’ (39) But I tell you not to withstand him who is evil : but whoever strikes thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also : (40) and if anyone wishes to go to law with thee and take away thy tunic, let him have thy cloak also : (41) and whoever ‘impresses’ thee (to go) one mile, go two with him. (42) Give to him that asks of thee, and from him who wishes to borrow of thee, turn not away. (43) Ye have heard that it was said : ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy.’ (44) But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, (45) in order that ye may become sons of your Father who is in heaven, for He raises His sun on evil and good (alike) and rains upon righteous and unrighteous. (46) For if ye love (only) those who love you, what reward have ye? do not even the taxgatherers do the same? (47) and if ye greet your brothers only, what extra (thing) do ye do? do not even the gentiles do the same? (48) Ye then shall be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”1 Volumes of controversy have been written as to the real import and implications of these critical words, and great care is necessary in order to discover exactly how much they mean. The obvious difficulties in the way of obeying them have led to more than one desperate exegetical attempt to escape from them. There is, for instance, the familiar plea (already alluded to) that Jesus meant his followers to adopt the spirit of his teaching, without being bound by the letter2 —a plea which, as has been pointed out by no less an authority than Bishop Gore, commonly results in ignoring both letter and spirit alike.1 Granting that the spirit is the more important side of the matter, we may well ask, If in our Lord’s view the right spirit issues in a ‘letter’ of this kind, how can a ‘letter’ of a diametrically opposite kind be consonant with the same spirit? Another hasty subterfuge is to say that these precepts are counsels of perfection valid only in a perfect society and not seriously meant to be practised under existing conditions.2 The utter impossibility of this explanation becomes obvious as soon as we recollect that in a perfect state of society there would be no wrongs to submit to and no enemies to love.

A less shallow misinterpretation argues that Jesus meant this teaching to govern only the personal feelings and acts of the disciple in his purely private capacity, and left untouched his duty—as a member of society and for the sake of social welfare—to participate in the authoritative and official restraint and punishment of wrongdoers.3 Whether or no this interpretation be sound ethical teaching for the present day, the idea that it represents the meaning of Jesus cannot be allowed to pass unchallenged. For in this very passage, Jesus exhibits society’s authorized court of justice, not as duly punishing the offender whom the injured disciple has lovingly pardoned and then handed over to its jurisdiction, but as itself committing the wrong that has to be borne : “if anyone wishes to go to law with thee, and take away thy tunic,” and so on. But further than that, the Lex Talionis—that ancient Mosaic law requiring, in a case of strife between two men resulting in injury to one of them, “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe”1 —was no mere authorization of private revenge, permitting within certain limits the indulgence of personal resentment, but a public measure designed in the interests of society as a restraint upon wrongdoing, and doubtless meant to be carried out by (or under the supervision of) the public officers of the community. Yet this law Jesus quotes for the sole purpose of forbidding his disciples to apply it. We are therefore driven to the conclusion that he regarded the duty of neighbourly love as excluding the infliction of public penalties on behalf of society, as well as the indulgence of personal resentment.2

III. In entire harmony with this conclusion is Jesus’ refusal to advance his ideals by political or coercive means. In the one corner of the Roman world where the passion for an independent national state still survived, he had no use for that passion. As the incident of the tribute-money shows, he felt but coldly towards the fierce yearning of his fellow-countrymen for national independence and greatness, and he rejected the idea of the Messiah which was framed in conformity with these aspirations. At his Temptation, if we may so paraphrase the story, he refused to take possession of the kingdoms of the world, feeling that to do so would be equivalent to bowing the knee to Satan. It is difficult to imagine any other ground for this feeling than the conviction that there was something immoral, something contrary to the Will of God, in the use of the only means by which world-rule could then be obtained, namely, by waging a successful war. The idea that the wrong he was tempted to commit was the indulgence of pride or an eagerness for early success does not meet the point : for was he not in any case invested by God with supreme authority over men, and was it not his life’s work to bring in the Kingdom as speedily as possible? Assuming that the use of military force did not appear to him to be in itself illegitimate, why should he not have used it? Had he not the most righteous of causes? Would not the enterprise have proved in his hands a complete success? Would he not have ruled the world much better than Tiberius was doing? Why then should the acquisition of political ascendancy be ruled out as involving homage to Satan? But on the assumption that he regarded the use of violence and injury as a method that was in itself contrary to the Will of God, which contained among its prime enactments the laws of love and gentleness, his attitude to the suggestion of world-empire becomes easily intelligible.1 Other incidents bear out this conclusion. He refuses to be taken and made a king by the Galilaeans2 : he does not stir a finger to compel Antipas to release the Baptist or to punish him for the Baptist’s death or to prevent or avenge any other of the many misdeeds of “that she-fox.”3 He was not anxious to exact from Pilatus a penalty for the death of those Galilaeans whose blood the governor had mingled with their sacrifices.4 He made no attempt to constrain men to do good or desist from evil by the application of physical force or the infliction of physical injuries. He did not go beyond a very occasional use of his personal ascendancy in order to put a stop to proceedings that appeared to him unseemly.5 He pronounces a blessing on peace-makers as the children of God and on the gentle as the inheritors of the earth.6 He laments the ignorance of Jerusalem as to ‘the (things that make) for peace.’7 He demands the forgiveness of all injuries as the condition of receiving the divine pardon for oneself.8 His own conduct on the last day of his life is the best comment on all this teaching. He does not try to escape, he offers no resistance to the cruelties and indignities inflicted upon him, and forbids his followers to strike a blow on his behalf.1 He addresses mild remonstrances to the traitor and to his captors, 2 and at the moment of crucifixion prays to God to pardon his enemies : “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”3

