Today you can scarcely imagine the loyalty and affection that Australians once felt towards Britain. Today Australia is proudly independent, but prior to the Second World War the colony regarded itself as an offspring of the mother country. People’s genuine enthusiasm for their king and queen when they came here on royal visits was an expression of their commitment to the Crown. It was no wonder, then, that when Britain found herself at war in 1914 and 1939, Australians rallied to her defence.
Australians who were willing to lay down their lives in defence of Britain and her empire are rightly honoured on Anzac Day. Jesus said: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13). Their self-sacrifice deserves our respect.
The worry Christians have about self-sacrifice in war, though, is that in protecting their nation, soldiers harm, and often kill, others. Quakers have decided that, while they are willing to suffer in support of their comrades as stretcher bearers, they will not take up arms against the enemy. They take seriously Jesus’ teaching that one should love one’s enemies (Matt. 5: 44).
Many wars are fought from hatred, to revenge past wrongs. Some are fought from a lust for the benefits of conquest. These are clearly ignoble, unchristian motives for war. Even wars fought in self-defence can be motivated by a hatred for the enemy. How can Christians fight wars without spiritual pollution?
Then there are the objective facts that in war soldiers maim and kill those fighting against them, and destroy their property, which cannot possibly be an expression of love. So how can Christians, whom Jesus taught to love their enemies, possibly engage in such violence?
It is vital to realise that wars are not always fought from revenge, greed or hatred. They are sometimes fought in a just cause. A civilised way of dealing with people who inflict harm on others, is to judge and punish them under a law that forbids such destructive behaviour. According to the Bible, God established such a system of justice when he issued Moses with the Ten Commandments, and told him to set up judges to enforce them by punishing those who disobeyed them. The Ten Commandments were largely to restrain people within the nation of Israel from harming one another. They did not include laws about international relations, but we have since learned that such laws are important for maintaining world peace.
There is no hint in the Old Testament of God disapproving of the Israelites fighting to protect themselves and their lands from their external enemies. Indeed, they expected God’s support and often received it. Saul killed his thousands, but David his tens of thousands!
But, you might ask, does not Christ’s gospel of forgiveness and love supersede the rule of law and justice? I suggest it does not, but rather it supplements it. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said he had come, not to abolish the law but to complete it (Matt. 5: 17). St Paul reminded his readers that governors have an authority given by God to maintain the law. The governor, he writes, “does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” (Romans, 13: 4b) Just as it right to punish those who harm others to maintain the security of the people, so it is right for governments to order war against those who attack their state. A government’s chief responsibility is to defend its people from harm. Its motive in doing so should always be, not hatred, but self-defence.
Well, you might reply, but Jesus did not defend himself against his enemies. So why should we? But Jesus submitted to his enemies for an important purpose: to reveal the depth of God’s forgiveness by showing how much he was willing to suffer in love for his enemies. Normally when citizens suffer at the hands of wicked men, no great good comes from their doing so. Rather, it usually results in pointless pain for themselves and their families. Such suffering should be checked, first by appealing to those inflicting the pain to stop doing so, and if this fails, by forcing them to refrain.
As individuals who love our enemies, we must always respect them and try every peaceful way possible to stop them from hurting others. However, when peaceful methods fail, then as agents of the government we must be prepared to administer justice for the sake of the community in which we live.
God’s plan for humanity, it seems, was first to minimise conflict by a system of justice, and then, once a peaceful society had been established, to deepen the bonds between people by encouraging them to love one another. Love was not to replace justice, but to supplement it.