Pacifism and the Sword: Fight or Flight?
By James M. Arlandson
After I finished the series on Pacifism and the Sword in the New Testament, someone wrote me these questions:
What if the Church is targeted for persecution by the government or by large groups of extremists, but the government does not come to the aid of Christians? For example, rioting Muslims in Nigeria or Sudan attack churches on a wide scale. Can Christians defend themselves, because the State does not come to their aid?
Those questions slide into areas that my series did not cover exactly. But the reality behind them is deeply moving and tragic, so I decided to tackle them in public, after thinking about them for a while.
By way of review, all of the articles in the series before this addendum are directed at a readership that lives in relative freedom and peace under a tolerant government.
I also write in nearly every article that the Church should never convene a council or general assembly to raise militias in the name of God or of the Church, in order to wage war or attack nonconformists. This New Testament teaching speaks against aggression to force people to convert or to rob their resources. This is not self-defense or the protection of the oppressed.
In Part Four I analyze Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-14 and 4:15, which say that God ordains governing authorities. But in the larger context the passages assume that the government does not become extreme or fall apart, so that anarchy or extreme persecution prevail.
Finally, in Parts Two and Four I conclude from Scripture that individual Christians may own a firearm (or not) for the protection of their home, for example.
Therefore, I do not deny that an individual Christian may own a firearm to defend his home, for example. But he must obey the law and avoid vices like over-inflated egos and recklessness. Also, he does not officially represent the Church as an institution. He owns a weapon privately, as a citizen of society. It is best to keep the kingdom of God (which creates the Church) and the kingdom of Caesar separate. Then we will have clarity.
However, those questions (above) are about anarchy and self-defense and the protection of the oppressed. The assumption is that the State no longer exists or is unable or wrongly unwilling to protect its persecuted citizens. The questions also assume forming groups for self-defense, not only maintaining self-defense individually. All of this is a thorny challenge.
Under those extreme conditions, here are two options that a network of churches may follow, very cautiously and wisely. The options come out of my study of the New Testament sketched out in the entire series. I will assume that readers have carefully read each article.
Option One: Fight
It must be conceded from the outset here that this option may be the worst one for many situations around the world. It assumes that a large region or nation is chaotic and anarchic. It assumes that the government is unable or unwilling to come to the aid of most or all of its persecuted citizens. We are not talking about an individual Christian getting slapped on the cheek or church windows being broken. So the context of Option One is crucial. Readers must not gloss over it. Also, extreme cases make bad general policies, so readers must be careful about applying Option One out of context. Thus, no country in the West can claim such extremities, particularly America. That insults the truly oppressed, who are stuck, for example, in refugee camps and are regularly attacked by thugs. We live in the freest society in the world; therefore, neither the far right nor the far left hiding in the mountains, so to speak, can justify violence for political ends.
With that said, Option One must be explored when real-life and extreme circumstances rapidly develop. It serves only as a last resort. Two New Testament bedrock principles guide the ten practical suggestions (not the Ten Commandments) that follow.
The first principle says that people have the right to defend the weak and persecuted and themselves from attacks, according to the full teaching of the New Testament (see Part Five) in the series and especially the Conclusion). The entire ministry of Jesus was devoted to helping the weak and harassed members of society. Fortunately, in his historical context, the religious bullies he confronted – or to be more accurate, they confronted him – did not destroy homes or places of worship or attack people physically on a large or small scale. But they were not above devouring widows’ property (Mark 12:40; Luke 20:47). Also, the entire Bible is filled with references about protecting and helping the downtrodden (Ex. 23:6, 11; Ps. 41:1; 82:3-4; Prov. 19:17, to reference only these). And we saw in the Introduction to this addendum that individual Christians are permitted to defend their homes, according to Scripture, as explained in Parts Two and Four. The timeless principle from these passages and Jesus’ ministry says that defending the oppressed is God-ordained, even if done in a physical but lawful way. So we should not take “turn the other cheek” too far, according to Part Five.
