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War and peace

The idea of shalom echoes through the whole Bible.

Read time: 9 minutes

"The idea of shalom echoes through the whole Bible."

The Bible’s great theme of peace.

The Hebrew word for peace is ‘shalom’, but it actually means much more than the absence of conflict. It is a holistic idea, referring to the wellbeing of body, mind, soul and society. The idea of shalom echoes through the whole Bible.

Although the word itself is not found in the first couple of chapters of Genesis, shalom is at the heart of the Creation accounts. When we compare Genesis 1 and 2 with other ancient creation stories from the middle East, the differences are very striking. The other ancient creation stories have the world being created as a by-product of conflict, or humans created to be the slaves of the gods.

The biblical Creation account forms a beautiful contrast to this. The world is created by God in peace, a place of supreme hospitality for humankind. God crowns this with an act of blessing, and the charge to humanity to govern it with God’s good rule.

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth. (Genesis 1:28)

From Genesis 3 onwards, we encounter the fatal consequences of disobedience as death enters the world. Immediately there is the first murder and vengeance and the curtailing of the human lifespan. Conflict spills over from families to societies and nations. The world is truly broken, and shalom has been disrupted. From here on, the whole Bible strains towards the restoration of that shalom.

The Old Testament law can be understood as an attempt to shape the conduct of the nation along the lines of shalom. We may not like all the laws we find, but we need to remember that they are spoken into a bronze-age society where there are no police, no prisons, and no historical precedent for the humane treatment of prisoners. So, for example, the law prescribes how someone with a contagious disease is to be handled, or how societies should operate compassionately when there is a wealth discrepancy. This is all about helping the society to exist in shalom.

Part of that shalom has to include the fair and transparent punishment of crime. For this reason the law of talion (an eye for an eye) is given. We have generally moved beyond this law in our moderns ociety, but as a means of limiting vengeance and preventing blood feuds in an ancient society, it is relatively enlightened. (Of course, Jesus extended this further by urging us to turn the other cheek when slapped, and to love our enemies rather than seek vengeance upon them, Matthew 5:38-45.) In fact, the idea of the punishment matching (and not exceeding) the crime runs through many of the psalms and the writings of the prophets, which contain appeals for divine justice like this:

Repay them for their deeds and for their evil work; repay them for what their hands have done and bring back on them what they deserve. (Psalm 28:4, NIV)

As you have done, it will be done to you; your deeds will return upon your own head. (Obadiah 15)

In fact, what the prophets dream of and speak of is often seen in terms of eschatological (end-times) shalom. They describe this in terms of nations turning their weapons into farm implements, and harmony in nature:

[TheLord] shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.(Micah 4:3-4)

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. (Isaiah 11:6-8)

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God."

And the coming of the Messiah (understood by Christians to be Jesus Christ) is foretold as an end to warfare:

Every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given. (Isaiah 9:5-7)

When we move into the New Testament we find the theme of peace (eirene, in Greek) continues. This is both peace between people:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God (Matthew 5:9)

and peace between people and God:

Through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

The final book of the Bible, Revelation, does two very striking things with regard to the theme of peace. Addressed to a vulnerable, persecuted early church, it describes victory in terms of stubborn (peaceful) refusal to collude with the violent Roman Empire:

They triumphed over [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. (Revelation 12:11)

And it gives a glimpse of a world to come, remarkably like Eden in Genesis 1-2. Here the curse is no more (Revelation 22:3); the tree of life is given for the healing of the nations (v2), and the description of the exclusion of murderers from the city (v.15) shows that this is a wholly non-violent society, for everything has been made new (21:5).

Continued below...

Christianity War and peace

The Bible on war

Despite everything set out above, it cannot be denied that there is a huge amount of bloodshed in the Bible, and that sometimes the Bible appears to endorse warfare, or takes it as a normal fact of life:

Int he spring, at the time when kings go off to war… (2Samuel 11:1)

Some of these questions are discussed here.