IV. The words in which Jesus expressed his disapproval of gentile ‘authority’ point in the same direction. “Ye know that those who are reckoned to rule over the gentiles lord it over them, and their great men overbear them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all. For the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life (as) a ransom for many.”4 The service rendered by the Master was thus to be the pattern of that rendered by the disciples. That this service did not mean the abnegation of all authority as such is clear from the fact that Jesus himself exercised authority over his disciples and others,5 and furthermore expected the former to exercise it as leaders of his Church.6 What sort of authority then was Jesus condemning in this passage? What difference was there between the authority of the gentile ruler and that of himself and his apostles? Surely this, that the latter rested on spiritual ascendancy and was exercised only over those who willingly submitted to it, whereas the former was exercised over all men indiscriminately whether they liked it or not, and for this reason involved the use of the sanctions of physical force and penalties. There can be no doubt that it was this fact that caused Jesus to tell his disciples : “It is not so among you.”

V. Further evidence to the same effect is furnished by three incidental utterances of Jesus.. (a) The first of these occurs in the episode of the adulteress who was brought to Him for judgment—an admittedly historical incident.1 The Pharisees who brought her were quite right in saying that the Law of Moses required the infliction of the death-penalty as a punishment for her offence.2 With all his reverence for the Mosaic Law and his belief in its divine origin,3 Jesus here refuses to have any hand in giving effect to it, and sets it on one side in favour of an altogether different method of dealing with the guilty party. “Neither do I condemn thee,” he says to her, “go, and sin no more.”4 The incident reveals the determination of Jesus to take no part in the use of physical violence in the judicial punishment of wrongdoers. (b) The second utterance expresses a corresponding disapproval of participation in warfare on the part of his disciples. It occurs in his apocalyptic discourse, in which he depicts the devastation of Judaea and the defilement of the Temple at the hands of a foreign foe, and bids his followers in the midst of these distresses ‘flee to the mountains.’1 It is true that too much ought not to be built on this saying; for it occurs in a highly problematical context, and many scholars refuse to regard it as an actual utterance of Jesus at all,2 and the whole passage, even if authentic, is not very easily explained. Still, if it be a fact that Jesus anticipated a gentile attack on Judaea and Jerusalem, and bade his followers flee instead of resisting it, that fact is not without significance for the question before us. (c) The third utterance forbids the use of the sword in a case which, in many respects, appeals most strongly to the modern mind, namely, the defence of others. When Jesus was being arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, Peter drew a sword on his Master’s behalf and attacked one of the High Priest’s servants. Jesus, however, checked him : “Put back thy sword into its place : for all who take the sword shall perish by the sword.”3 It is only by an unreal isolation of the events of Jesus’ passion from the operation of all the usual moral and spiritual laws which govern humanity, that one can deny some sort of general application to the words here used. The circumstances of the case were of course in a measure special, but so is every incident in actual life : and, inasmuch as the grim truth with which Jesus supported his injunction was perfectly general, one might reasonably argue that the injunction itself was more than an order meant to meet a particular case, and had in it something of the universality of a general principle of conduct.1

To sum up, whatever may be thought of the weakness or the strength of any one of the various arguments that have just been adduced, it can hardly be questioned that, in conjunction with one another, they constitute a strong body of evidence for the belief that Jesus both abjured for himself and forbade to his disciples all use of physical violence as a means of checking or deterring wrongdoers, not excluding even that use of violence which is characteristic of the public acts of society at large as distinct from the individual. On this showing, participation in warfare is ruled out as inconsistent with Christian principles of conduct.2

Statements of Jesus and other Considerations apparently legitimizing Warfare forChristians.—There are, however, a number of passages and incidents in the Gospels, which are thought by many to show that Jesus’ disuse of violence and disapproval of war were not absolute, or at any rate are not binding on his followers to-day; and it remains to be seen whether any of them constitutes a valid objection to the conclusion we have just reached.

I. To begin with, in the very passage in which the non-resistance teaching is given, occurs the precept : “Whoever ‘impresses’ thee (to go) one mile, go two with him.”1 It is urged that the word translated ‘impresses’ is a technical term for the requirement of service by the State, and that Jesus’ words therefore enjoin compliance even with a compulsory demand for military service. But it is clear that military service, as distinct from general state-labour, is not here in question : for (1) the technical term here used referred originally to the postal system of the Persian Empire, the not being a soldier or recruiting officer, but the king’s mounted courier; (2) instances of its later usage always seem to refer to forced labour or service in general, not to service as a soldier2 ; and (3) the Jews were in any case exempt from service in the Roman legions, so that if, as seems probable, the Roman ‘angaria’ is here referred to, military service proper cannot be what is contemplated.

II. Secondly, it is pointed out that, in the little intercourse Jesus had with soldiers, we find no mention made of any disapproval on his part of the military calling. His record in this respect is somewhat similar to that of the Baptist, 3 whose example, however, must not be taken as indicating or determining the attitude of his greater successor. When Jesus was asked by a gentile centurion, in the service of Herodes at Capernaum, to cure his servant, he not only did so, without (as far as the record goes) uttering any disapproval of the man’s profession, but even expressed appreciation of his faith in believing (on the analogy of his own military authority) that Jesus could cure the illness at a distance by a simple word of command.1 No conclusion, however, in conflict with the position already reached can be founded on this incident. The attempt to draw such a conclusion is at best an argument from silence. Considering the number of things Jesus must have said of which no record has been left, we cannot be at all sure that he said nothing on this occasion about the illegitimacy of military service for his own followers. And even supposing he did not, is it reasonable to demand that his views on this point should be publicly stated every time he comes across a soldier? Allowance has also to be made for the fact that the centurion was a gentile stranger, who, according to Luke’s fuller narrative, was not even present in person, and in any case was not a candidate for discipleship. The utmost we can say is that at this particular moment the mind of Jesus was not focused on the ethical question now before us : but even that much is precarious, and moreover, if true, furnishes nothing inconsistent with our previous conclusion.

