“Just war”: Vengeance disguised as righteousness.

by K.W. Leslie, 24 July 2018

Humans like to take revenge.

Watch two kids on the playground. One will smack the other, entirely by accident. (That’s what they claim, anyway.) The other kid will immediately want to retaliate. And not in some equitable blow-for-blow response, either. They’ll wanna beat the living tar out of the other kid.

That’s not a learned behavior. Just the opposite: It’s instinct. It’s our self-preservation instinct, but warped by human depravity till we defend ourselves from future harm by preemptively destroying anything or anyone who might harm us. Kids have to be trained to not retaliate like this.

A good parent is gonna teach their kids to forgive. (It was unintentional, after all.) Even selfish parents won’t necessarily demand a reciprocal response. Although the dumber ones might: “She hit you? Hit her back!” But this behavior will backfire: Kids’ll do as comes naturally, and hit back harder. And then the first kid hits back even harder. And things escalate from there.

I know; from time to time someone will insist revenge isn’t part of human nature; that left to their own devices children will be naturally peaceful and good. Clearly they don’t have children. Nor do they remember they were conditioned to forgive and let live, rather than respond in vengeance and wrath. True, some kids are passive, some are cowards, and some are much easier to train than others. But that doesn’t mean we don’t all need such training. We humans aren’t peaceful creatures.

Take these playground disagreements to an adult level, to a national level, and we wind up with war.

One nation harms or offends a second nation. The second nation will wanna retaliate. I was gonna say “understandably,” because we all understand they would; we would. And the wronged nation won’t wanna respond proportionally: They wanna respond punitively. They wanna hurt the nation which hurt them. Make ’em suffer—or at least fear to ever attack again. Karma goes right out the window.

But we’ll call it “justice.” That’s the Christianese term for vengeance. Actual justice is about doing what’s just—what’s equitable, what’s fair, what’s morally right. You know, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, limb for limb. Ex 21.24 What westerners mean by karma. But when American Christians say “justice” we are, once again, talking about a punitive response. It doesn’t match the crime; it exceeds it because we feel the perpetrator should suffer loss. Steal $100 and you should have to pay back $150, with the extra $50 teaching you to never do that again. Even if you accidentally, unintentionally took the $100: You should’ve been more conscientious.

Since the people of the United States predominantly claim to be Christian, this mindset of “justice” is immediately gonna slam into a little something Jesus taught about war:

Matthew 5.9 KWL
“Those making peace: How awesome!—they’ll be called God’s children.”

Wait, Jesus expects God’s kids to make peace?

Well of course. Because that’s how you actually stop a war. Not by destroying your opponent, but by befriending your opponent. Not with vengeance but forgiveness. It’s how God acts towards his kids. He could easily flatten us. But he’d rather adopt us.

The problem with Jesus’s teaching? It violates our sense of vengeance. It interferes with our desire to destroy our enemies. It strikes us as impractical: “But how’s that gonna stop them from still doing evil?” We don’t like it, so we find excuses to never do it—same as every other teaching of Jesus.

Jesus isn’t kidding, y’know.

Jesus famously forgave the Romans who crucified him. Lk 23.34 We teach how noble it was for Jesus to do such a thing. Of course we never would.

The way we wanna achieve peace with our enemies is pretty much the same way the Romans did: Crucify anyone who disturbs the peace. Frightens the crap out of anyone who dares disturb the peace further. And once the agitators and criminals are dead, all we’ll have left is peace.

But the Prince of Peace taught just the contrary.

Matthew 5.43-45 KWL
43 “You heard this said: ‘You’ll love your neighbor.’ Lv 19.18 And you’ll hate your enemy.
44 And I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.
45 “Thus you can become your heavenly Father’s children,
since he raises his sun over evil and good, and rains on moral and immoral.”

Dangit Jesus, we wanna take revenge. What’re you doing?

Luke 6.27-31 KWL
27 “But I tell you listeners: Love your enemies. Do good to your haters.
28 Bless your cursers. Pray for your mistreaters.
29 To one who hits you on the jaw, submit all the more.
To one who takes your robe and tunic from you, don’t stop them.
30 Give to everyone who asks you. Don’t demand payback from those who take what’s yours.
31 Just as you want people doing for you, do likewise for them.”

It’s like he wants us to be gracious like our Father or something.

And of course we don’t wanna obey these commands. We want war. Enemies, haters, cursers, mistreaters, thieves, and evildoers need to be punished. Our governments need to bear the sword against them. Ro 13.4 Regardless of everything Jesus teaches to the contrary.

Matthew 26.51-54 KWL
51 Look, one of Jesus’s followers stretched out his hand, drew his machete,
struck the head priest’s slave, and cut off his ear.
52 Then Jesus told him, “Put your machete back where it goes:
Everybody who takes up arms will be destroyed by them.
53 You think I can’t call my Father, who’ll immediately give me more than 12 legions of angels?
54 And then how will the scriptures be fulfilled? So this has to happen.”

We’re not content to wait till God intervenes and judges. We want them struck down. We want a smiting. Now.

So to accommodate our sense of vengeance justice, Christians have set aside Jesus’s teachings as impractical in the real world. As an alternative to Jesus’s teachings, Christian thinkers have invented “the doctrine of just war,” and teach that instead. No foolin’, a doctrine, an official Christian teaching which individual churches use to make our members feel better about joining the military and smiting our nation’s enemies. Based loosely on the scriptures… because it’s never explicitly taught nor endorsed by the scriptures. Because Jesus teaches the opposite.

