War, peace and the gospel

There is a strong anti-empire theme in the book of Revelation, which my church is studying at the moment – and very appropriately too, given the imperial war in which the Western US Empire is engaged, more and more openly (without parliamentary or popular vote) and not just using Ukraine as a proxy. Jeremiah 51:1-14 is worth reflecting on as to the nature of our current situation, I feel.

The theme of a clash, not of imperial powers, but of models of imperial power, is pretty clear in the Apocalypse of John. On the one side are the demonic horses of conquest, war, famine and death, the persecution of the godly, the tearing apart of the world by fanatical armies mustered by the devil, the beast, and the false prophet, and the corporate prostitute, all of which are demonstrated, or even embodied, in the Roman Empire with its cult of emperor worship. War is presented as an evil, and anyone who has fought in a real one would, I suspect, agree.

On the other side is the Lamb who was sacrificially slain, whose weapon is the sword of spoken truth, whose disciples overcome not by force of arms but by their testimony to the truth and their patient endurance. In other words, there is a strong message that the weapons of this world are not the weapons of Christ, and it is the latter that will finally prevail. This, after all, is only a reiteration of Jesus’s words to the disciple who drew a sword in the garden of Gethsemane that all who draw the sword will die by the sword (Matt 26:52); and to the people of Jerusalem, destined to perish through their rebellion against Rome, that they should have known what would bring them peace, presumably the gospel of peace (Luke 19:41).

A natural position to draw from this is that of Christian pacifism, and one way or another that pattern is seen in practice across the world. How often the Islamist or Buddhist militants burn down churches, and are met with non-belligerence and forgiveness rather than with gun-toting militias. We don’t see Christian “Days of Rage.” Indeed, in a place like Congo, where “Christians” have formed such militias to retaliate, the worldwide Christian community doubts their bona fides, and puts “Christian” in scare quotes. After all, it was Jesus himself who said, “Do not resist an evil person” (Matt 5:39).

But there is another side which I want, tentatively, to explore. In the Old Testament, Jeremiah 51 has already shown that an evil empire, Babylon, is to be punished by a better empire, the Medes. And of course we have that one-off example of a holy war in the righteous participation of Israel in judging the Canaanites. Although Israel was rebellious from the start, here was not a case of one demonic empire displacing another by God’s passive will, but of God’s people being conscious sharers in the just judgement of God.

But perhaps the gospel of the cross has changed all that? That may indeed be so, but there are New Testament biblical reasons to think the truth is more complex. Both Paul and Peter (Romans 13:1-6; 1 Peter 2:13-19) – address the issue of civic duty towards God – both of Christians and of human authorities. Both apostles employ similar theological principles, to the effect that:

  • All authorities, being instituted of God, are to be honoured and obeyed. Peter even specifies the emperor, the ruler of the very “evil empire” dealt with in Revelation.
  • The purpose of God’s appointment of these people is, in essence, to punish and so restrain evildoers. Paul specifically mentions that they do not bear the sword for nothing (v4), and it’s pretty obvious he is not talking about the power of words, but of steel.

Now, overemphasis of these passages has led to its own evils in the Christian era, such as the arbitrary rule from the theory of the Divine Right of Kings. And we must clearly be cautious about citing the example of Christian kings down the ages, for example the Saxon rulers to whom warring with their neighbours was a regular way of life even after conversion (see Bede’s history). Here I just want to expand on the principle the apostles are teaching.

If Christians are called to honour and (where compatible with the gospel) obey their rulers, on the grounds that God has even in the New Testament era appointed them to protect the innocent from evildoers, then clearly that protection is a “good” from which Christians benefit directly. And even now that is the case, for we would like to think that in places like northern Nigeria, the massacres would be prevented by an efficient police and army, who would also be praised for bringing the perpetrators to justice, even at the end of a gun. Nobody seriously suggests that the authorities should, on biblical principle, ignore a church in a terrorist siege, any more than a school or theatre should be left to turn the other cheek in peace. Otherwise, history shows that the church can be entirely eradicated by criminal hostility where government is weak, as well as by state persecution where it is over-mighty.

Peter and Paul do not state, though the implication is surely there, that the category “evildoers” would include invading foreigners as well as burglars or gangs of bandits. Whatever the complexities of modern conflicts (and there is too much ignorance that these complexities are obscured by our governments’ propaganda), warfare in ancient times was often simply cattle-raiding or land acquisition on a tribal scale. If the “magistrate” protects you from pillage by lawless cartels from the hills, or from similar raids by those armed and trained by the king across the border, the same sword is being used for the same God-ordained purpose of restraining evildoers. Let me repeat that, at this stage, I’m not discussing the conditions for a just war, but simply that there is such a thing, if there is such a thing as a just police force.

