love and war

©2021 michael martin |

how can we reconile war with loving our enemies?

In Matthew chapter five, during the famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke of many topics, turning several preconcieved human ideas on their ear. Among these was the idea that we should love our neighbors but hate our enemies. For this flawed thinking, Jesus offered this stunning statement:

matthew 5:43-45

"You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.

Some may ask, "how can we justify war when Jesus tells us to love our enemies?" While this is perhaps a nuance to the general principle of loving our enemies, it’s a fair question.

First, it is important to understand that our goal is not to "justify" war, but rather to acknowledge the sad necessity of it. Solomon acknowledged that war is sometimes called for in Ecclesiastes:

ecclesiastes 3:7-8

...a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak,

8 a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.

Jesus also acknowledged to His disciples that it may become necessary to take up arms:

luke 22:31-38

"Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. 32 But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers."

33 But he replied, "Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death."

34 Jesus answered, "I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me."

35 Then Jesus asked them, "When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?"

"Nothing," they answered.

36 He said to them, "But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. 37 It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment."

38 The disciples said, "See, Lord, here are two swords."

"That is enough," he replied.

Jesus told His disciples to have swords, citing that the fulfillment of Isaiah 53:12 was upon them, where Jesus would pour out His life unto death. A dangerous time was coming.

When the disciples showed Jesus that they had two swords among them, Jesus told them that it was enough for what they needed. Clearly, Jesus wasn’t instructing His disciples to prepare for an offensive. In this case, the swords were for their defense.

defensive war

The Bible does show God’s people readying themselves to defend themselves against possible attacks. In Nehemiah 4:11, as the Israelites were rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem, a clear threat became known.

nehemiah 4:10-12

Meanwhile, the people in Judah said, "The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall."

11 Also our enemies said, "Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work."

12 Then the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over, "Wherever you turn, they will attack us."

When a clear threat was known, Nehemiah famously equipped and prepared His people to defend themselves if an attack should come.

nehemiah 4:13-15

Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows. 14 After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, "Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes."

15 When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to his own work.

Nehemiah armed some of his workers and stationed them in tactical positions. Importantly, Nehemiah’s confidence came from God, not from his own efforts.

But when Israel’s enemies realized that preparations had been made to defend the people in Jerusalem, the threat of attack fell, as God frustrated their plot. Realizing this, Nehemiah continued to keep his workers ready to defend themselves as they continued their work.

nehemiah 4:16-23

16 From that day on, half of my men did the work, while the other half were equipped with spears, shields, bows and armor. The officers posted themselves behind all the people of Judah 17 who were building the wall. Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other, 18 and each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked. But the man who sounded the trumpet stayed with me.

19 Then I said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, "The work is extensive and spread out, and we are widely separated from each other along the wall. 20 Wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet, join us there. Our God will fight for us!"

21 So we continued the work with half the men holding spears, from the first light of dawn till the stars came out. 22 At that time I also said to the people, "Have every man and his helper stay inside Jerusalem at night, so they can serve us as guards by night and workmen by day." 23 Neither I nor my brothers nor my men nor the guards with me took off our clothes; each had his weapon, even when he went for water.

In the case of Nehemiah, we see preparation for a defensive war. If they were attacked, they would wage war to defend themselves and their people. And indeed, such defensive actions would have been motivated by love for one another, to protect one another from harm. Had an attack happened, it would have been a time for war.

offensive war

But what about offensive war? When is it appropriate to be the invaders?

not before attempting to make peace...

matthew 5:9

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.

romans 12:18

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

Peace with justice is better than war. But as Romans 12:18 acknowledges, sometimes peace may not be possible. We live in a fallen world populated by sinful people who sometimes cannot be reasoned with.

not for vengeance...

romans 12:19

Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord.

When war is motivated only for reasons of vengeance, it is inappropriate. God will take care of that.

deuteronomy 30:7

The LORD your God will put all these curses on your enemies who hate and persecute you.

In the context of this passage, God says that if His people walk in obedience, they will receive many blessings, including the blessing of God cursing their enemies. God’s people won’t need to concern themselves with their enemies, because God will personally bring them to justice.

not when others don’t need defending...

One reason to go to war might be to defend others. But first, it is important to know whether others even want or need defending.

matthew 26:51-54

With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.

52 "Put your sword back in its place," Jesus said to him, "for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. 53 Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?"

Here, Jesus did not need defending, as He pointed out in verse 53.

When someone who is capable of defending themselves against their enemy chooses not to do so, it is not the time for us to do so either.

He also warned in verse 52 that war has a cost. People will die. So war should not be the first solution we come to.

for the defense of those who need defending...

proverbs 24:10-12

If you falter in times of trouble, how small is your strength! 11 Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter.

12 If you say, "But we knew nothing about this," does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who guards your life know it? Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?

This verse can be applied both to circumstances of rescuing people from hostile attackers and also to rescuing them from the greater threat of separation from God.

for the love of others...

The simplest reason why war would become necessary is for the love of others.

matthew 7:12

So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

luke 6:31

Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Should we love our enemy? Yes.

Should we love our neighbors? Our spouses? Our brothers and sisters? Yes.

But, what if our enemy is harming our neighbors? What if our enemy cannot be reasoned with? What if our enemy appears intent upon continuing to harm our neighbors?

This is the time for war.

If an enemy is doing harm to people, we must not only consider the welfare of our enemy, but also the welfare of those whom he is harming. In such a case, in our fallen world, we must then choose whose welfare to pursue; the enemy’s, or those whom he is harming?

If we ourselves were being genuinely harmed by someone more powerful than ourselves, would we not want someone to come to our aid? We are told to do to others as we would have them do to us. If we would want someone to deliver us from an enemy, then we should do the same.

So, while it is never ideal to have to kill an enemy, there are times, tragically, when that is our only recourse in order to love our neighbors who are being harmed.

Short of this, however, we should love our enemy.