III. The expulsion of the traders from the Temple-courts1 is often appealed to as the one occasion on which Jesus had recourse to violent physical coercion, thereby proving that his law of gentleness and nonresistance was subject to exceptions under certain circumstances. Exactly what there was in the situation that Jesus regarded as justifying such an exception has not been shown. If however the narratives given by the four evangelists be attentively read in the original, it will be seen (1) that the whip of cords is mentioned in the Fourth Gospel only, which is regarded by most critical scholars as historically less trustworthy than the other three, and as having in this instance disregarded historical exactitude by putting the narrative at the beginning instead of at the close of Jesus’ ministry,2 (2) that even the words of the Fourth Gospel do not necessarily mean that the whip was used on anyone besides the cattle,3 (3) that the action of Jesus, so far as the men were concerned, is described in all four accounts by the same word, . This word means literally ‘to cast out,’ but is also used of Jesus being sent into the wilderness,4 of him expelling the mourners from Jairus’ house,5 of God sending out workers into his vineyard,6 of a man taking out a splinter from the eye1 of a householder bringing forth things out of his store,2 of a man taking money out of his purse,3 and of a shepherd sending sheep out of the fold.4 Here therefore it need mean no more than an authoritative dismissal. It is obviously impossible for one man to drive out a crowd by physical force or even by the threat of it. What he can do is to overawe them by his presence and the power of his personality, and expel them by an authoritative command. That apparently is what Jesus did.5 In any case, no act even remotely comparable to wounding or killing is sanctioned by his example on this occasion.

IV. In his prophecies of the Last Things, Jesus spoke of the wars of the future. He said that nation would rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom, that wars and rumours of wars would be heard of, that Judaea would be devastated, Jerusalem besieged and taken by the gentiles, and the Temple defiled and destroyed.6 It is difficult to separate these announcements from those other general prophecies in which calamity is foretold as the approaching judgment of God upon the sins of communities and individuals.7 In this connection too we have to consider the parabolic descriptions of the king who, angered at the murder of his slaves, sent his armies, destroyed the murderers, and burnt their city,1 of the other king who executed the citizens that did not wish him to rule over them,2 and of other kings and masters who punished their offending servants with more or less violence.3 These passages seem to prove beyond question that, in Jesus’ view, God under certain conditions punishes sinners with terrible severity, and that one notable example of such punishment would be the complete overthrow of the Jewish State as the result of a disastrous war with Rome. That being so, may we not infer from God’s use of the Roman armies as the rod of His anger, that Jesus would have granted that under certain circumstances his own followers might make themselves the agents of a similar visitation by waging war? As against such an inference, we have to bear in mind (I) that wherever the infliction appears as the direct act of God, the language is always highly parabolic, and the exact interpretation proportionately difficult; nothing more than the single point of divine punishment is indicated by these parables; even the more fundamental idea of divine love—the context in which the divine severity must admittedly be read—is omitted. Can we infer from the parable of the hardworked slave,4 illustrating the extent of the service we owe to God, that Jesus approves of a master so treating his slaves, or from the parabolic description of himself plundering Satan,5 that he sanctions burglary? (2) that the difference between divine and human prerogatives in the matter of punishing sin is deep and vital, God’s power, love, knowledge, and authority making just for Him what would be unjust if done by man1 ; (3) that, in the case of the Jewish war, the instruments of God’s wrath were unenlightened gentiles who in a rebellion could see nothing better to do than to crush the rebels; duty might well be very different for Christian disciples; (4) that the conception of foreign foes being used to chastise God’s people was one familiar to readers of the Hebrew Scriptures, and did not by any means imply the innocence of the foes in question2 (5) that, while Jesus holds up the divine perfection in general as a model for our imitation, yet, when he descends to particulars, it is only the gentle side of God’s method of dealing with sinners—to the express exclusion of the punitive side—which he bids us copy,3 and which he himself copied in that supreme act in which he revealed God’s heart and moved sinners to repentance, namely, his submission to the cross.

V. Difficulty has sometimes been raised over Jesus’ illustrative allusions to war. There cannot be any question as to the purely metaphorical character of his picture of the two kings at war with unequal forces—given to enforce the duty of counting in advance the cost of discipleship,1 or of his allusion to violent men snatching the Kingdom or forcing their way into it2 —a demand for eagerness and enterprise in spiritual things.3 The parabolic description of the king sending his armies to avenge his murdered slaves4 has already been dealt with. More easily misunderstood is the passage in which Jesus states that he was sent not to bring peace to the earth, but a sword.5 But there is no real difficulty here: Jesus is simply saying that, as a result of his coming, fierce antipathies will arise against his adherents on the part of their fellow-men. The context clearly reveals the meaning; the word ‘sword’ is used metaphorically for dissension, and a result is announced as if it were a purpose, quite in accordance with the deterministic leanings of the Semitic mind. No sanction for the Christian engaging in war can be extracted from the passage, any more than a sanction of theft can be drawn from Jesus’ comparison of his coming to that of a thief in the night.1 More serious difficulty is occasioned by an incident narrated by Luke in his story of the Last Supper. After reminding his disciples that they had lacked nothing on their mission-journeys, though unprovided with purse, wallet, and shoes, Jesus counsels them now to take these necessaries with them, and adds : “And let him who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you that this which has been written must be accomplished in me, ‘And he was reckoned with the lawless.’ For that which concerneth me has (its own) accomplishment” . They tell him there are two swords there, and he replies abruptly : “It is enough.”2 No entirely satisfactory explanation of this difficult passage has yet been given.3 The obvious fact that two swords were not enough to defend twelve men seems to rule out a literal interpretation; and the closing words of Jesus strongly suggest that the disciples, in referring to actual swords, had misunderstood him. The explanation suggested by Harnack,4 that the sword was meant metaphorically to represent the stedfast defence of the Gospel under the persecution now approaching, is perhaps the best within our reach at present : at all events, until one obviously better has been produced, we cannot infer from the passage that Jesus was really encouraging his disciples to go about armed. Peter took a sword with him that very night, but on the first occasion on which he used it, he was told by Jesus not to do so.1

