The debate about pacifism

What does Christianity teach about war and peace?

The Bible does not give Christians a clear answer about whether war is permitted or not. However, it has a lot to say about justice, the sanctity of life, the importance of resolving conflict and working for peace.

Most Christians believe that war should be avoided if possible, and should only be undertaken if all efforts to resolve an issue by peaceful means have failed. Many Christians see war as the result of a failure to live by God's standards.

Bible teaching

In the Old Testament, there are numerous references to wars sanctioned by God. This indicates that war is unavoidable, and there will be times when God decides that a war must be fought:

Everything that happens in this world happens at the time God chooses ... the time for war and the time for peace. Ecclesiastes 3: 1,3 and 8

In the New Testament, Jesus gives a different message through his teaching and example. Although not all Christians are pacifists, all Christians want peace. The idea in the Bible is that peace with God will lead to peace with other human beings. Peace means much more than simply not being at war. At the heart of the Christian message is the belief that the life and death of Jesus gives people peace with God and peace within themselves.

Jesus said:

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.Matthew 5:9

These are the people who try to continue the work which Jesus died to secure. Peace in society does not happen by accident, it needs to be worked for. Peace is only possible in a humane and just society where all human beings feel valued.

Jesus replaced the Jewish principle of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” with a higher standard – that violence should never be returned. In fact, his followers should go one step further and return violence with love (Matthew 5:38-46).

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus commanded his disciples not to fight when he was arrested. Jesus said:

Put your sword back in its place ... for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Matthew 26:52

However, some Christians are pacifists and believe that war is never justified.

Holy war

The concept of holy war - that is, a war 'on behalf of God' - developed at a time when the Christian Church was becoming increasingly politically powerful. The Crusades, which were ordered by various Popes and took place between the 11th and 13th centuries, are the most famous examples of holy war. The intention was to recover Jerusalem from the Muslims. The Crusades resulted in many atrocities being carried out in the name of God.

The concept of holy war is rejected by all mainstream Christian Churches today.

How do Christians help victims of war?

Many Christian charities work around the world in countries affected by war. CAFOD (Catholic Agency for Overseas Development) is an example of a Christian charity that helps people in countries affected by war and natural disasters.

Some of the things that CAFOD does to help victims of war include:

  • helping to rehabilitate children who have fought as soldiers by offering them education, counselling and support
  • attempting to bring together warring groups to find alternative ways of dealing with conflict
  • providing refugees fleeing conflict with emergency aid such as food, shelter and cooking equipment