“Just war” is a Pharisee-style loophole which claims “justice” is a valid exception to Jesus’s teachings. We can take revenge on our enemies… if they start it. Or if it might prevent ’em from starting it. Or if it saves our people’s lives; whether it saves any of their lives doesn’t count as much. And of course since we’re “righteous people,” we must wage war “ethically”—we shouldn’t commit atrocities. But since we’re the only ones who define what is and isn’t an atrocity, it pretty much comes down to what we feel we can live with. And when you’re indulging in anger, death, and destruction, you begin to feel you can live with a lot of things.

The Old Testament’s wars.

Most of our justifications for “just war” are pulled from the fact wars took place all over history. Including the Old Testament.

Abraham went to war to rescue his nephew Lot. The Hebrews went to war to defend themselves from Philistia and Moab. The Israelis went to war with the Amorites to wipe them out and clear Canaan for their settlement. The Israelis went to war with Edom to conquer it and make it a tributary nation. The Jews of Esther’s day fought off any Persians who wanted to purge them; the Jews of the Maccabees’ day fought off any Syrian Greeks who wanted to destroy their culture. Wars happened for all sorts of reasons.

And sometimes the LORD got involved or included in these wars. Sometimes he endorsed them, or empowered an Israeli victory. Sometimes he ordered them, like when he instructed the Hebrews to take out the Amorites—because this was the way the LORD decided to judge the Amorites for resisting him for centuries. Ge 15.16, Dt 20.17 So since the LORD had authorized war in the past, maybe he’s okay with our wars now. ’Cause people and nations are just as bad now as they’ve ever been. Sometimes, we’d like to imagine, worse.

Likewise there are the consequences in the Law for various sins. The LORD didn’t authorize the Hebrews to forgive murderers, perjurers, and various other sinners. They were actually instructed to “show no mercy,” Dt 19.13, 21 and extinguish such evildoers. This gives us every right to do likewise in our society—and in every society.

Though we regularly claim Jesus’s teachings are the proper interpretation of the Law (that is, when we don’t straight-up claim Jesus nullified it), we regularly insist these are exceptions. Because we’re quite happy with the old interpretation of “show no mercy.” Suits us just fine. Hey, Jesus?—don’t fix what ain’t broken.

The usual way Christians choose to nullify Jesus’s take on the Law, is to pretend he has no take on the Law. Pretend he never said anything. Claim Jesus is just as heartbroken over sin and evil as anyone, and point to the bits in Revelation when he’s returning to judge the world. We’re just performing a little of that judgment in advance of our Lord.

That, or we pretend Jesus’s teachings don’t apply to the present day: They all apply to the future. The far future. Namely a point after Jesus returns, judges the reprobate, tosses ’em into the fire, and the only people left to follow his teachings are resurrected, sanctified, sinless Christians. Makes it awfully easy to forgive those who’ve wronged you… when nobody ever intentionally wrongs you, because sin has been done away with.

What’re the chances we’re misusing bible and misinterpreting Jesus in order to accommodate our wrath? I’d say better than average.

Christians and nonviolence.

G.K. Chesterton has a famous quote: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” What’s Wrong with the World Historically Christians have claimed Jesus’s teachings about forgiveness and nonviolence are too impractical to take seriously. But many times in history, particularly in the 20th century, people have actually given nonviolence a try… and found, contrary to everyone’s expectations, it works.

Probably the most famous example is Mohandas Gandhi, known better by his nickname Mahatma/“great soul.” And Gandhi wasn’t even Christian. He famously used the excuse it was because of Christians—“I love Christ; it’s just that so many of you Christians are so unlike Christ”—but in reality it was because he knew Christianity would get him kicked out of his family. By the time he discovered his backbone, he was throughly Hindu. But y’notice Gandhi’s form of Hinduism was largely shaped by grace, not karma. Forgiveness, not reciprocity. Compassion, not equanimity. Hinduism has thousands of strains, and Gandhi went and found the one that’d let him act more like Jesus than most.

And in that strain was nonviolence: Turning the other cheek. Loving one’s enemies. Forgiving those who wronged you. Standing your ground, but recognizing when your opponent knocks you down—for they will knock you down—it doesn’t justify retaliation. In fact to bullies, retaliation retroactively justifies their behavior: “He hit me back. So it’s okay that I hit him first.” Take that away from them, and they have no justification at all. And everybody can see it.

Because of Gandhi’s success with with nonviolence, Martin Luther King Jr. knew he’d likewise have success with nonviolence. The hard part was convincing everyone else. Always is. Because our instinct is to fight back. It feels absolutely wrong to stand there and take it as self-righteous evildoers are cracking your skull. It feels like futile, wasted effort when the immediate results are pain and suffering; when it takes years before the moral outrage of the rest of society finally reaches a point where real change might take place. Nonviolence isn’t for the impatient. Nor the unkind, the ungracious, the fruitless. That’s why they’ve adopted “just war” as their policy: It gets quick results, and vengeance feels so sweet.

But power corrupts. The power to take vengeance corrupts the vengeful. That’s why it’s a power which is only safe in God’s hands. Not ours; and let’s not use the pathetic excuse that our governments aren’t really the same thing. Vengeance best belongs to God. Dt 32.29, Ro 12.19 Claiming we’re an exception—that God even endorses our exception—is lying to ourselves. But it’s clearly as far away from being like Christ Jesus as self-described Christians get.