VI. It is clear that Jesus accorded a certain recognition to the civil governments of his day. It is doubtful whether the Temptation-story compels us to believe that he regarded the Roman Empire as objectively Satanic : an explanation of the story has been offered which involves no such supposition.2 He called the Roman coins ‘the things that belong to Caesar,’3 and bade the Jews pay them to their owner : in the Fourth Gospel he is made to tell Pilatus that the latter’s magisterial power over him had been given to him ‘from above’4 : he revered King David and the Queen of Sheba5 : he spoke of the old Mosaic Law, with its pains and penalties, as ‘the word of God’6 : he reckoned ‘judgment’ (? = the administration of justice) among the weightier matters of the Law, and rebuked the scribes and Pharisees for neglecting it7 : courtiers, judges, rulers, and councillors were numbered among his friends and admirers8 : he was scrupulously obedient to the Jewish Law,9 and paid the Templetax, even though he though it unfair10 he enjoined compliance with the State’s demand for forced labour11 : he would undertake no sort of active opposition to the governments of his day : he submitted meekly to the official measures that led to his own death; and his refusal to be made a king by the Galilaeans1 marks a certain submissiveness even towards Herodes, for whom he seems to have had much less respect than for other rulers. Does not all this—it may be asked— does not, in particular, the command to ‘Give back to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,’ carry with it the duty of rendering military service if and when the government demands it? Important as the words about Caesar doubtless are, they must not be made to bear more than their fair weight of meaning. Caesar, it was well understood, had formally exempted the Jews from service in his legions; and the question was, not whether they should fight for him, but whether they should bow to his rule and pay his taxes. To part with one’s property at the demand of another person does not make one responsible for all that person’s doings, nor does it imply a readiness to obey any and every command that that person may feel he has a right to issue. Jesus sanctioned disobedience to Caesar in forbidding his followers to deny him before kings and governors2 ; and refusal to disobey his ethical teaching at Caesar’s bidding would be but a natural extension of this precept. If it be urged that the phrase and the other evidence quoted point to some sort of real justification on Jesus’ part of the imperial and other governments, it may be replied that that justification was relative only—relative, that is, to the imperfect and unenlightened state of the agents concerned. The fact that they were not as yet ready to be his own followers was an essential condition of his approval of their public acts. That approval, therefore, did not affect the ethical standard he demanded from his own disciples.1

VII. It is commonly assumed that obedience to the non-resistance teaching of Jesus is so obviously inconsistent with the peace and well-being of society that he could not have meant this teaching to be taken literally. Thus Professor Bethune-Baker says : “If the right of using force to maintain order be denied, utter social disorganization must result. Who can imagine that this was the aim of one who. . . ? It was not Christ’s aim; and He never gave any such command.” 2 “The self-forgetting altruism, the ideal humanity and charity,” says Schell, “would, by a literal fulfilment of certain precepts of the Sermon on the Mount, offer welcome encouragement to evil propensities, and by its indulgence would even provoke the bad to riot in undisciplined excess.”3 “A country,” says Loisy, “where all the good people conformed to these maxims would, instead of resembling the kingdom of heaven, be the paradise of thieves and criminals.”4 This plausible argument is however erroneous, for it ignores in one way or another three important facts : (I) The ability to practise this teaching of Jesus is strictly relative to the status of discipleship : the Teacher issues it for immediate acceptance, not by the whole of unredeemed humanity, still less by any arbitrarily chose local group of people (one nation, for instance, as distinct from others), but by the small though growing company of his own personal disciples. It is essentially a law for the Christian community. (2) The negative attitude which this teaching involves is more than compensated for by its positive counterpart. Jesus and his disciples use no force, but they are on that account by no means ciphers in the struggle against sin. The changes wrought by Jesus in the Gerasene maniac, the prostitute, the adulteress, the extortionate taxgatherer, and the thief on the cross, show what a far more efficient reformer of morals he was than the police. As we shall see later, his first followers worked on the same lines, and met with the same splendid success. Nor is it very difficult to see how enfeebled would have been this policy of Jesus and the early Christians, if it had been combined by them with a use of coercion or of the punitive power of the state. True, as long as man’s will is free, moral suasion is not bound to succeed in any particular case; but the same is true also of the use of force. The point is that the principles of Jesus, as a general policy, so far from leaving human sin unchecked, check it more effectively than any coercion or penalization can do. (3) The growth of the Christian community is a gradual growth, proceeding by the accession of one life at a time. Two gradual processes have thus to go on pari passu, firstly, a gradual diminution in the number of those who use violence to restrain wrong, and secondly, a gradual diminution in the number of those who seem to them to need forcible restraint.1 The concomitance of these processes obviously means no such “utter social disorganisation” as is often imagined, but a gradual and steady transition to greater social security.

