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A Christian View of Selective Activism

By Bob and Gretchen Passantino

(c) Copyright 2001 by Bob and Gretchen Passantino

Within Christian orthodoxy there are three views regarding the use of force: pacifism, activism, and selective activism (sometimes called selective passivism). Regarding war, Christians generally hold to the view that participation in one’s own country’s war is always right, sometimes right, or never right. The concept of a “just war” is more prominent in our Judeo-Christian heritage than in that of any other major world religion. In the Judeo-Christian world view, one’s actions are justified only by their correspondence with God’s will, not by subjective factors such as our own ignorance or sincerity or the primacy of our own particular nation. Many people through the centuries and today asked only, “Is this war increasing the power and stability of my nation?” A question of overriding importance to Christians should be, “Can this war by justified by God’s revelation,” and, “Is this particular war in harmony with God’s principles and moral standards?” We are convinced that “selective activism” and the “just war” concept are biblically supportable and in harmony with God’s moral standards. (For information on the other Christian views, see the recommended reading.)

Regarding one’s defense and propagation of the gospel, the scriptures clearly teach that submission and humility are our primary responsibility. Those passages that speak of turning the other cheek, loving our enemies, praying for those who despitefully use us, etc. are always in this context. When we remember that God loved us and sent his Son to die for us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:1-5), we should be humbled and desire the same compassion and mercy from God for our enemies. Christ’s selfless cry on the cross, “Father, forgive them,” should exemplify our attitude to the gospel and all non-believers. If Christ’s atonement was sufficient to pay the price even for those who killed him, we have no right to plead with God to withhold that mercy from anyone. Christ provided us with the proper attitude of humility, that Paul commanded us to possess. In Philippians 2:1-11 Paul explains that we should each have the humility to “consider others better than ourselves,” that this attitude was the attitude displayed by Christ, who, although eternally existing as God, humbled himself to the Father in his Incarnation. More than that, as a man he humbled himself to the rest of mankind – in fact, to sinful mankind – by submitting to the unjust crucifixion. For this reason (his utter humility), God has highly exalted him and given him a “Name above all Names.” In like manner, we should endure the criticism and other abuse non-Christians heap on us for our preaching the gospel without any thought of retaliation but instead with humble imitation of Christ. Paul assures us that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory about to be revealed in us (Romans 8:18), and he has suffered everything short of death for the gospel (verses 35-39; 2 Cor. 11:23-33).

At the same time, and in no contradiction to this principle regarding our role as ambassadors for Christ, God commands us to defend the defenseless, permits us to defend ourselves, and encourages us to use the circumstances in which we find ourselves to promote justice and thwart injustice in the world. The following principles give us a clear guideline for participating selective in the use of force for these indications.

First, in Luke 22:36 Christ prepared his disciples to go into the world to fulfill the Great Commission (see Matt. 28:19) and he encouraged them to protect themselves from physical assault. In fact, he said that if they did not have a weapon of self-defense (in those days a short personal dagger or small sword), they should sell their extra cloak to purchase one.

Second, in Psalm 82:1-4, God commands us to defend the defenseless (widows, orphans, and others who are disadvantaged) and holds us responsible if we do not care for those who are vulnerable to attack and/or exploitation. There is no contradiction between desiring someone to be saved, and, if necessary, to take abuse to the point of death in that desire; and preventing that same person from committing evil acts, even to the point of physical intervention or justified homicide. In both cases, the death of the believer in the propagation of the gospel, and the death of the attacker in preventing his attack, death is not the worst that someone can endure. Jesus said we were not to fear the one who could merely take our physical life, but the one who can cast both body and soul into hell (God) (Matthew 10:28). One can sit on a jury and vote the death penalty on a serial child murderer, pray for the convict, accept his repentance and extend forgiveness to him should he respond positively to the gospel, and walk hand in hand with him to his death, the just punishment for his crime.

Third, both the Old and New Testaments are full of analogous language about God that includes terms of war and physical defense. (See, for example, Psalm 7:11-13.) This is not merely God conforming his revelation to the worldview and language limitations of his people. Nowhere do we find that God’s revelation repudiates self defense or defense of another or war under just conditions. There are certain historical limitations on God’s commendation of war in the sense that the story of redemption, including triumph over evil, was depicted in many ways over time before its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. God could command his chosen people, the Jews, living in a direct theocracy through the prophets, judges, and kings to wage war against an enemy as an “earthly” illustration (John 3:12) of the spiritual reality of Christ defeating the forces of evil in the cross (Col. 2:14-16). Since that has been fulfilled in Christ, God no longer uses nations in that prophetic sense. A just war waged by a just nation against the destructive, aggressive forces of another nation is validated by the principles of justice and defense, not in some prophetic imitation of Israel. (This principle was unfortunately missed at various times in church history.)

Fourth, God blessed and commended many people of faith whose careers were directly or indirectly involved in warfare or keeping the peace. By God’s grace both Joseph and Daniel reached the highest in unbelieving nations with standing armies (Egypt and Babylon). Both Jesus and Peter commended Roman officers, centurions, for their faithfulness without rebuking them or requiring them to resign from their positions (see Matthew 8:5-13 and Acts 10).

Fifth, God commands us to obey the governments placed above us since they are “ordained” by God to restrain lawless acts and promote righteous acts. In fact, Paul says that the government’s sword is “God’s minister” in this regard (Rom. 13:1-5). Especially in a participatory form of government like a democracy, republic, or parliamentary structure, we are responsible for the execution of justice within the extent of our influence.

In conclusion, when we separate our status as bearers of the gospel from our responsibility to ensure justice, we can both pray for our enemies and wage war against them in defense of the defenseless or self defense.

Related information is available in Dr. Norman Geisler’s Christian Ethics (Second Edition) (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1994) and Peter C. Craigie’s The Problem of War in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1978.

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