The on-going war in Israel has raised several questions for us. What involvement should Christians have with war? Is there a biblical case for Christians to participate in the military, given that it could mean bombing innocent civilians? After all, didn’t Jesus command us to love our enemies and “turn the other cheek”? We asked Dr. Eric Patterson, the President of the Religious Freedom Institute, to share about his research related to a Christian perspective on war and peace, and everything in between.
Dr. Eric Patterson is the President of the Religious Freedom Institute in Washington, DC. Dr. Patterson brings many years of expertise in foreign policy; he has taught at several universities, he served in the State Department, and he was also a reservist in the Air National Guard.
Throughout the existence of humanity, one group of people has fought against another group of people, in order to conquer and subjugate the weaker group. This repeated pattern of fighting and conquest is part of our fallen nature as sinful humans.
Since the beginning of the early church, the Christian worldview has offered a better way, establishing the principles that limit war and destruction.
Principles of “Just Cause” for War:
Legitimate government authorities can fight for protection, prevention, and defense, when they are acting with right intentions, such as neighbor love, protection and defense of the vulnerable, but NOT out of greed, hate, or lust
Non-combatant immunity or distinction/discrimination–distinguishing between legitimate targets and illegitimate targets
These principles have been established from the perspective of valuing human life; public authorities have a responsibility to thwart evil, to promote justice, and promote security
As Christians, the Bible informs our view of all people being made in the image of God. This foundation helps us to have right thinking about anger and love.
Anger–It is appropriate to have righteous indignation/anger against injustice (human trafficking, slavery, etc); this is different from hateful wrath, which is vengeful, hateful, dehumanizing, and seeks to obliterate an enemy out of hate
Three ways Christians can think about the use of force:
Loving my neighbor with kindness, humility, and an unoffendable heart
Loving my neighbor can also mean stepping in to stop/prevent brutal violence/injustice
What about harm done to innocent civilians? Once “just cause” has been determined and war moves forward onto the battlefield, we seek to restrain war under three principles:
Military necessity–troops should use whatever means are limited, reasonable, and legal in this encounter in order to win
Use of weapons proportional to the threat
Discrimination or distinction of enemy targets vs innocent civilians (private property, houses of worship, hospitals, schools, etc)
Private vs public use of force: There is a difference between private citizens fighting one another, such as terrorists/mafia/gangs, as opposed to public service trained professionals using force to stop a bad guy; it is the difference between public authority vs private violence. The difference is between force and violence–force is restrained and lawful, whereas violence is unrestrained, hateful, and lawless.
Dr. Patterson's book: A Basic Guide to the Just War Tradition:
For pastors and seminarians:
Just War and Christian Traditions: https://www.amazon.com/Just-Christian-Traditions-Eric-Patterson/dp/0268203822/ref=monarch_sidesheet
Connect with Dr. Patterson:
Check out the extensive work Dr. Patterson and his team are involved with at the Religious Freedom Institute:
You can also follow the Religious Freedom Institute on Facebook, Instagram, and X.
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