VIII. Lastly, we have to consider the view which frankly admits that the teaching of Jesus is inconsistent with the use of arms, but regards that teaching as an ‘interim ethic,’ framed wholly with an eye to the approaching break-up of the existing world-order (when by God’s intervention the Kingdom would be set up), and therefore as having no claim to the strict obedience of modern Christians who perforce have to take an entirely different view of the world. Dr. Wilhelm Herrmann of Marburg presents this view in a paper which appears in an English form in Essays on the Social Gospel (London, 1907).2 On the ground of the supposed historical discovery that Jesus looked upon human society as near its end, he cheerfully emancipates the modern Christian from the duty of “absolutely obeying in our rule of life to-day, the traditional words of Jesus.”3 “Endeavours to imitate Jesus in points inseparable from His especial mission in the world, and His position—which is not ours,—towards that world—efforts like these lacking the sincerity of really necessary tasks, have so long injured the cause of Jesus, that our joy will be unalloyed when scientific study at last reveals to every one the impossibility of all such attempts.”4 “As a result of that frame of mind whereby we are united with Him, we desire the existence of a national State, with a character and with duties with which Jesus was not yet acquainted; we will not let ourselves be led astray, even if in this form of human nature various features are as sharply opposed to the mode of life and standpoint of Jesus as is the dauntless use of arms.”1 This view, though quoted from a German author, represents the standpoint of a good deal of critical opinion in this country, and is in fact the last stronghold of those who realize the impossibility of finding any sanction for war in the Gospels, but who yet cling to the belief that war is in these days a Christian duty. In regard to it we may say (I) that ‘scientific study’ has not yet proved that the mind of Jesus was always dominated by an expectation of a world-cataclysm destined to occur within that generation. The Gospels contain non-apocalyptic as well as apocalyptic sayings, and there are no grounds for ruling out the former as ungenuine. Early Christian thought tended to over-emphasize the apocalyptic element, a fact which argues strongly for the originality of the other phase of Jesus’ teaching. His ethics cannot be explained by reference to his expectation of the approaching end. On the contrary, “where He gives the ground of His command, as in the case of loving enemies, forgiveness, and seeking the lost, it is the nature of God that He dwells upon, and not anything expected in the near or distant future.”2 (2) Herrmann maintains that “the command to love our enemies” and the words of Jesus “dealing with the love of peace” are not to be included among the sayings which have to be explained by the idea of the approaching end.1 But he does not point to anything in these sayings which entitles him to treat them as exceptional; nor does he explain how obedience to them—seeing that after all they are to be obeyed —can be harmonized with “the dauntless use of arms.” (3) The appeal to the interim-ethic theory, however sincere, has a pragmatic motive behind it, as Herrmann’s words about the desire for a national state clearly reveal. “Thus Jesus brings us into conflict,” he confesses, “with social duties to which we all wish to cling.”2 He takes no account at all of the three facts which have just been referred to3 as governing compliance with Jesus’ teaching. These facts, when properly attended to and allowed for, show how utterly baseless is the prevalent belief that to adopt the view of Jesus’ teaching advocated in these pages is to ensure the immediate collapse of one state or another and to hand society over to the control of any rascals who are strong enough to tyrannize over their fellows. When that pragmatic motive is shown to be based on a misapprehension, no ground will remain for withholding, from our Lord’s prohibition of the infliction of injury upon our neighbour, that obedience which all Christian people willingly admit must be accorded to his more general precepts of truthfulness, service, and love.

The interim-ethic theory is, as we have said, the last fortress of militarism on Christian soil. Driven from that stronghold, it has no choice but to take refuge over the border. Its apologists eventually find that they have no option but to argue on grounds inconsistent with the supremacy of Christianity as a universal religion or as a final revelation of God. Most of the arguments we hear about ‘the lesser of two evils,’ ‘living in an imperfect world,’ ‘untimely virtues,’ and so on, reduce themselves in the last analysis to a renunciation of Christianity, at least for the time being, as the real guide of life. In the fierce agony of the times, the inconsistency is unperceived by those who commit it; or, if it is perceived, the sacrifice of intellectual clearness becomes part of the great sacrifice for which the crisis calls. But he, to whose words men have so often fled when the organized Christianity of the hour appeared to have broken down or at any rate could not solve the riddle or point the way, will, when the smoke has cleared from their eyes, be found to possess after all the secret for which the human race is longing; and the only safe ‘Weltpolitik’ will be seen to lie in simple and childlike obedience to him who said : “Happy are the gentle, for they will inherit the earth.”

In chalking out the main divisions of our subject from this point onwards, it is not proposed to give the first place to any set of chronological landmarks between the death of Jesus about 29 a.d. and the triumph of Constantinus about 313 a.d. This does not mean that the Christian attitude to war underwent no change in the course of that long period; but such changes as there were it will be convenient to study within subdivisions founded on the subject-matter rather than on the lapse of time. The material—excluding the final summary and comments—falls naturally into two main divisions, firstly, the various forms in which the Christian disapproval of war expressed itself, such as the condemnation of it in the abstract, the emphasis laid on the essential peacefulness of Christianity, the place of gentleness and non-resistance in Christian ethics, the Christians’ experience of the evils of military life and character, and their refusal to act as soldiers themselves; and secondly, the various forms of what we may call the Christian acceptance or quasi-acceptance of war, ranging from such ideal realms as Scriptural history, spiritual warfare, and so on, right up to the actual service of Christians in the Roman armies.1 When we have examined these two complementary phases of the subject, we shall be in a position to sum up the situation—particularly the settlement involved in the Church’s alliance with Constantinus, and to offer a few general observations on the question as a whole.