The second bedrock principle says that the kingdom of God must be kept separate from the kingdom of Caesar or the State. That is the clear teaching of the New Testament, expressing divine wisdom. When the Church (which is created by the kingdom) was fused with the State, the Church sometimes (not always) in its history committed unjust religious violence. Excessive religious zeal is unattractive, and religious violence coming from such zeal is doubly repulsive. The evidence for the two-kingdom theology is brought out in the entire series, so we have no time to cover old ground now. Readers are invited to click on Parts One and Two at the end of this addendum to get a start.
So, under real-life extreme conditions like those in Africa, what is the best way to defend and protect the persecuted and to work towards not fusing the two realms together, in the long run? Here are ten practical guidelines that are based on the two bedrock principles. For clarity and emphasis I repeat key clauses throughout this section.
(1) In extreme circumstances and as a last resort, if Christians are forced to form armed organizations to defend themselves and to protect the needy (and organizing in this way is a dangerous prospect because so many things can go wrong), then they must still fight for the freedom of all peoples of all religions. They must be religiously neutral. In effect, they become secular in their public actions and goals, though they are Christians in their personal and private lives. Such organizations nobly and unselfishly seek to reestablish the State without themselves becoming extremists and taking over the neutral government and turning it into a religious state, of sorts. The ultimate goal is to reestablish religious freedom and to throw off religious oppression, as seen everywhere in Islamic countries (see points three, five, and ten in this addendum, below).
To understand the importance of the public and private spheres, click on Part Four in the series, and find the section “Public and Private.” Though the distinction may be nuanced, it is critically significant.
(2) The first point means that such armed organizations, fighting to keep the kingdom of God separate from the State and to help the downtrodden, must not fall into the trap of becoming thuggish Christian militias. After the pain of persecution has gone away, they may become violent, suppressing religious dissidents or non-Christians. These organizations must not fall prey to the policies and goals of the very radicals who are attacking them. State-sponsored religious violence is especially repugnant.
(3) To fill out the second point more fully, such organizations must not copy the radical policies of original Islam that impose religion on people and that pass anti-apostasy laws, for example. These unjust laws – unjust because they suppress religious freedom – forbid people to leave Islam, whether becoming atheists or Christians. “Apostates” may be executed under the Islam of old and of today.
(4) These organizations taking a religiously neutral stance and becoming secular in their public practices and goals must not adopt odd names like “the Lord’s Resistance Army.” This misrepresents the essential message of the gospel. If they insist on a name, it should reflect the purpose of gaining religious and political freedom for all people of all religions. The use of names may seem technical, but names and purposes are important for the public that is watching closely, especially under severe circumstances. However, see point ten (below) for a cautionary note about radical Islam, politics, and the freedom of religion.
(5) Here are some acts (only representative samples) that such organizations must not do. They must not exact revenge on civilians. That is, they must not attack innocent Muslims, for example, in reprisal for radical Muslims attacking innocent Christians. The protectors of the weak who are fighting for all people under a religiously neutral banner must not lower themselves to the level of Muslim radicals. Proper defenders must follow justice and fairness. They fight only against the opposing militias or military. To cite more representative examples of what not to do, they must never force children or adolescents to fight. They must never enslave people. They must never rape anyone. They must not rob or pillage. If individual Christians serving in these last-resort organizations are confused about justice and fairness during conflicts, then the Geneva Conventions still has good guidelines. Leaders in the African self-defense organizations protecting everyone who is oppressed should study the rules of the Geneva Conventions and inform their individual fighters about them.
(6) As to purpose, after the organizations in Africa have restored order, no one should believe that shariah or Islamic law is just. Click on the link to find out why it is unjust by its very nature. No society should yield to it, if that society values religious and political freedom. It must be resisted by words and legislation alone, after peace has been effectuated.
(7) After a religiously neutral government has been established, then African Christians will be free to preach their message in an environment of peace and tolerance. That is the best way to spread the message of the gospel – preaching alone. (It is the best way for members of other religions to spread their message too.) Any conversion to one religion or another should come out of a free conscience and a free choice, after hearing words alone. No conversion should happen with swords (or modern weapons) in the foreground or in the background. And no conversion to another religion should be stopped by threats of violence, “legal” or illegal. For Christians, spreading the Word is the ultimate goal. Listeners vote with their feet. That is, if they like the gospel, they will follow it gladly. If not, they are free to go their own way without fear of harassment. To repeat, Christians must not copy Islam that too often oppresses people who refuse its message.