The Bible has a gradually developing view of warfare. Broadly, the progression could be described in this way:

  1. Warfare is physical, and God fights on Israel’s side (eg Joshua 1:3-6)

  2. Israel’s disobedience sometimes makes God into an enemy rather than an ally (eg Joshua 7:1-5)

  3. Warfare is an image used to describe God – the divine warrior (eg Psalm 18:7-15)

  4. Jesus speaks and acts for peace and the church is urged to fight spiritual forces of evil, not physical ones (eg Matthew 26:50-56; Ephesians 6:10-18)

  5. Warfare is an image used to describe the eventual destruction of all evil (eg Revelation 19:11-16)

Even within the first section, where the Bible appears to endorse warfare, there is a strong strain of subversion against militarism. The nation is often told that the battle is not theirs but God’s (e.g. Exodus 14:14,25). Men of war are conquered and slain by women using domestic implements (Judges 4:21, 9:53). Gideon is told that he has too many soldiers for victory (Judges 7). David is forbidden to build the Temple because he has shed too much blood (1 Kings 5:3; 1 Chronicles 22:8). And sometimes God takes direct steps to avert battles (2 Kings 6 and 7).

Christian viewpoints on war.

At various points in history Christians have taken different perspectives on the validity of going to war.

It is a tragic fact that at certain times the Church has viewed military conquest as an acceptable means of extending Christendom, in other words, as a tool for “mission”. This is indefensible. Equally dreadful were the persecutions enacted upon those in theological disagreement, such as during the reigns of Mary I (Catholic against Protestant) and Elizabeth and James I/VI (Protestant against Catholic).

However, at many other times in history Christians have been on the receiving end of persecution and have sometimes distinguished themselves by their refusal to retaliate. (For example Dirk Willems, who was being pursued across an icy lake by religious persecutors. One of his pursuers fell through the ice and Willems turned back to rescue him, knowing that it would lead to capture and certain execution.)

Particularly in the early years of the Church, it was understood that profession of the Christian faith excluded the use of violence. Around the turn of the second century, Tertullian wrote:

How will a Christian man war without a sword, which the Lord has taken away? For the Lord, in disarming Peter, unbelted every soldier.

There are many Christians who regard all violence as contrary to the gospel that Jesus brought. Distinguished Christian pacifists of the past include Martin Luther King and Leo Tolstoy. Some Christians, especially Quakers and some Baptists, refused to fight in the World Wars, and during the Great War they were imprisoned for this conviction. Nowadays pacifism is a fundamental element of the practice of a number of Christian groups, including Quakers, Anabaptists, Mennonites and the ‘Simple Way’ movement in Philadelphia.

"Some Christians, especially Quakers and some Baptists, refused to fight in the World Wars."

Such Christians reject what they term ‘the myth of redemptive violence’– that is, that a violent action can bring adequate resolution to a situation of injustice or conflict. Modern scholars who have explored these ideas include the theologians Walter Wink and John Howard Yoder, and the anthropologist and philosopher Rene Girard.

An alternative view is held by most of the other mainstream church denominations, who would argue that there can be – sometimes – sufficient cause for a nation to go to war to prevent or stop a great evil. While acknowledging Jesus’ call to turn the other cheek, they would argue that in defence of another, the commensurate use of violence can be justifiable.

This idea was proposed by Augustine (around 400AD) and Thomas Aquinas developed it further in the thirteenth century. Classical ‘just war theory’ states that war may only be prosecuted if the following conditions are met:

  1. Just cause – to prevent a grave public evil

  2. Comparative justice – the moral wrongs must be predominantly on one side

  3. Competent authority – the nation must be led by a legitimate authority capable of making distinctions on matters of justice

  4. Last resort – all other avenues have been exhausted

  5. Probability of success

  6. Proportionality – the anticipated benefits are proportionate to the expected harm that the war will cause

  7. The war must be conducted in accordance with another set of criteria that includes the proportional use of force, the distinction of non-combatants from combatants, and fair treatment of prisoners of war.

It is debatable how many wars in modern times might be understood to be justifiable when evaluated against them. Additionally, modern twists on warfare including weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the emergence of global superpowers makes the application of these conditions hard to navigate.

In summary: there is no single ‘Christian’ view on warfare, but most Christians recognise its utter undesirability and seek to find ways to prevent, circumvent or refuse it.