[1]Mt v. 21 ff, cf 27 f, 31–48.

[2]Mt xix. 16–19 ‖s.

[3]Mt xv. 18–20; Mk vii. 20–23.

[4]Numb xxxv. 27, of the avenger of blood slaying a murderer; ibid. 30, of the officers of justice doing so; 1 Kings xxi. 19, of Naboth’s execution.

[5]Herodot i. 211; Aiskhulos Theb 340: cf the Homeric use of .

[6]Exod xvii. 13; Levit xxvi. 7; Numb xxi. 24; Deut xiii. 15, xx. 13; Josh x. 28, 30, 32, 35; Isa xxi. 15.

[1]B.-Baker parries the force of this argument by an appeal to the well-known distinction between letter and spirit. He says (ICW 11–13): “Thus it is that Christ never seems to wish so much to assert a new truth, or a new law, as to impress upon His hearers the spiritual significance of some old truth or law; to raise them altogether out of the sphere of petty detail into the life of all-embracing principles;. . . It is essential to our understanding of Christ’s meaning to observe that He designs to give a spiritual turn, if we may say so, to the old specific law. . . So we cannot regard the extension which the law ‘Thou shalt not kill’ received from Jesus as a comprehensive denial of the right of man ever to deprive a fellow-creature—in the beautiful language of the sermon on the mount, a brother—of his earthly life.” Arguing in this way, the author has no difficulty in proving that Christ “countenanced and sanctioned war” (15, 18). Something will be said later in regard to this antithesis between letter and spirit and the use here made of it (p. 23).

[1]The Lucan parallel (vi. 27–36) adds to ‘Love your enemies’ the words: ‘do good to them that hate you, bless them that curse you.’ Its other additions and differences are unimportant, and on the whole it has perhaps less claim to originality than the Matthaean version. It is worth remarking that the word used for enemies (), besides being used for private and personal enemies, is also used in the Septuagint, the New Testament, and elsewhere, for national foes (Gen xiv. 20, xlix. 8, Exod xv. 6, Levit xxvi. 7, 8, 17, 1 Sam iv. 3, etc., etc.; Lk i. 71, 74, xix, 43 : also Orig Cels ii. 30, viii. 69).

[2]Thus C. E. Luthardt (History of Christian Ethics before the Reformation, ET p. 187) criticizes Tertullianus’ view that Christians ought not to wield the sword as soldiers or as magistrates as “the necessary consequence of the standpoint that makes the words of Christ which refer to the internal attitude of the disposition directly into a law for the external orders of life.” Cf Magee, in The Fortnightly Review, January 1890, pp. 38 f. B.-Baker’s view to the same effect has already been quoted (see previous p, n I). The reader may judge for himself how far astray the latter author’s method of dealing with the teaching of Jesus leads him, from the following statement, taken from the same context. (ICW 12): “The theory upon which the Inquisition acted, that physical sufferings are of no moment in comparison with the supreme importance of the spiritual welfare, is quite consonant with the tone of Christ’s commands and teaching.” The error here arises from the neglect of the vital distinction between the glory of enduring suffering and the guilt of inflicting it.

[1]See Bishop Gore’s article on The Social Doctrine of the Sermon on the Mount in The Economic Review for April 1892, p. 149 : “The vast danger is that we should avail ourselves of a popular misinterpretation of St. Paul’s language, and observe these precepts, as we say, “in the spirit,”—which is practically not at all in the actual details of life. . . . Therefore we must apply Christ’s teaching in detail to the circumstances of our day.”

[2]See for example Bigelmair 165 : “The abolition of war and therewith the necessity of forming armies was indeed certainly one of those ideals which the Divine Master foreshadowed in the Sermon on the Mount and which will be reached some day in the fulness of time. But just as such an ideal appears to be still remote from our present day, so its fulfilment was unrealizable in the earliest times,” etc. (see below, p. 253): cf also this author’s treatment (100) of Jesus’ prohibition of oaths : “The Divine Master had in the Sermon on the Mount. . . held out the abolition of all swearing as an ideal for humanity, an ideal which will first become attainable, when the other ideals of the Kingdom of God. . . , namely that unselfishness, of which the Saviour spoke in connection with the oath, shall have succeeded in getting carried out” (zur Durchfuhrung gelangt sein werden).

[3]See, for instance, an article by Bishop Magee in The Fortnightly Review for January 1890 (pp. 33–46) on The State and the Sermon on the Mount. Dr. Charles Mercier (The Irrelevance of Christianity and War, in The Hibbert Journal, July 1918, pp. 555–563) frankly recognizes that Jesus’ teaching of gentleness cannot be harmonized with war; but he cuts the Gordian knot by dividing ethics into the Moral realm and the Patriotic realm, penning up the words of Jesus within the former as applicable only to individuals within the same community, and therefore as not forbidding war, which belongs wholly to the latter!

[1]Exod xxi. 23–25; there is some difficulty about the literary setting (see Driver’s note on this passage in the Cambridge Bible), but the scope and purport of the enactment are clear.

[2]Troeltsch (40) remarks, a propos of the teaching of Jesus about love : “Thus there exists for the children of God no law and no compulsion, no war and struggle, but only an untiring love and an overcoming of evil with good—demands, which the Sermon on the Mount interprets in extreme cases.”

[1]This view of the third temptation (Mt iv. 8–10 = Lk iv. 5–8) is substantially that suggested by Seeley in Ecce Homo, ch. n.

[2]John vi. 15.

[3]Mk i. 14 f, vi. 14–29, etc., and parallels; Lk iii 19 f, xiii. 31

[4]Lk xiii. 1–3.