Now, it is clearly the case that within a short time of the first preaching of the gospel, some of those converted would include local “magistrates.” Paul himself converted Sergius Paulus, Proconsul of Cyprus, and hoped to convert King Agrippa. Again, ignoring human and political shortcomings, if the vocation of “civil sword-bearer” is one instituted by God, protecting Christians as well as others, then surely a converted Paulus or Agrippa would not be expected to renounce his public role or seek to control current evil simply by preaching the gospel. By extension, it follows that Christian soldiers who serve him are also in principle serving God – subject to the questions about whether unlawful orders should be obeyed, and so on.

Now, that produces enough discussion points for any church today, but our ordered societies enable us, at least, to separate off the secular state (perhaps we tolerate their use of the sword) from the Church of Christ (which might plead the luxury of conscientious objection). I doubt, however, that this distinction is universally valid. In many parts of the world, and many more in the past, settled rule was distant or non-existent. Imagine somewhere like wild mediaeval Northumberland, where isolated fortified farms faced cattle-raiding carried on as a way of life from across the Scottish border, or even across the parish boundary. Lose your cattle, even without losing your family to death or slavery, and you starved to death.

In that case, if evildoers were to be suppressed, it was likely to be the local Christian farmer, not the king in distant London, who acted as “magistrate” to protect the local families and church, and enforcement would be by a posse of local heads of family (aka “parishioners”) and not a trained police force. If these people did not take up the sword, nobody would, and the good purpose of God’s institution of authority would be lost in that situation. Hence I conclude that the call to Christian non-violence is a relative, not an absolute, one.

But here’s the everlasting rub (to quote Jethro Tull): in which circumstances does the use of the sword of steel by Christians displace the use of the sword of the word? Cue Just War Theory. I only want to raise one point here, and that is to add nuance to the idea that the book of Revelation – and by extension, the Christian faith – is anti-imperialist. I suggest that what Revelation is roundly condemning is not so much empire itself, but what empires inevitably become. Like King Solomon – ruler of a mini-empire – empires can start out “good,” but always go bad as they get old.

A biblical example is Babylon itself. We read in Daniel that, in dealing with Nebuchadnezzar’s pride, God taught the king that his earthly power and glory had come to him by the hand of God himself. It was not his own achievement, by evil violence or anything else. In part, that power was given to punish sinful Judah. Once humbled by his madness, the text implies that the king became a true believer in Yahweh, and he is no more criticised for being an emperor than Daniel is for being one of its chief advisers. Judgement, we see, only comes on Babylon when it passes to godless men seeking only their own good.

There was a TV series here some years ago called What did the Romans ever do for us?, which drawing on the line from Monty Python’s Life of Brian concluded that they did quite a lot for us. The Pax Romana may have been, as Revelation commentator Michael Gorman writes, maintained by violence, but it undoubtedly enabled the rapid spread of the gospel. I never tire of quoting church historian Nick Needham, who says that most of the gospel’s spread down the millennia has been facilitated by empires.

But each of those empires, initially triumphing by the vigour of their culture as much as by sheer violence, came to wallow in pride, greed, national exceptionalism, and increasing cruelty and decadence. Consider America, founded on a remarkable constitution, inventor of jazz, blues, rock, the electric guitar and the synthesizer, perfecter of popular cinema and much else – and from the gospel standpoint, the wellspring of a remarkable missionary endeavour. It was not brute force that made the USA the aspirational role-model for so many for a century – the hegemony came later. But now America – and with it the Western nations in its train – have become as much the embodiment of the satanic imagery of St John the Divine as Rome was in the first century.

It seems likely that some younger, more vigorous empire is arising to replace it (hint – not the EU!). And if it does, its main weapon will be its character and societal energy, not its brute power. In Maccabees we read, somewhat sadly, of the Jewish ruler’s optimistic calling in of the new kid on the block, Rome, to help them fight their oppressive Greek attackers. And I suspect they did a good job at that time. But like America (and before them the European imperial powers including Britain), Rome soon found that once invited into a country, taking it over and exploiting it was easier than mutual aid. And the occupied countries discovered that the hard way.

So I’m quite sure that, however benign the coalition that begins to take centre-stage as the West fades might be, a generation or three down the line some ruler and his clique will like the idea of becoming world emperor, and will start hoovering up countries by regime change, petro-yuen or whatever the equivalent strategy is by then. One day, I guess, that emperor may be the final “man of sin,” and Christ will be the one whose coming truncates his power. But in the meantime, we should be cautious about buying into any empire – least of all the one in which we live – whilst we nevertheless “Show proper respect to everyone, love the brotherhood of believers, fear God, and honour the emperor.”

Empire, then, according to the Bible is not an unmitigated evil, but a two-edged sword. Ironically, according to Hebrews 4 and Revelation 1, but in an entirely different sense, so is the sword of God’s word that is destined to replace empire.

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About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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