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Home / Opinion: Ethical rights for Christians to take up arms and use violence

Opinion: Ethical rights for Christians to take up arms and use violence

2021-07-23  Reverend Jan Scholtz

Opinion: Ethical rights for Christians to take up arms and use violence
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The ethical and biblical reason why it is unacceptable for any Christian to use violence is because of the ethical and theological spiritual teachings of Jesus Christ, who was against any form of violence or war. 

In the gospels, Christ strongly encouraged his followers to be non-violent, peace-loving, forgiving and altruistic. When Jesus and his disciples were finally confronted violently with “swords and clubs by a great crowd from the chief priests and when they laid hands on Jesus to arrest him, one of Jesus’ followers drew his sword to him and struck one and cut off the ear of a slave of the high priest. But Jesus said to him: “Put your sword back into its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” (Matt 26:47,50-52). 

In the New Testament, there is no clear evidence of Jesus supporting and encouraging the use of violence, force and participation in the war. During the Third Century Anno Domino (AD), there was a Christian disciplinary document, called the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, which clearly restricted Christian soldiers that they could serve in the imperial army and military life only if they “do not kill anyone” (P. 715, New Dictionary of Theology). 

The ethical arguments why a Christian should avoid the use of violence and making of war are best upheld by Albert John. M Luthuli (1898-1967). Luthuli strongly upheld his protection and belief, despite his violent unethical death. Luthuli also received 1961 the Noble Peace Prize and he followed the non-violence philosophy, Maharua Gandhi, in a statement, titled ‘The  Road to Freedom is via the cross’. 

“I have embraced the non-violent passive resistance technique… because I am convinced it is the only non-revolutionary, legitimate and humane way that could be used by people denied, as we are, of effective constitutional means to further their aspirations… It is evitable that in working for freedom, some individuals and families must lead and suffer” (P. 47, Journal of Theology for Southern Africa, Nov. 2009, issue 135). 

When one deals with the reasonableness and justification of violence, war and use of arms from a Christian’s perspective, then the church father Eusebuis of Caesaria and Augustine of Hippo were two of the first Christians who advocate such action and cause. Eusebuis, who lived nearly more than 200 years before Augustine, held that Constantine the Great’s wars and violence against his enemies were holy wars. 

For Eusebuis, Constantine was a God-fearing person, whose God-fearing empire was threatened by the invasion of vicious, evil and barbarian forces, which necessitated the defensive wars that Constantine had to initiate (P. 715, New Dictionary of Theology). For Eusebuis, violence, taking up arms and war-making are acceptable when the victim/sufferer turns to it as the only resort. 

One should understand the use of violence and taking up of arms and weapons by the suppressed or threatened one from a sociological ethical point as the only way of the unprivileged and as the only avenue of protest, open for people who are oppressed and suppressed by dictatorships, hardship and cruelty. 

Augustine of Hippo also permitted war and violence as long as it has its goal to establish justice and the restoration of peace (P. 715, New Dictionary of Theology). Augustine held the following view about war and violence: “War must be fought under the authority of the legitimate ruler and be conducted on a just manner, which included keeping one’s promise to the enemy and refraining from looting, massacre and burning so that non-combatants would not be injured” (P. 715, New Dictionary of Theology).  

The Old Testament is clear and finds no problem with episodes of war, violence and the use of arms as acts of defence, emancipation and liberty of the weak, oppressed, slaves and the least of society. In this perspective, one may be reminded of the Hebrew people’s wars on their way to the promised land, and the wars against the enemies during the times of Judges-Gideon, Samson etc. 

When the situation also become so intolerable, as described by Martin Luther King Jnr in his  “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” in 1963, Christians’ wisdom and sympathy will be met with the impatient sufferer who opts for violence as an act of defence and protection. This is what King reminded his critics about: “When you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drawn your sisters and brothers at him; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalise, and even kill your brothers and sisters with impunity… (then) there comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over” (PP. 257-258, non-violence). 

It would be very wrong and naïve to equate the violence and use of socially organised and authorised persons of Justice and control with that of the antisocial individual and anarchic terrorist. (P1247, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology). Under certain unjust, oppressive, brutal and intolerable circumstances and only after all practical options for an amicable, peaceful solution have been tried, and exhausted, the use of violence and/or taking up of arms, and war is a justified, legitimate option. In such a case it is very clear that the wrong-doer-the perpetrator, aggressor dictator or oppressor has become unreasonable and inhumane not give freedom and emancipation voluntarily, and as the only way forward would be for the weak, psychologically and physically tortured oppressed ones to demand and force their freedom. 

Such acts of violence and the necessitated force cannot simply be criticised and judged as unchristian or unethical, but it must fast and foremost be seen as the only manner of defence and existence. In conclusion, during the 1980s Archbishop Desmond Tutu called on the church not to look on in silence and apathy when the weak, powerless and unprotected are oppressed and exploited by the mighty, strong and powerful. 

When the weaker, oppressed use violence and or take up arms as a means of human survival and human rights, and if that means has goals in mind, then Christians and the church should regard such defence force as the lesser of two evils, and as justified violence and force ethically. 

Just like the South African Kairos Document of 1985 differentiate between the type of violence and physical force that are used by a rapist and the female victim at the same time as violence and physical forces of a wicked aggressor, and a weak defenceless victim. Should we judge the defenceless, weak women in the regard while lying and struggling under the brutal force and violence of the rapist if she finds a stone or iron bar and hit the rapist to death as a murderer and sentence her as guilty? The Bible is very clear that violence is what is used to describe everything that is done by the wicked oppressor.


2021-07-23  Reverend Jan Scholtz

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