[5]The incident of Jesus’ clearing the Temple-courts—often regarded as an exception to his usual policy of abstaining from violence—will be discussed later (see pp. 34 f).

[6]Mt v. 5, 9.

[7]Lk xix. 41 f ().

[8]Mt vi. 12, 14 f; Mk xi. 25. The context shows that this type of forgiveness at all events is irrespective of the wrongdoer’s repentance, though there may be another type which requires it (Lk xvii. 3 f; cf Mt xviii. 15–17, 21–35).

[1]Mt xxvi. 51 f ‖s; John xviii. 36.

[2]Mt xxvi. 50‖; John xviii. 22 f.

[3]Lk xxiii. 34.

[4]Mk x. 42–45 ‖s.

[5]Mt xi. 27, xxiii. 10, xxviii. 18; John xiii. 13.

[6]Mt v. 5, xvi. 19, xviii. 17 f, xxiv. 45–47, xxv. 21, 23; Lk xix. 17, 19.

[1]John vii. 53-viii. 11 : cf Moffatt INT 555 f.

[2]Levit xx. 10; Deut xxii. 22–24.

[3]Mk vii. 8–13‖.

[4]Compare Jesus’ announcement—perhaps literally meant—that he had been sent “to proclaim release to captives and restoration of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed at liberty” (Lk iv. 18), and his words in the Sermon on the Mount about judging others (Mt vii. 1 f; Lk vi. 37f : the Lucan version has a distinctly legal ring about it). His refusal to be a ‘judge and divider’ in a case of disputed inheritance (Lk xii. 13f) may have an indirect bearing on the subject.

[1]Mk xiii. 2, 7–9, 14–20‖s; cf Lk xvii. 31–37.

[2]On the theory that Mk xiii contains (7f, 14–20, 24–27) a ‘little apocalypse,’ dating from 60–70 a.d., see Moffatt INT 207–209.

[3]Mt xxvi. 51 ff : cf Lk xxii. 50f; John xviii. 10 f, 36 (Jesus says to Pilatus : “If my Kingdom were of this world, my servants would fight, in order that I should not be handed over to the Jews : but now my Kingdom is not from thence”).

[1]The question has been asked, how Peter came to be carrying a sword at all, if his Master discountenanced the use of weapons (J. M. Lloyd Thomas, The Immorality of Non-resistance, p. ix : E. A. Sonnenschein, in The Hibbert Journal, July 1915, pp. 865f). The answer is that Peter may very well have failed to understand his Master’s real meaning (particularly perhaps the ‘two swords’ saying—which we shall discuss presently), and, apprehending danger, may have put on a sword without Jesus noticing it.

[2]Well may a present-day scholar, not himself a pacifist, say : “I think, then, it must in fairness be admitted that there is a real case for the plea of the conscientious objector that Jesus totally forbade war to his followers. . . . I cannot shut my eyes to the possibility that Jesus Himself may have been a pacifist” (Dr. A. S. Peake, Prisoners of Hope, pp. 28, 30).

[1]Mt v. 41 :

[2]Mt xxvii. 32 ‖ (the soldiers ‘impressed’——Simon of Cyrene to carry the cross). See the article ‘angaria’ in Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities : “The Roman angaria. . . included the maintenance and supply, not only of horses, but of ships and messengers, in forwarding both letters and burdens.” The Lexicons give no hint that the word was used for impressing soldiers.

[3]See Lk iii. 14 : “And men on service” (, who had received his baptism) “asked him, saying, ‘And what are we to do?’ and he said to them, ‘Never extort money from anyone (), or falsely accuse anyone; and be content with your pay’.”

[1]Mt viii. 5–13 ‖. Seeley (Ecce Homo, pref. to 5th edn, p. xvi), says of the centurion : “He represented himself as filling a place in a graduated scale, as commanding some and obeying others, and the proposed condescension of one whom he ranked so immeasurably above himself in that scale shocked him. This spirit of order, this hearty acceptance of a place in society, this proud submission which no more desires to rise above its place than it will consent to fall below it, was approved by Christ with unusual emphasis and warmth.” This misses the point : the centurion’s words about being under authority and having others under him expressed, not his humility or reverence for Jesus, who was not above him in military rank, but his belief in Jesus’ power to work the cure by word of command; and it was this belief that Jesus approved so heartily.

[1]Mk xi. 15–17; Mt xxi. 12 f; Lk xix. 45 f; John ii. 13–17.

[2]I mention this argument for what it is worth, though personally I incline to accept the historicity of the Fourth Gospel here, both as regards chronology and details.

[3]John ii. 15 says :

[4]Mk i. 12.

[5]Mk v. 40 ‖.

[6]Mt ix. 38 ‖.

[1]Mt vii. 4 ‖.

[2]Mt xii. 35, xiii. 52.

[3]Lk x. 35.

[4]John x. 4.

[5]“It is the very point of the story, not that He, as by mere force, can drive so many men, but that so many are seen retiring before the moral power of one—a mysterious being, in whose face and form the indignant flush of innocence reveals a tremendous feeling they can nowise comprehend, much less are able to resist” (Horace Bushnell, Nature and the Supernatural, p. 219).

[6]Mk xiii. 2, 7 f, 14–20 ‖s; Mt xxiv. 28; Lk xvii. 22–37, xix. 41–44, cf xxiii. 28–31.

[7]Mt xi. 23 f ‖, xiii. 37–43, 49 f, xxi. 41 ‖s, xxiii. 33–36; Lk xii. 54–xiii. 9, xix. 44b, xxi. 22.

[1]Mt xxii. 7.

