I should first make the point I am not about to do a deep theological evaluation of why and under what circumstances going to and participating in war, on one or other side, is the right thing. Rather, having experienced a degree of flak by not going along with the majority view (at least among those I rub shoulders with in the ether) we must ban guns (in the light of the latest US atrocity) the discussion went off on a number of tangents and understandably this was one of the matters raised, needing addressing.
I count myself fortunate that I am of a generation that did not have to go to war and while wars have continued to rage in all corners of the globe, it doesn’t seem to have affected me much by way of material deprivation or loss of loved ones. The main war I am involved in these days, which is rarely physically violent, is the culture one. The generation before me were not so fortunate (or maybe they were more fortunate in that they saw life in the raw and had to learn to be resilient etc.) for they or their loved ones did lose their lives and suffer, a sad and inevitable consequence of war.
My own Christian background is Non Conformist. The reason I say this is traditional non-conformity did NOT follow the government line on matters of religious conscience. John Bunyan was put in prison for twelve years for refusing to do what the authorities said when it came to preaching is an example of how strongly they felt. It also begins to explain the American mindset over things like gun control when we consider the Pilgrim Fathers. So when it comes to obeying the government, my spiritual forefathers would have given precedence to religious conscience. Yet in the two “denominations” I have spend most my life in: the Plymouth Brethren and latterly the Strict Baptists, I could find plenteous evidence of members serving king and country by fighting in the two world wars, something brought home recently when I discovered a board that would have been on display in my church listing the names of those who had died fighting in World War 1. Sadly, there is little doubt that earnest Bible believing Christians can often be found on either side of a conflict (I found this to be true in my studies of the American Civil War) and therein exposes the folly or warfare. A further irony is when those most repulsed by war were in the fore of the fighting.
I have found evidence that some were conscientious objectors and while there were no doubt conflicts between families of those who fought and those who didn’t, it appears the two groups in the main continued to enjoy congenial fellowship. As an historical researcher, I was able to delve into the lives of some of those who fought and have no doubt some would have taught their Sunday School classes the importance of “blessed are the peacemakers” and “turn the other cheek”. One abiding memory of one spiritual mentor, who had served in the Army during World War 2, was of a mass children’s choir singing Albert Midlane’s “There is a friend of little children” a little prior to the outbreak of World War 1 and a few years later laying dead in the trenches during that awful war. It is easy to understand why some Christians take up a pacifist position, and I admire those who like the Quakers work for peace and are prepared to serve without taking up arms and pay the price.
But what is the Biblical position? And even if there is a case for a “just war”, under what circumstances can war be justified? Frustratingly, the Bible does NOT seem to give clear cut answers and instead gives pointers and even these are disputed among otherwise sound exponents. A lot of the Old Testament is about God’s special possession, Israel. There are lots of examples of Israel going to war, often at God’s bequest; earlier it was to possess land and latterly to defend that land against external enemies. Then there are many accounts of nations other than Israel going to war and it is often not clear whether this was justified or not. I think often not as the purpose was Empire building: Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greece etc. When it came to the New Testament, which was mainly about Christians (firstly Jewish and then Gentiles) the matter of war did not come into it as these were for most of the time a persecuted minority. Later when Christians gained temporal power that changed but often with questionable outcomes e.g. the Crusades. There are teachings e.g. Romans 13 with Christians called upon to submit to the authorities and with citizenship seen as a positive thing with governing authorities being set up under God in order to protect the people they had responsibility for, counter oppression and deal “with the sword” with wrong doers, which logically meant that war would have been a strong possibility.
But as one considers the numerous wars that have taken place in modern times and are still happening, I am tempted to ask how many of these are purely to protect the people and how many have other objectives. It is not always as simple as that. The reason Britain gave for going to war with Germany in 1939 was that Germany had invaded Poland and Britain had sworn to protect it, following earlier aggression against other nations, and this was also a threat to the British people. This would have been sufficient reason for some of the amazing Christian folk, who knew their Bibles, I once knew, to have signed up to fight in that war. The rationale of some of the latter wars may be less clear cut, and one might well argue that by getting involved e.g. in the Middle East and especially the USA, it has created more problems than it has solved and could / should have been avoided. It also begs the question the ethics of promoting an economy that thrives on war. The lucrative arms trade going on between UK/US and Saudi Arabia for example may be an example, given the dubious morality of Saudi attacks in Yemen.
I am too old to have to have to respond to the challenge of whether to take up arms to support the leaders of my nation should they call on its citizens to fight a war that we can’t quite yet envisage but sense may well be coming (we are after all long overdue). While I don’t have to, the next generation will and I have a responsibility to act as a guide. It does mainly come down to conscience. While I have qualms about some theaters of war, latterly Syria, my conscience tells me there is sometimes a justification for taking up arms and on balance there is a limited Christian case for a just war.