Matt Flannagan and Paul Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary of Chapter 23: “Turning the Other Cheek, Pacifism, and Just War.”

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

It might be worth asking whether we can say something more general about warfare, moving beyond divinely commanded fighting. Contrary to the claim that the Bible endorses pacifism, certain instances of violent means seem justified to fight injustice. N. T. Wright thinks one of the insights of the imprecatory psalms is that evil is real and that it needs to be actively battled. Yale professor Miroslav Volf affirms the compatibility of loving one’s neighbor and using force to protect the neighbor. Romans 13 affirms that God does not always carry out divine wrath directly but has partly delegated this task to human governments.

Biblical Considerations

               The Teaching of Jesus

Jesus died for the sin of the world and took the curse of our exile and alienation from God on himself. He stormed into the temple to cleanse it. Although many assume Jesus prohibited any use of force, F&C have their doubts.

Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek (Matt. 5:39). But this admonition is not the response to an attack of violence, but to a gross insult. Jesus is prohibiting returning insult for insult. He is exhorting his followers to break the vicious cycle of exchanging insults and to move toward reconciliation and peacemaking with our personal enemies—even with Roman soldiers who might commandeer Jewish citizens to carry their loads for them for a mile.

Jesus does not absolutize loving one’s enemies. He denounces his opponents in very harsh terms in Matthew 23. He exemplified a spirit of remarkable forgiveness on the cross, but for forgiveness to be complete, it presupposes the offender’s repentance. Even when Christ instructs his disciples to forgive extravagantly, he continues saying that those refusing to forgive will incur the wrath of their master and be handed over to the torturers.

When Christians call for the forgiveness of the likes of Osama bin Laden, we must ask: Is that our rightful place? Unlike the Son of God, how can we simply forgive the offenses of others? What about the victims of their assaults? Should we forgive terrorists while they are planning another attack?

What about not resisting the evil person? For one thing, Jesus himself is constantly resisting evil. Matt. 5:39 is better translated as not resisting “by evil means” rather than “the evil one/person.” This is how other NT writers interpret the words. And even if we take this passage in the traditional way, once again we do not have an absolute prohibition of resisting evil persons. Jesus is routinely driving out evil spirits. The God-ordained state is called to resist evildoers, etc.

While Jesus welcomes sinners and forgives them, he also threatens judgment on his opponents. Repeatedly, we see that Jesus himself doesn’t absolutize forgiving enemies.

Other Voices in the New Testament

Elsewhere in the NT we see the imprecatory psalms reenacted. Romans 12 and 13 illustrate the complementarity of the personal and the official. Romans 12 features Paul following Jesus’ commands to break the vicious cycle of personal animosity to work toward reconciled relationships. Rom. 13 features state officials whose role has been ordained of God to protect the innocent and preserve the peace and punish evildoers.

We also encounter general biblical principles that lend support to the idea of a just war. There is a time for war. Soldiers and centurions are treated quite favorably in the NT. Their status isn’t presented as inherently immoral. The scriptures exhibit a complementarity between being a disciple of Christ and involvement in the God-ordained state.

Historical Considerations: Constantinianism and Christian Soldiering

               Before Constantine

Bainton and Yoder have maintained that the church was uniformly nonmilitary from the second century until the rise of Constantine (AD 312). It’s the spirit of Constantinianism, so the argument goes, that has given rise to the church’s compromising entanglement with the state.

The evidence for this uniform pacifism is not all that tidy. NT is not nonmilitaristic. What about beyond the NT? After the NT and up to the mid-second century, we have silence on Christian soldiers. But after this time, we have clear evidence of Christian soldiers in the Roman army. Nonmilitaristic perspective of several church leaders does not necessarily represent a uniformly held, empire-wide Christian belief during this time. We see hints of just war in Tertullian and Origen, and beyond this, there are a number of complicating factors. Perhaps Christians saw some violence as inappropriate, or some causes unworthy of participating in, but that doesn’t mean all.

The Advent of Constantine

With the ascent of Constantine, the Christian outcast minority would become part of the “establishment.” Constantine is often depicted negatively, but surely his rule was a relief to a once persecuted minority. The church made some big mistakes with the temporal power, but Constantine brought about many positive moral reforms—banning gladiatorial games and the abandonment of children, segregated prison cells for men and women, charitable ministries, etc.

A Brief Discussion of Just War

After the rise of Constantine, thinkers like Ambrose and Augustine would advocate principles for a just war—a view that held sway until the twentieth century. Can there be a just war? Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. are examples of those who brought about change nonviolently. But perhaps it’s worth noting that their nonviolent resistance succeeded because the governments to which they appealed were fairly humanitarian and better informed by biblical values than the vast number of ruthless regimes that have existed over time.

Principles of Just War

The just war theorist attempts to deal realistically with unpreventable violent aggression against the vulnerable. Just war theory recognizes the justice of protecting innocent nations from thugs, bullies, and tyrants, recognizing that attempts at negotiation and peacemaking with ruthless tyrants will often be fruitless and that “trust” may be nothing more than gullibility.

Military historian Victor Davis Hanson reminds us that war or military strength has helped bring an end to chattel slavery in America, Nazism, Fascism, and Soviet Communism. Wars don’t always come about because of failure of communication or misunderstanding, or from poverty or inequality. They begin from malicious intent and the absence of deterrence. Often nations become accomplices to evil through inaction.

When it comes to articulating what just war involves, there are seven criteria, although the first three take priority:

  1. Just Cause
  2. Just Intent
  3. Lawful Declaration
  4. Last Resort
  5. Immunity of Noncombatants
  6. Limited Objectives

F&C elaborate by making several points. First, in the context of just war principles, which are universally applicable and rooted in God’s general revelation to all people, it may be helpful to distinguish between “force” and “violence.” Appropriate force is motivated by both justice and love of neighbor; it is aimed at restoring peace; it is carried out by a proper authority. Second, a nation or group of nations may engage in a truly just war, but the fact that missteps may be made does not undermine the overall justice of the war. Third, a war that is just should ultimately exhibit love for one’s neighbor, but we must not confuse what love requires. Love for the victim may require removing the source of harm, for example. Fourth, the pacifistic understanding of “turn the other cheek” raise questions about protecting the innocent from injustice when it’s in our power to do so. Finally, we should simultaneously support “just peacemaking” efforts to build bridges of understanding and partnership between nations and communities while not neglecting the appropriate use of force against thus and tyrants when necessary.


Image: "Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd (*1934): Non violence, 1995-1999, Bronze" by wwwuppertal. CC License.