[2]Lk xix. 27.

[3]Mt xviii. 34 f, 13, xxiv. 50 f ‖, xxv. 30; cf Lk xviii 7 f.

[4]Lk xvii. 7–10 (Moffatt’s trans).

[5]Mk iii. 27 ‖s.

[1]For this view, cf 1 Sam xxiv. 12: “The Lord judge between me and thee, and the Lord avenge me of thee: but mine hand shall not be upon thee.”

[2]Isa x. 5–19; Jer 1. 23, li. 20–26; Zech i. 15, etc.

[3]Mt v. 44–48 ‖, cf vii. 11. A similar distinction appears in Paul (Rom xii. 17-xiii. 7), which we shall have to discuss later. I cannot refrain from quoting here an interesting conversation that occurs in Dickens’ Little Dorrit (Bk ii, ch. 31): “I have done,” said Mrs. Clennam, “what it was given me to do. I have set myself against evil; not against good. I have been an instrument of severity against sin. Have not mere sinners like myself been commissioned to lay it low in all time?” “In all time?” repeated Little Dorrit. “Even if my own wrong had prevailed with me, and my own vengeance had moved me, could I have found no justification? None in the old days when the innocent perished with the guilty, a thousand to one? When the wrath of the hater of the unrighteous was not slaked even in blood, and yet found favour?” “Oh, Mrs. Clennam, Mrs. Clennam,” said Little Dorrit, “angry feelings and unforgiving deeds are no comfort and no guide to you and me. My life has been passed in this poor prison, and my teaching has been very defective; but let me implore you to remember later and better days. Be guided only by the healer of the sick, the raiser of the dead, the friend of all who were afflicted and forlorn, the patient Master who shed tears of compassion for our infirmities. We cannot but be right if we put all the rest away, and do everything in remembrance of Him. There is no vengeance and no infliction of suffering in His life, I am sure. There can be no confusion in following Him, and seeking for no other footsteps, I am certain.”

[1]Lk xiv. 31–33.

[2]Mt xi. 12; Lk xvi. 16.

[3]Seeley, in the passage quoted above (p. 33 n 1), says: “As Christ habitually compared his Church to a state or kingdom, so there are traces that its analogy to an army was also present to his mind.” Seeley has, as I have pointed out, misunderstood the words of Jesus and the centurion about each other; but Jesus’ approval of the centurion’s ascription to him of quasi-military power on the analogy of his (the centurion’s) own power lends a little colour to the view which Seeley here expresses.

[4]Mt xxii. 6f.

[5]Mt x. 34: cf Lk xii. 51.

[1]Mt xxiv. 43‖.

[2]Lk xxii. 35–38.

[3]One recent attempt may be referred to. B.W. Bacon distinguishes two sections in Jesus’ Messianic programme; first, the gathering of the flock, when premature Zealotism was guarded against by non-resistance; secondly, when the flock would have to defend itself. Thus, Peter’s sword is “returned to its sheath to await the predicted day of need” (Christus Militans, in The Hibbert Journal, July 1918, pp. 542, 548, 550 f). But Peter had to sheathe his sword, because “all they that take the sword will perish by the sword, because” not simply because his act was badly timed: and beyond this precarious reading of the ‘two-swords’ passage, there is nothing in the Gospels to support the idea of a coming period of violent self-defence, and much that is highly inconsistent with it.

[4]Harnack MC 4 f.

[1]See above, p. 30.

[2]See above, pp. 26 f.

[3]Mk xii. 17 ‖s :

[4]John xix. 11.

[5]Mk ii. 25 f ‖s, xii. 35–37 ‖s; Mt xii. 42 ‖.

[6]Mk vii. 8–13 ‖.

[7]Mt xxiii. 23 ‖.

[8]Mk xv. 43; Lk vii. 2–6 viii. 3, xiv. 1, xxiii. 50 f; John iii. 1, 10, iv. 46 ff, vii. 50–52, xii. 42, xix. 38 f.

[9]Mt v. 17–19 ‖, viii. 4 ‖s, xxiii. 2, 23 fin; Lk xvii. 14.

[10]Mt xvii. 24–27.

[11]Mt v. 41; cf xxvii. 32.

[1]John vi. 15.

[2]Mt x. 17 f, 28–33 ‖s.

[1]John indeed tells us (xii. 42) that ‘many of the rulers believed on him’ and (xix. 38) calls Joseph of Arimathaea, who we know was a councilor (Mk xv. 43), a disciple; but how much does this prove? These people were afraid to let their discipleship be publicly known, and the rulers ‘loved the glory of men more than the glory of God’ (xii. 43). We certainly cannot argue from silence that Jesus approved of any regular disciple of his pronouncing or executing judicial penalties or acting as a soldier.

[2]B.-Baker ICW 13.

[3]Quoted by Holtzmann, Neutestamentliche Theologies (1911), i. 229 f.


[1]The power of Christianity to extirpate crime was insisted on by Tolstoi in his novel Work while ye have the Light (ET published by Heinemann, 1890).

[2]pp. 176–185, 202–225.

[3]p. 182.

[4]p. 181.

[1]pp. 217 f.

[2]I borrow these words from a private pamphlet by my friend Mr. J.A. Halliday, of Newcastle, and others.

[1]pp. 178 f., 202 f.

[2]p. 163 (italics mine).

[3]See above, pp. 42 ff.

[1]The reader is reminded that the dates of the early Christian authors and books quoted and events referred to are given in the chronological table at the beginning of the book, in order to avoid unnecessary explanations and repetitions in the text, and that with the same object full particulars of works quoted are given in another list, the references in the footnotes being mostly in an abbreviated form.