This translation and report says that six million African Muslims leave Islam each year. The link in point six (above) about shariah gives us a hint as to why so many leave.
(8) To repeat and summarize the main thesis of the entire series and of this addendum, the kingdom of God must be separated from the kingdom of Caesar or the State. In the extreme case of a State not existing either de jure or de facto, all armed African organizations in the process of defending freedom for all must accomplish their goals as religiously neutral public organizations, though individual Christians make up the organizations. This may seem too technical, but, again, click on Part Four in the series, finding “Public and Private.”
(9) Once peace and order has been restored, keeping the two realms of the kingdom of God and the State separate expresses the wisdom of God, according to the New Testament. In contrast, this divine wisdom is not found in the Quran, the Sunnah, and Islamic law, as Islamic scholars understand them, fusing together Mosque and State. Both institutions are embodied in the one person of Muhammad. In any case, fighting to keep the two realms separate and even to reestablish a religiously neutral state is the highest and most virtuous goal of these religiously neutral and last-resort organizations made up of individual Christians. They justly do this so people of all walks of life and religions can breathe free. No citizen should ever have to come under a church and a state that have been fused together. To judge from history, it is a sad fact that the two institutions (fused as one) may eventually impose a religion on everyone or require a tax from unconverted “second-class” citizens.
This Reaction Statement by the President of the Christian Association of Nigeria strikes the right balance on the heartbreaking problem of Muslim extremists attacking Christians and churches on a large scale. He asks the government to restore order, church buildings, and homes. If I understand his Statement correctly, he seems to value the separation of Church and State, following the New Testament. But the Statement assumes that Nigeria still has a government intact; Option One does not assume this.
(10) Once lasting peace and order have been restored, the organizations defending the weak and persecuted for secular-neutral goals must disband. They should return to normal life. They should, however, get involved in the legal political process. Ballots, not bullets, are the best way to ensure a lasting peace in a nation that permits free speech and free political parties (plural or more than one).
But a word of caution. The political process must not yield to radical policies as reasonable people understand them. As noted, shariah is not moderate. It oppresses people, especially women, by its very nature. The policies of fundamental Islam are incompatible with liberal democracies. To step outside of the African context only for a brief moment, Lebanon must be careful not to surrender to shariah and fundamentalism. (It goes without saying that terrorist groups are not invited to form political parties.) Extremists, such as Hizb’allah, by their nature are unreasonable. If given enough power, they will impose shariah, believing (wrongly) that God is leading them. And it is a fool’s errand to talk them out of their extreme and barbaric goals that typically hide behind sweet words and warm smiles and are implemented in small steps.
These ten New Testament guidelines based on two bedrock principles reflect what the Founders of the USA worked out, for the most part. However, chaos and anarchy did not prevail in the eighteenth century compared to situations in Africa today. Did militias in the American War of Independence make mistakes? Yes, because all humans do. But on the whole the early Americans followed the divine order laid out in the New Testament, whether all of them did this with full knowledge of the sacred text or not. It is a blessed fact that things worked out well. Now all Americans of all backgrounds and religions enjoy a lot of freedom, both political and religious, and a lot of prosperity today.
All reasonable people around the globe want this kind of freedom and prosperity, except the radicals and fanatics, who are unreasonable by definition. After all promoters of true freedom restore lasting order, the radicals and fanatics must be resisted only by words alone and by moderate laws that ensure freedom for everyone, especially women.
Option Two: Flight
This option may be the best one during times of severe and widespread persecution, particularly for civilians caught in the crossfire of bullets. But the option assumes that a moderate, nonextremist government has the opportunity and the means to restore peace and freedom, eventually.
This option depends on a brief history lesson from the early church. Saul (later known more commonly as Paul) used to persecute the early Christians, before he had his Damascus Road experience and converted (Acts 9). He received this permission from the high priest and the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. Saul approved of Stephen’s martyrdom in this passage. Then he seems to have ignited or been a leader of a general persecution of all believers. Acts 8:1-3 reads:
1 And Saul was there [at the stoning of Stephen], giving approval to [Stephen’s] death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. (Acts 8:1-3)
Though suffering greatly, the Christians did not raise a militia to defend themselves or the weak-most of them were the weak. They did not assassinate Saul. Rather, they defended themselves by wisely fleeing the severe persecution.
These New Testament Christians practiced wisdom that is relevant to today. Civilian populations in our times must flee from conflict and severe persecution. If the church, in its entirety, has the option to seek refuge away from the conflict and severe persecution, then it should take that path. Christians may return to their homes after order has been restored by a just government, as reasonable people understand it (see the last paragraph under Option Two here for a minimal definition of a “just government”). It seems that the early Christians eventually returned to theirs, after the persecution stopped (e.g. Acts 11:1-2; 15:4).
Of course, no one needs any sacred text to tell him or her to flee persecution. But the New Testament is important for hundred of millions of Christians who may not know it fully. So it should be explained, for they may believe wrong things about it. For example, deliberately seeking or fatalistically submitting to martyrdom is nowhere taught in the New Testament. Jesus had a unique and special call to die for the sins of the world. No one else has his call.
Simply said, it is often best to walk or run away from trouble (Matthew 10:23; Luke 21:20-21), though flight itself is a hardship. No one has to fight all the time. In fact, fighting (Option One) is the last resort, under extreme and specific circumstances. But each conflict is different, so churches must seek the wisdom of God in their own context.
I used the words “just government” but how does one define them? At a minimum, a just government has these three policies: (a) freedom of religion for all individual believers, without imposing a second-class tax on non-Muslims or members of another religion, and without imposing anti-apostasy laws, and without imposing Shariah; (b) free speech that may criticize the government or a religion; and (c) political freedom so people may form political parties. Any government that does not allow, at a minimum, all three is unjust.
The New Testament offers options and therefore freedom. Option Two may be the best in most cases, but no church should follow rigid rules. It may be possible to merge both options, in one way or another, selectively done. Or churches may come up with their own options. These ten guidelines could be expanded and more could be added in; they could also be applied to other extreme cases around the globe. In each extreme situation in which the church finds itself, leaders have plenty of discretionary choices. But I would urge all churches to follow the clear teaching of the New Testament, particularly the separation of the Church and the State, if they are forced, as a last resort, to form armed organizations for self-defense and for the protection of the oppressed living under anarchy and widespread and extreme persecution.
Next, historical events and the ideals of the New Testament may conflict, despite the best intentions of the ones who are defending themselves and the persecuted. As terrible events unfold rapidly, African Christians may not follow ideals. We should be careful not to judge them too harshly (though all criminals should be prosecuted). At least with these ten principles and with the option to flee, all Christians everywhere now have the basics of the New Testament, which provides a lot of divine guidance.
In the long run, once lasting peace and order are restored and the refugees have returned to their homes, voting is the best way to establish religious and political freedom for all. Ballots, not bullets, ensure lasting peace in a nation that allows freedom of religion, freedom of speech and freedom of political parties (plural or more than one).
Despair is to the mind what starvation is to the body. No one should live without hope. That is a terrible plight. The free and prosperous churches around the globe should help in practical ways persecuted churches and all oppressed peoples, especially those stuck in refugee camps.
Here are the other articles in the series:
Part One: Christians, Pacifism, and the Sword
Part Two: Pacifism and the Sword in the Gospels
Part Three: Soldiers, Officers, and God
Part Four: Church and State – and the Sword
Part Five: Should a State turn the other cheek?
Part Six: Q & A on pacifism and the sword
Part Seven: Pacifism and the Sword: Conclusion
Many translations of the Bible may be read here.
James M. Arlandson may be reached at email@example.com
Compass Direct News keeps track of the persecution of Christians around the world.
Samaritan’s Purse, overseen by Franklin Graham (son of Billy Graham), delivers materials and food to oppressed people. I strongly recommend a donation to this organization.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide follows the plight of persecuted Christians.